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.”