The Business of Metaversities - Part 1
Before you google “metaversities”, in this series of articles, the term is intended as the digital twin of a university campus OR a degree/part of a degree that takes place entirely online in a metaverse-like environment. Some institutions such as the University of Salford in the UK created virtual worlds for special events (1) . This kind of case study is not going to be taken into consideration.
Arizona State University in the USA created the ASUniverse (2). The virtual replica of the campus is built by students themselves and their abilities are certainly impressive from a technical standpoint. Just take a look
Morehouse College, also located in the USA, launched a digital twin of its campus (3). Compared to the ASUniverse, it seems to extend beyond the exploratory/social aspect, as in its introductory youtube video, examples of classes conducted in the virtual world are shown.
However, Morehouse college did not opt for an in-house solution to develop the digital twin. They received a donation from Qualcomm Technologies to purchase Oculus Quest 2 headsets for the students. In addition, the pedagogical material is provided by the professors, whilst the “digital campus and learning objects” are provided by Victory XR, which powers a lot of other metaversities in the USA (4). Victory XR’s youtube channel has a video for each one of them with boring and cheap background music. Watch this one. It will be enough.
Steve Grubbs, CEO and Co-Founder of Victory XR (5), is one hell of a businessman, I will give him that. He was able to make a case for metaversities from both a financial and a pedagogical perspective.
It’s convincing when he explains that the cost of paying licensing fees to give students access to the software that runs metaversities is comparable to the expense (per-student) of having a subscription to a digital textbook. For South Dakota State University, access to its metaversity comes out to less than $100 per VR headset user (6). But less than $100 can mean a lot of things, and the prices of subscriptions to digital textbook platforms such as Perlego, Pearson + and Cengage are not publicly available (7). I mean the prices of bulk discounts for institutions. For individuals, a subscription costs way less than $100 per month. If the South Dakota University price referred to a monthly subscription that is. You could argue that you get more out of a VR software. Might be true. However, from a purely numerical standpoint, I cannot figure out how the monthly cost per student of a metaversity is comparable to a subscription to a digital textbook.
Another important point to make is that in the same Edsurge article where he compared the cost of metaversities to digital textbooks, Steve Grubbs does hint at the fact that only students who attend classes in the metaverse will be charged. “Access is free for those who just want to run their avatars around the digital campus”. (6)
Aren’t the prohibitive costs of attending university in the USA (and other countries) enough? Are we going to marginalise those who cannot afford it in a virtual world too? But like I said, he is a businessman, I get where he is coming from. Those who cannot afford it can just enjoy the outdoors.
Let’s say some students are able to afford to attend the classes in the virtual world but cannot afford a headset. What then? As previously indicated, some institutions such as Morehouse college are getting some headsets for free. But is that always going to be the case? Or will I be forced to accept a low fidelity 3D version of the metaversity I can explore on my laptop, or a phone, if I don’t have a laptop? Well, I could just go to the campus then. But what if I am disabled? What if I cannot afford commuting or living on campus? Perhaps, I was hoping the metaversity could have been a chance for me to attend college right?
Are metaversities going to increase the digital divide and inequality? Are we going to have the students with a lower-end laptops and a slow internet connection entering grainy and blurred virtual worlds and the lucky ones with a headset enjoying their high fidelity classes?
The only form of “inclusion” I see happening at the moment is Victory XR’s effort to “include” historically black colleges such as Morehouse mentioned earlier in this article.
Then again, I should stop being so idealistic. It’s business.
Enough with the money talk. Let’s look at the pedagogical benefits of metaversities Victory XR was able to leverage.
It’s true, a virtual campus does enable you to do things you could not do in another way. Fisk University used it for a virtual cadaver lab, whilst the University of Kansas uses it in its nursing department to conduct an HEENT (head, ears, eyes, nose and throat) examinations. It’s also true that digital-natives might find lessons in metaversities more engaging than in real life or on Zoom, and therefore pay more attention and get more involved in the learning. Even though the body of research shows that it’s more complex than that, we cannot argue on these statements, at least from a general perspective. Steve Grubbs knows that.
Back in 2014, he was an advisor to Rand Paul's political action committee (8). No wonder Rand Paul advocated for Khan Academy during an event at the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics in April 2014. He had a great advisor.
At this lecture, Paul also advocated for implementing distance learning programs. Using the Khan Academy as an example, Paul explained, "If you have one person in the country who is, like, the best at explaining calculus, that person maybe should teach every calculus class in the country,” the senator said. “You'd still have local teachers to reinforce and try to explain and help the kids, but you'd have some of these extraordinary teachers teaching millions of people in the classroom.”(9)
The only difference is that unlike Victory XR, Khan Academy (10) is a nonprofit that offers free online courses.
This was a rather long-winded explanation to say that metaversities might bring pedagogical benefits, but probably not to the ones who cannot afford them, and that it’s all business, as it has always been. Since when? Linden Lab, the company that created Second Life, an early version of a metaverse-like virtual world, was charging about $1000 + $150 monthly for maintenance to create virtual “islands”, which were mostly used by university students for extra-curricular gatherings and activities (11). This was in 2007, so running such kind of virtual space was significantly more expensive than it is today. But has changed? What about the VR for the masses? Not much has changed.
Well, something has changed. In Asia. I will explore that in part 2 of this series of articles on the business of metaversities.
4 Metaversities powered by Victory XR
University of Maryland https://www.umgc.edu/blog/umgc-jumps-into-the-metaverse
Cal State – Dominguez Hills https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFV8JXLVRjQ
Alabama A&M https://www.aamu.edu/about/inside-aamu/news/aamu-metaversity.html
West Virginia University https://twitter.com/ShermanMDneuro/status/1505524184646049792?s=20&t=xwBjJBQrtjcPMC0ix7Kfhw
University of Kansas https://www.kumc.edu/about/news/news-archive/nursing-metaversity.html
Fisk University https://www.fisk.edu/university-news-and-publications/fisk-university-htc-vive-t-mobile-and-victoryxr-launch-5g-powered-vr-human-cadaver-lab/
St. Ambrose University https://qctimes.com/news/local/education/st-ambrose-university-will-be-the-first-in-the-state-to-launch-a-virtual-reality/article_1b3f5f99-383c-5764-9188-d3a63be03d5c.html
Southwestern Oregon Community College https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PpJ3jqM28lw
New Mexico State University https://www.sdstate.edu/news/2022/04/sdsu-selected-one-seven-metaversities
South Dakota State https://eu.argusleader.com/story/news/education/2022/04/12/south-dakota-state-university-become-metaversity-offer-classes-over-virtual-reality/7288176001/
Northern Illinois University https://cedu.news.niu.edu/2022/11/15/goggles-on-paddles-in-hand-niu-serves-as-pilot-metaversity-to-test-vr-teaching/