“Metaversities” face virtual learning’s financial reality

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    Visiting Egypt, leaving for Mars, time traveling, and rebuilding an entire college campus are not as expensive as you might think. When everything takes place in the virtual realm of the Metaverse, nearly anything is possible to support new and innovative learning experiences.

    But for pioneering universities experimenting with the concept of “metaversity” and classes conducted in virtual reality, the financial realities are becoming clear. This means that bringing metaversity to large numbers of faculty and students is expensive and difficult to achieve.

    “The dilemma we have is that demand and interest are higher than we can handle,” said Daniel Mintz, dean of information technology at the University of Maryland Global Campus.

    The University of Maryland is one of 10 institutions selected by Facebook parent company Meta for its Fall 2022 Metaversity Pilot Program. This effort is part of Meta’s plans. $150 million investment with immersive learning.

    Combining ‘metaverse’ and ‘university’, Metaversity is an immersive educational platform used by faculty and students wearing virtual reality headsets. Teachers and students meet in real time as if they were meeting in person, sometimes in simulated classrooms, and in recreations of environments ranging from historical contexts and literary works to bodies, organs, and even other planets.

    New Mexico State University’s metaversity includes an immersive solar system.

    According to interviews with the program directors of the six participating universities, the program itself has been generally well received by both faculty and students.

    The main problem reported is maintaining costs, especially for maintaining and expanding efforts after the program ends. 50 of his headsets will be donated to Metaversity Pilot schools to be kept after the two-year program ends.

    “We’re not going to be able to scale this quickly,” said Robbie Grant, director of technology at New Mexico State University, adding that the university has provided additional funding to purchase 15 more headsets at its own expense. i got you.

    But Grant said the high cost of future headsets could make them hard to come by. This situation is exacerbated by equipment upgrades every few years as technology advances.

    For consumers, Meta’s Quest 2 headset currently costs $300 or $350 depending on the model. The Quest 3 headset will be available this fall for $500.

    In a futuristic classroom, students observe atoms in the metaverse as part of a chemistry course.

    A chemistry laboratory held in the Metaverse.

    “They get old and become pretty expensive undertakings,” said Grant. “We have to be strategic about what course they’re on and where we’re going from here.”

    Meta’s program will launch in 2022 following the initial success of Georgia-based Morehouse College’s own Metaversity program. The program was launched a year ago at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “At a time when so many had lost hope in the education system, there was a spirit of collaboration, innovation and the drive to get it done,” said Musina Morris, Metaversity Director at Morehouse.

    Morris now serves as an informal mentor for other colleges embarking on their own Metaverse journeys. Twenty more schools will join the pilot program this fall.

    For the past two years, Meta has funded the program through a $2 million donation to Iowa-based educational technology company VictoryXR. According to VictoryXR CEO Steve Grubbs, the funding is being “expanded as much as possible” to 30 schools.

    A digital version of the campus of Fullerton University in the Metaverse.

    The “digital twin” of Fullerton University, based in California. I mean an exact replica of a university campus in the metaverse.

    In addition to the donated headsets, VictoryXR will train faculty to use the headsets and build a university “digital twin” within the metaverse that is an exact replica of the campus. In return, the pilot university must pay an annual software license fee of $180 per headset to access VictoryXR’s Metaverse software for the duration of the two-year pilot program.

    Meta did not respond to a request for comment on the show.

    In total, Morehouse took nearly 700 students in Metaverse classes on topics such as biology, African studies, and education. The university’s programs are funded by grants, which will stack from spring 2021 and total about $750,000. Grants serve a variety of purposes. One for proof of concept and one for proof of concept. The other focuses on students creating their own content. The third is to fund students studying culturally appropriate avatars.

    Many of these grants have come from technology companies that have recently faced job cuts and financial difficulties. As such, some future funding deals are up in the air.

    “This year has been a very interesting grant year,” Morris said. “We didn’t get as much money as we had hoped.”

    Morehouse does not want to be funded by raising student fees, adding that program expansion will be determined by future grants. “We don’t want to pass on extra costs to students,” she said.

    “It’s time to bring technology companies and educational institutions to the forefront to support these programs,” she said, adding that education will not change unless universities “revitalize these programs.” rice field.

    Other institutions participating in the program are also touting its success, while also considering the logistics and costs of scaling it.

    The University of Maryland Global Campus has installed more than 100 headsets and mailed them to students because the campus is mostly remote, Mintz said. In addition to his 50 donated headsets, the university purchased 50 more for him at about $300 each.

    Group of digital avatars looking at digital screens in boardroom

    You can also hold meetings within the metaverse.

    “All the students love this piece,” he said. “What I don’t know how to overcome is the cost of the headset.”

    Mintz said it may take three to four years before costs are low enough and usage increases enough to be “friendly for schools like ours.”

    The university is nearing the end of a two-year pilot run through the summer of 2024. Mintz said the university is weighing its options, but due to its popularity, it will most likely go ahead with the program at some point.

    Other institutions are turning to alternative funding methods to keep their expanded metaversity programs alive.

    New Mexico State University is working with Meta-funded New Mexico school districts to bring the technology to local high schools. South Dakota State University has found success with donations from alumni and its foundation.

    “In my heart, I want to say, ‘Oh, it’s amazing to have this much support,’ but alumni and donors look to their own experiences. When you see it and touch it, you know this can solve a real problem,” said Greg Harbinger, associate dean of the South Dakota State University of Natural Sciences. He added that many alumni have witnessed the growing popularity of headsets among their children and grandchildren, pointing to the potential for gamification of education.

    Two avatars manipulate a digital corpse during an anatomy class taught in the Metaverse.

    Anatomy and Biology courses use the metaverse to immerse students in the subject matter.

    One thing that could accelerate adoption and thereby lower the cost of headsets is Apple’s interest in virtual and augmented reality. The company announced its own headset, the Apple Vision Pro, in June.

    “For the majority of people, once Apple is in this game, once they support Apple, they want to be in that game,” said Andrew Sedillo, director of microcredential education design at New Mexico State University. will be,” he said.

    But VictoryXR’s Grubbs said the cost of the Meta headset is already low enough. He pointed out that typical MacBook laptops are more expensive.

    “It’s largely a question of where to prioritize hardware purchases,” he said. “We need to get the decision maker to appreciate the concept even if this hardware is a little cheaper than his Chromebook.”

    VictoryXR will showcase its value with newly added tools such as a virtual horse ranch for veterans in need of medical care. However, the general public has not yet embraced this technology.

    Kathy Hirsch-Pasek of Temple University said the growing popularity of artificial intelligence has cooled overall acceptance of the Metaverse.

    “A year ago, a lot of companies were going full steam ahead,” said Harsh Pasek, who is also a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution. “Today, that’s not true. They put a lot of money into AI and Twitter alternatives.”

    That said, the concept of metaversity and virtual reality learning is “very cool,” says Hersh Pasek.

    “It’s like a magical school bus. Imagine if college was like going on an expedition with Mr. Frizzle,” she said. “That’s why we think this product has great potential, but we still have a long way to go.”

    “There’s a saying, ‘Technology isn’t really revolutionary until it’s boring,'” Pratt said. Pointing to a mobile phone, he said the application didn’t evolve until it became ubiquitous, “everyone has one, even grandmas.”

    Glen Platt, C. Michael Armstrong Professor of Emerging Technologies at the Ohio-based University of Miami, said many pilots expected the technology to get significant support. “It’s a lot further than 5-10 years,” he said.

    “I think virtual reality and actually augmented reality will inevitably be central to the learning experience,” he said. “But that’s probably 20 or 40 years away. We still have a long way to go.”


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