There is a new digital reality on everyone's lips; the metaverse. Being touted by Facebook as the "next chapter of the internet", many believe that it is nothing more than a diversion to deflect from the company’s tarnished public reputation. But it is likely to be far more than that.
We mustn't overlook what an augmented world could mean for education. Everything, from the night’s sky to a race car, will be transformed into a next-generation learning opportunity. The classroom could be transported anywhere from the Arctic to the Large Hadron Collider. Before we criticise the metaverse, we must not forget just how revolutionary it will be for education systems and students across the world.
Since early 2020 global education settings have been adapting to change, with 91 per cent of students worldwide having their education disrupted by the pandemic, according to Unicef. Educators everywhere reacted quickly. Overnight, remote learning became normal. As a result, access to technology was seen as more of a basic right than a privilege.
If we can embrace technology as a learning tool quickly in a pandemic, then we can just as easily become early adopters of the metaverse.
The term metaverse was coined in 1992 by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson. Today his vision is creeping closer to reality. The metaverse is a digital universe that can be accessed through virtual and augmented reality. Not only will it involve entire VR or virtual reality spaces, it will also allow a layer of digital information to be overlaid on to the real world though digital headsets or glasses.
This could change education systems across the world because, simply, the metaverse will allow anything to become a learning opportunity. For teachers, it will help break down the artificial siloing of subjects, which can be a typical feature of outdated curriculums.
For example, a teacher could show their students a race car. They could then display how it was built, how fast it goes and what temperature and speed the tires can withstand. With such scenarios experienced, the relevance of key theories learnt in school take on new meaning and relevance, while also allowing educators the chance to bridge gaps and teach nuance in the theory-to-action step that has been missing.
If this sounds far-fetched, here in the UK, Bradfield College’s tech department and teaching staff, responding to the pandemic, took on the challenge of creating their own VR-based teaching and learning scenarios in different subjects – History, Science and Geography; allowing students to experience elements of these subjects in detail never before achieved and the students have been hooked. So even if on a small scale, it is happening already – the question is one of mass adoption and affordability across countries.
Furthermore while the feedback from Bradfield’s own students in the early stage of their VR venture can currently be called anecdotal, longer studies in classrooms in China have shown that VR use has proven to have huge impact in test result efficacy, where students who got the "C grade", using VR learning immersion, outperformed the "A grade" students.
This contextual learning experience will cut through the fields of science, engineering and mathematics. Instead, students will be presented with a real-world example that fuses all three disciplines into one, holistic, engaging learning experience.
Education syllabuses have a perennial problem; they struggle to keep up with an ever-changing world. Many will remember a time when math students were told they wouldn’t always have a calculator in their pocket. Little did they know about mobile phones back then.
The metaverse can aid this problem. It will enable up-to-date, expert analysis to be embedded all over the real world. We could look up to the night’s sky, and have Neil deGrasse Tyson explain the structure of the MilkyWay. Expertise will come from anywhere, not just from textbooks and classrooms.
Yet it is not just the current curriculum that is outdated, but our ways of learning. Written exams are of little use at providing the practical education needed for a variety of vocational skills in life.
Imagine if, instead of a written exam, through VR an apprentice could gain hands-on experience in wiring a plug, fixing a blocked drain or even performing an operation, all without the dangerous, real world consequences. The science is conclusive on this; learning by doing trumps learning by memorisation, every time.
As with any new technology, it is our duty as parents and teachers to exercise caution. Many parents may wonder whether the metaverse will simply add more addictive screen-time to children’s days. Yet this is a reason to manage our children’s engagement with the metaverse, and not simply ban it.
Take the internet; most schools and parents are able to place parental blocks on certain websites and set screen time allowances. There is no reason we cannot place the same controls on access to the metaverse. While we are aware of the ill effects of the internet, I believe that it has been a net-benefit for education across the world. The same will be true of the metaverse.
Today's generation are already natives to primitive forms of the metaverse. Games like Minecraft, which encourage organic collaboration amongst anonymous users, have attracted some 140 million players worldwide.
Herein lies a key benefit of learning in the metaverse; it can "gamify" learning. In other words, the virtual, collaborative and task-oriented nature of the metaverse will allow children to learn without them realising it, which is the holy grail of education.
Studies have repeatedly shown that learning is most effective when it's fun. Gamification of learning is the future of education. This is what makes the metaverse a natural fit for the classroom.
The metaverse is another stage in the evolution of the internet. The internet allowed us to have the entire canon of human knowledge at our fingertips. The metaverse could deliver far more to the students of tomorrow, but that’s only if we let it.