Opinion: On the metaversity bandwagon
Posted: Date Posted – 12:51 AM, Fri – Sep 2, 22
By Nir Kshetri
While it’s unclear what exactly the Metaverse is and if it even exists, colleges and universities have jumped on the Metaverse bandwagon. They have augmented in-person and remote video learning with features such as playful interactive virtual worlds, virtual reality, and mixed reality.
In one of the largest efforts to date, 10 US colleges and universities have teamed up with US tech company Meta and Irish virtual reality platform Engage to create 3D digital versions of their campuses, known as of metaversity. Students will participate in learning by wearing immersive virtual reality headsets.
In my recent research, I have examined the metaverse and how it affects organizations and societies. I see six advantages that the metaverse offers to colleges.
Colleges face budgetary constraints and do not have access to the resources necessary for learning. The metaverse can help them overcome these constraints.
For example, Fisk University, based in Nashville, Tennessee, did not purchase cadavers due to high costs and maintenance issues. The university is enhancing its pre-med program with virtual reality cadavers, which are a more affordable alternative.
In the virtual reality lab, a human heart can be removed from the chest cavity of a corpse. This gives the impression that students can feel the weight of the heart in their hands and examine it. They can enlarge it. The class sees and touches the walls of the ventricle. Students can compare different hearts to understand the outcomes of health decisions humans have made while alive. They engage in discussion and agree on the correct diagnosis.
Virtual corpses do not degrade and are easy to maintain. Additional features, such as surgical procedures and comparative learning between humans and animals, may be added over time.
Virtual training provides an effective way to visually demonstrate concepts with step-by-step instructions to illustrate tasks. They provide opportunities for learning by doing. Immersion in games can increase engagement in learning activities.
Morehouse College in Atlanta has piloted a metaversity that includes courses in world history, biology, and chemistry. The college found that virtual reality courses increased student satisfaction, engagement, and success over traditional and online formats and increased student academic performance. For example, the Virtual Reality World History course saw a 10% increase in student GPAs compared to the same course taught via Zoom and face-to-face the previous year.
The internet works well for sending emails, spreadsheets, and PDFs from one device to another to be reviewed or edited independently and asynchronously. It was not designed for live, interactive person-to-person experiences, especially with large numbers of participants. Similarly, virtual spaces such as Zoom allow for a single conversation most of the time. In physical events, participants can move seamlessly between conversations.
Some universities are using metaverse technologies to overcome the limitations of internet and video meeting tools. Metaverse technologies bridge the gap between real and virtual interactions by allowing people to interact more naturally.
Faculty and students at the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania use the Gather virtual meeting space, which mimics the characteristics of real-world interactions. Users create avatars and navigate a virtual map that represents the physical environment, such as a building. The proximity chat feature makes users feel like they are meeting other students and teachers in the room. Users see and hear video and audio streams from participants near them. When they move away, the sounds are no longer audible and the video disappears. Unlike Zoom, users are not required to be in a single conversation. They can move fluidly between conversations as speakers or listeners.
The University of Pennsylvania Computer and Information Science Department used Gather to recreate Levine Hall, which houses the department. The layout of the virtual building mimics the classrooms, labs, elevators, stairwells, and other features of Levine Hall. The student-run technology innovation center, Weiss Tech House, has also been recreated virtually.
The Gather space accommodates 200 students and supports multiple conversations simultaneously. There are six virtual spaces that correspond to the six floors of the building. Small groups can break into subgroups to work on tasks or start a conversation.
In some situations, learning in real environments, such as those involving chemical experiments and flying airplanes, is risky. In such cases, special equipment, such as virtual reality headsets, software and special gloves for haptic responses, can create immersive simulations of real environments. Learners feel the digital world is real.
These technologies can create scenarios that are impossible or impractical to create in the real world.
In in-person history classes provided by Fisk University, students visit historically significant places while wearing virtual reality headsets. They include the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama; the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee; and the National Mall in Washington.
In chemistry lessons, virtual reality makes it possible to visualize the arrangement of atoms in a protein. This idea helps pharmaceutical drug research.
Large gaps exist in higher education between rural and urban areas.
In 2015, 18% of men and 20% of women age 25 and older living in rural areas of the United States had earned at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 32% and 33%, respectively, in urban areas.
Metaverse technologies can bridge this gap by making educational resources accessible to students remotely. South Dakota State University expects its metaversity to help reach rural students across the state.
Attracts young people
Children and young adults are the dominant populations in well-known metaverses, which are in the gaming business.
About half of Roblox players are under 13 and 66% are under 16. Likewise, two-thirds of Fortnite players in 2021 were young adults. Compared to older generations, this demographic is more experience-oriented and sees interesting and exciting learning opportunities in the metaverse.
Universities use the metaverse to attract them. Leaders at Southwestern Oregon Community College believe its metaversity will increase enrollment. Indeed, higher proportions of younger generations, such as Gen Z, have grown up with virtual reality technologies.
Younger generations show a higher level of interest and involvement in the metaverse. In a survey conducted in the United States in March 2022, 64% of Gen Z respondents were interested in a digital avatar and 56% wanted to attend a music event in the metaverse. The proportions were 28% and 25% for baby boomers.
The unique experience offered by metaverse technologies, such as virtual reality, therefore appeals to younger generations and can become a key tool in attracting them to universities.