The Metaverse in Education: Hype or reality?

meta verse vr headset

The discussions on the metaverse are as invigorating as they are perplexing. Is the metaverse the future of the Internet – or of reality? Or is it the reverse – old-fashioned hype? That is the question. A collective virtual space, bringing together physical reality, virtual worlds, augmented reality and the Internet – an immersive experience that might soon land on your desk (or into your life), that you might have trouble leaving. And that is sure to continue to dominate conversation.

Movies have explored this for a while – Inception where reality and imagination are interspersed, the virtual reality of The Matrix, the simulation environment in Avatar. Yet to the discerning scholar, the idea of a deeper, connected reality, that can be explored the way one peels an onion, the old as civilization itself – from platonic ideas that form the truth behind “reality” that is a mere shadow on a cavern, to the medieval view of the world where everything is a symbol of a deeper reality, to be scrutinized by the careful eye.

Unlike cyberspace that draws away from the real world, the metaverse allows its participants to be still aware of the real world around them – in fact, this real world is very much part of the metaverse itself. Mark Zuckerberg reflected on the omnipresence of screens – “We were not meant to live this way”, he commented. In contrast, the metaverse creates a richer reality – not an alternative one. For instance, Nissan is exploring adding virtual information on a car’s windshield, including an ability to summon 3D avatars, in a technology called ”invisible to visible”.

What does it mean for education? If reality is being reshaped – or at least reinterpreted – how can this affect pedagogy? A well-known essay by the venture capitalist Matthew Ball defined the key aspects of the metaverse. How do these, if at all, apply to education?

According to Matthew Ball, the Metaverse will be:

  • Persistent – “it never “resets or pauses”, or “ends”, it just continues indefinitely”.  Arguably, the same holds true for learning – the shift from “sporadic” to “persistent” is already happening. One well-understood aspect of this is the shift from a “once-and-for all” degree model to a lifelong learning model, as professional skills need to be replenished on a continuous basis – not just for the workforce to be productive, but for us as human beings to remain fresh. Education is never “over”, “done with” – there is no such thing as stillness in nature – just like in physical fitness, we can only sharpen or lose our skills. Coursera’s valuation when it went public last year is testimony to the fact that this shift is well underway; traditional educational institutions such as Harvard or Yale were quick to pick up on this, through the likes of EdEx or a deconstructed panel of certificates that can accompany one’s lifelong career. However, a less understood aspect of “an education that never stops” goes beyond its lifelong aspect – it is learning woven into everyday life. Today’s students know this well; in focus groups conducted this year, students shared that they like to integrate learning into everyday routines. This is how YouTube became, among other things, an educational company. For instance, apps such as Vroom integrate early childhood learning into everyday life – making learning part of mealtime, bedtime or bathtime.

The metaverse can provide an ideal ground for educational experiences that never end and always draw you further – because every real life experience, from a hike in the woods to a museum visit or even everyday science experiments in the kitchen, can be deepened and enhanced, the way hypertext enhanced every reading experience in the early days of the Internet. This is very different from today’s internet that takes us away from reality or social media that perhaps reveals the undercurrents of social relationships rather than enhancing them. With the metaverse, could we one day talk about a rich living experience the way we do about a rich reading experience?

  • Be Synchronous and live. Just as the pandemic caused every museum in the world to open their doors to virtual visitors, and suddenly made all the riches of human culture accessible to everyone, without the need to travel – in the metaverse, one might have the opportunity to attend any virtual event, anywhere in the world, in (avatar) person. Lecture by a renowned Stanford professor? Gallery opening in Berlin? Concert at the Vienna Philarmonic? Panel at Davos? Debate at Aspen? Trip to Mars with Elon Musk? You name it, you can go. Limitations of space, geography, access, class or connections – can be removed in important ways. A professor will be able to invite experts from around the world to a panel. Researchers can get together in a live symposium to advance thinking on critical topics. In a trend that is already underway, as Stanford and MIT made their courses available for free (in an asynchronous way) , education that was once available to a few becomes accessible to many– with a new kind of immersive experience. There was recently a discussion on how gaming companies keep upping the ante on endorphin release (and inadvertently create a breeding ground for depression as a biological balancing mechanism). Tired of old-style immersive gaming? Try the most immersive experience of all – nature and reality.

We are talking about a convergence of education, content, entertainment, technology and gaming – forming partnerships to create these new kinds of experiences. It is likely that none of the current players have what it takes to do it all. What EdTech platform will be best positioned to create an interaction field, in Erich Joachimsthaler’s words, that can bring the metaverse ecosystem together on one platform, and optimize interactions for all?

  • Be an experience that spans both the digital and physical world, private and public networks/experiences, open and closed platforms. This is the very definition of an interaction field. What will be the role of educational institutions and players in this new universe? Will they become orchestrators of learning experiences – leading virtual visits to public museums, providing a stage for private companies looking to hire their graduates to assess their skills in a real-life project? Will they become curators of everyday educational challenges? How will they react to the emergence of a new set of players, as Google and other tech giants expand beyond offering certificates into offering a platform for entrepreneurship and creativity?
  • Offer unprecedented interoperability of data, digital items/assets, content and so on. Will there be a market for “second-hand” virtual objects? “Unused” digital experiences? With the scarcity factor of limited space and inventory removed, how will this affect pricing models – pressing down prices due to increased availability or eliminating last-minute price sinking? As objects and experiences can be likely reused within the metaverse, an artifact created as an educational project could gain a second life in the post-educational world – will educational projects become the new stage for experimenting? Most likely, the very boundaries between education and the post-educational world will erode.
  • Be populated by “Content” and “experiences” created and operated by an incredibly wide range of contributors, some of whom are independent individuals, while others might be formally organized groups or commercially focused enterprises. This is the very definition of an Interaction Field, according to Erich Joachimsthaler – an ecosystem where participants derive value from the exchange. With entry barriers dramatically removed, the metaverse will create many such opportunities for exchange. Will students start their own coaching practices? Will NGOs and non-profits enlist student volunteers into solving the world’s biggest problems? Will new associations and industry coalitions emerge, allowing individuals or companies to find more like-minded thought partners working on similar problems? Will educational companies be run more like networks than product companies?

Discussions about the metaverse can have a polarizing effect. Many of these effects can seem far-away or outlandish, before one realizes that many of these are shifts that are already underway – and offer fertile ground for the emergence of new types of interactions and value exchanges. In a way, education is too central a part of life to be untouched by the metaverse, or what will be the next stage of today’s cyberspace. For a new generation that will experience these newly immersive experiences, this will become not a choice but a sine qua non – with the attention of young minds at stake, education and pedagogy will have to rival the attraction of the newly emerging platforms. The good news is that that time around, learning and life, virtual reality and nature will not be stacked against each other – they will be part of one. If you talk to your kids about how the virtual world can be a distraction from learning, wait till they talk to their own kids about daily routines as a distraction from education so immersive, so exciting, that it will draw learners in and leave them always wanting more.

This exciting world already exists. It’s called learning.