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Does the “metaverse” for education have legs?

The “metaverse” is making headlines, thanks to Mark Zuckerberg and others. Chris takes a first look at the discussions that are starting to surface about this vision for future technologies and how they might impact education.

Facebook’s recent announcement that it was rebranding the parent organisation (that houses FB, Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus etc) as Meta was accompanied by Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the “metaverse” as where the company was heading.

What is the “metaverse” and what does it have to do with education?

The short answer is: it’s too soon to say…

…but it’s worth keeping an eye on, particularly to see when the ed-tech industry starts to get in on the act. The metaverse is “so hot right now” and inevitably we’ll soon see individuals and companies start to claim it’s going to transform or fix education.

According to Hackernoon:

The Metaverse is a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the Internet.

This video explainer from Microsoft expands on that, also showing us some proofs of concept where, weirdly, people’s avatars seem to have forgotten their legs!

As ever, it pays to be curious with emerging technologies, but also to bring a healthy scepticism. My rule of thumb with new stuff in education is to ask some core questions:

  • How does this new thing impact our relationship with information?
  • How does it impact our relationship with other people?

If the answer is not much beyond what we have already, and allowing for things that are difficult to predict or quantify, it may not be something that will make much difference in the end.

If the potential gains outweigh the effort of implementation and use, that it could genuinely reshape these sorts of relationships, we should pay attention.

Haven’t we seen it before?

Immersive universe experiences aren’t new. As this BBC article points out, the game Fortnite has stretched beyond it’s first-person-shooter origins to become something more social. Maybe even Animal Crossing is an example. You could be forgiven for thinking that Second Life was trying to do this 18 years ago but never hit the mainstream (remember when everyone was trying to set up a virtual campus?).

In a sense, as the Hackernoon definition suggests, this is less about a brand new thing, but the convergence of a range of existing technologies. What we are missing is the connection between platforms and technologies like immersive reality. Seen through this lens, the vast amounts of money spent by platforms on certain technologies makes sense.

What’s new this time? While the metaverse exists in development projects, press releases and hype, we can’t really identify what might be new which is why keeping an eye on it without falling for the hype is important.

Reasons to be careful…

One : Do we really want Facebook/Meta to be a key player in this?

Facebook/Meta has good reason to want to create a stir at the moment. It’s in a difficult position over a range of controversies  which create the legitimate question; on balance, is Facebook a good thing? A good time to create a distraction.

There are many organisations that are staking a claim to this territory so I perhaps shouldn’t make this all about Facebook. Trust is an important question, though. When we look at the players in this space and their track record, how confident are we that they would get it right this time?

This virtual world is “terra nullius” to a large degree, an undiscovered space that promises untapped financial reward. Not in itself a reason to shun this emerging technology but it does gives us clues about the motivations and potential behaviour of powerful corporations and platforms building on this space.

The revolution will be monetised, which means it will probably be built to maximise return on investment and in some ways that may be incompatible with the mission and values of education. We need to hold that to account.

Two : Sometimes it’s the boring stuff that makes the biggest difference

The idea of the metaverse is very appealing for lots of reasons. We could let our imaginations run riot with the glamorous possibilities. I wish I could remember who it was that said it, but there’s a great line that with technology, the good stuff happens once the innovative technology itself has become mundane and been absorbed into the background.

The vision for the metaverse is very attractive, something which is relatively easy to create when all you are doing is showing simulations and mock-ups. We also need to to imagine what it will be like in our day to day reality.

And maybe there’s good reason to try to fix what’s dysfunctional with the current options before we start to create whole new ones.

Three : It’s probably a very long way off

There are so many things involved in getting something like this operational, let alone fully embedded in people’s lives, that we shouldn’t expect any new products to appear soon. I feel it’s likely that we’ll see lots of solutions being sold to us as “metaverse-ready” or “your first step into the metaverse” without actually being much different from what we already have access to.

Cautious optimism

In this documentary on BBC Sounds, Verity Mackintosh from UWE and an expert in virtual and extended realities, sounds plenty of notes of caution about the protection of privacy and human rights in spaces where the tech companies move much faster than regulation (listen from 17 mins) . But the breathing space we find ourselves in give us a great opportunity to look at how current governance can already help us with what the metaverse may become, but governing bodies also have a chance to get ahead of the game.

She also calls for a diversity of voices to play a role in determining the direction and the standards involved rather than letting it become the preserve of the current holders of power. That means “actively looking for dissenting voices, and we actively invest in difference at this point”.

The education sector offers up many opportunities for the metaverse so maybe now is the time for us to think about what we want and what we can imagine, rather than just becoming passive consumers of any new platforms.

[Aside: I was particularly proud of the legs gag in the title until I realised TheNextWeb had got there before me.]

By Chris Thomson

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

One reply on “Does the “metaverse” for education have legs?”

Good piece. Having attended VR conferences in 93 and 94 i scream at the walls when the media buys into all the hype (metahype?). And as an instructor in CS trying to predict the near future yet watching how hidebound institutions resist innovation, your article reassures me we have a long way to go.

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