Even if the prospect of hanging out with Mark Zuckerberg’s avatar in the metaverse doesn’t excite you, the opportunities brought by this virtual digital world should.
Facebook’s recent relaunch as Meta was a profile-raising moment for a concept that has long been speculated upon in fiction (including William Gibson’s The Neuromancer – the inspiration for the film The Matrix – Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, and vividly on screen in Caprica, the short-lived prequel to Battlestar Galactica), one that started its journey to being a technological possibility way back in the 1950s.
When Meta was launched in October 2021, Zuckerberg told The Verge to think of the metaverse as “the successor to the mobile internet”, adding: “You can think about it as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing the content – you are in it. And you feel present with other people as if you were in other places… But the metaverse isn’t just virtual reality. It’s going to be accessible across all of our different computing platforms – VR and AR, but also PC, and mobile devices and game consoles.”
Pre–cursors to the metaverse include the online multimedia platform Second Life. Despite being nearly 20 years old, it remains popular as a place where people socialise and trade. These are two key features that would certainly be part of the metaverse – its reason to exist is to be a place where things no longer have to be physical, whether that be our jobs, banking, social interaction, or our education.
A new learning opportunity
Writing for Light & Sound International, James Simpson, founder of creative technology company Copper Candle, describes the vision of education set out in Ready Player One: “A real human embodied as a virtual avatar teaching children in a virtual classroom with unlimited teaching resources available to them.”
He tells us that: “The children could be anywhere in the world, helping us to develop an understanding of other cultures and beliefs, whilst also being able to ‘visit’ ancient Egypt, speak with Isaac Newton, climb inside a nuclear reactor, or cuddle a panda…”
Cuddling a panda, in this case, requires the kind of immersive experience that can only be offered by headsets that come (broadly) under the banner of virtual reality, notable examples of which include HoloLens, Magic Leap and Oculus.
However, millions of children are already in a state of two-dimensional immersion if they are playing Fortnite, Minecraft, or using the online games platform Roblox, which has around 150 million subscribers.
Some fascinating things are already happening in these spaces that could have a huge impact for education and educators. For example, Reporters Without Borders, a group of journalists concerned with freedom of information, created a 12.5 million block library in Minecraft containing reports from countries where the media is frequently censored. The potential for education is obvious.
Classrooms in the cloud
Virtual classrooms are currently offered by platforms such as Mozilla Hubs and Virbela, among others, and these spaces have proved useful during the pandemic lockdowns for HE customers and for some K12 institutions too.
“We’re having a dress rehearsal for the metaverse now, and the pandemic has set that up and it’s accelerated that,” observes author and writer-producer Jeff Norton.
Describing himself as a futurist, extrapolating current trend lines for the purposes of science fiction, Norton is the creator of the Metawars books, a series that takes place inside a global computer-based virtual world called the ‘Metasphere’, where everyone is represented by an avatar.
The story is much less cuddly than Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook hang, but the principle is broadly the same. The main difference being that, in Norton’s world, it’s not about putting on the latest VR goggles – it’s an imagined outcome for BCI (brain computer interface), where the sensation of being somewhere else is essentially a second reality, a pure metaverse.
Norton is excited by what the metaverse could do for education, particularly about the potential for a ‘one–to–many’ mode of teaching. This method of delivery is currently epitomised by the Khan Academy, which dispenses short videos, mostly around STEM subjects. The enthusiasm Norton shows for it comes from remembering his own teachers and wanting to amplify best practice.
“I think one of the things that we’re seeing now, and I think we’ll see in the future, is a kind of ‘death of geography’ – the opportunity to learn from somebody who doesn’t happen to be employed in the catchment area where you live.”
For Norton, this death of geography and the use of a one-to-many model gives rise to another opportunity – the chance to level-up learning ability.
“How do you teach something to a group of people who are probably on some kind of bell curve distribution of their learning ability?” Norton asks rhetorically. “If we can push some of the fundamentals onto the child at home through a digital platform and get them up to a certain level, then the classroom environment is about helping those people who need to get up to speed or, for people who are perhaps already excelling, you can then challenge them or go deeper. That might be a better use of the classroom, because right now, the classroom hour is a very, very scarce resource and it’s trying to accomplish a lot.”
Financial priorities and potential rewards
Norton’s classroom vision faces a big hurdle – the gap between “digital haves and have-nots”.
“It’s not fair when schools close and some kids can afford laptops at home and other kids can’t. Right? It’s not fair that some schools are very well tooled up to be able to do online delivery of education and other schools are not,” he says.
For Norton, adding a piece of VR kit into the equation is an extra financial hurdle. James Simpson takes a more forthright view – for him, it’s about priorities.
What excites Simpson about the application of VR in education is its place on the learning pyramid. Knowledge retention for a lecture is put at 5%, reading is put at 10% – use of VR is put at 75%, therefore considered as ‘practice doing’.
“When educators can see the benefits they can provide, they might go, ‘we don’t need to spend £3,000 of our budget on library books this year, we’ll buy 10 VR headsets instead and we’ll have some VR lessons too,’” says Simpson. “So, you can actually go to Nasa’s space station or visit the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. You know, that’s, as an educational tool, more valuable than what that would have provided in, for example, chemistry test tubes or something else.”
The metaverse and employment
The headsets covered by the VR umbrella are already having a massive impact on training, for example with the HoloLens in manufacturing, healthcare and engineering, where there is currently a marked shortfall in applicants for roles.
Rolls–Royce has been particularly active in the field of immersive training. For example, in 2020 the company released a video of its new Virtual Reality Maintenance Training Software for its AE 2100 engines.
“Already in operation in the US Air Force, the new virtual reality (VR) system allows engine maintainers to learn and practise their skills in an immersive visual environment, increasing efficiency and reducing cost,” stated the accompanying notes. The company’s immersive approach has also been applied to managing cargo ships too, as you can see in this futuristic scenario.
Not only will a metaverse extend the capabilities of virtual hubs, it will itself create jobs. Designers and coders will be in huge demand, potentially even, Simpson says, metaverse interior designers.
“They’ll come to your home, they’ll look at your blank space and they’ll say, ‘I’ll design new curtains and a carpet for you and put the colour on your sofa,’ and it’s all delivered through your metaverse interface system, which is HoloLens, or whatever the future is.”
It’s a good example of what the metaverse could feel like; the attention to detail and the drive to build a convincing ‘alternate reality’.
Finding the right platform
Despite the tendency for tech companies to aim for a monopoly, Mark Zuckerberg believes that the metaverse won’t be built by one single company. While Jeff Norton doesn’t want to see “one dominant purveyor of an immersive, interactive platform” either, his instinct on education is “to lean in to where the students are already”.
Norton notes that Roblox claims half of all under-16s in the US are on its platform and, while it has issues (including allegations about digital child labour), it “could be a place to start”.
He also mentions Minecraft: “I can tell you that if one of my kid’s teachers decided to teach a lesson using Minecraft, my children and their friends would be sitting up straight and paying a heck of a lot more attention.”
Fortnite, with 350 million users and headline-grabbing concerts within the game, is also a major contender here.
For educators not wanting to hang around to see who the dominant player is, there are plenty of free online resources to start creating virtual spaces. Mozilla Hubs is one. Autodesk, a suite of design, engineering and entertainment software used to build 3D and architectural products, is another. A level up from this would be games design engines such as Unity and Unreal Engine.
Whichever route is taken, Simpson believes that “at the very least, schools will not want to be left behind”.
“If you’re scared of these things and don’t acknowledge it, the danger is that when it’s forced upon you, you can’t adapt quickly enough… I think if you don’t approach these things with an open mind, the world will decide for you.”
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