The metaverse and extended reality: The future for higher education?

– Metaverse or extended-reality approaches are becoming increasingly prominent

– Educational institutions are exploring the potential of the metaverse

– Benefits of extended reality for both emerging and developed economies

– Concerns expressed regarding access and the digital divide

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

The metaverse is the name given to a range of technologies which immerse users in a virtual environment. It denotes a 3D medium that combines virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) into a new digital realm, sometimes known as XR. XR environments are accessed through VR headsets and are typically immersive, interactive and social.

The world’s leading tech companies are investing heavily in XR. Indeed, Facebook recently rebranded itself as Meta, in an indication of how important the company believes XR will become going forwards.

Following the massive shift to online learning occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic, the concept of XR is becoming more prominent among the world’s educational institutions.

For example, at the end of last year 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 college levels. These will teach robotics, space exploration, and computer, engineering and biomedical science.

However, it is higher education institutions in particular that are realising the potential of XR learning.

The University of Michigan, for example, has recreated the decommissioned Ford Nuclear Reactor in XR, while MIT’s Electrostatic Playground is a room-scale XR environment in which students can explore the principles of electrostatics.

As well as individual apps, universities are developing infrastructure and processes to leverage XR.

The University of Glasgow’s new Advanced Research Centre, for instance, is centred on a dedicated XR space, which is one of the biggest in the UK.

Meanwhile, Meta announced at the end of 2021 that it plans to build 10 digital campuses around the US over the course of this year, giving remote students the chance to immerse themselves in interactive campus environments.

XR in emerging markets

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

For example, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), based in Seoul, is set to open a virtual campus at the Kenya-KAIST campus at the Konza Technopolis, some 60 km outside Nairobi.

Meanwhile, in China – where Morgan Stanley earlier this year 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 to this, the top-tier Communication University of China in January announced the launch of a digital campus.

The Gulf region is also at the forefront of XR developments.

In November last year the University of Bahrain inaugurated the BBK Lab for Virtual and Augmented Reality at its e-Learning Centre.

The Caribbean is also beginning to recognise the potential of XR.

Last year the University of West Indies announced a partnership with EON Reality, which specialises in AR and VR learning, to roll out XR technologies at its Open Campus, in a first for the region.

These and other examples highlight the extent to which XR is increasingly seen as a key component of educational offerings around the world. As 2022 progresses, such examples are expected to multiply.

Potential stumbling blocks

Despite its potential, XR is not without challenges. Industry insiders have noted a range of potential issues associated with the metaverse in the context of education.

Perhaps most significant among these are problems associated with digital interactions more generally.

Computers or smart phones are associated with leisure and distraction as much as with work or study. For this reason, many question whether students will be able to remain focused on a lecture delivered via the metaverse.

Others have raised similar questions: Will the metaverse enable the full range of communicative possibilities? To what extent is learning dependent on non-verbal cues which are not easily noticeable in a fully digital realm? 

At the height of the pandemic, many companies found that business could carry on largely as normal via remote means. However, many are now discovering that there is an intangible, unquantifiable value associated with face-to-face interaction: the famous “water-cooler moment”, where ideas are exchanged during impromptu gatherings. 

Some researchers point to a similar dynamic in the education space, and have asked whether chance face-to-face encounters with peers or teachers can enrich the educational experience in ways that are not possible in a purely digital environment.

A more concrete criticism, and one that is pertinent in the context of emerging economies, is that a dependence on digital learning risks augmenting the digital divide.

There are fears that students without access to adequate digital technology – or to those crucial but often overlooked components of successful remote learning, namely space and silence at home – will be left behind.

Equally, a situation could develop whereby more privileged students attend brick-and-mortar institutions and benefit from in-person teaching complemented by digital tools, while others must make do with a purely digital environment.

Another important consideration is staffing. Fully leveraging XR teaching requires at least a familiarity with a constantly evolving suite of new technologies and techniques, which in turn requires that large numbers of staff receive constant training.

As advancements in XR educational applications continue apace, it will be up to universities and private companies alike to make sure that XR's benefits can be equitably shared.

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