Los Angeles City College has spent some time trying to refine its metaverse.
A public community college in east Hollywood, it wasn’t one of the original schools that got grants to build out a “metaversity,” a digital alternative campus influenced by the tech company Meta. But the concept resonated, says Marcy Drummond, the college’s vice president of economic and social mobility innovation.
So leaders at the college decided to build their own version. It was important to get the cost down, Drummond says. Now, the college has created more than 1,000 lessons across 25 subject areas constituting its own virtual programming. They have managed to reduce the cost of production to about $15,000 per course.
This semester, more than 2,500 students at Los Angeles City College are taking a course that offers the option of learning in extended reality, Drummond estimates. Some of the courses, including “Bridge Test,” an English course on how to structure creative writing, have proven immensely popular.
Drummond explained all this in response to an inquiry from EdSurge, wondering whether the metaverse was dead and decomposing. (She thinks it very much isn’t.)
There’s been speculation that the hype around the metaverse has been replaced by excitement about artificial intelligence, especially in the business world. But what about the metaverse’s promise to revolutionize education? Was that just Silicon Valley puffery? And if not, how are colleges engaging with it now?
Lifecycle of a Brand
Meta — which changed its name from Facebook in late 2021 — still argues that it’s a big deal. In one report, the company says that the phenomenon will add $760 billion annually to the U.S. GDP. But its leaders seem generally less vocal about it. (EdSurge receives philanthropic support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which is co-owned by the CEO of Meta. Learn more about EdSurge ethics and policies here and supporters here.)
Moreover, use of the term has evaporated. Search results for “metaverse” spiked in late 2021, and have continued to decline ever since, according to Google Trends. And those in education also report hearing the term less.
The dwindling use of the term is probably because it’s ambiguous, says Jeffrey Pomerantz, co-founder of Proximal XR. While Meta itself seemed to use the phrase to refer to a series of hypothetical interconnected virtual reality environments, it got used in many different ways outside of the company, he says.
What’s actually happening now is that the terms are becoming more cleanly defined, Pomerantz argues. There are more rigorous distinctions being made between, say, virtual reality and augmented reality. And terms like “digital twins,” describing online copies of physical locations, have risen in prominence.
But when it comes to the metaverse, more than just the name has changed. Some of the related concepts have also shifted.
A year ago, the concept of a metaversity was wrapped up in a version of the digital twin idea that sought to replicate the conditions of a big physical campus in the metaverse, Pomerantz says. That has evolved, he explains, to mean something closer to a detailed simulation of a specific, contained environment. Louisiana State University, for example, received a grant to build a digital clone of NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The twin is meant to help train engineers and scientists for the Artemis mission, NASA’s attempt to revisit the moon.
An Extra Push
It’s more complicated than simply judging the metaverse as good or bad, or pronouncing it dead or alive, says Greg Heiberger, an assistant professor in the College of Natural Sciences at South Dakota State University.
Heiberger headed the push to get his university named as one of the few institutions for which VictoryXR agreed to help build a “metaversity,” or digital replica campus. (South Dakota State received funding from Meta Immersive Learning to support the effort.)
The university must strike a delicate balance between its commitment to serving its students and its aim to compete as a top-notch research institution with other, more cash-flush universities, Heiberger says.
This can make South Dakota State wary of risk, he adds, and it can make tech-heavy initiatives difficult to pull off, because the university sits in one of the country’s most rural areas. It has high populations of students living in rural and remote regions, and of Native American students, Heiberger explains, all of whom tend to have less stable access to the kind of equipment that’s required for high-tech experiments.
But on balance, the investment was useful, Heiberger says.
In the past year and a half, the university has tripled the amount of virtual reality headsets on the campus, to about 150. The investment allowed educators and students to experiment, leading to their upcoming redeployment of the tech into their underfunded School of Education, Heiberger says.
The metaversity components are built to be broad and entry-level, he says. Some of the initial lessons that the university wanted to create, like organic chemistry and anatomy labs, required details that raised the expense and priced the school out.
“I don’t have rose-colored glasses on it; it was not a perfect experience for us. But being named a ‘metaversity’ was the spark that lit the kindling,” Heiberger says.
Dreams of the Future
The vision of a big digital space that mirrors the physical one is solid, argues Brian Arnold, department chair for global innovation, social emotional learning, and educational technology at National University. Businesses may have backed off the vision of a large, billionaire-controlled metaverse because of its link to Meta, Arnold says. But there are still lots of little metaverses being built in education, he adds.
At Arnold’s university, one of those metaverse pockets is run by Gloria McNeal, associate vice president for community affairs in health. McNeal believes that the simulation enabled by the metaverse is crucial to addressing the health care worker shortages in the U.S. Colleagues describe her virtual campus as, essentially, a hub for her students to access the virtual training apps she develops.
Of course, the promise of extended reality has been around the corner for decades. To Arnold, the correct way to think about this is as a still-evolving medium, one that’s being embraced by colleges. But even if it’s fairly common for an enthusiast to get some momentum behind building a metaverse, Arnold says, it’s less common to have that baked into the infrastructure or the budget of the institution.
Arnold is working with a group, MetaverSEL — a smash up of the terms metaverse and social-emotional learning — that meets to discuss how to iron out the problems in the metaverse before they arise. They confront questions like, “Should you have a persistent identity in the metaverse that follows you everywhere?” The answer is not obvious, Arnold says.
He thinks it’s important to work out these things now. “My perspective is this is an eventuality,” Arnold says. “Given that it’s an eventuality, let’s not move into it as if it’s our first day doing education.”