By Cynthia Arochi-Zendejas

It is a fact that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the use of technology and virtual tools in order to continue interacting and communicating since we could not meet in person or travel during 2020 and a good part of 2021. The fields of study abroad and international education were not an exception.  Most of our members during our different open dialogues, webinars, forums, and virtual events agreed that virtual and hybrid models are here to stay as it opened a door to facilitate interactions that otherwise would have been impossible. Technology helped to achieve certain objectives and to interact with people from other countries when you have no budget or ability to travel. Through synchronous and asynchronous virtual classes using tools like Zoom, Webex, Meets, Mural, Miro and learning platforms faculty and students from all over the world continued teaching and learning during this time.

However, there is also consensus that the virtual experience is not the same as the in-person one. We are social beings and as such we need personal interactions. People were craving traveling and to see people in-person, so, as soon as we could, vacation-like places got crowded. Restaurants and hotels started to recover, and everything seemed to be slowly returning to “normality.”  Students and faculty also started to travel for study abroad, internships and volunteering abroad experiences.

But what happens to the students and faculty that still cannot travel? How can we keep the social interaction without experiencing the so called “Zoom fatigue” and still make it accessible when you cannot travel?

Is the metaverse the next step to make Study Abroad accessible to all students?

Could the metaverse be the answer to make study abroad and international education accessible to the millions of students that still cannot travel without missing out on the benefits of the in-person experience? Would an avatar and a game-like platform make the difference?

Recently, I read an article in which the Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey (Tec) in Querétaro, Mexico, delivered their entire first class in the Metaverse during the 2021 winter term. This was an engineering and architecture class in which the students used virtual and augmented reality to learn about Alternative systems and installations in Smart Homes.

They are currently delivering another class known as Global Classroom, where Tec students learn with other students from foreign universities, in this case, with the Catholic University of Colombia, and the feedback from students seems to be very good.

As I got more interested into this topic, I read other higher education examples that are using the metaverse or virtual reality environments to deliver their classes and even to make remote work more interactive.

Perhaps, it is too early to say if it is the answer, but I am sure that there are very good possibilities that virtual and augmented reality, and the metaverse could help to democratize study abroad and make it more accessible to more people.

Now, you may be asking but what the Metaverse is exactly and how could it be a possibility to democratize Study Abroad. We might have heard the term for the first time at the end of 2021 thanks to Mark Zuckerberg, but what is it? And is it anything different to virtual and augmented reality? Does it have to do with Blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and the FTPs? Well, we will not go all the way to explain it in this article, but we will just try to understand what the metaverse is and how it is different to virtual and augmented reality.

What is the Metaverse?

To put it in simple terms it is an avatar-based virtual reality that lives in the internet.

According to an interview in this VICE articleThe Metaverse, Explained for People Who Still Don’t Get It” to Mathew Ball, a venture capitalist and angel investor who has written a series of essays about the potential and structures of the metaverse, in the Metaverse, it is:

“A 3D version of the Internet and computing at large,”

According to Ball, there are two ways to place this in the current context. “When these two technologies (internet and computing) first emerged, all interactions were primarily text-based (emails, messages, usernames, email addresses). Then they slowly became more media-based (photos, videos, livestreams). The next elevation of user interface and user experience is into 3D. Secondly, if we think of [a] mobile [phone] as placing a computer in our pocket and the internet being available at all times, think of the metaverse as always being within a computer and inside the internet.”

Many experts look at the metaverse as a 3D model of the internet. Basically, a place parallel to the physical world, where you spend your digital life. A place where you and other people have an avatar, and you interact with them through their avatars. Some also argue that the metaverse in the truest sense of the term doesn’t actually exist yet. 

To understand more about the metaverse and virtual reality I strongly recommend you to also read this entire article by Bart Cywinski from UIGStudio. In it he states that we are not there yet with the metaverse as is it was originally conceived. Right now, we are experiencing different virtual reality environments but one day we will get to a virtual world with its own currency, where we could experience actual sensations in the virtual world, like sight, sound, touch, and perhaps even smells.

When that day arrives, we might not have to travel to experience another country, city, or town and interact with other people without having to move physically. In the meantime, we can experience from physical interactions and traveling while making the most out of virtual and augmented reality to make study abroad and international education accessible to more people.