How the Metaverse Can Remodel Training
Digital technologies have transformed education over the past two decades. I’m only in my 50s, but when I went to school, the most technologically advanced thing in class was a calculator. iPads and other tablets are now commonplace. Museums and galleries around the world have incorporated touchscreens and interactive elements into their exhibitions. Apps like Duolingo have brought language learning to smartphones. The fact that these things have normalized so quickly is a testament to how quickly we’ve all integrated new technologies seamlessly into our lives.
But 2D technologies have limitations. While distance learning tools have kept the wheels of education turning during the pandemic, anyone with teenage children can attest that it has often been a frustrating experience. It was difficult to keep her occupied with a flat screen for a long time. They lacked the vital sense of presence—interacting with their classmates and teachers in a shared space.
The Metaverse is the next evolution of the internet – and it’s that sense of presence that sets it apart. It includes a range of technologies including Virtual Reality (VR) headsets that take you to entirely new environments; Augmented Reality (AR) glasses that will one day project computer-generated images onto the world around you; and mixed reality (MR) experiences that blend physical and virtual environments.
Presence matters. For most of us, learning is social – we learn from and with others and from each other’s experiences. It’s about interaction and discussion as well as gathering facts. Academic studies have found that VR can positively improve student comprehension, knowledge retention, engagement, attention span and motivation. I think that’s something we all intuitively understand. It’s so much easier to remember doing something than to be told.
This is what makes the learning opportunities in the Metaverse so exciting. Instead of telling students what the dinosaurs looked like, they can walk among them. Entire science labs can be built and outfitted with equipment most schools could never afford. Medical students can perform complex surgeries without risk to patients or themselves.
This isn’t science fiction or wishful thinking – it’s happening right now. At Japan’s N and S high schools, the country’s largest online high schools, more than 6,000 students are studying in VR with Meta Quest 2 headsets. Her teachers report that this enhances the learning experience and allows students to develop social skills even when they are geographically distant.
One example that came up at a panel I chaired with educators, academics and others in London last week is a school building a digital version of the Globe Theater – the circular Elizabethan theater that staged Shakespeare’s plays – built and performs its final show on its famous stage, completely virtual. Young people will not be in the same physical space as their classmates and they will not be traveling to London, but they will still be able to work together and learn how Shakespeare’s plays were created for this unique space.
At Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, biomolecular chemist Dr. Muhsinah Morris her students in a virtual lab – a digital twin of the physical university’s real chemistry lab. In the virtual laboratory, students can carry out experiments as if they were there in person. apartment building found that students who learned in VR had an average final grade of 85 on the test, versus 78 in face-to-face and 81 in traditional online methods. They also reported an increase in student attendance and engagement.
A theme that came up again and again at the round table was justice. Children from poorer backgrounds falling behind and lagging behind their more affluent peers is a complex issue that I have faced repeatedly when I was Deputy Prime Minister in the UK. This education gap is global, as this shows OECD Program for International Student Assessment, which reports a pattern of poorer students lagging behind their wealthier peers around the world.
It’s not hard to imagine the benefits of being free from time and geographic restrictions. Universities in disadvantaged areas will be able to work together and receive support from those far away. A great teacher could be teaching in an underserved school 100 miles away. A school system that has a shortage of teachers in a particular subject could hire them to teach from anywhere in the country.
It also opens up opportunities for ambitious students to learn from people they don’t have access to locally. A college student in Ohio could attend a seminar led by a professor in Seoul. Students in the most remote corners of Alaska could visit NASA, the Louvre in Paris or the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo. A personal tutor could conduct a session with a student in a completely different city without either of them having to leave their homes.
When the University of Maryland Global Campus surveyed students meeting with tutors and classmates in VR, they found that for some, the fear of speaking to faculty members and interacting with their peers decreased from being an avatar. Students with agoraphobia and PTSD both reported difficulty interacting in person, but felt comfortable in the virtual classroom.
Ultimately, once the technologies are in place, governments must ensure that they are properly deployed in all public education systems. And it is forward-thinking education administrators who are creatively using these technologies in their schools and colleges that will provide best practices for others to adopt. Experienced teachers in particular know best how to inspire their students. This makes comprehensive teacher training an essential part of any government strategy – none of this will work without teachers who know how to get the most out of these products.
Governments can start laying the groundwork by developing curricula, digital literacy programs, and supporting and engaging educators to steer this technology to have the greatest impact. Crucially, it’s up to governments to ensure all schools have access to these technologies, so that inequalities don’t perpetuate further just because better-equipped schools can get hardware that others can’t.
Metaverse technologies have the potential to transform education. It’s happening right now, but to realize its potential in the years to come, educators and policymakers must embrace the opportunities these technologies offer.