In a bid to expand access and widen their reach, educational institutions are exploring the possibilities of the metaverse and associated extended-reality (XR) approaches. The metaverse comprises a range of technologies that immerse users in a virtual environment. It denotes a 3D medium that combines virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) into a new digital realm, sometimes known as XR. These environments are accessed through VR headsets and are typically immersive, interactive and social.

Metaversal Access

The world’s leading technology companies are investing heavily in XR. Facebook’s 2021 rebrand to Meta, for example, indicates its strong belief in XR’s future. Indeed, following the massive shift to online learning in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, XR is becoming more prominent among educational institutions globally. In line with its long-term ambitions, Meta launched 10 “metaversity” digital campuses in the US for the autumn semester of the 2022/23 academic year, giving remote students the chance to immerse themselves via VR headsets in an interactive learning environment that replicates a physical campus.

At the end of 2021 Roblox – a US-based XR platform and game-creation system – announced that it had invested approximately $10m in order to develop a series of XR games at the middle school, high school and university levels. These educational activities are designed to guide students in topics Following the massive shift to online learning in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, extended-reality is becoming more prominent among institutions globally, and the world’s leading technology companies are investing heavily in this sphere. such as robotics, space exploration, computer engineering and biomedical science.

Higher education players in the US and further afield are also increasingly recognising the potential of XR applications for learning. In the US, the University of Michigan has recreated the decommissioned Ford Nuclear Reactor in XR, while MIT’s Electrostatic Playground is a room-scale XR environment where students can explore the principles of electrostatics. In addition to individual applications, universities are developing infrastructure and processes to leverage XR. The University of Glasgow’s new Advanced Research Centre, for instance, is a dedicated XR space and is one of the biggest of its kind in the UK.

Learning in the Gulf

Educational institutions in the Gulf region are leading the way in the VR, AR and XR space. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Institute for Hajj and Umrah Research at the University of Umm Al Qura developed a metaverse initiative that seeks to enable Muslims to virtually visit the Hajar Al Aswad stone in the holy city of Makkah, in preparation for their eventual pilgrimage in person.

Similarly, the Kuwait College of Science and Technology (KCST) uses VR in the classroom at the Huawei ICT Academy, which was launched in March 2022. Developed in partnership with Chinese tech giant Huawei, the academy hosts a 5G Lab and 5G Star simulation training system. Students study in an immersive environment, using VR in the classroom for complex technology learning.

Elsewhere, Qatar University operates a Virtual Reality Lab for Research and Education to teach topics in engineering, architecture, medicine and mathematics, and help students acquire VR and 3D skills to enhance their employment prospects. In light of the expanding educational opportunities in the field, in March 2022 Qatar National Library hosted a webinar titled “Education in the Metaverse” to show teachers and young adults the impact of XR on the sector and how it can promote continuous learning and student engagement.

In Dubai, Meta opened its regional headquarters in March 2022, hosting the Middle East’s first metaverse incubator. Named MetaIncubator, the centre is designed to nurture and commercialise innovative new solutions and applications in the metaverse, with the education sector among its numerous beneficiaries.

Emerging Markets

While higher education institutions in developed economies are leading the way in XR integration, many institutions in emerging markets are also exploring its benefits.

One such example is the Seoul-based Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), which plans to open a virtual campus within its Kenya KAIST campus at the Konza Technopolis, some 60 km outside of the capital of Nairobi. Meanwhile, in China – where the metaverse market could soon be worth a projected $8trn, according to a Morgan Stanley estimate from early 2022 – the development is being spearheaded by a group of universities led by Tsinghua x-lab, the innovation incubator at Tsinghua University.

Countries in the Caribbean have similarly recognised the growing potential of XR tools for furthering education goals. In 2021 the University of the West Indies in Jamaica announced a partnership with EON Reality, a US based software developed which specialises in AR and VR learning, to roll out XR education technologies at its Open Campus – marking a digitalisation milestone for the zone.

Adoption in Africa

In view of its significant potential as a transformative lever in the teaching and learning space, several African countries are looking to leverage the metaverse. In June 2021 EON Reality announced a joint effort with Honoris United Universities, a pan-African network of private higher education institutions with more than 57,000 students, to introduce AR and VR software across its member colleges and universities to enhance knowledge in engineering, information technology, health sciences and architecture, while also equipping students with valuable skills.

In November 2021 the company entered into a new partnership with the University of Nigeria in order to establish a knowledge-metaverse facility at its Lion Science Park Health Hub. EON Reality is collaborating with the Ministry of Education of Ethiopia to create a knowledge metaverse centre for students and teachers as well as entrepreneurs. EON committed $19.9m to the project.

Elsewhere, NET-INFO in Tunisia is the first centre in Africa specialising in coding and 3D computer-graphics production training. Its DigiArt Living Lab, an innovation and experimentation centre seeks to establish an African network for training in the skills that will be needed for the metaverse, while also providing support to a new generation of African game developers.

Possible Drawbacks

Despite its potential, deploying XR in the education sphere will not be without its challenges. Perhaps the most significant potential problem with the XR rollout is associated with digital interactions. Computers and smartphones are synonymous with leisure and distraction as much as with work and study. For this reason, some stakeholders question whether students will be able to remain focused on a lecture delivered via the metaverse when other distractions could be readily available on the same device.

Others have raised similar questions about future learning trends: Will the metaverse enable a full range of communicative possibilities? To what extent is learning dependent on non-verbal cues that are not easily noticeable in a digital realm? And how inclusive will a digital learning environment be for students without sight or hearing, or those with special learning requirements?

The global private sector’s recent foray into digital collaboration in response to social-distancing measures to limit the spread of Covid-19 offers some instructive examples in this regard – some encouraging, and some that point to the need for further discussion and adaptation to ensure a smooth rollout of AR or XR tools for educational purposes.

During the pandemic, many companies discovered that business could continue to operate remotely. However, as public health regulations have been relaxed, many firms are now realising that there are intangible, unquantifiable values associated with face-to-face interactions, like the well-known “water-cooler moment”, when people exchange ideas during impromptu gatherings. Some researchers point to a similar dynamic in education, asking whether chance face-to-face encounters with peers and teachers can enrich the educational experience in ways that may not be possible in a virtual setting.

Digital Divide

Another criticism is that dependence on e-learning risks widening the digital divide. There are fears that students without access to technology, or the often-overlooked components of space and silence at home, will be left behind. A situation could also develop wherein more privileged students attend brick-and-mortar institutions and benefit from in-person teaching complemented by digital tools, while other students make do with a purely digital environment.

Another consideration is staffing. Leveraging XR capabilities in the classroom requires a basic understanding of a constantly evolving suite of new technologies and techniques. This necessitates that large numbers of staff receive ongoing training. As advancements in XR educational applications continue apace, universities and private companies alike must work to ensure that benefits from this realm can be shared equitably and in due course.