How VR Schooling Could Actually Increase the Digital Divide

Or it could let us build a better system

  • College students will soon be able to attend classes in the metaverse. 
  • This fall, students at ten universities will receive a Meta Quest 2 virtual reality (VR) headset for use during school. 
  • Some experts say VR education has the potential to both exacerbate and ease financial inequities.
A student at a desk at home using VR to attend a school class.

Obradovic / Getty Images

A growing number of college students will soon be able to attend classes in the metaverse, the move to VR could, however, both help and hurt students at the same time. 

VictoryXR is helping ten schools across the United States launch complete courses this fall on virtual campuses designed as replicas of their physical campus. Students will receive a Meta Quest 2 virtual reality (VR) headset for use during their course. 

"On-campus enrollment is declining, and online enrollment is increasing," Victory XR CEO Steve Grubbs told Lifewire in an email interview. "However, Zoom has a lot of limitations, especially when students need to use their hands to learn. The better solution is a metaversity, where students and professors are gathered in a virtual reality classroom and can learn as if they were in a traditional classroom."

Metaverse Schooling

Students will use a virtual reality headset or a PC to enter the 'metacampus' with other students and their professors. There, they will engage in classroom experiences like delving into human anatomy and history field trips through a time machine or astronomy on a starship.

Grubbs said that with a metaversity, students from any neighborhood could access the finest teachers in the world in a safe environment. He pointed to a study from Morehouse College, which shows that using VR increases student engagement, as well as student performance and satisfaction.

One challenge for schools is distributing virtual reality hardware, Grubbs said. "Fortunately, the cost of a Quest headset is about 1/3 the cost of an iPhone, and Meta sold approximately 10 million of them this year," he added. "So, this issue will resolve itself over time. The other challenge is adoption by institutions of learning that may be slow to change. However, we expect that market forces and preferences by students will force this change sooner rather than later."

The Virtual Divide

While virtual reality may be convenient, it's not clear yet how inclusive it will be. Todd Richmond, the Tech + Narrative Lab director at Pardee RAND Graduate School and an IEEE member, told Lifewire via email that the metaverse, as envisioned, skews toward relatively affluent students in developed nations. 

"And digital experiences usually reflect their developers, which is currently not a particularly diverse population," Richmond added. "All the more reason to work towards a more inclusive educational and technology work pipeline."

But Nir Kshetri, a professor who studies VR at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, said in an email the metaverse could help expand educational opportunities in developing countries since VR can provide a low-cost way to access training. 

"Some developing economies have already taken initiatives to use the metaverse for training, education, and knowledge exchange," Kshetri added.

Someone using a VR headset in a home office.

Guido Mieth / Getty Images

Some governments are also using the metaverse's potential as an education platform to achieve their political goals, Kshetri said. He pointed out that the Chinese Communist Party's top cadre training school, the Chinese Academy of Governance, uses a metaverse system to enhance the effectiveness of its party-building experience.

Marine Au Yeung, a user experience designer at Artefact, which helps design virtual spaces for education, said in an email that VR education tools need to be more accessible and widely adopted, "not just by privileged students, but also for low-income, minority, neurodiverse and students who live with disabilities."

Leung pointed out that in-person bullying and cyberbullying are already prevalent issues among students, especially in diverse learning environments. "The challenge is being mindful that we do not replicate similar inequities and unsafe experiences or structures that exist in the classroom today," Leung added. 

One university, Champlain College, has already built an interactive virtual campus that's meant to connect students across campus. The technology uses an interactive video collaboration platform to engage students with social cues and persistent virtual gathering places. 

Narine Hall, a professor at Champlain College, said in an email interview that the virtual campus has been very popular with students. But, she said, schooling in VR has its limits. 

"It's critical that we build the technology around real things that happen on a real campus to complement and amplify students' learning and socializing experiences," Hall said. "There are in-person cultural moments that static boxes of a traditional zoom meeting just can't account for, so a metaverse experience will need more flexibility, interactivity, agency, and autonomy."

Correction 6/16/2022: Corrected the spelling for Marine Au Yeung's name in paragraph 12.

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