The past 12 months may be a year that will live in infamy for fans of the metaverse. Meta itself, the artist formerly known as Facebook, spent $10 billion on building its grand vision of a digital world and 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 from Meta to build campus-specific metaverses is just the latest in higher education’s grand tradition of letting others profit off its inventions. The internet itself was developed on college campuses, and Facebook famously began as a platform for Harvard university students to plug in personal details before becoming a behemoth 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 are hardly acting that way.
Universities have a long history of innovating and then giving away the value they create. That may not be an existential crisis when it comes to some products—like how the University of Florida gave the world Gatorade—but for higher education to outsource the development of metaverse-based education to Meta and other VR companies means nothing less than handing the tech industry another 20 years of dominance over the sector’s information flow and value. It’s not just bad business for higher ed, but it also runs counter to colleges’ commitment to free and open discourse. And more to the point, it would replicate a mistake whose consequences are still leaving scars across the landscape of higher education.
Over the past decade, online program managers like 2U and Wiley gained the vast majority of economic value created by online education (most, if not all, of which was originally developed by universities). In the wake of the pandemic, demand for online programs has only continued to accelerate, and the OPM industry has been at the center of it all—resulting in a huge windfall, followed by widespread criticism and ongoing scrutiny. Now, instead of an online learning landscape characterized by accessibility, quality and convenience for learners, universities are under criticism for price gouging and relentless marketing carried out by their business partners.
The metaverse is clearly the next big innovation in education—and right now, colleges and universities are barreling down the same path they did for OPMs. While the dystopian possibilities of a metaverse dominated by corporate greed is clear to anyone who’s seen “Ready Player One,” there is not a single university-driven open metaverse—that is, one that is not dependent on a single company or government—in development in the U.S. The furthest along internationally is likely the Open Metaverse Project from the University of Nicosia in Cyprus.
What might an “open metaverse” (sometimes referred to as Web3) be like? Open systems are based on blockchain technology that allows anyone to access or create their own user name and identity and manage it without intermediation by a company. In a closed metaverse, like what Meta is proposing, Meta would control your accounts and what you see (similar to how Facebook operates today).
While we should applaud institutions’ willingness to explore possibilities of the metaverse with Meta, we must also seize this moment to ensure that they don’t lose control of their future, just as they did online program management. So what can university leaders and policymakers do to avoid repeating past mistakes?
First, the U.S. 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 type of social and digital engineering that occurs in the closed ecosystem.
Second, universities should only allow open-source hardware to operate 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, the largest universities, and those with the capacity and technological expertise, should lead the way—and open-source their software and learning tools to the broader higher education community. Would it be possible to create the edX for the metaverse—but instead of a closely held entity run by Harvard and MIT (which was eventually sold to publicly traded 2U), put an innovative nonprofit institution at the forefront of a new, open-source platform?
Today, the idea of the metaverse in higher education might seem like a far-off product 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 quickly 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 to build the open metaverse—and there’s no time to waste.