Chinese universities invest heavily in metaverse campuses and research

Institutions open new virtual departments in bid to lead next iteration of technological innovation

October 29, 2022
Source: iStock

Chinese universities are increasingly embracing the concept of the metaverse, opening virtual reality campuses and funding research positions in an attempt to establish their leadership in the field.

The creation of virtual worlds where students can learn and interact with one another has long been touted as the next big technological innovation in higher education, and experts say China wants to position itself at the forefront.

Nankai University in Tianjin has announced the launch of China’s first metaverse school of journalism and communication, with plans to develop “meta professors” and virtual reality classrooms. Northwest University in Shaanxi has opened its first metaverse campuses based on the real-life equivalents.

Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology in Jiangsu has renamed its information engineering department as the “metaverse engineering department” and, in what is believed to be a first for China, is offering skills training in this sector. At the same time, Hong Kong Polytechnic University has launched a one-year master of science in metaverse technology.

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has “a long-term plan that seeks to ride the wave of the next digital era to enhance teaching and learning experiences”, said Wang Yang, its vice-president for institutional advancement. That ambition drives MetaHKUST, a scheme to develop the world’s first physical-digital twin campuses, which was announced in July.

The Hong Kong institution has been working with its campus in Guangzhou in mainland China to develop mixed-reality classrooms, “with a vision that students from both campuses can eventually attend classes together in an extended-reality setting”, said Professor Wang, who leads MetaHKUST.

These developments indicate that Chinese universities are keen embrace the future and have started to prepare their staff to teach in new environments, said Fu Xiaolan, professor of technology and international development in the University of Oxford’s department of international development. It also reflects China’s ambitions to lead the “march towards [the] world technology frontier, especially in areas of emerging technologies”, she told Times Higher Education.

However, the trend is not without challenges. “Apart from the need to continuously create an enormous amount of content to keep up with education and research needs, infrastructure is another big challenge that researchers are striving to overcome”, Professor Wang said. He pointed out that network reliability and the sensory experience of students were the main issues that had to be tackled before the university would be able to use the metaverse in teaching and learning on a wider scale.

Professor Fu said oversupply could be a potential issue, if all universities chose to set up their own meta schools.

“It is understandable that institutions would like to embrace new advanced technology and catch up with future trends,” said Sun Jiashan, an expert in the digital cultural industries and associate professor at the China Academy of Art. “But they need to be cautious about the financial intentions behind these ‘fancy concepts’ and integrate both basic research and applied research.”

Dr Sun said the failure of the “metaverse real estate” market – average prices for virtual land have plunged this year – revealed a lot about the still speculative nature of the metaverse. “Progress of any academic subject needs enough time to incubate and develop,” he added.

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