Navigating the XR Educational Landscape: Privacy, Safety, and Ethical Guidelines

Navigating the XR Educational Landscape: Privacy, Safety, and Ethical Guidelines

VR goggles
Credit: leungchopan / © 2024

The field of extended reality (XR) technologies—that is, those technologies enabling augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and virtual reality VR)—is growing rapidly, and its impact on higher education is likely to be significant. Meanwhile, today's college students are becoming increasingly concerned over how their personal information is being safeguarded by those entrusted with it and may have higher expectations regarding data privacy, security, safety, and ethics for institutions of higher education, in particular. While laws and regulations that apply to higher education tend to lag behind technology advancement and adoption, existing regulatory frameworks may nevertheless apply as interpretations evolve. We need to begin preparing our institutions now to anticipate how XR will impact teaching and learning under both legal and moral lenses.1

Recent Developments

A series of developments over the last few years, including the COVID-19 global pandemic, has led to increased interest and exploration in virtual worlds from educational, cultural, and industry communities. The release of the Meta (Oculus) Quest 2 with its affordable price for both consumers and educational institutions opened the door for more and new entry points. Faced with myriad legal data privacy questions with its social media platform, Facebook deployed a tactical marketing approach and changed its name to "Meta." The name signaled the company's desire to move beyond social media and gaming and develop software and hardware for the metaverse, a space for people to interact, entertain, create, consume, work, and learn. With a series of acquisitions and ventures, Facebook, now Meta, is focused on creating an ecosystem of virtual spaces where people can meet professionally, do business, and spend time with friends. Several other third-party platforms and startups are also developing and providing spaces for social, learning, entertainment, and commercial activities.

Defining the metaverse remains speculative. Neil Stephenson coined the word in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, describing it as an interconnected virtual world. With the recent advances in media, communications, and technology, we are developing the building blocks of what could become the metaverse. The new realm would be powered by the convergence of emerging technologies and concepts that connect the physical and digital worlds. The essence of the metaverse is not the adoption of a specific set of technologies and a single platform, but rather in the way we interact with technology enabled by a higher level of interoperability that will support avatars and activities in a network of immersive environments and digitally enabled experiences.

Some see these developments as the evolution of the internet as we move away from "browsing" webpages to wearing glasses and inhabiting social immersive experiences made possible by the advances in 3D and AR/VR. This has also given rise to the idea of a Web 3, or Web 3.0, described as a vision of the future of the internet in which people operate on decentralized platforms, built upon a system known as the blockchain, that some suggest transfers power back to the community, rather than depending on technology giants like Google and Facebook. The notion of creating a decentralized Web 3 world includes ideas about implementing decentralized autonomous organizations, known as DAOs. DAOs present alternative ways to organize communities and manage their assets. Rather than relying on a hierarchical structure, the organization's management and decision-making is coded in smart contracts stored in the blockchain. DAOs create tokens that members can acquire or purchase, allowing them to vote as part of the decision-making process.

The metaverse and Web 3.0 conversations have also advanced with the growing interest in NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. A non-fungible token is a non-interchangeable unit of data stored on a blockchain, a form of digital ledger. NFT data units may be associated with digital files such as photos, videos, and audio. NFTs can also represent real-world objects like music, art, videos, in-game items, or digital assets in a virtual world. These digital assets are bought and sold online, typically with cryptocurrency.

The interest in NFTs has introduced a new marketplace, one with a primary focus on marketing, branding, and the creative industries. Designed as digital assets that cannot be replicated, NFTs have attracted the attention of the art world, from artists to collectors. The most famous digital artwork by Mike Winklemann, "EVERYDAYS: The First 5000 Days," a composite of 5,000 daily drawings, was sold at Christie's for a record-breaking $69.3 million. NFTs are opening new marketplaces for artists and designers, providing innovative ways to receive payments and share proceeds from subsequent sales in a decentralized market. Significant questions remain around these transactions as NFTs do not constitute ownership under copyright standards (authorship of original work) but are only data on a blockchain. NFTs are based on the concept of artificial scarcity, which paradoxically runs counter to the way the Web encourages sharing and replication. While the hype around NFTs and cryptocurrency reigned in 2021, by May 2022 we saw Coinbase, the largest cryptocurrency exchange, drop in value. The crash in cryptocurrency prices reportedly wiped out more than $300 billion in value. By fall 2022, with the bankruptcy of FTX, which The New York Times reported as the "Crypto Total Collapse," skepticism and scrutiny dominated the entire field. Nevertheless, established brands like NFL, Adidas, McDonald's, and Gucci have begun to explore and leverage NFTs to extend their brand reach. While some brands look to offer new experiences to their loyal customers across age groups, for the majority, it is a strategy with a focus to engage Gen Z.

The convergence of these technologies will play a significant role in the potential development of new financial and organizational models in Web 3 and digital and immersive experiences in the metaverse. These new developments promise to be the foundation of an exciting if complex era in the coming years. They will open new opportunities for our students and institutions while simultaneously posing significant questions about ownership, security, privacy, and intellectual property.

As higher education continues to experiment and adopt AR and VR and create virtual worlds and enter the metaverse, the challenge to create and foster inclusive and diverse spaces for learning and research, as well as keep our students and institutions data private and safe, will pose an ever-increasing set of critical questions.


  1. This document focuses on XR security, privacy, safety, and ethical considerations within the context of instructional activities. While several of the issues and risks identified in this document are relevant to other areas such as outreach, research, and student organizations, it is not the intent of this document to review potential risk areas resulting from the use of XR within the context of non-instructional activities.