What problems does the metaverse solve?

Chris summarises why thinking about emerging technologies like the metaverse help us focus on the core principle of solving problems, not trying to fit solutions into our own contexts, taking a phrase by Jon Hofgartner as a helpful mantra.

I was invited recently by the West of England Institute of Technology (IoT) to deliver a short talk and workshop on the implications of the metaverse for education. Not having much practical experience of the metaverse in action, this could have been a very short talk but it ended up taking me down a road of useful reflection about the general picture of technology in education.

In his introduction to the event, Jon Hofgartner, Assistant Principle at Weston College and a leader in the IoT, outlined a need to take a “creative and critical” approach to technology which chimed with what it was I eventually talked about.

Going back to first principles

Prepping for this presentation, I found myself going right back to first principles, asking what it was that we actually use digital technology for. I boiled it down to these simple statements:

  • Digital technology helps us to solve problems.
  • It does that by changing our relationship with information and/or with other people.

You might want to expand that definition to include our relationship to things, places, events and so on, but with digital technology at least, I think you can always trace it back to the original two; information and people.

I’ve worked in the field of learning technology since 2005 and I find that many discussions about technology start from a vague assumption that “we can do things better if we use this technology”. In other words, it’s about taking technology as the starting point and then trying to find ways to make it fit our context.

There’s nothing inherently bad about this. It’s at the root of experimentation, creativity and learning through play. There are problems, though, if this is your only approach or if what you are looking to do is strategically invest to do something at scale whilst managing your risk.

Ideas for a creative, critical approach

A more sustainable approach is to take the technology off the table at the start and focus on the problems that need fixing.

Here are some questions that you could ask to prompt exploration of problems:

  • What are our pain points?
  • What is holding us back?
  • What do we wish we could do if magically there weren’t any barriers?
  • What keeps us awake at night?
  • What opportunities are we not able to take at the moment?

Brainstorming these and then prioritising them against your values or your strategy will give you an indication of where to start looking first.

Next, ask yourself what components of these problems are to do with:

  • the relationship to information
    • What is the information in questions?
    • Is it hard to find?
    • Is it too expensive to access?
    • Too complicated to understand or communicate?
    • Is there too much or too little of it?
  • the relationship with people
    • Who are the people involved in this problem?
    • Do they understand each other’s viewpoint or priorities?
    • Are they able to communicate and collaborate well enough?
    • What divides them? Time, distance, role, social or accessibility barriers?
    • What assumptions do they make about each other?

You can probably add other questions to those lists depending on your context. But the important thing is to focus on breaking down the problems that you are trying to fix. We can then isolate the parts of these that digital technology is best able to help with.

Being courageous

With all this in mind, it makes it easier to interrogate the technology to be able to establish how well it is going to help you fix the things that matter, compare potential solutions or even challenge whether technology is going to fix the problem at all. Maybe the answer lies somewhere else entirely with a non-technological fix.

It’s also important to be critical about what is being presented as the benefits and affordances of any new technology. One of the benefits people often claim for virtual reality is that it provides learners with an “immersive” experience. To which I think the question should be “so what?”. What is it about immersion that leads to a more engaging learning experience? (And what do you mean by engagement, anyway?)

I don’t mean all that in a snarky way. It’s about being curious, critical and challenging received wisdom; cutting through the hype to understand the outcomes that are meaningful for you.

It helps educational institutions to be able to have more robust conversations with suppliers. I think that it also helps the people selling solutions into education, encouraging them to develop technologies that help solve fundamental issues, not manufacturing short-term demand.

I also think it opens up discussions to allow for more creative solutions. Maybe a technology solution created with one thing in mind might actually help with solving a completely different problem!

What is the Metaverse supposed to solve?

I’m a bit concerned (as I was months ago) that the Metaverse is becoming a bit of a lightning rod for hype. For the record, I think there might be some exciting, transformational applications for metaverse technologies. It is very early days and while early engagement with emerging tech is good, a rush to be first risks falling into the trap of putting the cart before the horse. It reminds me of the drive for interactive whiteboards in schools in the early 2000’s.

As a mantra, Jon Hofgartner’s advice to be “creatively critical” is a great place to start.

By Chris Thomson

I'm a Subject Specialist at Jisc focusing on online learning and digital student experience.

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