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?”
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 has roots in a pandemic pilot project. In 2021, VictoryXR used funds from Qualcomm to create a digital campus for Morehouse College intended to be a solution for remote learning that was better than Zoom.
It was not called a “metaversity”—that terminology developed later, after Meta got involved.
The Morehouse project caught the attention of leaders at Meta, who expressed interest in investing money to create more digital campuses, according to Steve Grubbs, CEO and co-founder of VictoryXR. (Grubbs, a former chair of the Iowa Republican Party who served as a member of the Iowa House of Representatives from 1990 to 1996, is also the founder of Victory Enterprises, a technology and political consulting firm. He retired from that firm in 2016.) Leaders of Meta had already known about Engage, which had created VR experiences popular with people who owned Oculus headsets sold by Facebook, according to Engage founder and CEO David Whelan.
Making an effort to include historically Black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions, VictoryXR identified most of its partner colleges as word got out and institutions contacted the company to express interest, Grubbs says.
That’s how Southwestern Oregon Community College got on the list. Virtual-reality consultant Karen Alexander, who works with the community college, heard Grubbs describe the project on a podcast, and she reached out to advocate that he include her institution. Meanwhile, Heiberger of South Dakota State heard Grubbs describe the project on a webinar. Heiberger sought insight from a leader at Morehouse, who recommended working with VictoryXR.
Once the universities were identified, VictoryXR solicited maps, photos and videos of each institution to aid its work in creating digital replicas of each. A video depicting the digital campus for Southwestern Oregon Community College shows science labs, wood-paneled academic buildings and grounds marked by tall pine trees. A video depicting the digital campus for Morehouse shows its red-brick buildings, a concert hall and a campus statue.
Heiberger looks forward to seeing the digital version of his institution’s iconic campanile bell tower.
“To build out a campus that feels like South Dakota State is really important for us,” he says. “The culture, feel, nostalgia—all the things that go with being a student.”
Learning in VR
Trying to pay attention in a college course while manipulating an avatar around a virtual classroom can feel a little odd. But the new Stanford study suggests that this kind of setting gets more comfortable for students over time.
It tracked the outcomes of more than 80 students who, over a 10-week course, received training about the Engage platform and then used it to participate in group discussions via avatars while wearing Oculus Quest 2 headsets. More than half of the students had never used virtual reality prior to the course.
The results show that students’ enjoyment of the experience, identification with their avatars, sense of connection with their classmates and perception that the VR environment was realistic all increased during the 10 weeks.
This suggests that people may become more receptive to using shared virtual reality spaces the more they try it out, the study authors write: “it is possible that once participants adapt to the medium and are no longer uncomfortable with the novelty of the technology, they are able to reap the advantages that VR and CVEs [collaborative virtual environments] provide and feel more presence and connectedness.”
This hypothesis is encouraging for institutions participating in the metaversities experiment. In the fall, South Dakota State plans to use its new headsets to offer two science courses with VR components—one of them entirely online, with students who may not live anywhere near campus (they’ll receive loaner VR headsets in the mail). Southwestern Oregon Community College plans to use VR technology in courses about forestry, communications and microeconomics.
As an advocate for virtual reality, Pomerantz believes “it’s potentially an incredibly powerful education technology,” especially for doing classroom activities that would be too expensive or dangerous to do in real life. But he says it’s not clear yet what a so-called metaversity campus environment adds to the learning experience. Research he published in 2018 about virtual reality at colleges suggests that students and professors are interested in using tools that clearly help meet educational goals, not just for their own sake.
“The digital campus is cool, and goodness knows I like a good reconstruction, but I’m not sure that’s where the real value is at this point,” Pomerantz says. “There’s no reason you need to ‘walk’ to your classroom in VR.”
But Heiberger’s background in student affairs gives him a different perspective. He believes that a campus environment matters a lot to in-person higher education—and it might also matter in remote higher education.
When asked whether he thinks a digital twin campus is a fun or serious feature, his answer? It’s both.
“As we look at the physical campus, the sense of place and the community matters for student success, mental health, creating a network, getting an internship and just enjoying yourself,” he says. “That can’t exist without the academics. Otherwise it’s just a resort, a great place to hang out with other people who happen to have time and money on their hands.”
Costs and Concerns
“Free” is a mighty tempting word when it comes to education technology. And institutions that participate in the metaversities project are getting a lot for free. They don’t have to pay to create digital replicas of their campuses, for one. And they’re each receiving about 50 Meta Quest 2 VR headsets, which sell for a starting price of $299 a piece, at no charge.
It’s the kind of offer that can make a big difference for a university with a limited budget. For example, Heiberger at South Dakota State has been interested in virtual-reality technology for years, but the expense of hardware and software put much of it out of reach. University leaders purchased 15 VR headsets before they joined the metaversities project, so Meta’s offer of “50 is a game-changer for us,” Heiberger says. “It gets us really far down the road.”
That’s not to say colleges won’t pay anything for their metaversities. They’re on the hook for paying licensing fees to give students access to the software that runs them. It’s a cost per student comparable to a subscription to a digital textbook, Grubbs says. Currently, that fee is charged for students who want to use the tool to take classes, while access is free for those who just want to run their avatars around the digital campus.
For South Dakota State, access to its metaversity comes out to less than $100 per VR headset user, according to Heiberger, a fee he says is similar to what the university would have to pay for any good VR app. The university plans to cover that cost from externally-raised dollars, not from tuition money or by charging students extra fees.
This kind of recurring cost could become a problem eventually for universities that don’t figure out how to integrate it into their normal operational budgets, according to Pomerantz.
“A lot of times, campuses treat emerging tech as special projects,” he explains. “The key to the sustainability of these kinds of special projects in higher ed is, these have to become operational, built into academic programs.”
Leaders with the metaversities program are excited that it allows students to keep VR headsets with them to use whenever and wherever they want. But institutions should note that it’s not actually a good idea to wear a headset absolutely anywhere, Pomerantz cautions.
“If you’re going to have immersive VR on campus, you need to have a space on campus for students to do it in where they’re not going to run into each other and knock a computer off a table. I’ve heard stories of that—monitors getting trashed,” he says. “You don’t want to make a VR user walk around a lot.”
And what about students who don’t have VR headsets, or who prefer not to use them? They will still be able to access the digital campus through a browser, Grubbs says, although the experience won’t be immersive.
“The browser option is good, the headset option is great,” he explains.
User privacy is a hot topic in tech, especially when it comes to tools used in schools and colleges. In theory, VR tools can collect a lot of data about users, Pomerantz says, sharing a key question: “How much do you trust your vendor?”
He also points out that companies keep much of the data they collect hidden and proprietary. In contrast, he’d like the possibility for VR tools to share data with professors about students making progress toward learning goals.
Security for students is important to Engage, Whelan says, noting that the company adheres to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulations. VictoryXR does not collect data through its platform, Grubbs says, adding that students will be able to manage the data that is collected through the Quest headsets by adjusting their settings.
Heiberger acknowledges that a metaversity creates concerns about privacy and security. But he argues that higher education shouldn’t simply keep students safe when it comes to technology—it should also teach students how to keep themselves and their communities safe, and help them to build information literacy that they’ll need after graduation.
So maybe there’s a benefit to allowing students to experiment with VR that’s a little bit … meta.
“I think it’s our job to help students explore this in a safe way,” Heiberger says. “Help them to develop their own framework for decision-making for the risks they’re willing to take, giving up some of their freedoms to access some of the benefits.”
Meta’s Grand Plan
Arés, the leader of Immersive Learning at Meta, is a former teacher. She recalls the nagging worry that her lessons might not hold her students’ attention.
“I would spend countless hours trying to create lessons that are visually rich,” Arés says. “I knew the second I put that headset on it was the medium I had been looking for.”
She believes that, once more instructors get the opportunity to try teaching with virtual reality, they’ll feel similarly.
“My favorite thing to do is put educators in it. They have a thousand ideas of what’s possible,” she says. “It’s an incredibly natural fit for learning. It’s a new way to solve problems we have had for a while.”
One of those may be the limitations of more-traditional online learning, which offers little to “unlock curiosity and connection” for students, as the pandemic made clear, Arés says. The metaversities project appealed to Meta because it promised to make distance learning more immersive and active, and therefore more engaging.
Meta Immersive Learning’s support for the metaversities is part of its $150 million investment in projects that build skills and create content related to virtual environments. Meta declined to share how much of that total amount will go to the metaversities effort. Arés said that Meta is not focused on earning revenue from the partnership; instead, the “main goal is to increase access to education and transform the way we learn.”
Despite this, Whelan of Engage says that Meta may be interested in partnering with universities to try to replicate with VR headsets the way that personal computers caught on with the public years earlier.
“Computers started in homes as entertainment, then creeped into school, then into everyday use items and at jobs,” Whelan says. “VR could take the same route.”
Gaming and entertainment were the “proof points” for virtual reality, Arés acknowledges. Those were the industries that laid the foundation for the metaverse her company is trying to create.
Next up: education.
“The metaverse will take time to be fully realized,” Arés says. “I can’t wait to see how it evolves.”