College in the Metaverse Is Here. Is Higher Ed Ready?

Proponents say virtual reality boosts student engagement and achievement. Others worry it may prioritize corporate profits and violate student privacy. As 10 metaversities launch this fall, the details are being worked out in real time.

August 3, 2022
A person wearing a virtual reality headset.
This fall, students at 10 universities will attend metaversities—a portmanteau of “metaverse” and “universities.”
(pcess609/Getty Images)

A professor reaches into the chest cavity of a cadaver in the Fisk University cadaver lab, pulls out a human heart and hands it to a student. The student feels the weight of the heart in her hands and turns it over for examination. Then, because this lab exists in virtual reality, the student enlarges the organ until it is 8 feet tall. The whole class steps inside the heart, where they see and touch the ventricle walls. This heart looks sicker than another heart they previously examined—possibly a result of health decisions the “human” had made when alive.

A class discussion ensues, right there inside a jumbo aortic valve. When they collectively agree on the correct diagnosis, they feel the impact of their celebratory fist bumps.

This fall, students at 10 universities, including Morehouse College and New Mexico State University, will attend metaversities—a portmanteau of “metaverse” and “universities”—such as the one attended by the Fisk students. A metaversity is an immersive virtual reality platform where remote faculty and students don VR headsets and meet synchronously as they would on a physical campus. (In some cases, the virtual campus is a digital replica of the institution in which they are enrolled. In other cases, the technology is deployed in face-to-face classes.) In metaverse “classrooms,” students may learn history while “traveling” on the Underground Railroad “armed” with Harriet Tubman’s pistol. Or they may learn about literature while “sitting” on the judge’s bench in the courtroom that was at the center of To Kill a Mockingbird.

The universities that will deliver programs in the metaverse this fall are part of a growing ed-tech trend that promises to broaden higher ed’s reach. Metaversity proponents say that VR boosts student engagement, achievement and satisfaction. But some scholars are concerned that the private companies that license the technology may prioritize their bottom lines over academic freedom, exploit students’ data or reproduce possibly biased narratives in an immersive format that becomes students’ go-to representation of events.

“Learning comes alive in ways never before possible,” said Steve Grubbs, CEO of VictoryXR, a private company founded in 2016 that supplies the technology. “That creates greater retention of the information that is learned.”

Morehouse College in Atlanta, where a metaversity pilot program launched in 2021, has data to support that claim. But student achievement is only one consideration among many.

“The way that companies like Google and Facebook exploit people’s data … should at least raise some questions about whether that’s going to go smoothly,” said Nir Eisikovits, philosophy professor and founding director of the Applied Ethics Center at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Many of the problems are solvable if educational best practices, commercial incentives and political wills align. Other aspects of the debate, such as whether a VR college experience is fundamentally social or antisocial, are more philosophical. Either way, students seeking flexible options may find metaversities an irresistible improvement over remote, two-dimensional screens that sometimes induce “Zoom fatigue.” And VR college, which is already here, appears poised for tremendous growth, even as early adopters search in real time for solutions to pressing concerns about potential pitfalls.

The Birth of Metaversities

To be sure, many leaders in the metaversity space have sound motivations. Grubbs is an affable guy who once served as the chair of the House Education Committee in the Iowa House of Representatives. His education work was inspired, in part, by his schoolteacher father.

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“I’ve always had an interest in seeing how we can improve education,” Grubbs said.

When he first tried a rudimentary VR headset in 2015, he was excited by the possibilities. “While most people started to pursue gaming, I pursued schooling,” he said.

He later set up his company headquarters in the building of his former elementary school. (His office is the former teachers’ lounge.) He imagined a future in which VR benefited education.

Likewise, administrators and faculty members at Morehouse College found themselves unsatisfied with remote learning options early in the pandemic, and they looked to Grubbs for help. Soon after, in February 2021, Morehouse piloted a proof-of-concept metaversity with VR courses in world history, biology and chemistry.

The VR world history class registered a 10 percent increase in student grade point averages relative to grades in both the same class taught concurrently via Zoom and taught face-to-face the previous year. The college also collected empirical data in its other VR classes that showed an overall increase in student satisfaction, engagement and achievement relative to traditional and online formats.

“My students are more receptive to learning hard-to-grasp subject matter,” said Muhsinah Morris, a chemistry professor and metaverse program director at Morehouse. “You can’t see molecules, but in my virtual reality classroom where I taught advanced inorganic chemistry, you can. You can actually build three-dimensional representations of molecules … The learning tends to happen faster. They go on to the real situation faster.”

A Social—or Antisocial—Student Experience

A student who pursues some college coursework or an entire degree in the metaverse is honing social skills and learning alongside their peers—at least according to some.

“Even though you’re a remote learner, you get to be in class again with your professor and other students, breaking into small groups, working on projects, talking, laughing and learning the way most people learn best—kinesthetically,” Grubbs said. “It is a dramatically social experience.”

That interaction can be significant, according to Morris. “It’s almost like giving them an internship as well as giving them the theory.”

But others are concerned that metaversity students are cut off from society.

“This creates an entire infrastructure of people not being together actually, physically,” Eisikovits said. “And it’s going to be a lot more irresistible than Zoom.”

Despite some reservations, Eisikovits acknowledged that the current, two-dimensional version of online education has been an underwhelming experience for faculty and students.

“To the extent that online education, whether we like it or not, is a growing reality, this has the potential to upgrade that with a more immersive experience,” he said.

Building the Metaversity Plane While Flying It

Google’s beginnings offer a cautionary tale for those entering the metaversity space. Google’s founders sought to make information accessible—a noble goal. But they ultimately needed money to achieve that. They eventually developed a business model in which they provide their product free to consumers while generating income by collecting and selling user data. Similarly, some ed-tech companies, including CourseHero, have employed models in which they give students free access to their products in exchange for their personal data. Some scholars fear that students do not have the data literacy or savvy to understand why this may be problematic.

“If you can monetize how much time I spend on a YouTube video or if you can monetize your Google search, imagine how you could monetize your biometric responses to stimuli that you viewed in virtual reality,” Eisikovits said. VR data could include, for example, the degree to which the user’s pupils dilate when viewing a product, possibly indicating a preference for that product.

“It’s richer data that can be monetized in troubling kinds of ways, and we’re about to potentially give access to it to companies that are not primarily interested in the furthering of knowledge,” he said.

Academic freedom may also suffer should a company that delivers VR for universities prioritize its bottom line.

“We want to create a platform where all academic views can be heard,” Grubbs said of VictoryXR. “If I were a professor or a university, I would want to know that the leadership of the company has a strong bias toward academic freedom.”

But some for-profit companies have problematic track records when academic freedom appears to threaten their profits. Recall, for example, when Zoom canceled controversial online events organized by colleges and universities. Trust in a company’s “strong bias” toward academic freedom may be insufficient to ensure that freedom.

“The market pressures are such that trust is an irrelevant factor in the relationship,” Eisikovits said. “People who trusted Facebook and trusted Google are not super happy that they did.”

Another concern is that humans will ultimately be responsible for representing history, science, art and other subjects in metaversity courses. That means that biases held in the real world may transfer to the virtual world. Perhaps the same could be said about history, literature and art books in traditional curricula. But those who create VR curricula for schools may have a heightened responsibility. Eisikovits cites the difference between learning about history from books versus from a powerful movie about a historical event.

“The movie, in some way, is going to be the go-to representation in your imagination,” Eisikovits said. VR, he noted, provides an even more visceral experience than a movie.

Also, in the metaverse, people are represented, either accurately or inaccurately, with avatars. When Morehouse first launched its metaversity, one professor did not initially join the effort out of concern that the avatars poorly represented students and faculty at the historically Black institution, according to Morris.

“Representation matters because of the memories that you create,” Morris said. “You are still a person behind that avatar.”

She said VictoryXR has since improved the avatars enough that the hesitant professor has since joined the project. That said, Morris indicated that the avatars still need improvement.

Some of these problems may be solvable, even amid differing academic and corporate incentives. For example, market pressures in the past have pushed companies to address algorithmic bias in their products. But anyone entering the metaverse space should be cognizant of the array of concerns.

The Metaversity Market Today and Moving Forward

In the face of declining traditional student enrollments, colleges and universities are courting nontraditional students, including those with significant work and family responsibilities who are in need of flexible options. Many of these students may value a three-dimensional remote option that appears to improve on earlier remote options on two-dimensional screens. Traditional students may also appreciate VR’s immersive experience that makes learning come alive.

In addition to Morehouse and Fisk, VictoryXR has already launched metaversities at the University of Kansas School of Nursing, New Mexico State University, South Dakota State University, Florida A&M University, West Virginia University, the University of Maryland Global Campus, Southwestern Oregon Community College, Alabama A&M University and California State University, Dominguez Hills.

“We’ve got another six [metaversities] that we’ll probably be announcing in August or September and at least 50 that are in conversation,” Grubbs said.

Universities interested in starting their own courses or programs in the metaverse may find the financial on-ramp—between $20,000 and $100,000 to launch, according to Grubbs—within reach, especially given the potential for attracting a whole new demographic of student. (The lower end of that price range offers product licenses for a generic campus but not for a digital twin campus.) Faculty need training to deliver VR courses, which takes time and effort. Campuses that have provided this training, however, have buzzed with excitement and garnered media attention as word spread about the new technology.

For now, a small number of metaversities are essentially running as pilot programs. The potential to reach more and different students, deliver compelling student outcomes, and generate new revenue streams could prove an irresistible lure for universities.

The metaverse market opportunity across all sectors could be in the trillions of dollars, according to a McKinsey report. Like leaders in the health care, finance and business sectors who enter the metaverse, education leaders will need to address—in real time—any potential ethical gap between principle and practice.

“I don’t think [VR college] is just going to end up as a supplement,” Eisikovits said. “I think on-campus education is going to be the supplement.”

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