Enterprise

Meta’s next big bet: The ‘metaversity’

Meta is spending $150 million to bring “immersive learning” to schools and educational institutions. Is it working?

An astronaut

Meta is betting its future on the idea that more people will want to spend time in the metaverse.

Image: YouTube

During her inorganic chemistry class at Morehouse College in the spring of 2021, Dr. Muhsinah Morris launched a little experiment.

She had spent more than two decades working in higher education, but the COVID-19 crisis had forced teachers to find entirely new ways to integrate technology into the classroom. So, for the spring semester, she decided to try something entirely new to reinvigorate her class after a challenging year: She taught her course in the metaverse.

For a course that requires so much "visual spatial intelligence," Morris said, the experiment worked. "We were able to take things that were flat, two-dimensional images and put them in a three-dimensional space where students were able to then analyze them in a way that they never had been able to do before," Morris told Protocol in a recent interview.

Morris may not have known it at the time, but her class would soon become a test case in what could be the next big thing in education — at least, Meta is hoping so.

Last November, months after Morris and other faculty members launched Morehouse in the Metaverse, Meta announced that it was committing $150 million to its Meta Immersive Learning project, through which it has partnered with VictoryXR, an Iowa-based virtual reality company to create 10 “metaversities.” These digital campuses are affiliated with real universities, and Morehouse’s experiment is the largest in the United States. In the last academic year, nine classes were offered to about 400 students in the metaverse. They ranged from journalism to biology, English to history. Next fall, the metaverse course offerings will increase to 15.

Morehouse’s metaversity experiment is the largest in the United States.www.youtube.com

For Meta, which also manufactures the Meta Quest headsets used in metaversity classrooms, this is more than just a quirky side project. As the company’s stock price plummets and its advertising business is imperiled, Meta is betting its future on the idea that more people will want to spend time in the metaverse. “I want to live in a world where big companies use their resources to take big shots,” Mark Zuckerberg told Protocol in May. “I feel a responsibility to go for it,” he said.

Last October, Zuckerberg announced that the company will spend more than $10 billion on Reality Labs to lead the development of AR, VR and other metaverse-related services and apps. The team behind this push is said to comprise about 10,000 people. The company is already working on glasses with built-in personal assistants that promise to serve as a kind of backup brain for the people who wear them. It has also launched Project Cambria, which seeks to combine the physical world and the virtual, with the aim of replacing the work laptop.

With massive investment already having been made in both gaming and workplace tech, a big slice of the $77 billion global higher-education market is still up for grabs. And it stands to reason Meta would want that slice; if there’s anyone who understands the value in launching new technology on college campuses, it’s Mark Zuckerberg.

“A lot of my students came away from this saying, ‘Wow, if I had this my first year, I would have been a better chemist, I would have been a little bit stronger as a student.”

“Beyond exciting possibilities for commerce and entertainment, learning is a powerful use case for the metaverse,” Meta Immersive Learning’s global lead Leticia Jauregui said in a statement. “The metaverse has vast potential societal benefits — particularly in education and health care — from helping medical students practice surgical techniques to bringing school lessons to life in an exciting way.”

For Morris at least, who doubles as director of Morehouse in the Metaverse, the program has been a success, leading to demonstrable increases in students’ final grades and attendance. “A lot of my students came away from this saying, ‘Wow, if I had this my first year, I would have been a better chemist, I would have been a little bit stronger as a student,’” she said.

Morehouse’s success has inspired other universities, including the University of Maryland Global Campus, to also conduct their own educational experiments. UMGC has historically provided distance education to members of the military at home and overseas and civilian adults. Unlike many other universities, it has a much longer history of providing a predominately online education, and as such, it was more prepared when the pandemic struck.

But for years, Daniel Mintz, the department chair for information technology within the School of Cybersecurity and Information Technology, said building social cohesion among his students and with faculty was challenging, causing some students to disengage from their studies altogether.

“Our experience is that when they become passive, they fail, they drop out,” he said. Mintz hopes VR technology could be the long-sought-after fix. “Even if all you had was meetings where you interacted and allowed the students to get to know each other better, we think that by itself will have a beneficial impact.”

Other schools — including New Mexico State University, which has also signed on to become one of the 10 metaversities — are eyeing VR as a way to deliver a low-cost quality education. At the end of the two-year Meta-funded pilot project, the University, which is a Hispanic-serving institution, hopes to be able to offer a virtual reality-based degree. “Within five years from now, we'll have our first group enrolling and be able to go from freshman through senior or a master's degree completely in virtual reality where they never leave their home. They don't have to leave their hometown or home city,” said Robbie Grant, NMSU’s director of academic technology.

But for all of the upsides, the hype over metaversities also raises concerns about what will happen if and when Meta decides to stop bankrolling the whole thing. Without Meta’s grant, the two-year trial would have cost New Mexico State University $150,000 instead of the $15,000 they paid for the software licenses for just 50 students. This comes at a time when the pandemic has significantly hit the bottom lines of many universities due to a worsening decline in enrollment. Higher education in the United States has lost about 1.3 million students since spring 2020, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

And for Meta, the concept of the metaversity — if not the metaverse itself — is still very much an experiment that so far has been costly. In February, the company announced that Reality Labs posted a $10 billion loss and is now reportedly scaling back some of its projects.

There are concerns about the handling of students' data, too, given Meta’s — and Big Tech’s — shaky record on privacy. In May, a report by Human Rights Watch found that students around the world were tracked and monitored by ed-tech devices and that some of the data was shared with third-party agents, including Google and Meta.

“The companies running this exciting technology — which actually is exciting — are companies infamous for disregard for users data,” said Nir Eisikovits, associate professor of philosophy and director of the Applied Ethics Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston, who has written about his reservations on the metaverse in higher education. “And we are about to give them exponentially more data.”

"The excitement needs to be tempered with a healthy dose of skepticism.”

And while school officials interviewed by Protocol said that faculty members maintained independence in running their metaverse classrooms, Eisikovits also has long-term concerns about Big Tech’s commitment to academic freedom. In 2020, Zoom, YouTube and Facebook blocked a virtual lecture by a member of a Palestinian militant group hosted by San Francisco State University.

“Universities already have academic freedom issues as it is,” Eisikovits said. “I would be very concerned to move most of my university's operation to a platform that is, at the end of the day, profit-driven. I think that would be naive to say that we control the content.”

Still, Eisikovits believes the metaverse has great promise in enhancing the classroom experience and is willing to even try it himself. But he warns that, as with all potential applications of Meta’s technology, the “excitement needs to be tempered with a healthy dose of skepticism.”

Fintech

Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep ReadingShow less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep ReadingShow less
FTA
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.
Enterprise

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep ReadingShow less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep ReadingShow less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.

Enterprise

Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep ReadingShow less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins