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Tech Trends in Higher Ed: Metaverse, NFT and DAO

The next few years in higher education promise to herald a tech revolution. Delivery modes will be the most visible, but autonomous and related smart tech may be the most impactful.

The pandemic has served to accelerate tech changes in higher education. Certainly, remote and the more refined online learning modes have been advanced through adversity. Meanwhile, other important technologies have continued to develop. They will play an ever-increasing role in enhancing the efficiency, engagement and outcomes of learning.

Although the term “metaverse” has been around for 30 years, since the publication of the science fiction novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, it has become the buzzword of this autumn. Facebook is morphing into Meta, with promises from CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Almost immediately thereafter, Microsoft announced that it was launching Mesh, an immersive platform that enables presence and shared experiences from anywhere—on any device—through mixed-reality applications.

Most of what we see in these announcements has existed previously in Linden Labs’ Second Life and also in Minecraft and Roblox, among a host of other immersive platforms. However, Roblox has already announced a commitment of $10 million in grants dedicated to developing a set of classes at the middle school, high school and college levels. As they state in The Wall Street Journal, “One of the games the company is funding will teach robotics, another will focus on space exploration, and the third will help students explore careers and concepts in computer science, engineering and biomedical science.”

What is new in enabling the metaverse is powered by the rollout of broadband through 5G, Starlink, high-speed 10G cable and analogous networking. These low-latency technologies enable the use of real-time augmented and virtual reality. I expect that the metaverse in higher education will soon become the platform of learning management systems that leverage the persistent platform, range of communication possibilities and deeply immersive characteristics to bring about better learning outcomes. The ability to virtually engage in (and repeat) physical tasks while immersing oneself in virtual or real-time augmented environments will add a deep dimension to the physical or virtual classroom—far beyond mere textbook narratives, illustrations and videos.

Nonfungible tokens (NFTs) are enabled by the blockchain. As Jeffery Young describes, “That means this technology lets you create a digital file that is one-of-a-kind—and that has coded into it the proof of its authenticity as an original. NFTs use the blockchain, the same technical framework that makes bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies possible.” Much of the news around NFTs focuses on the sale of original artwork or unique digital artifacts. But the blockchain structure supports the important function of authenticating the tokens. MIT has done much in originating and promoting the associated use of blockchain for authentication of college certificates, transcripts and opening the door for a wide variety of e-portfolios owned and shared by learners and teachers, rather than universities. All of these are validated through the blockchain. Pepperdine visiting professor Beau Brennan writes in LinkedIn that NFTs will replace diplomas and résumés:

In summary, with education NFT’s a system of accrediting becomes more democratized. Education becomes more equitable and open. Teachers can be compensated in accordance with the value they provide. They start to become their own brand or “institution.” Students create demand, take more ownership of their education and can get more excited about learning and actively seek out ways to “collect” experiences. In terms of career, this system allows for a more robust and effective résumé but also allows for more opportunities to interface with companies.

DAO—decentralized autonomous organization—is another blockchain acronym that is relatively new on the education scene. Through this, technology courses, certificates and more can become automated and authenticated on the blockchain. Cathy Hackl writes in Forbes,

Can you imagine a way of organizing with other people around the world, without knowing each other and establishing your own rules, and making your own decisions autonomously all encoded on a Blockchain? Well, DAOs are making this real. Wikipedia defines DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization) as an organization represented by rules encoded as a transparent computer program, controlled by the organization members, and not influenced by a central government. As the rules are embedded into the code, no managers are needed, thus removing any bureaucracy or hierarchy hurdles. Some of today’s internet users and the next generations are looking forward to starting social organizations, searching for an answer to: “How can we exchange values in a trusted environment?”

In the case of self-paced classes, a series of assessments can be embedded that are automatically graded and NFTs are issued based on the demonstrated competencies. The members of the DAO can be comprised of the faculty (and students if deemed advantageous) who establish the criteria for the NFTs. This concept can possibly be scaled to an entire university. Chinese educators have experimented with creating student-faculty collaborative content development and course structuring/sharing with minimal administrative infrastructure:

A group of top-tier Chinese universities … is planning to build a decentralized, blockchain-powered organization aimed to make educational resources more accessible and affordable. Led by Tsinghua x-lab, the innovation incubator at China’s Tsinghua University, along with several other educational institutions such as the Peking and Zhejiang universities, the initiative was revealed on Sunday … To do that, the university’s innovation center seeks to build a decentralized autonomous organization (or DAO) based on a blockchain protocol, and which universities or research institutions can join as distributed nodes. The end goal, according to x-lab, is to let participants vote for future development and applications over the platform, while students and faculties could potentially gain access to educational resources from different institutions shared over its distributed ledger.

Economist, teacher and data scientist Runy Calmera envisions “pop-up” education using the blockchain DAO in his TEDx talk.

The future of these technologies will be transformative in higher education. Who is tracking the application and development of the metaverse, NFTs and DAOs at your university? Are you preparing to use the metaverse, NFTs and DAOs to enhance the delivery of learning at your institution?

This article was originally published on Inside Higher Ed’s Transforming Teaching & Learning blog

A man (Ray Schroeder) is dressed in a suit with a blue tie and wearing glasses.

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

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