The metaverse is a concept in flux. In the simplest of terms, it is a “universe within a universe.” Most of the time it refers to a new way of digitizing and personalizing our physical reality through the use of augmented reality (AR) and/or virtual reality (VR) worlds and technology.
Seem a little far-fetched? Educators know well that what once seemed like science fiction can quickly become classroom reality, like Smart Boards, Google Classroom, the use of tablets during class time, and even “robot teachers.”
Let’s go through what the metaverse might look like, how it’s becoming relevant for educators, and its potential impact on the modern classroom.
What is the metaverse, exactly?
It’s not clear what exactly “the metaverse” will look like yet, but it may become a series of decentralized yet interconnected virtual worlds. The concept is relevant across a wide range of industries; for example, Walmart is already considering how to create a digital shopping experience in the metaverse.
One current example of a metaverse is Meta’s (formerly Facebook) Horizon Worlds, where participants can meet friends and new people, play games, and create new worlds.
Accessing the metaverse generally means using a VR headset to customize a digital avatar (similar to a Sims or Minecraft character). These avatars look like people and have realistic hand and mouth movements. They can walk around and interact with other digital avatars, i.e. other people accessing that digital world.
Our communities are already deeply immersed in social media use, online gaming and shopping, the use of wearable technology, and more. Because the pandemic has already forced an online learning revolution, educators will naturally want to educate themselves and get in front of this evolving technology.
In fact, it’s already making its way into the education sector:
Hoping to expand its presence in K-12 schools, gaming company Roblox announced this month a new $10 million fund to support the creation of online learning experiences that take advantage of its platform’s unique way of letting users play, explore, and socialize in an endlessly evolving virtual world.
Since most K-12 students have grown up digitally fluent, they already have some exposure to similar experiences, like the wildly popular Minecraft world-building game. It’s likely young, tech-savvy kids will embrace this opportunity.
That’s why the time has come to start a discussion: What kind of educational opportunities might the metaverse make possible?
The role of the metaverse in the classroom
Note that since ‘metaverse’ is still difficult to define, there is some overlap between the use of the term ‘metaverse’ and the use of VR technology (which can take place inside and outside ‘the metaverse’). Here, we discuss them as supportive tools for a physical, virtual, or hybrid classroom.
How the metaverse might manifest:
More tools for teachers: Many of us can remember watching videos on an old projector in school, and these experiences typically lent themselves better to jokes than long-term learning opportunities. Virtual or augmented reality, however, could help overcome the physical restrictions of the classroom and allow students to experience Ancient Rome or view the rings of Saturn up close. As an extension of surfing the web, students might surf the world, close-up and personal, using Google Maps functionality.
Games: From Scattergories, Charades, and Jeopardy! to computer programs like Mavis Beacon and Roller Coaster Tycoon, to interactive learning modalities like Kahoot, games have always played a role in the classroom. Virtual worlds enhance the possibility for immersive experiences that last long after children log off or leave the classroom.
School projects: Both teachers and groups of students can meet online to work together and collaborate regardless of their physical locations. We’ve already experienced how a pandemic can disrupt education, and such an application could easily replace in-person meetings, hybrid education, and other virtual chat methods that aren’t possible or are insufficient.
Interactive assessments: Students can enter an interactive virtual world to show the teacher, for example, how they problem-solve. Some examples: Creating a new-age, zoom-in/zoom-out solar system for science class, giving an immersive presentation for history or geography class, or story or set design for theatre or literature class.
Pros and cons of the metaverse for educators
The metaverse, and the virtual technology that comes with it, has pros and cons. On the one hand, it has the ability to engage students in a totally new way. On the other hand, it may worsen burnout and educational inequities.
- Interactive and immersive
- Possible longer-term retention of information
- Students are digital natives; it meets kids where they are at
- Connects children with others around the world
- Potential to “democratize” immersive digital experiences
- Tech overload for teachers and students
- Teachers need to upskill
- Distractions and burnout from virtual/hybrid learning
- Accessibility issues - learning and other disabilities
- Potential “metaverse addiction”
- Potential educational inequity
- Schools need funds and processes to make resources, like strong classroom and/or personal Internet access and VR headsets, available
It’s still too early to tell
The impact of the metaverse on K-12 education depends on whether schools choose, over the next few years, to adopt or resist it. Education funding and resources, as well as the connection between screen time and mental health, will continue to factor into these decisions.
We simply don’t yet know how effective this type of technology will be for learning. Right now, we can only say it both has the potential to make digital experiences more human and put up digital barriers between students and teachers.
This said, any use of virtual tech in the classroom must be strongly tied to K-12 children’s development and involve age-appropriate applications. Older students, who have stronger familiarity with online gaming and tech, will likely be the first to try it - inside and outside the classroom.
For now, educators can start by talking to our students about virtual worlds and what they know, and think, about the metaverse. It’s certainly possible for us to adapt to and harness new technology; the only question is how - and how fast.
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