Metaversity: Meta brings universities into virtual reality
Together with an education startup, Meta is bringing virtual campuses to U.S. universities. What does studying in virtual reality look like?
The pandemic has presented challenges for universities around the world. Students often had to get used to self-study from home or online courses via video conferencing. Not everyone found that easy.
That's why Morehouse College in Atlanta turned to an American startup specializing in immersive learning. Shortly thereafter, the first virtual reality campus was created.
US start-up develops immersive education courses
US start-up VictoryXR has been working on educational software for virtual reality and augmented reality since 2016. Three years later, students were able to dissect digital animals in VR for the first time with the Dissection Simulator. In a virtual classroom, a hologram of a real science teacher guides students through the process, which in real life is not for everyone's stomach.
VictoryXR has won the 2021 Pieoneer Award for digital innovation in learning. The XR startup's partners now include T-Mobile, Qualcomm, Microsoft and Meta. It was also Mark Zuckerberg's company Metaverse that made the Atlanta virtual campus possible in the first place.
Meta-sponsorship brings virtual campus to life
Morehouse College is one of ten higher education institutions in the U.S. sponsored by Meta. As part of the sponsorship project, Meta is supporting each participating college with $500,000 and VR headsets like the Meta Quest 2 as they use VictoryXR's immersive teaching tools.
Working with VictoryXR, Morehouse faculty developed an immersive learning program in ten weeks. The college now offers courses in subjects such as inorganic chemistry, biology, and world history.
Like a real classroom but with a digital edge
VictoryXR CEO Steve Grubbs describes his virtual campus this way, "In a metaversity, you are all together and you are in a classroom together where you can fist bump, you can work on projects together, you can break into small groups. A teacher can take a human heart out of a cadaver and hand it to another student. That is the bottom line. It is almost exactly like the brick-and-mortar classroom, only better."
Grubbs says health science courses and history classes would benefit the most from a VR experience. One of VictoryXR's simulations puts students in the courtroom of Harper Lee's novel "To Kill a Mockingbird." During the book discussion in class, students sit in the virtual environment next to the jurors or in the judge's chair.
"You can understand the book from the perspective of those who sat in the courtroom," Grubbs said. "That’s what we are trying to achieve, is an understanding that can only being gained by being there. Students get to go stand on the Great Wall of China, they can go to Iceland and they can go to the Redwoods Forest once they are learning with our virtual reality."
Who owns the data?
VR headsets can be used to obtain usage data that manufacturers can use for their research and other purposes. Meta could use the VR data to develop artificial intelligence further or to serve even more personalized advertising because behavior in VR reveals more about a person's character than just clicking on a website. So far, a Facebook account is still required to get a Meta Quest 2 up and running.
The social media platform Facebook is considered extremely data-hungry. Data and privacy protectionists, therefore, criticize it time and again and see the use of Meta products by public institutions as problematic.
Even though the requirement to have a Facebook account will be dropped in August, the VR system will continue to record environmental and motion data that can be used to create unique profiles of people.
Data remain the property of the universities
A U.S. college and university news magazine took a close look at contracts between VR headset manufacturers and teaching institutions. All the contracts stated that the universities retain ownership of all data generated as part of the partnerships.
According to Steve Grubbs, the type of data collection depends heavily on the VR headset used. The grant program would use devices from Meta, Pico and HTC, all of which have different privacy policies. VictoryXR leaves it to an email address and name to set up an account.