Higher education in the United States is in trouble. Skyrocketing tuition fees and one student debt crisis threaten to make college unaffordable for all but the wealthy.

In order to reduce expenses and control rising tuition fees, American universities are increasingly using temporary professors who underpaid, teach a heavy course load, and often lack job security and health insurance.

Many schools are also increase class size and online moving course in order to reduce costs. And the students are not happy: online learning is less popular than in-person teaching, and dissatisfaction has only increased during the pandemic.

In addition to these problems, universities in the United States and other parts of the world are challenged by learning and boot camp initiatives that question the relationship between the formal college degrees a college gives and success in the real world.

the metaverse – a series of emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that will provide a more immersive experience than the current internet – could help universities solve some of these problems and revolutionize the remote learning experience.

But as my colleagues and I at UMass Boston Center for Applied Ethics discovered through our research, solving one set of problems with artificial intelligence, or AI, and other technologies often creates another set of problems.

We discovered that AI has the potential to weaken people’s ability to make ordinary judgments on matters that include mundane things, such as which movie to watch, as well as larger decisions, such as who should get a promotion at work. We also found that it undermines the role of serendipity – i.e. chance encounters and other unexpected events that you encounter in the real world – and may undermine people’s belief in the importance of human rights.

Will the metaverse bring better news for higher education? Potentially. But to build thriving universities in the metaverse, computer engineers, higher education leaders and policy makers will need to solve difficult problems. Here are five challenges that I consider to be the most pressing.

1. Academic freedom

Academic freedom – the ability for faculty and students to discuss and research any topic they deem important – is not guaranteed on private platforms. If academic education and intellectual exchange are to take place on corporate-owned platforms, what happens when those discussions become contentious?

Would platforms like Meta and Zoom commit to unfettered free trade, even when advertising can harm their stock price? The recent historical record is not encouraging. For example, Zoom, Facebook and YouTube blocked a virtual conference hosted in 2020 by San Francisco State University with Laila Khaled, a member of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine who was involved in two plane hijackings in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Universities cannot give social media companies veto power over what students and faculty can discuss. It would kill academic freedom. If we want to have higher education on the metaverse, this problem must be solved.

2. Focus

Successful learning requires the ability to pay attention to what is happening in the classroom. A good university seminar should be cut off from the world for an hour or two. It’s hard enough to achieve this level of focus with students in the real world, tempted by their phones and laptops. How to create a fully virtual learning environment conducive to concentration?

Facebook promotional videos for the Metaverse, filled with psychedelic tigers and dancing parrots, reinforce this concern. How, then, can designers ensure that the Metaverse won’t compound the already serious challenges of classroom concentration? There are times when, amazing as an instructor can be, technological devices and what they offer are just too tempting for students, even during lessons.

You might think that’s an easy fix. A feature could surely be incorporated to eliminate distractions. But the same could be said for distractions from student phones and computers in today’s environment. It’s not that easy to restrict what students can see on their own devices. Universities may fear being perceived as intrusive if they do so. And imagine how tempting immersive 3D shopping during class can be.

3. Communications

Lots of human communication happens non-verbally: Facial expressions and body language reveal many of our intentions. Can avatars – cartoon representations of ourselves – convey facial expressions and body language in the same way? This is important because much of the learning in college courses, especially in the discussion-heavy courses typical of humanities courses, depends on lively, spontaneous communication. This spontaneous communication often involves the ability to transmit and receive non-verbal cues. The engineers have only started to think about these problems. They will have to make a lot of progress before virtual non-verbal communications come of age.

4. A sense of community

Much of what students love about college — and much of what they learn — happens outside of the classroom. The best university experience promotes a sense of community: students meet informally, become friends, develop opinions about each other, about themselves and about the political institutions that govern their lives.

This crucial sense of community may start in the classroom, but it usually develops outside of it. Is it possible that this experience, one of the great selling points of college life, could be replicated in the metaverse? In other words, can a meaningful community between students and their teachers, and students and themselves, be created without physical presence, when all members are well settled in their homes, wearing headphones?

5. Digital divides

Finally, policymakers and educators need to ask whether higher education in the metaverse will really make colleges more accessible. Will these technologies provide a compelling educational experience at a lower cost, or will they simply usher in a new digital divide – a two-tier system made up of elites who can pay for physical schooling and those who must settle for the virtual counterpart ? Or, to complicate matters, what if so-called “metaversities” became part of a three-tier system, with traditional schools for the wealthy, metaverse virtual reality education for classrooms averages, and two-dimensional distance learning – like that being used now – for those who can’t afford to buy anything else?

Despite the challenges they face, universities remain crucial social institutions – for the generation of knowledge, for the personal development of those who attend them, and for hosting difficult conversations. The metaverse, if it takes off and if these very real problems can be solved, may well offer universities a new way to survive.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/college-could-take-place-in-the-metaverse-but-these-problems-must-be-overcome-first-176379.