The past 12 months could be a year that will live in infamy for fans of the Metaverse. Meta himself, the artist formerly known as Facebook, has spent $10 billion building his grand vision of a digital world and has allocated $150 million to immersive learning projects, including funds for universities to create digital versions of their campuses that students can access wearing Meta VR headsets, of course.
But taking money out of Meta to build campus-specific Metaverses is just the latest in higher education’s great tradition of letting others benefit from its inventions. The internet itself was developed on college campuses, and Facebook started as a platform for Harvard University students to enter personal information before becoming a juggernaut that dominates the country’s political discourse. Built from internet technology and Facebook money, the developing metaverse wouldn’t be possible without higher education, but colleges hardly act that way.
Universities have a long history of innovating and distributing the value they create. It may not be an existential crisis when it comes to certain products – like how the University of Florida gave the world Gatorade – but for higher education, outsourcing the development of education based on the metaverse to Meta and other VR companies means nothing less than handing over the tech industry another 20 years of dominance over the flow of information and the value of the sector. This is not only bad business for higher education, but it also goes against colleges’ commitment to free and open speech. And more precisely, it would reproduce an error whose consequences still leave scars in the landscape of higher education.
Over the past decade, online program managers like 2U and Wiley have captured the vast majority of the economic value created by online education (most, if not all of which, was originally developed by universities) . In the wake of the pandemic, the demand for online programs has only accelerated, and the OPM industry has been at the center of it all, leading to a huge windfall, followed by widespread criticism and careful examination. Today, instead of an online learning landscape characterized by accessibility, quality, and convenience for learners, universities are being criticized for price gouging and relentless marketing by their business partners.
The Metaverse is clearly the next big innovation in education – and right now, colleges and universities are going down the same path as OPMs. While the dystopian possibilities of a metaverse dominated by corporate greed are clear to anyone who’s seen “Ready Player One,” there isn’t a single college-driven open metaverse, that is. that does not depend on a single company or a single government. development in the United States The most advanced internationally is probably the Open Metaverse project of the University of Nicosia in Cyprus.
What might an “open metaverse” (sometimes called Web3) look like? Open systems are based on blockchain technology which allows anyone to access or create their own username and identity and manage it without the intermediary of a company. In a closed metaverse, like what Meta offers, Meta would control your accounts and what you see (similar to how Facebook operates today).
While we must salute the willingness of institutions to explore the possibilities of the metaverse with Meta, we must also seize this moment to ensure that they do not lose control of their future, just as they did for the online program management. So what can academic leaders and policy makers do to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past?
First, the US Department of Education should only approve Title IV funding for programs that operate in the open metaverse. If Meta or any other company wants to help higher education institutions operate in the metaverse, they must agree to keep their servers decentralized without the kind of social and digital engineering that occurs in the closed ecosystem.
Second, universities should only allow open source hardware to run on their networks. Today, the vast majority of all metaverse-related hardware (think VR goggles and haptic suits) is controlled by just a few companies. Higher education has an opportunity to set clearer standards for transparency and openness as the metaverse begins to take shape, to ensure that no one company can monopolize students’ vast troves of data.
Finally, larger universities, and those with the capacity and technological expertise, should lead the way and open their learning software and tools to the wider higher education community. Would it be possible to create the edX for the metaverse, but instead of an entity tightly owned by Harvard and MIT (which was eventually sold to publicly traded 2U), place an innovative non-profit institution at the vanguard of a new open-source platform?
Today, the idea of the metaverse in higher education may seem like a distant figment of a science fiction writer’s imagination. But it’ll be here before we know it, and the window of opportunity to build a more open metaverse is fast closing. If we don’t want a repeat of the OPM saga, or a dystopian future where Mark Zuckerberg reaps the economic rewards of education in the post-online world, colleges and universities must step up building the open metaverse — and it there is no time for waste.