The metaverse in education: Building a digital landscape in institutes of higher learning

In a bid to expand access, education is increasingly exploring the possibilities of the metaverse and extended-reality (XR) approaches. The former comprises a range of technologies which 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.

Expanding Access

The world’s leading tech companies are investing heavily in XR. In 2021 Facebook rebranded as Meta, indicating how important it believes XR will become. Indeed, following the massive shift to online learning during the Covid-19 pandemic, XR is becoming more prominent among educational institutions globally. At the end of 2021 Roblox – a US-based XR platform and game-creation system – announced that it had invested $10m to develop a set of XR games at the middle school, high school and university levels. These activities will teach robotics, space exploration, and computer, engineering and biomedical science.

Higher education also realises the potential of XR. The University of Michigan has recreated the decommissioned Ford Nuclear Reactor in XR, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Electrostatic Playground is a room-scale XR environment where students can explore the principles of electrostatics. Universities are also 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 in the UK. In late 2021 Meta announced plans to build 10 digital campuses in the US within a year, giving remote students the chance to immerse themselves in interactive learning environments that are exact replicas of physical campuses.

XR In Emerging Markets

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

The Seoul-based Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) plans to open a virtual campus within its Kenya-KAIST campus at the Konza Technopolis, some 60 km outside Nairobi. In China – where in early 2022 Morgan Stanley anticipated that the metaverse market could soon be worth some $8trn – its development is being spearheaded by a group of leading universities, led by Tsinghua x-lab, the innovation incubator at China’s Tsinghua University. In parallel, the Communication University of China announced the launch of a digital campus in January 2022.

The Caribbean is also beginning to recognise XR’s potential. In 2021 the University of the West Indies in Jamaica announced a partnership with EON Reality, which specialises in AR and VR learning, to roll out XR at its Open Campus – a first for the zone. These stories and others highlight how XR is increasingly seen as a key component of educational offerings worldwide. As 2022 progresses, such examples are likely to multiply.

Possible Drawbacks

Despite its potential, deploying XR is not without challenges – perhaps the most significant of which is associated with digital interactions. Computers and smartphones are synonymous with leisure and distraction as much as work and study, and stakeholders question whether students will be able to maintain focus on a lecture in the metaverse.

At the height of the pandemic, many companies discovered that business could continue remotely. However, many are now realising an intangible, unquantifiable value associated with face-to-face interaction like the well-known “water-cooler moment”, where people exchange ideas during impromptu gatherings. Some researchers point to a similar dynamic in education and have asked whether chance face-to-face encounters with peers and teachers can enrich the educational experience in ways not possible in a virtual setting. As advancements in XR continue apace, universities and private companies alike must work to ensure that benefits from this realm can be shared equitably.