The professor reaches into the chest cavity of a corpse in the Fisk University cadaver lab, pulls out a human heart, and hands it to the student. The student feels the weight of the heart in her hands and turns it over for examination. Then, since this lab exists in virtual reality, the student enlarges the organ until it is 8 feet tall. The whole class enters the heart, where they see and touch the walls of the chamber. This heart looks sicker than the other heart they previously examined – possibly the result of health decisions the “man” made while he was alive.
A class discussion follows, right there inside the large aortic valve. When they collectively agree on the correct diagnosis, they feel the impact of their celebratory fists.
This fall, students at 10 universities, including Morehouse College and New Mexico State University, will attend metauniversities — a collection of “metaverses” and “universities” — like the one attended by Fisk students. Metaversity is an immersive virtual reality platform where remote faculty and students wear 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 they are enrolled in. In other cases, the technology is used in face-to-face instruction.) In metaverse “classrooms,” students can learn history while “traveling” on the subway “armed” with a gun. Harriet Tubman. Or they can learn about literature while “sitting” on the judge’s bench in the courtroom that was in the center 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 expand the reach of higher education. Proponents of Metaversity say VR increases student engagement, achievement and satisfaction. But some scholars worry that private companies licensing the technology could prioritize their results over academic freedom, exploit student data or reproduce potentially biased narratives in an immersive format that becomes the student’s way of presenting events.
“Learning comes to life in ways never before possible,” said Steve Grubbs, CEO of VictoryXR, a privately held company founded in 2016 that delivers the technology. “It creates better retention of the information that has been learned.”
Atlanta’s Morehouse College, where a metauniversity pilot program launched in 2021, has data to back up that claim. But student achievement is only one of many considerations.
“The way companies like Google and Facebook exploit people’s data … should at least raise some questions about whether it’s going to go smoothly,” said Nir Eisikovits, a philosophy professor and founding director of the Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
Many problems are solvable if best educational practices, commercial incentives and political will are aligned. Other aspects of the debate, such as whether the VR faculty experience is fundamentally social or antisocial, are more philosophical. In any case, students looking for flexible options may find metaversities an overwhelming improvement over distant, two-dimensional screens that sometimes cause “zoom fatigue.” And VR College, which is already here, seems poised for massive growth, even as early adopters seek real-time solutions to pressing concerns about potential pitfalls.
The birth of metaversity
To be sure, many leaders in the metauniversity space have good motivations. Grubbs is a friendly guy who was once chairman of the Education Committee in the Iowa House of Representatives. His educational work was partly inspired by his teacher father.
“I’ve always been interested in 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 playing, I continued my education,” he said.
Later, he located the headquarters of his company in the building of his former elementary school. (His office is a former teacher’s lounge.) He envisioned a future where VR would benefit education.
Likewise, administrators and faculty members at Morehouse College found themselves dissatisfied with distance learning options early in the pandemic and sought help from Grubbs. Shortly thereafter, in February 2021, Morehouse piloted a proof-of-concept meta version with VR courses in world history, biology, and chemistry.
A VR world history class saw a 10 percent increase in average student grades compared to the grades in the same Zoom class that was taught face-to-face the previous year. The college has also collected empirical data in its other VR classes that have shown overall increases in student satisfaction, engagement and achievement over traditional and online formats.
“My students are more prepared to learn difficult subjects,” said Muhsinah Morris, professor of chemistry and director of the metaverse program at Morehouse. “You can’t see the molecules, but in my virtual reality classroom where I taught advanced inorganic chemistry, you can. You can actually build three-dimensional representations of molecules… Learning tends to happen faster. They move more quickly to the real situation.”
The social—or antisocial—student experience
A student who takes some college courses or an entire degree in the metaverse hones social skills and learns alongside his peers—at least according to some.
“Even though you’re a distance learner, you’ll be back in class 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’s a dramatic social experience.”
That interaction can be significant, according to Morris. “It’s almost like giving them an internship and giving them a theory.”
But others worry that metauniversity students are cut off from society.
“This creates a whole infrastructure of people who aren’t really together, physically,” Eisikovits said. “And it’s going to be a lot more overwhelming than Zoom.”
Despite some reservations, Eisikovits acknowledged that the current, two-dimensional version of online education was an unbearable experience for faculty and students.
“To the extent that online education, like it or not, is a growing reality, this has the potential to build on that with an even more immersive experience,” he said.
Building a Metaversity plane while flying it
Google’s beginnings offer a cautionary tale for those entering the metauniversity space. The founders of Google sought to make information accessible – a noble goal. But ultimately they needed money to achieve this. Ultimately, they developed a business model in which they provide consumers with their products for free while generating revenue by collecting and selling user data. Similarly, some ed-tech companies, including CourseHero, have implemented models where they give students free access to their products in exchange for their personal information. Some scientists fear that students don’t have the data literacy or brains to understand why this might be problematic.
“If you can monetize how much time I spend on a YouTube video, or if you can monetize my Google search, imagine how you could monetize your biometric responses to stimuli you’ve viewed in virtual reality,” Eisikovits said. VR data may include, for example, the degree to which a user’s pupils dilate when viewing a product, which may indicate a preference for that product.
“It’s richer data that can be monetized in a variety of troubling ways, and we’re potentially going to give access to it to companies that aren’t primarily interested in advancing knowledge,” he said.
Academic freedom could also be threatened if a company supplying VR for universities prioritizes 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 company’s leadership has a strong bias toward academic freedom.”
But some for-profit companies have a troubled record when academic freedom appears to threaten their profits. Let’s remember, for example, when Zoom canceled controversial online events organized by colleges and universities. Belief in a company’s “strong bias” toward academic freedom may be insufficient to ensure that freedom.
“Market pressures are such that trust is an irrelevant factor in the relationship,” Eisikovits said. “People who trusted Facebook and Google are not very happy that they did.”
Another concern is that people will ultimately be responsible for the representation of history, science, art and other subjects in metauniversity courses. This means that prejudices held in the real world can be transferred to the virtual world. Perhaps the same could be said for history, literature and art books in traditional curricula. But those creating VR curricula for schools may have a greater responsibility. Eisikovits points out the difference between learning about history from books versus a powerful movie about a historical event.
“The movie, in a way, will be the main representation in your imagination,” Eisikovits said. VR, he pointed out, provides an even more visceral experience than film.
Also, in the metaverse, people are represented, either correctly or incorrectly, with avatars. When Morehouse first launched its meta version, one professor initially didn’t join the effort because of concerns that the avatars would poorly represent students and faculty at the historically black institution, according to Morris.
“Representation is important because of the memories you make,” Morris said. “You’re still the person behind that avatar.”
She said VictoryXR has since improved the avatars enough that the reluctant professor joined the project. However, Morris indicated that the avatars still need to be improved.
Some of these problems may be solvable, even amid different academic and corporate incentives. For example, market pressures in the past have forced companies to address algorithmic bias in their products. But anyone entering the space of the metaverse should be aware of a number of concerns.
The Metaversity market today and is moving forward
Faced with declining traditional student enrollment, colleges and universities are courting non-traditional students, including those with significant work and family responsibilities who need flexible options. Many of these students may appreciate the three-dimensional remote option, which seems to improve upon previous remote options on two-dimensional displays. Traditional students can also appreciate an immersive VR experience that brings learning to life.
In addition to Morehouse and Fisk, VictoryXR has already launched meta-universities at the University of Kansas School of Nursing, New Mexico State University, South Dakota State University, Florida A&M University, West Virginia University, University of Maryland Global Campus, Southwestern Oregon Community College, Alabama A&M University, and California State University, Dominguez Hills.
“We have six more [metaversities] that we will probably announce in August or September and at least 50 that are in conversation,” Grubbs said.
Universities interested in launching their own courses or programs in the metaverse may find a financial ramp—between $20,000 and $100,000 to launch, according to Grubbs—at hand, especially given the potential to attract a whole new demographic of students. (The lower end of that price range offers product licenses for the generic campus, but not the digital dual campus.) Faculty need training to deliver VR courses, which takes time and effort. However, the campuses that provided this training were excited and attracted media attention as word of the new technology spread.
For now, a small number of metauniversities are being implemented as pilot programs. The potential to reach more diverse students, achieve compelling student outcomes and generate new revenue streams could prove an irresistible lure for universities.
The market opportunity of the metaverse across all sectors could be measured in the trillions of dollars, according to a McKinsey report. Like leaders in healthcare, finance and business entering the metaverse, education leaders will need to resolve – in real time – any potential ethical gap between principle and practice.
“I do not think [VR college] it will just end up as an add-on,” Eisikovits said. “I think the on-campus education will be a plus.”