With Money From Facebook, 10 Colleges Turn Their Campuses into ‘Metaversities’

With Money From Facebook, 10 Colleges Turn Their Campuses into ‘Metaversities’

Is education moving to a “tri-brid” model that flows between in-person, online and simulated environments?

naratrip / Shutterstock Diving into a magnified human cell. Studying stars from the surface of the moon. Tossing a Frisbee on the quad with a classmate who lives 700 miles away.

These scenarios are far-fetched for most college students. Yet a new virtual reality experiment aims to make them possible. Ten higher education institutions across the U.S. have signed up to create digital versions of themselves that look 3D and feel immersive when accessed by students wearing VR headsets. Drawing on lingo that has gained popularity among tech entrepreneurs, these online simulations of colleges are being called “metaversities.”

The technology supporting these metaversities comes from Engage, an Irish company that has produced virtual-reality experiences depicting the Titanic voyage, the Apollo 11 space mission and the bombing of Berlin during World War II. The design interface comes from VictoryXR, a company that sells virtual-reality education technology.

And money for the project—as well as donated VR headsets for students at the participating colleges—comes from Meta, the company that owns Facebook.

The flashiest part of the effort is the “digital twin campus” being created for each partner institution. The idea is that students will be able to get online and interact with each other using avatars while navigating replicas of their college quads and classrooms. (This may bring to mind the now-defunct digital campuses that universities set up 15 years ago using Second Life —but leaders of the new project are quick to claim that this will be way better.)

The effort will also enable the use of educational virtual-reality tools in courses, allowing students to manipulate 3D objects, run science experiments or explore historical settings. Whether this type of VR course initially sounds weird or awesome depends on your point of view, but it does tend to become more enjoyable and more realistic to students over time, according to a new study out of Stanford University .

Still, the metaversities effort raises questions about cost, accessibility and privacy. One of the biggest questions: Why do this at all?

“The real value to extended reality generally is to do things that you can’t do any other way,” says Jeffrey Pomerantz, associate professor of practice at Simmons University and co-founder of Proximal LLC, an educational VR design and development company, who is not affiliated with the metaversities effort. “What is the educational value of having a replica campus?”
—Monica Arés The answer may differ for each player involved. Leaders at South Dakota State University hope its metaversity helps to reach students from across its large, rural home state. Leaders at Southwestern Oregon Community College believe its metaversity will excite potential learners and interest them in enrolling in higher ed.

And as for Meta?

“We want to create an ecosystem for learning in the metaverse,” says Monica Arés, head of Immersive Learning at Meta. “We want to make sure that not only are we preparing the future workforce to interact with these technologies, but also to build them.”

Arés argues that the rise of VR technologies will shift the current hybrid model of education—which draws on separate in-person and online environments—into a “tri-brid” model, one that moves “seamlessly between online, in-person and simulated, without the limits of time, travel and scale.”

Yet it’s not lost on metaversity partner colleges that Meta’s stated founding goals include making sure “the metaverse will reach a billion people” and “host hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce.” The company recently announced that it is opening a retail store where potential customers can test and buy its VR headsets.

“In terms of a business, they know that the most valuable exponential growth in the long term will come from people in their teens to early 20s,” says Greg Heiberger, associate dean of academics and student success at South Dakota State University. “The more exposure, training and positive experiences that students, kids and the education space can have, it’s going to be a positive for them in their business model.”

Still, Heiberger is optimistic that investments from Meta Immersive Learning show that the company also has an interest in doing good.

“I do hope that things like the socioeconomic divide and geography divide can potentially be bridged in education because of some of these new technologies like VR,” he says. “Those would be the two tenets I would guess are near the top of their list: making money and giving some of those resources back to make the world a better place.” Building Digital Twins

The metaversities partnership […]

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