The team at The Metaverse Institute, which launched in 2022, help organisations including governments, research institutes, institutional investors and corporations, to “identify the relevance of the metaverse to them” and develop strategies to begin using the technology to achieve their goals. Underlying this, Zhang says, is a “very strong focus on social impact”.
“We can really use the next generation of the internet to help improve the real world,” she says. Now, Zhang has her sights set on universities.
“They can use metaverse for a whole range of activities from student recruitment, from branding, teaching and learning research simulations, alumni engagement, student employability,” Zhang explains. “We want to help more institutions to really start to look at how to benefit from this environment.”
A former international student herself, Zhang began researching the metaverse long before most of us had ever heard of it. When starting her master’s degree in 2006, Zhang’s dissertation was focused on using the metaverse to develop international strategies for universities. “At that time, I’ve been told it’s a really forward thinking idea, although very few people see the tremendous potential of the metaverse and understood what I was talking about,” she says.
Zhang believes that the metaverse can help universities become more agile in their recruitment. For example, when trying to create compelling digital open days for students who are thousands of miles away.
“Online virtual worlds could be a cheaper and more personalised way to give international students a foretaste of campus life than a traditional face-to-face open day,” she says. “The cost of international travel and accommodation can be prohibitive for some international students.”
“Virtual campus experiences can be delivered through online portals accessible through ordinary browsers, meaning prospective students can log in without VR/AR headsets. Universities may even be able to create AI-powered ‘ambassadors’, which would act as guides during the virtual experience,” Zhang says. Universities like Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology have already successfully incorporated metaverse-related technology into their digital open days.
Plus, using the metaverse is “a good PR campaign in its own right”, she adds. “In the same way that universities have embraced marketing via TikTok to reach ‘generation Z’ students, they can use virtual worlds to reach out to the following generation – known as ‘generation Alpha’ – who will be considering universities from 2025 onwards. This generation is already growing up using virtual worlds for playing, learning and socialising.”
Beyond student recruitment, Zhang believes the metaverse has the potential to change education altogether by providing an “immersive, interactive and intuitive user interface” which will allow learning to become more “bottom-up”.
“It will create a more decentralised structure of the education system, where the role of university, employer, students, professors would be able to have more opportunities to co-create the future curriculum for the future of work and skills.”
Zhang’s own experience as a Chinese student in the UK has inspired this mission to link universities to new technology. While studying at Loughborough University, she threw herself into student life in a bid to have a “truly international experience”.
“We are going through a great time of disturbance and uncertainty”
She was elected as Loughborough Student Union’s first international development officer during her PhD (which also focused on the metaverse), helping to drive the university’s international strategy from below.
Zhang says she worked with Shirley Pearce, former vice-chancellor of the university, to “look at what we can do to help treating every single student as a global citizen, to really drive their global aspiration to become the leaders of the future of the world”. She was later elected as the founding International Students Officer at the UK’s National Union of Students, before going on to hold jobs in UK parliament and at international education company QS.
“I think if I hadn’t been going through the very best of the international education offered by Loughborough, I think I’d just be an ordinary overseas student,” Zhang says.
“We are going through a great time of disturbance and uncertainty. But as the community of global education, we should be really enormously proud of the major impact we have on every single student we have helped.
“We need to figure out a really efficient strategy to keep that kind of positive work going. And we will be very keen to support universities worldwide to achieve that.”