Jan 12 2023

What Is a Metaversity, and Should You Create One on Your Campus?

Advances in virtual and augmented reality have made it possible to create digital twins of universities. Here’s what to consider before building one.

The stuff of science fiction isn’t nearly as far away as it once seemed.

The speed of progress in tech continues to change higher education at a dramatic pace. Ideas that seemed far-fetched three years ago, like earning a four-year college degree solely by completing courses online and without ever meeting a professor in person, are now fairly common practice.

The next frontier, depending on who you ask, just might exist in the metaverse. It’s a bet some companies — most famously Facebook’s parent company, Meta — are making, and a world that some universities, like Morehouse College, have already entered at full steam.

The metaversity has gone from a theory to a concept to an actual realm at schools such as Morehouse, and more are likely on the way.

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What Is a Metaversity?

Metaversities are campuses created in the metaverse and, in some ways, they represent the next evolution beyond the immersive learning opportunities that currently exist for students at many colleges and universities.

Higher education immersive learning experiences through virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and extended reality (XR) have exploded in the past five years as commercial hardware including VR headsets have hit the market at relatively affordable prices. That’s allowed more people to experience VR in their homes and allowed students to feel more comfortable with the tools when they encounter them in college.

Today, VR is frequently used in healthcare training programs, where it can help offset, for example, the high cost of running a cadaver lab. It can also take the pressure out of training for high-stakes situations.

VictoryXR has been at the forefront of developing VR, AR and XR opportunities in higher education. CEO Steve Grubbs says that immersive tools offer “low consequences for mistakes” in areas such as chemistry, biology and other potentially dangerous fields.

“I can hand a student a human heart in the metaverse,” says Grubbs. “That student can expand that human heart until it’s 10 feet tall and then step inside, and the professor can teach.”

The metaversity centralizes those kinds of experiences in one cohesive space. In a metaversity setting, students participate in the form of avatars. Avatars can meet in the library for a study session or walk onto the quad and chat up some other classmates on a “digital twin” campus.

But replicating the on-campus college experience in a virtual space is a limited use of the metaverse’s potential, says Maya Georgieva, senior director of the Innovation Center at The New School and one of EdTech’s 2022 Higher Ed IT Influencers to Follow.

“Most universities trying to create a metaverse environment see it as a single, overarching environment that would incorporate a large range of experiences,” she says. “But today, most of the metaversities are still rather primitive, and they often re-create what we know rather than what’s possible in the metaverse.”

“The landscapes of our virtual campuses can push the limits of materials and gravity, and at some point in the future, we’ll have virtual campuses that will be responsive and enable truly immersive experiences, and this will work as an extension of our campuses, not a digital replica,” Georgieva continues.

Maya Georgieva headshot
In the digital world, we have an abundance of opportunities and affordances that do not exist in the physical world.”

Maya Georgieva Senior Director, Innovation Center at The New School

To Georgieva, the 2023 version of the metaverse feels a bit like the dawn of cinema, when stage directors and writers tried to simply move that art form to the screen. It was only when filmmakers took full advantage of the seemingly unlimited potential of what could be created that the form took off.

“Our physical campuses were developed based on geography, climate, politics, economic needs and the resources we have in the physical world,” she says. “In the digital world, we have an abundance of opportunities and affordances that do not exist in the physical world. We should endeavor to leverage those opportunities to create immersive experiences that can truly transform learning.”

Grubbs sees that as well. While his company has created digital twins like the one at Morehouse, it also offers students opportunities to take field trips to the Great Wall of China or recreate Charles Darwin’s famous journey to the Galapagos Islands. VictoryXR has also built virtual laboratories replicating those of Thomas Edison and George Washington Carver.

The ideal metaversity puts all those things — virtual classrooms, campus replicas, field trips, giant human hearts and more — in the same virtual place.

LEARN MORE: How emerging technologies help HBCUs retain students.

What Technology Supports a Metaversity?

The metaversity is a cloud-based technology made possible by work from 3D designers and world builders who collaborate with companies like VictoryXR. But there are privacy and security issues to consider when it comes to the metaverse.

Like with any technology, especially an emerging one, maintaining network security is a high priority for college and university leaders.

“Security is paramount in all of this because new technologies like the metaverse are vulnerable to bad actors,” says Brad Saffer, global education lead for Cisco’s Industry Solutions Group. “It’s a little bit like the Wild West right now, and those bad actors will do their best to exploit a new technology like the metaverse for their own purposes.”

Beyond security, data privacy is also a concern, Georgieva says. VR headsets can capture everything from where a person is looking to their body language and facial expressions. Those things make the metaverse experience what it is, but ensuring that type of data is secured is key, especially for universities that are building their own stockpiles of VR headsets for student use.

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Is Now the Right Time to Create a Metaversity?

According to Saffer, the appetite for metaversities in higher education has grown as faculty and staff have adapted to more tech-forward teaching and learning tools during the pandemic.

“There aren’t a lot of universities doing a metaversity now, but the promise of it and the ability to level up the experience for students is massive,” says Saffer.

To Grubbs, a metaversity also allows institutions to stay in touch with the current generation of students, many of whom grew up playing immersive games like Fortnite and might be more familiar with elements of the metaversity experience.

“The idea that the metaverse is a foreign concept — what’s foreign to the students arriving at college today is that this would not be a possibility,” he says.

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Grubbs notes that VictoryXR has seen a major uptick in interest in the metaversity over the past two years. After creating their first synchronous higher education classroom in 2019, the company went on to build two metaversities in 2021. Last year, Grubbs said there were 55 colleges and universities either holding classes on metaversity campuses or exploring how to use them in conjunction with VictoryXR.

While that number still represents a tiny fraction of the colleges and universities in the United States, it is growing.

“It’s institutions that have visionary leaders willing to take some risks,” Saffer says of the colleges and universities exploring metaversities today. “And it’s institutions that are eager to drive enrollment. They are looking to differentiate themselves in the market and show value for their degrees.”

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