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

In a bid to expand access and widen their reach, educational institutions are increasingly exploring the possibilities of the metaverse and associated extended-reality (XR) approaches. The metaverse 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.

Metaversal Access

The world’s leading technology companies are investing heavily in XR. In 2021 Facebook rebranded itself as Meta, indicating how important the company believes XR will become going forwards. Indeed, following the massive shift to online learning occasioned by 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.

Concurrently, higher education institutions realise the potential of XR learning. 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. 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 in the UK.

At the end of 2021 Meta announced that it plans to build 10 digital campuses around the US within a year, giving remote students the chance to immerse themselves in interactive learning environments that are exact replicas of their physical campuses.

XR in 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.

For example, 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 region is also beginning to recognise the potential of XR. 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 technologies 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.

XR Learning in the Gulf

Educational institutions in the Gulf region are also at the forefront of developments 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 an initiative to allow Muslims to virtually visit the Hajar Al Aswad stone in the holy city of Mecca through the metaverse. With all Muslims expected to make at least one pilgrimage to Mecca in their lifetimes, this informational metaverse solution aims to help people visualise and prepare for the experience before they set out on their journey.

In November 2021 the University of Bahrain inaugurated the BBK Lab for Virtual and Augmented Reality at its E-Learning Centre. The lab strives to help faculty members and students conduct scientific research and support teaching and training processes. University leaders expect the lab to generate innovative, research-led solutions to challenges faced by society, while also supporting the realisation of sustainable development goals.

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

Meanwhile, in Dubai – where Meta opened its regional headquarters in March 2022 – the emirate hosts 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. The metaverse was one of the main themes at the Knowledge Summit held in the emirate in March 2022. Delegates learned how “metaversities” could soon become a reality, with students accessing a virtual immersive learning environment taught by holograms or avatars of actual professors.

Possible Drawbacks

Despite its potential, deploying XR is not without challenges. Perhaps the most significant problem is associated with digital interactions. Computers and smartphones are synonymous with leisure and distraction as much as with work and study. For this reason, stakeholders question whether students will be able to maintain focus on a lecture delivered via the metaverse. Others have raised similar questions; 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?

At the height of the pandemic, many companies discovered that business could continue remotely. On the other hand, many are now realising an intangible, unquantifiable value associated with face-toface interaction like the well-known “water-cooler moment”, where people exchange ideas during impromptu gatherings. Some researchers point to a similar dynamic in the education space. They 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.

Another criticism is that a dependence on e-learning methods risks widening the digital divide. There are fears that students without access to adequate digital technology – not to mention the critically important and often-overlooked components of adequate space and silence at home – will be left behind. A situation could also develop whereby more privileged students attend brick-and-mortar institutions and benefit from in-person teaching complemented by digital tools, while everyone else makes 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.