The metaverse: Are colleges really light years away from reaching it?

Virtual lectures are nice, but becoming far more interactive over the next 5-10 years should be the goal for higher ed leaders.

Higher education might still be light years from being fully swept up in the metaverse—that is, embracing and implementing the worlds of extended reality (XR)—but it is worth exploring the possibilities right now. Imagine a landscape where “metaversities” are the norm, or where virtual reality is widespread on campuses. Now, imagine what would happen to institutions that fail to embrace it.

Those realities are squarely on the minds of progressive higher ed leaders who see the merits of the new vision in real dollars, especially as the market is set to grow tenfold in the next two years. They have begun forays into the metaverse, even though that’s all they are right now. Achieving the goal is still two giant steps away, according to Sam Gobrail, principal solution architect and customer experience strategist at technology solutions company Pariveda.

Gobrail says colleges and universities are largely in the Virtual Lecture phase, which is exactly as it sounds and became so popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, namely the widespread use of video conferencing platforms such as Zoom and furthering the development of remote and online courses. Getting past the Interactive phase and into Phase 4—the Metaverse phase—will require time and a whole lot of investment from institutions.

“We are primarily in Phase 2, as we took a lot of material and put it online,” he says. “Some places have created better content for online, but it’s still pretty much, ‘Did you see my PowerPoint online? Did you download anything online? Did you fill out the form online?’ The metaverse is aspirational at the moment, especially for higher education. It’s going to take a lot to build it out. And there will be a ridiculous amount of detail and complexity being built out for unclear profitability.”

However, colleges and universities must make the effort, or they risk getting passed by competitors and passed over by students who are looking for more value.

“It’s sink or swim, even if they don’t realize the riptide is here,” he says. “For much of their history, universities have competed locally. They’re not really competing internationally. They’re not really even competing nationally. They’re the No. 2 place in Maryland, or the No. 1 school in Florida. Let’s say virtual becomes really effective. Let’s say Georgia Tech creates the best aerospace engineering degree. It’s fully online. It’s an amazing student experience. And they can scale it, so they cut the cost in half. And now they’re the No. 1 national program in that degree. How will a Florida school compete? What happens when that’s not one degree, but their entire engineering school that is now outcompeted? And now it’s two or three of their schools?”

More from UB: Better than a Zoom class: 10 metaversities to launch this fall

Think it can’t happen? Looks at the inroads that have been made at mostly or fully online institutions such as Southern New Hampshire University or Western Governors University, which have grown exponentially in the past decade. If other state publics or big privates can get to the metaverse more quickly, what will the future be for those stuck in tradition?

“The physical building, the nice lawn, the dorms will be less relevant than, ‘Is it a really great experience? Will this actually help me get a job?’ ” Gobrail says. “[Some institutions] that use AR or VR, they can say they’ve already done that. They’ve gone from 10,000 students to 200,000 students to 300,000 students. I can see this happening in five to 10 years. If you don’t start doing bits and pieces now, it’ll be very hard. Schools are bureaucratic. Some have money, but not all of them have deep pockets. This has to be incremental for many reasons. But the good thing is you can start now. The double-edged sword is, if you don’t make incremental progress—those compounding returns in five years—catching up would be really hard, maybe impossible.”

Inside Pariveda’s four phases

The pandemic accelerated institutions past Digitization, or Phase 1 (the shift away from textbooks and other resources to digital), and into the Virtual Lecture phase, although it was not without its pains or even its stubborn detractors, who continue to push in-person learning even when hybrid might be an option. Students, however, want flexibility. They also want to be far more collaborative.

Meet the Interactive phase, which brings far more personal engagement experiences for students. Driven by artificial intelligence and improved systems, it allows for far more frequent, far more agile and adaptable virtual interactions. Think of it as not just a one-off session or course, but many across many departments that eventually coming seamless and routine. That will take some time, but Gobrail offers a benchmark for moving forward.

“I think it’s treating the online and making it as good, or at minimum, at par with the in-person and then making those things swappable,” he says. “So Step 1 is, how can I make the virtual as good? Forget the super fancy technology. From a student experience, how can I make that swappable, so that you can one day be in school, the next day, you want to drive your car across the country and still attend a class and then come back in class without missing a beat? You can do that instead of waiting three days for a recording to upload, for example.”

In its white paper on the metaverse, Pariveda lists seven areas that colleges need to shore up to get through the Interactive phrase:

  • Meshing the virtual with in-person seamlessly
  • Getting faculty and other stakeholders on board with the changes
  • Ensuring that virtual offerings meet accreditation standards
  • Becoming truly personal and customizable for students
  • Embracing the idea of gamification and rewards within virtual spaces
  • Making it all visually appealing and aligning it with branding and mission
  • And perhaps most importantly, seeing that IT, systems and networks can handle all of it

Once all of those items are neatly buttoned, the metaverse will be within reach. And what a world it could be, supreme 3D immersion in almost field one can imagine—both on campus and off. Getting there will require deep commitments to new technology that might even go beyond what current national infrastructures can handle. But it’ll get there, and it is important to dive in now.

“I think even the scrappiest of universities can make progress,” he says. “That’s why I focus so much on the interactive and less on technology. You can get scrappy on Zoom and make it work. Or if you have a billion-dollar endowment, you can build a custom metaverse. I think it’s finding what you want to be good at and investing incrementally there. So, using out-of-the-box tools. If you really want to experiment with technology, proofs of concept can be affordable. A lot of the tech firms will pay for some portion of it. There are grants, there are other ways available to those that have few dollars. But it’s got to be the right step in the right direction that matters to your university.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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