What the Metaverse Means for Higher Education

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Major tech companies are starting on their land grab claim to the metaverse. People who follow the higher ed news outlets might have seen this topic cropping up in publications over the last few months, too.

What is the metaverse? Why is it such a big deal (or is it)? And will it matter to higher ed beyond its novelty?

Ray Schroeder, Senior Fellow at both University of Illinois Springfield and UPCEA, returns to the Enrollment Growth University show to remind us of higher ed’s previous toe-dips into the metaverse back in the early 2000s and how institutions might start positioning themselves for the metaverse future that so many tech companies seem bent on bringing us to.

What Is the Metaverse?

The metaverse is an immersive, virtual, persistent environment. It’s immersive because all users actually take actions and interact with it. 

It’s virtual because it’s online. And it’s persistent, meaning that an environment is created that exists 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, so that you can go back and pick up where you left off. 

You can engage people in different locations within this virtual environment. So it becomes much more of a visual and interactive environment than we have in traditional websites.

A user moves through this environment with avatars. That avatar can represent you very precisely, or it could show a different race, gender, or even species. Under that representation, you interact with others within the metaverse. Using the controls, you can walk, jump, or fly around this environment and interact with the tools. 

Many of our kids have done this recently through Minecraft or Roblox. They’re building games, designing clothing, and doing all kinds of innovative and creative work within that virtual game environment.

Why is Facebook positioning their entire company around the metaverse?

Facebook has stagnated within the marketplace. At the same time we have developed new technologies, and we’ve gained the ability to use technologies that previously existed, but we couldn’t use them online.

For example, for quite a while, we’ve had virtual reality, but it’s not done interactively online. That’s because 4G and many of the earlier cable services had what is called a high latency. When a signal was sent from you as a remote user it took too long for the response to come back. But 5G has low latency. Star Link, which Elon Musk put up, is also low latency and has even gotten the title 10G. It really is fast enough, and has low enough latency that you can support virtual reality and augmented reality online.

 

The History of Higher Education and the Metaverse

Around 2005-06, a company called Linden Labs created Second Life, a technology that allowed universities to create a virtual environment. Faculty members used it for instruction.

In their first session, instructors would create an avatar and give general instructions. Then they would continue the class with meetings in Second Life. The discussions were much the same as they were in real life, but studies showed that people were more candid in their conversations using Second Life in the metaverse. 

Imagine what we could do now with more advanced technology. 

In addition, we can create simulations, maybe a business environment or something specific to an industry. Medical schools already use virtual reality, which allows surgical residents to go through an operation once or twice before they cut you. Now, we can do it for students in other disciplines, too. 

Consider what we could do in a chemistry lab. Your avatar picks up the beaker and pours a chemical into another chemical. You titrate it, and then you read it on the scale. 

 

How Can Higher Ed Make Use of the Metaverse?

Begin by spending a few evenings with 10-year-olds, and watch what they’re doing. See how they’re using Roblox and Minecraft to build games and simulations. How are they putting together those pieces?

Then, make a minor investment in this field. Technology is finally catching up to science fiction. We can, too.

 

This post is based on a podcast interview with Ray Schroeder of both University of Illinois Springfield and UPCEA. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.