Universities should get ready to join the metaverse movement

Some African universities are starting to join the metaverse movement as a transformative lever in the teaching and learning space, but many others may be slow to join due to cultural and technological hurdles.

A combination of ‘meta’ (meaning beyond) and ‘verse’ (meaning universe), metaverse is a blanket term that has been composed to give expression to a diversity of extended reality (XR) experiences.

Metaverse is used to refer to digital spaces that portray actuality through the use of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) into our daily lives, with early adopters claiming that it will change some industries fundamentally, including higher education.

XN Iraki, an associate professor of data science, innovation and technology management at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, told University World News that the metaverse has the potential to improve the learning experience of the next generation of African learners.

“It could help Africa leapfrog and skip old technologies; the way M-Pesa (a mobile phone-based money transfer service) helped Kenya skip credit cards,” said Iraki.

Professor Goski Alabi, president of the African Council for Distance Education and the chair of the International Network for Internationalisation of Education, told University World News the deployment of technologies using extended reality, or XR, in higher education in Africa is long overdue.

“With the new normal in higher education, XR presents great opportunities for enhanced learning experiences because virtual, augmented and mixed realities bring simulated experiences close to real-life engagements,” said Alabi, who also president of Laweh Open University College in Accra, Ghana.

“XR also promises to be a very useful tool in education of science, technology, engineering and mathematics [STEM], virtual research labs, brain-sharing and sharing of educational resources generally,” she added.

With extended reality, a team in Germany could share a mechanical engineering lab with faculty and students in Ghana and so [it becomes] a practical session, not just simulations, Alabi explained.

Universities’ road towards metaverse

But, Iraki said, African universities are lagging behind in adopting virtual and augmented reality in teaching, learning and research, despite cooperation attempts involving international organisations.

The first steps of African universities’ road towards metaverse were announced in partnership with United States-based EON Reality – a global leader in augmented and virtual reality-based knowledge and skills transfer for industry and education.

For example, the University of Nigeria will bring a knowledge metaverse hub to its Lion Science Park health hub by providing solutions to students and faculty using extended reality.

EON Reality is also cooperating with the Ministry of Education of Ethiopia to create a knowledge metaverse hub for students, teachers and entrepreneurs.

The Honoris United Universities, a pan-African network of private higher education institutions, is rolling out AR and VR software across its college and university members to boost knowledge in engineering and information technology, health sciences and architecture, along with transferring skills to students.

Students studying at the Moroccan Honoris institutions, Ecole Marocaine des Sciences de l’Ingénieur and Ecole d’Architecture de Casablanca, will be the first to access EON-XR experiences virtual field trips, undergo simulated lab exercises, and emulate real-life building projects to enhance their learning experience and further increase job preparedness.

EON knowledge metaverse hub in Africa

Alabi said EON Reality efforts to build capacity and transfer skills, which is urgent, is a breakthrough.

“The EON Reality knowledge metaverse hub in Africa would be a game changer in education as it could be a practical point of harmonisation and of sharing some practical knowledge in educational processes,” Alabi added.

In turn, this could contribute to knowledge creation, including indigenous knowledge in Africa.

“It might be prudent to subsequently include South Africa and Egypt in the hub to bring indigenous education knowledge to bear on the activities of the hub,” Alabi pointed out.

Iraki added: “The biggest challenge is readiness, particularly culturally. Are we ready for new ideas and the possibilities they offer? Remember, we got COVID-19 to push through online learning. We are too conservative for our own good.

“Our African universities can use the metaverse to catch up with the rest of the world, if they quickly recognise its potential.”

But, said Iraki, the technology remains the means to channel content [for education], which “matters most”.

African universities’ role

Bradley Tipp, the business strategy leader for higher education research at Microsoft Education, told University World News that the most important aspect for African universities is to be “part of the discussion”.

In order for the Metaverse to be inclusive, he said, “it must have input from all of humanity”.

“Being part of the discussion is more important than knowing how it will impact African universities. Or, worse, having to deal with the bad aspects of the metaverse, that might have been avoided with more input,” Tipp added.

Mohamed Zoghlami, an international consultant in the African creative industry and metaverse environment and a member of the Scientific Council of the Francophone Agency for Artificial Intelligence, told University World News the metaverse is the convergence of several emerging and existing digital technologies.

“It is closely linked to developments taking place in the fields of artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality, augmented reality, the Internet of Things, Blockchain, Cloud Computing and 5G.”

According to him, AI is supported by start-ups and associations in Africa and sometimes by university courses. But 3D, VR and AR are taught in very few schools and institutions, and few start-ups are using these technologies in Africa.

“Yet, these digital tools are essential for the metaverse,” said Zoghlami, who is the author of an August 2021 article entitled ‘Cart’Afrik: Will Africa embrace the metaverse?’

“We must take the example of the Tunisian coding school NET-INFO, the first centre in Africa specialised in training for creative coding and 3D computer graphics production, and its DigiArt Living Lab, an innovation and experimentation centre based in Tunisia, which is building an African network for training in the skills needed for the metaverse, and is supporting the emergence of African developers with the AfricGameDev programme,” Zoghlami said.

“[An] African Metaverse Hub could be built by cooperation between African scientific, academic and civic communities in local universities, educational institutions, scientific research centres, technological associations, and start-ups along with international partners,” Zoghlami suggested.

“This African community will be the driving force for building [an] African Metaverse Hub through research and development, experimentation and content production and be sustained by the creativity of millions of graphic designers, engineers, experts and researchers on the continent,” he said.

“This spirit of community and shared richness will make this African Metaverse Hub unique and represents a societal, inclusive, creative approach, as opposed to a consumerist vision of the Metaverse,” Zoghlami added.

He said an African Metaverse Hub will help in facing the upcoming demographic growth as well as the increasing demand for higher education in Africa through the delivery of distance learning and training to a very large community, promoting interactions between learners and enhancing their ability to deal with situations that they would not have had access to in the real world as well as potentially access applications and educational resources shared by different universities and institutions.

Education using the metaverse can overcome the limitations of online education and is better placed to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4.

This goal focuses on providing equal, equitable, and high-quality educational opportunities for all as it is expected to be free from the constraints of time and space and to provide equal opportunities to those who suffer due to physical problems and environments (for instance, alpine and disaster areas), according to the 2022 study entitled ‘Identifying World Types to Deliver Gameful Experiences for Sustainable Learning in the Metaverse’.