How seriously should higher ed take the metaverse?
The rollout of the metaverse — a term for an immersive virtual reality environment that was originally coined by Neal Stephenson in the 1992 dystopian cyberpunk classic Snow Crash — has been widely mocked by comedians, news outlets, tech reporters, and political commentators. Even the government of Iceland spoofed it. But Microsoft announced a $75 billion acquisition that was motivated, at least in part, by gaining a firmer toehold in the metaverse. Facebook famously changed the name of the parent corporation to Meta, and is reportedly following up their new signage with substantial investments. Outside the tech industry, giants like Disney, Nike and the NFL are also making sure they aren’t left behind in this virtual reality.
The tech industry and other corporate heavyweights are taking the metaverse seriously. Should faculty, staff, and administrators in higher education follow suit? We’ve faced tech innovations and disruptions before, but is this more like the faded promises of MOOCs in the 2010s? Or is ignoring the metaverse in 2022 like a university president in 1995 scoffing that this “world wide web” doesn’t have much of a future? It sounds like a joke now, but that was the same year a story appeared about how the internet was doomed to fail.
I’ve been teaching college students for a little over two decades, which is long enough to see some of the best and the worst examples of how technology has impacted the university experience. Tech like email and LMS platforms have so radically transformed the way we teach and learn that it’s hard to imagine functioning without them. Powerful tools for collaborative annotation and real-time communication, like Perusall and Slack, are being adopted more widely across higher ed. In the first part of the pandemic, education across much of the world depended on Zoom’s servers not crashing. On the other hand, controversial sites like Course Hero allow students to share class materials in ways that many faculty are deeply uncomfortable with, while students describe mandatory remote surveillance software as a sort of “techno dystopia.” Notably, many faculty are pushing back against it as well.
I’m also the father of a 9-year-old who is obsessed with his Oculus Quest VR headset (which is produced, of course, by Meta). I see, directly and incessantly, how powerful the social pull of a three-dimensional, immersive social experience is. I’ve stepped into the metaverse just long enough to understand the appeal.
Together, it all means that higher ed should probably wrestle with the question of the metaverse, rather than laugh it off.
No new technology evolves in the way we imagine it will, so predicting how faculty and staff might use the metaverse in classrooms and co-curricular spaces is bound to fail. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to consider it seriously and ask hard questions.
The promise of the metaverse, if it goes anywhere in higher ed, is less likely to be Virtual U and more likely to be a way to propel us further along a trajectory we’re already following — from technology as a repository or efficiency gadget, into technology as a tool for community-building, collaboration, and experiential learning. At the same time, the peril of the metaverse lies in exacerbating existing problems of access and inequality. Most faculty have worked with students who can’t afford textbooks and many institutions are setting up campus food pantries. Who is excluded from higher ed if an expensive VR headset becomes a common expectation?
The question isn’t whether universities should embrace or mock the metaverse (as mockable as it might feel at the moment); rather, it’s how we should weigh any tech innovation for our institutions and our students. In other words, the questions higher ed should ask about the rollout of the metaverse are the ones we should already be asking: how do our institutions use tech to achieve our missions? How do we use new innovations to help students collaborate, learn and build community? How does a new platform improve our ability to understand the world and collaborate with colleagues? At the same time, how do we address inevitable inequities? How do we use any new tool to serve all students, not just the privileged?
Dan Knox and Zach Pardos recently suggested that the best approach to artificial intelligence is one of healthy skepticism, with an eye toward fairness, equity, and student opportunity. The tech industry is steamrolling into the metaverse; higher education should consider how it fits into the challenges we’re already facing.
Jason Brozek is the Stephen Edward Scarff Professor of International Affairs and Associate Professor of Government at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. Contact info: firstname.lastname@example.org, @jason_brozek
More from UB