Muhsinah Morris sometimes likes to begin her chemistry class at the foot of Mount Fuji. Her students sit on the grass in the shade of the ancient volcano as she walks them through an affirmation, or a poem, or guided meditation to prime their minds to learn. Then, the Morehouse College professor whisks them back across the ocean and into the day’s lesson—which might involve walking around inside a human body, handling dangerous chemicals in a lab, or excavating Mars for minerals.
Morris might sound like a real-life Ms. Frizzle—and in many ways she is. Instead of a magic school bus, though, she relies on the power of virtual reality to take her students on adventures. In fact, she doesn’t teach her class on a college campus—at least, not a physical one. Instead, she teaches in Morehouse’s satellite campus in the metaverse.
“It’s my favorite place to be,” Morris told The Daily Beast. “The possibilities are endless. Students are able to create the spaces they want to inhabit. They’re able to experience life in different settings. They’re able to be astronauts without astronaut training. They’re able to go to see the Amistad slave ship. They’re able to go back to WWII and experience a naval battle on an intricately designed navy battleship.”
Besides being a chemistry professor, Morris is also the director of Morehouse Metaversity, a program spearheaded by VR education company VictoryXR. The project launched in March 2021 as a proof-of-concept. The plan was simple: to test out the efficacy of a VR classroom in order to meet the growing demand for remote learning in the wake of the pandemic. Students could sign up for a class taught on the metaverse that they could then access via a university-provided VR headset or their PC.
With an internet connection, they can then enter their “metacampus,” which is a digital replica of the actual Morehouse campus. There they engage in a typical college learning experience, diving into topics like anatomy, complete with the ability to shrink down to size to explore the human body; field trips through time to visit historic locations like battlefields; or engage in chemistry experiments safely with their headsets and remotes.
And the results have been very promising—at least according to Morris and VictoryXR. As part of the trial, a professor taught the same course using three different methods: a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom, remote learning via Zoom, and the metaversity classroom on VR. After the course, the program measured student satisfaction, engagement, and performance—and found that “there was significant improvement in the metaversity experience, when compared to the other two,” Steve Grubbs, VictoryXR’s CEO, told The Daily Beast.
“I would argue that it’s a step up from even brick-and-mortar classes,” he added. “You can’t go to a starship and learn astronomy like that on, say, the University of Iowa campus even though they have a great astronomy program.”
Now, even the company formerly known as Facebook is getting in on higher education. Last December, VictoryXR announced that Meta would help fund the rollout of metaversities across nine additional universities across the U.S. including Florida A&M University, New Mexico State University, and South Dakota State University. Each school is set to receive a twin digital campus built by VictoryXR for students to attend class. Students themselves will receive a Meta Quest 2 VR headset to use for the duration of the course.
It’s bold, and seems more like something out of a cyberpunk novel than real life—but, really, it’s a natural evolution from the spike in remote-learning that arose from the pandemic. Anyone who has sat in Zoom calls all day can tell you how draining it can be. And when you’re a young student taking college courses for the first time, video calls and slide shows just don’t cut it.
“On campus enrollment is declining,” Grubbs said. “Remote enrollment is growing. That trend is expected to continue with decentralization. But most people agree that there needs to be a better, more hands-on way of learning than Zoom.”
Despite its promise, though, there’s still plenty of room for skepticism—especially since these initiatives receive a healthy dose of funding from big tech companies like Meta. That can open the door to a host of privacy and security concerns, not to mention issues surrounding censorship.
“These commercial companies are controlling the platforms on which higher education is happening,” Nir Eisikovits, an associate professor of philosophy and director of the Applied Ethics Center at UMass, Boston, told The Daily Beast. “They have a bad track record in terms of academic freedom. For example, I would worry about Facebook controlling the platform in which I teach a class because what if the class is profoundly critical of social media and social media addiction?”
“It’s just sort of inevitable that capitalism will take us to this point. It allows people to repackage higher education at different price points.”
— Nir Eisikovits, UMass Boston
Eisikovits penned an article in March for The Conversation about the challenges that a metaversity model for education might have. He outlined his fears as an educator of schools wantonly embracing metaverse initiatives with “non-critical hype”—which could lead to public universities wasting money and resources on tech that no one wants, and—at worst—lead to the inadvertent creation of an unequal socioeconomic class system amongst students.
After all, this would be a cheaper alternative to in-person learning but still be a step up from Zoom classes, Eisikovits explained. Future universities could end up offering different learning packages, where in-person classes are the most expensive option, Zoom classes are the cheapest, and metaversity classes fall somewhere in between.
”And, in the end, you get what you pay for,” Eisikovits said. “It’s just sort of inevitable that capitalism will take us to this point. It allows people to repackage higher education at different price points.”
There’s also the privacy issues. Meta has long had a sordid history with collecting and selling user data without the user being aware of it. With the infusion of a VR headset, now these companies will be able to collect incredibly valuable biometric data as well—something Eisikovits describes as the “Holy Grail” for Big Tech giants.
“Data like how much your eyes dilate when certain content is shown to you can tell them how interested you are in a certain kind of product, and that can be collected and sold,” he said.
It’s a concern that Grubbs believes that, while valid, doesn’t hold much water. Not only does the underlying platform that VictoryXR uses comply with European GDPR privacy standards—some of the most stringent privacy regulations in the world, he explained—but Meta also gives students the opportunity to opt out of most data collection. “When Big Tech is involved, people are going to have privacy concerns,” Grubbs said. “In this instance, though, they’ve been largely addressed.”
In fact, Grubbs argued that the metaversity will, in fact, lead to a more equal playing field rather than create an unequal system that Eisikovits fears.
“The world is changing,” he said. “Centralization is taking hold. If you want an equal education with people who can afford to travel across the state or country and live on campus, that’s difficult to get with a 2D remote experience. But a metaversity provides what’s in many ways a superior experience to on campus. That will solve the equity in education question in a big way.”
For now, it’s clear that the metaverse will come to higher education whether we like it or not. Time will tell whether it will level the playing field or strain current class divides and privacy concerns. At the very least, though, it’ll certainly make the classroom a bit fun again—and maybe that’s where the real worth is.
“What VR did was it made education and technology fun again,” Morris said. “We know what the typical American classroom looks like. You sit still and listen to someone talk. It bores the crap out of you.”