Is Metaverse the Next Phase of Education?

November 29, 2022
Virtual reality goggles
Photos taken from Meta:

Authored by Desmond Wong Jia Jun, Master of Science in Instructional Systems and Learning Technologies, Florida State University, Candidate for Graduation in Fall 2022

What is the Metaverse?

The metaverse concept was first created by Neal Stephenson in 1992, in his science fiction novel “Snow Crash”. Now, 30 years later, it seems that the fictional concept is materializing, and some are crediting how Snow Crash predicted the future. In fact, the current development of Meta’s metaverse is almost identical with Stephenson's metaverse. But the question remains, what is metaverse?

In October 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announced to the world Facebook's rebranding to “Meta” and efforts in developing the future of the internet. In the 77 minutes long video on “The Metaverse and How We’ll Build it Together” during Meta (Facebook) Connect 2021, Zuckerburg shared his vision for the metaverse to be the next technological frontier to connect people in different aspects including commerce, work, education and gaming. A year later, Meta released the next generation advanced Virtual Realities (VR) headset, Meta Quest Pro cementing the commitment and direction in building the metaverse.

As the future of the internet, Metaverse is building on the function of the internet with developing technologies including VR, Augmented Realities (AR) and digital currency, to allow users to shift from browsing the internet webpage to experiencing and living in the metaverse. It could be everything you know now from work meetings and shopping, but without you stepping out of your house.

A possible virtual classroom within the Metaverse

Photos taken from Meta:

What is the difference between Metaverse and the current Virtual Reality world that we know?

Many would probably be wondering about the difference between Metaverse and the current use of VR in the virtual world and let’s find out why. First and foremost, both currently require a VR headset for it to work but beyond that, there are distinct differences between them.

Metaverse inspires to be an open platform that allows the users to develop content and share and that means, we would not be just seeing Meta as the sole owner of the metaverse but a common concept and platform for interested companies and developers to jump in to capitalize on the benefits it offers. This is fundamentally different from the virtual worlds that we know that the users are just going through the written script by the developers. In the envisaged Metaverse, the ability to create and develop opens the opportunities for the users to earn money (cryptocurrencies, non-fungible token (NFT) etc.) and those changes everything.

Elaborating further, the metaverse will be a network of interconnected virtual worlds that would be designed and managed independently just like how every place in our world has their unique cultures and policies. Similarly, it is expected that users can move freely between the virtual worlds like how we travel from one place to another.

Finally, the metaverse is expected to be an immersive virtual world that users can meet and interact with, and this might be one of the biggest differences between the metaverse and the traditional virtual world. Beyond just seeing a profile picture or an inanimate avatar, intuitive in-hand controllers are developed as natural extensions of your hands in VR to provide another level of interaction. Of course, this is the current technological developments, and we should expect the future experience in metaverse to be more integrated and sophisticated.

What are some of the efforts that are being implemented in education?

I am sure you have already heard of the famous quote “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour” and like many other empires and top tech companies, Metaverse is in the building stage. Fortunately, there are already on-going efforts within the teaching community and MUSC that are laying important bricks to shape the future of metaverse for our teachers and learners. Let’s look at some of the “bricks”.

While the Metaverse was announced by Zuckerburg, Microsoft was nowhere near taking a backseat in building this future world. Microsoft first developed their Extended Reality (XR) headset, HoloLens back in 2016 and the company has been working with the education and healthcare industries in developing holographic instructions and remote healthcare assistance. For the medical students, HoloPatient was developed as an augmented 3D learning experience where they can assess, diagnose, and treat real world conditions through holographic simulations.

Student using augmented reality to study a virtual human skeleton

Photo taken from Microsoft:

Another tech giant, Google, has also been pushing boundaries in developing VR/AR experiences including the Google Expeditions that allows students to take a virtual field trip without the barriers of distances from museums to visiting Mars. It wasn’t all roses for Google as they were one of the pioneers that developed an affordable VR headset, Google Cardboard that turns any smartphone to a pair of VR glasses back in 2014. Eight years later, Google owns one of the most comprehensive virtual field trips, lesson plans and resources.

Back to the teaching community, teachers are recognizing the potential of Roblox, a popular multiplayer game that many children are spending a lot of time outside of school time. Teachers are also picking up coding and game design to create a Roblox classroom to attract the attention and interest of the students through delivering subjects that are less exciting in more innovative and engaging ways. Furthermore, the features of Roblox allow students to connect with each other virtually, create and collaborate which aligns to the principles of learning.

Empty virtual classroom

Photo taken from Twitter:

As part of the teaching community, Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) is also actively involved in laying the bricks for the future. With the impact of Covid-19 pandemic and the future moving towards virtual reality, telehealth will be increasingly necessary to provide effective healthcare remotely. One of them being Dr. Katherine Chike-Harris from College of Nursing, as she champions the effort in developing the telehealth simulation and education with a larger vision to remove healthcare barriers in the future. Next, Dr. Rachel Penrod Martin from College of Medicine, piloted and implemented VR to enhance teaching of neural systems to replace the traditional use of 2D images in class. With the overwhelming positive feedback, she is intending to open this study to additional students to better understand the VR experience.

What does it mean for MUSC?

Yes, the world is changing, and possibilities are exciting and promising but what does it mean for us and what do we need to do to prepare for this change? Are the educators and students ready for this change? There is news that reports that the metaverse dream is still far away and people are still confused by what metaverse even means. If that is the case, what can we do?
While the questions and situation may seem depressing, the good news is that the Metaverse is far from being well-defined and because of that, educators could have a say on what and how the Metaverse should be. Just like how moving to another state or country is like and as a foreigner in a new place, we must adjust and assimilate to the culture and governing laws, jumping into the metaverse is no exception too. We need to get our digital citizenship right and updated.

Digital citizenship is not a new concept, and it has been around since the early 1990s but moving forward as we will be spending more time in our life in the virtual world, we ought to be getting this right and teaching digital citizenship to our students. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has outlined nine aspects of digital citizenship that we should know to be digital citizens.

Infographic illustrating the nine elements of digital citizenship

Photo taken from Let’s Talk Science:

Having the ability to activate Google and search for an article or using your favorite fast food restaurant app to make an order online is just a very small part of what we are talking about and that does not mean that you are ready to be a digital citizen. Being a digital citizen should also be concerned about protecting one’s psychological and physical well-being when using the internet and avoiding viruses and scams online. It is not too early to start learning and teaching about this.

What can educators do to be a part of this future?

First, we must jump quickly onto the bandwagon and ride the waves instead of getting pulled by the undertow if we want to see a metaverse that is suitable for the future of learning. Just like any other activities, having a vision places a purpose and a destination in mind. After understanding more about the Metaverse and its potential for education, it’s time for you to create your own vision on how the Metaverse would look like in your classroom.

Next, learn from past lessons. Since the first mobile application was introduced in 1997, the mobile application market has been bursting with more than 80,000 applications that are supposed to be educational. However, many of these applications were not designed for learning. In 2015, a group of authors decided to develop a series of evidence-based guidelines for researchers, educators, and developers. Educational applications should promote (i) active, (ii) engaging, (iii) meaningful and (iv) socially interactive learning.

Student avatars learning in a virtual classroom

Photo taken from:

Moving on, while the learning environment is expected to be drastically different, the principles of learning are generally stable, and educators should continue to keep in mind while exploring possibilities. With that, research the unthinkable, trial the impossible and share to inspire. Lay the bricks for the future of education.