Education and the metaverse
What impact is it having on learning?
For Uma Shankar Singh what developers of new metaverse platforms need more than anything right now is critical feedback from educators, not unthinking adoption.
“The metaverse is here, and it’s not only transforming how we see the world but how we participate in it from the factory floor to the meeting room!” So tweeted Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella in November 2021, while setting out the company’s future vision for the corporate sector.
His tweet gives us an important clue as to what developers of new metaverse platforms have in mind for its educational application.
Virbela, Roblox, Upland, etc. are already metaverse environments or ‘metaverses’ that are evolving within the education sector which may (or may not!) significantly impact how children learn in international school settings. These platforms are in their early stages, but it is important to examine the metaverse with more than a critical eye if this new technology is going to become useful. For example, synchronizing with learning goals for different age groups while accommodating cultural differences in international school settings.
What is a metaverse?
A metaverse is a shared virtual space that lets users interact socially via avatars, synthesize information and immerse themselves in experiences with the help of virtual reality/augmented reality headsets. These are spaces which individuals otherwise would not be able to access in real life owing to distance, cost and time constraints. For example, students in a lesson on outer space may be able to access the surface of the moon virtually through VR/AR aided glasses and form a better understanding of, for example, whether the moon’s soil is suitable for growing plants or not. They may be able to perform science experiments right on the surface of the moon, interact with other students while they are there, discuss their results and ultimately come up with innovative solutions for terraforming the moon into a living world. The teacher may act as a facilitator while authentic learning can occur without wasting any valuable resources and time.
Hitting the ‘pause to think’ button
Even though proponents of metaverses argue that these environments may entirely change the way education is perceived and developed, there are some major aspects of this apparently exciting world that require critical examination.
Firstly, are developers of these platforms taking into account how teachers want to teach and how their students learn.
We’ve seen it all before as smartphones were taking off and the market was being flooded with new educational apps. According to one paper “Putting Education in ‘Educational’ Apps: Lessons From the Science of Learning” (2015) developers in small and large tech enterprises flooded app stores with educational apps of dubious value. Many were mostly irrelevant or had very little educational content in them. Even though there was huge potential to transform learning, opportunities were being lost because there was little in the way of interaction between the developers of the apps, researchers and the users (teachers).
The lesson was learned. When developers think of providing new features within a user interface, they have to consult educators so an innovation really does support teaching and learning and avoid problems like providing too many options to choose from within a storyline or something as basic as cutting out advertisements!
The metaverse and theories of learning
How much more useful would a new metaverse platform be, if, for example its developers took into account a coherent and appropriate theory of learning such as the ‘6Cs of learning’ proposed by Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff in their book “Becoming Brilliant”. If the experience of learning in a metaverse is essentially social, metaverse designers might start by considering the need for collaboration and communication which Pasek and Golinkoff argue lay the basis for learning, community building and cultural understanding amongst students. By taking into account the way students synthesize content knowledge, develop critical thinking and release their potential for creative innovation, new metaverses will stand a much better chance of developing a student’s confidence in the process of reaching their personal and academic goals.
It will come of course, but in the early days of the educational metaverse, teachers can expect to find as many platforms that are educationally incoherent as those that are based on a knowledge of good practice.
There are other issues to consider. International school schools pursuing internationally and interculturally-minded ideals might look out for problems of cultural bias. People should also think about the social assumptions implicit in a platform. Have minority classes been misrepresented? Even more seriously, are metaverses safe for students to browse?
Then there is the question of cost and access. According to the International Telecommunication Union (the UN Agency for ICT) it is estimated that 4.9 billion people still don’t have frequent access to the internet, which calls into question the very practicality of metaverses providing a cheap learning alternative. The rapid internet speeds needed for the metaverse push school budgets of schools let alone the cost of AR/VR headsets and other peripheral devices needed to fully utilize the potential of metaverses. In this context, will the metaverse actually aggravate the digital divide?
Critical feedback, not unthinking adoption
Metaverse platforms are still at an embryonic stage of development and although they represent a bright prospect for the future of education and will no doubt become of real use in the process of learning, teachers would need to constantly evaluate their value in terms of student experiences and learning. At the moment, what metaverse developers really need is our critical feedback rather than our unthinking adoption just because the metaverse is the latest thing!
Uma Shankar Singh is a Librarian, Digital Literacy Coach and teacher of IT. He likes to read about human psychology, photograph wildlife and landscapes and research on trending library topics. He teaches STEM subjects and Robotics at St. Johnsbury Academy in Jeju, South Korea.
He can be contacted at; firstname.lastname@example.org or click his picture for his LinkedIn Profile.