Whether it's a venerable university, college, online academy or accelerator program. The world of higher education is on the move. Tomorrow Campus is the place that brings everyone and everything together.
The world of higher education is on the move. For many years now, the ever-expanding possibilities of online knowledge transfer have been changing the academic world and have themselves become the subject of university research, just like the technical means that make them possible (internet, computer science, AI/KI and much more). The online teaching that accompanied the pandemic, however, brought with it another caesura that is likely to have a lasting impact on the future development of universities.
New challenges arose for knowledge transfer when, for example, university lecturers held their lectures in front of "50 black tiles" or students lost almost their entire social context with the online lecture. Just as in the world of work, where hybrid structures are beginning to firmly establish themselves, the university landscape will also change due to the possibilities of location-independent participation in research and teaching.
The challenge lies in the construct of the university campus. The university as a "community of teachers and students" (Latin universitas magistrorum et scolarium) has a conceptual focus on the actors of the university in teaching, research and administration. The "campus", however, is a spatial concept, the totality of the buildings belonging to a location of a university - ideally, the two elements - actors and spatial concept - combine in such a way that the spatial concept has a positive effect on the actions of the actors - then we speak of the genius loci, the special atmosphere that makes learning and living on the university campus a special, often lifelong formative experience.
But what if online teaching changes the interaction, the "community" no longer acts in a common place? Can universities without a physical location have the same impact as the time-honoured traditional universities with their campuses, some of which are hundreds of years old? How can the advantages of physical campuses and online teaching be combined to create a sustainable - i.e. forward-looking - model?
Today, virtual reality platforms are being discussed under the term "metaversity", on which teachers and students put on VR headsets and meet synchronously as on a physical campus. In addition to digital access to course materials - which is already generally available today - lecture halls, laboratories and other facilities are to become part of a digital twin of the physical campus, with which students can interact using 3D avatars. Perhaps the most important element is the ability to provide entirely new, realistic learning experiences, where, for example, architecture students will have spatial VR experiences in historic buildings, or medical students will be offered entirely new learning opportunities visually using AR.
While the contribution of new, interactive, realistic (immersive) learning experiences is probably indisputably a benefit for the stakeholders (the "community of teachers and students"), the benefit of a digital twin of the university campus that can be used interactively with avatars needs to be reflected on more critically. The interaction between the "community" and physical location served far more than just the possibility of creating a school situation in which a teacher imparted knowledge to a crowd of students.
Social exchange between students, between teachers and students, places for specific functions (lecture hall, seminar room, communication centre, green spaces, cafeteria, research association building, etc.) and the most diverse forms of mediation of knowledge are "ingredients" that make up a unique ecosystem - the university campus.
Can an exchange between avatars replace the exchange on a university campus? Do the moments of genius that spring from spontaneous togetherness continue to emerge? Will avatars form lifelong friendships, as students do over the course of their university years?
A view that limits itself to enabling what exists (places, interactions, actors) by means of a new technology (AR/VR/Metaverse) deprives itself of its inherent possibilities. The "translation" of a university campus as a virtual copy (twin) of the buildings present on the campus, through which I can walk with my avatar using appropriate technical equipment, falls short - in contrast to the didactic possibilities of immersive 3D/AR/VR learning experiences - and, much more fatally, is inherently geared towards replacing the physical infrastructure.
The current metaversity approaches (see here) don’t foster a hybrid structure of online and physical elements but an exact virtual replica of (and replacing) their institution's physical campus. Moreover, it is completely unclear what added value the technological effort (AR/VR equipment, data transmission, computer power) of virtualising the place is supposed to have in comparison to less elaborate and thus more inclusive technologies.
So, if we cannot preserve the sense of community and the "spirit" of the university campus simply by moving all interactions to the metaverse, how can the benefits of location independence (flexibility, sustainability, and more) be harnessed without risking the "genius loci" of the university campus? The easiest way to approach this question is to think about the different requirements of the areas that define a university operation.
As already discussed, there is considerable didactic added value in creating realistic simulations of, for example, scientific phenomena or historical events, which is, moreover, completely location-independent, i.e. can be created both on a physical campus and in other locations.
Social exchange and participation arise when actors can exchange spontaneously; this can - but does not have to - be the case on virtual platforms. Research must clarify to what extent avatars are equal to (virtual) encounters with real people as a "depersonalising" element. Much more decisive, however, is the presence - the "tangibility" of the actors on a platform.
Participation and inclusion, on the other hand, also have a clear technological dimension: on the one hand, this concerns the "usability" of technology for certain social groups (accessibility, e.g. easy language, hearing/visual impairments), here avatars are disadvantageous at least for certain groupings. The economic expenditure associated with the use of the technology (VR/AR equipment, computing power, data transmission) excludes significant user groups from using corresponding offers.
Research often takes place within the framework of spatially distributed joint projects or thematically oriented ("House of Urban Logistics") structures in which the physical location represents a "bracket". In both cases, the demands for location-independent work have grown, and network structures are becoming more and more important. In this area, too, there is much to be said for the use of AV/AR technology to gain knowledge, but little for "playful" avatars and digital building twins. However, there is a lot to be said for the possibility of being present regardless of location with virtual office solutions such as ivCAMPUS: for the actors, this creates a high degree of flexibility in collaboration, completely independent of their physical location.
What is true for researchers is equally valid for administrative staff at the university. The desire for flexible working models is gaining in importance, especially in times of scarce skilled labour. Hybrid working models will prevail, as in the rest of the working world. Here, too, avatars and building twins are not the key to the solution, but location-independent presence systems in which collaboration works the way it did in the physical office.
Our university campuses may not be quite as "populated" in the future as they have been in the past. They will be complemented by online campuses where university life takes place, from teaching to research to administration and social exchange - tailored to the needs of the respective stakeholders.
Tomorrow CAMPUS, which is based on our virtual office ivCAMPUS, is a common meeting place for staff, teachers and students that meets all the requirements of a hybrid university operation and connects all the actors of the university (meta)verse in such a way that it ideally complements the physical university campus, but does not replace it.
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