After two years of Zoom classes, colleges are warming to the idea of holding classes in the metaverse. With $150 million invested, Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta is leading the charge.
Remember the Magic School Bus? In one episode, the eccentric, red-haired Miss Frizzle shrinks her class to the size of a red blood cell and they travel through the gut, veins and nervous system of their unsuspecting classmate Arnold.
At Morehouse College, biology students are doing the same thing. Strapped into virtual reality headsets, students can step inside a human heart, build giant molecules and visit the Egyptian pyramids without stepping foot outside their dorm room.
“Teaching in the metaverse is like being able to leave your physical reality and immerse yourself in a complete, digitally simulated environment. It can be anywhere in the world, in any timeline,” said Muhsinah Morris, principal investigator of the Morehouse in the Metaverse project. The historically Black college in Atlanta is one of ten so-called metaversities that offers classes via VR headset in a virtual classroom.
Colleges and universities have flirted with using virtual reality as a teaching tool for years, but until recently, few institutions invested in the technology. The headsets were bulky and expensive, and even with the hardware in hand, creating engaging, effective virtual teaching spaces is costly and requires skilled engineers. This fall, ten universities get a free ticket for entry; as part of its $150 million Meta Immersive Learning project, Meta—Facebook’s parent company—is bringing colleges into their metaverse.
The University of Maryland Global Campus is one of them. The online-only school—which enrolls more than 45,000 undergraduates—doesn’t have any physical classrooms or student life spaces. Meta has sent the school dozens of headsets, free of charge. A selection of students in its introductory biology and astronomy courses—two of the five pilot courses this fall—will use them.
“We’ve never had a campus before, and now we have our first,” said Daniel Mintz, chair of UMGC’s department of information technology. “It has a duck pond.”
Designed by VictoryXR, an extended reality education software company based in Davenport, Iowa, the virtual campus is unmistakably a college campus. Georgian-style buildings with white columns encircle a bright green, grassy lawn. A pair of mallard ducks chase each other through a pond in the center. A rope swing hangs from a tree, and it’s a fun ride if you have the stomach for it.
But despite having aspirations of creating a leafy college quadrangle, the space still looks and feels like you’re standing in an early PC game. It’s unnervingly empty—there’s no passersby, students playing Spikeball or professors on their lunch break. Moving around the space is jarring; while pressing forward on the joystick, it almost feels like the ground is coming out from beneath you. Users can bypass that feeling—and potential motion sickness—by using a point-and-click feature to teleport to a new location instantly.
Mintz likened some of UMGC virtual campus’s functions to alternative versions of pages found on its website where users might fill out forms or communicate with a chatbot. In this new “Web3” campus a student could strap on a headset and walk into the administrative building where a financial aid officer’s avatar might meet with the student and answer questions.
UMGC is offering five courses in virtual reality this fall. The university plans to loan the headsets to students and the courses won’t be any more expensive than a typical class at UMGC, which cost $312 per credit for in-state students and $499 for out-of-state students this year. Mintz admits that if the pilots are successful, scaling the VR offerings could be difficult. He hopes that eventually the hardware could be treated as course materials and covered by financial aid.
“We can’t be in the headset business,” Mintz said. “We enroll around 60,000 students. If 10 percent took advantage of immersive opportunities—we can’t be shipping around 6,000 headsets.”
„We’re a construction company in the metaverse,“ says Steve Grubbs of VictoryXR “We’ve made it through the long, hard slog of the early days of virtual reality. Now we’ve got some wind in our sails.”
That is where Meta steps in, similar to the way Apple began donating thousands of its personal computers to school classrooms in the 1980s. Facebook’s parent company has donated hundreds of Quest 2 headsets—their newest model—to participating colleges through VictoryXR. In addition to Morehouse and UMGC, Meta will be sending its VR headsets to eight other institutions: the University of Kansas School of Nursing, New Mexico State University, South Dakota State University, Florida A&M University, West Virginia University, Southwestern Oregon Community College, California State University, Dominguez Hills, and Alabama A&M University. All of the participating institutions are all holding virtual classes this fall.
Software provider VictoryXR is the brainchild of Steve Grubbs, a politician turned virtual reality entrepreneur. As chairman of the Iowa House of Representatives education committee in the early nineties, Grubbs passed the state’s first technology funding bill for K-12 schools to bring computers, software and audio and visual equipment to classrooms.
“My father was a school teacher and I tried to improve schools through policy making at the state level,” says Grubbs, 57. “I concluded that until students love to learn, it will always be a struggle to get them to learn. So I set out to create a product that gave students a love of learning.”
After advising several presidential campaigns—including the Iowa races for Steve Forbes in 2000, Tommy Thompson in 2008, and Herman Cain in 2012—and heading up a political consulting company, Grubbs turned to extended reality. He founded VictoryXR in 2016.
When Forbes spoke with him, he was in Iceland shooting a 360-degree virtual experience for VictoryXR classrooms. The classrooms include a library of virtual field trips—from a visit to the Grand Canyon to an Iowa farm to the Great Wall of China. These are essentially 360-degree photographs that users can step into. VictoryXR has also created about 100 other animated virtual spaces available to colleges and homeschoolers, including a ride aboard the HMS Beagle to the Galapagos Islands, a walk through the U.S. Senate chambers and the Underground Railroad Museum.
“They can put on a headset and see a glacier,” Grubbs said. “They can see the world—look up, look down at the ground and it’s all there.”
In six years, VictoryXR has grown from three employees to a full-time staff of 35 with another office in Austin, Texas. The company brought in more than $1 million in revenue last year, and this year Grubbs is projecting to gross more than $2.2 million.
“We’ve made it through the long, hard slog of the early days of virtual reality,” Grubbs said. “Now we’ve got some wind in our sails.”
Colleges contract with VictoryXR to build a digital campus. A typical 5-7 building digital twin campus costs about $50,000, and Meta has helped the participating universities fund the construction. To build the campus, Grubbs’ team uses a mix of Google Earth images, photos from the institution and architectural plans. This fall, they’ll have rolled out a dozen digital universities. They hope to have 100 up and running in the next year.
“We’re a construction company in the metaverse. Our team is replicating every window pane, every brick,” Grubbs said. “If we work fast, we can get it done in eight to 12 weeks.”
In addition to paying for the initial build, VictoryXR charges institutions an annual subscription fee of $200 per student for access to virtual spaces. These include an underwater classroom, a chemistry lab inside a space station orbiting a giant proton, and a cherry blossom-filled clearing at the base of Mount Fuji. As colleges scale up their VR offerings, the company will earn more from access to these already built spaces.
Meta isn’t currently charging the colleges involved, and a company spokesperson said that right now, “earning revenue from these partnerships is not a priority.”
“Education is an exciting use case for the metaverse, and Meta Immersive Learning will help creators around the world gain skills for the metaverse and create immersive experiences for learners,” the spokesperson said.
But Meta has big plans to turn the metaverse—where the digital campuses ultimately live—into a money-making machine. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said the company aims to facilitate billions of dollars of commerce in the metaverse, and hopes to have at least one billion users in the space in the next decade. The company is currently dominating the VR space—a recent International Data Corporation report showed that Meta has captured 90% of the headset market.
The first Quest headset marked a paradigm shift for virtual reality, said Daniel Coyle, lead software engineer at VictoryXR. Before its debut in 2019, virtual reality systems like the Google Cardboard used only three degrees of freedom, which meant users could look around a virtual space but couldn’t move laterally within it. The Quest, which uses six degrees of freedom, allows users to walk around and move up and down inside the virtual world. It’s also compact and doesn’t require a web of external cameras to track users’ movements.
“The Quest came out and it was $300, which was relatively inexpensive,” Coyle said. “You don’t need a PC, you don’t need a gaming graphics chip. [VR] wasn’t just for enthusiasts anymore.”
By comparison, the HP Reverb retails for around $400, the HTC Vive headsets start at $750, and the Valve Index costs more than $1,000. Meta is selling the hardware at a loss, according to Coyle. The Quest headsets should cost around $600 or $700 a piece.
“The only reason that worked was because Facebook was a big enough company that they could afford to take a massive loss on the hardware sales, and bank on the software sales and focus on getting mass adoption,” Coyle said.
The virtual reality market was valued at $21.83 billion in 2021, and is expected to grow by 15 percent each year through 2030, according to a market analysis from Grand View Research. The race to develop online learning programs throughout the pandemic had led many colleges to reconsider virtual and augmented reality, especially for students who can’t be in the classroom, said James DeVaney, associate vice provost for academic innovation at the University of Michigan.
“We know that online learning developed in a crisis is not the same as elegantly designed virtual learning,” he said.
None of the pilot institutions Forbes spoke with—which included Morehouse, UMGC, Alabama A&M, the University of Kansas School of Nursing, South Dakota State, and CSU Dominguez Hills—will charge students extra to participate in the program, and they will loan the headsets to students during the pilot this fall. Kesa Herlihy, clinical assistant professor at the University of Kansas School of Nursing, said that headsets may eventually become part of a students’ course materials. Instead of purchasing a $150 nursing textbook or paying lab fees, students could be required to buy a VR headset.
„Meta has big plans to turn the metaverse—where the digital campuses ultimately live—into a money-making machine. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said the company hopes to have at least one billion users in the space in the next decade.“
Most classes will spend only part of their time in the virtual classroom. That time will focus on active participation by students, who will be running experiments, drawing in 3D or taking a virtual field trip. The nursing school is planning to use VR to simulate patient interactions.
“Patients are not all the same size, shape or color,” Herily said. “VR provides an opportunity to see patients, one behind the next, who are diverse. It presents more opportunities than you’d have with a single mannequin.”
VictoryXR does offer a lecture hall space, but that’s not what virtual reality is best used for, according to Coyle. As students and faculty get used to the headsets, a time limit is probably for the best. Despite being an improvement over past hardware, the Quest 2 headset still feels heavy and uncomfortable after about an hour.
All 10 colleges have different plans for their digital twin campuses. South Dakota State will host organic chemistry and anatomy classes in VR. Horace Crogman, a professor at CSU Dominguez Hills, will teach physics in a virtual classroom. Morehouse has ventured outside of STEM courses and plans to offer world history and some English classes in VR. The digital replica campuses are exciting, DeVarney said, but colleges shouldn’t limit themselves to virtual recreations of what they already have.
“Why limit ourselves to what we already know? An urban campus might have certain constraints, and a rural campus might have different kinds of affordances … but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be extending our environments further,” DeVarney said. “This is a space that’s going to be in a fair amount of flux for the next five years. I don’t see it going away, but what’s going to be interesting is separating initiatives that are hype versus those that are following a more methodical R&D approach.”