Asia-Pacific varsities mull new metaverse era

In March, Associate Professor Gasinee Witoonchart, rector of Thammasat University in Thailand, revealed the plan to open a new campus – but this time, in the metaverse. 

In the ambitious digital transformation journey of the Thai university, the “Thammasat Metaverse Campus,” leveraging the T-Verse platform, has the goal of changing students’ learning experience, and the country’s education sector at large. 

In particular, through immersive-learning classrooms, it will focus on overcoming the limitations caused by the lack of interactions typical in traditional and online learning. It will create spaces where students can learn history, democracy and culture going back in time thanks to the power of virtual-reality technology.

It will open selling channels to place community products as digital assets (NFTs) in the campus while also delivering the physical item to students’ addresses; and finally it will present an 88 Sandbox Space to support networking with startups. 

Another important component of the idea at the bottom of the Thammasat Metaverse Campus is its openness to a wide range of actors, from private companies to government agencies that could get access to the university’s knowledge and research by fostering the creation of a collaborative environment where all parties could benefit from each other. 

But in the Asia-Pacific region, Thammasat University is not an isolated case, demonstrating the growing interest for higher-education institutions in the metaverse.

Already in 2021, researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Shenzhen Campus published a detailed study about the prototype of a metaverse campus where students’ actions would have been reflected in the real world. 

The group of experts proposed three pillars on which to build the CUHKSZ Metaverse campus: infrastructure, interaction, and ecosystem. In their prototype, blockchain and smart contracts, autonomous governance and AI-driven metaverse observers are only some of the key elements used to build the next-generation campus, where such an architecture, the authors write, improves users’ accessibility, diversity, equality and humanistic spirit.

Also last year, in December, the Communication University of China became the first higher-education institution officially to join the metaverse on the XiRang platformdeveloped by the tech giant Baidu.

In Malaysia, SEGi University and Colleges announced that it will open a new campus in the metaverse. The SEGi MetaCampus wants to change how students learn and interact with each other. It will be formed by 100 lecture halls, 300 lecture rooms, 30 meeting rooms, six libraries, 50 retail shops, six concert halls and 30 student-hangout areas. 

In Singapore in May, the Aventis Graduate School unveiled plans to go virtual with a metaverse campus by next year. 

In South Korea, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) is another institution appreciating the opportunities that the metaverse can offer. According to KAIST president Lee Kwang-hyung, the metaverse campus will become a reality at the Kenya-KAIST campus, which is located in the Konza Technopolis outside Nairobi, by 2023.

These are just a few examples that highlight the increasing interest that universities in the Asia-Pacific region are showing toward the metaverse, and toward a different future where they could play a more active role in shaping how, where and what people learn. In Kuala Lumpur, I discussed the issue with Dr Chinmoy Sahu, vice-chancellor of Manipal GlobalNxt University.

That institution has been a pioneer in online learning, with the first online offering goint live as early as 2002 when it was known as U21Global, years before starting to operate under the current ownership of the Indian Manipal Education and Medical Group. 

Technology and innovation have always been the main drivers behind the university’s growth, and with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, while the world was forced to deal with the uncertainty deriving from alternative learning methodologies, Manipal GlobalNxt continued to offer a mix of high-quality asynchronous and synchronous classes in the field of adult learning across different geographies.

About the metaverse, Dr Sahu emphasizes that it has been expanding in the education industry quite aggressively. In particular, it is widely believed that disciplines like science and medicine can benefit greatly from the metaverse, while other disciplines may need to work harder to create compelling cases for its use. 

However, he adds, it is important to take into consideration the flip side. A significant issue is certainly represented by the quality of Internet connectivity, which remains a challenge in many parts of the world, consequently undermining the equality of opportunities in wider adoption of the metaverse.  

In spite of the first steps toward what could potentially look like a new era in the metaverse for universities, Dr Sahu’s words remind us of a bigger picture behind the transformation of higher education in the Asia-Pacific region.

He highlights that the region has its own unique place on the world’s education map. It retains the sweet spot in ensuring affordable quality education, thus higher education institutions must evolve proactively, retaining disruptive relevance. 

As the Asia-Pacific continues to been seen as the key driver of global economic growth in the immediate future, universities will have a greater role and must ensure seamless knowledge management and skill-set upgrades. 

This is only the first chapter of a longer story about a major transformation of the education sector in Asia-Pacific region, of its characteristics and its role and relevance in the wider international context.

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