How the metaverse can transform education
1 month ago
By Nick Clegg, President, Global Affairs
Digital technologies have transformed education over the past two decades. I’m only in my fifties, but when I went to school the most technologically advanced device 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.
However, there are limits to 2D technologies. While distance learning tools kept education spinning during the pandemic, anyone with teenage children can attest that it has often been a frustrating experience. It was difficult to keep them occupied with a flat panel display for a long period of 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 encompasses 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 is important. For most of us, learning is social – we learn from and with others and from each other’s experiences. This involves 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 were 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 surgical procedures 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 study in VR with Meta Quest 2 headsets. Her teachers report that this enhances the learning experience and allows students to foster social skills even when they are physically far away.
One example, raised last week at a roundtable I moderated with educators, academics and others in London, is a school that is building a digital version of the Globe Theater – the circular Elizabethan theater that staged Shakespeare’s plays – built and is now performing the final show on its famous stage, completely virtually. 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 have the opportunity 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 laboratory – a digital twin of the real chemistry laboratory at the physics university. In the virtual laboratory, students can carry out experiments as if they were there in person. Morehouse found that students learning in VR achieved an average final score of 85, compared to 78 for face-to-face testing and 81 for 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, It reports a pattern of poorer students around the world lagging behind their wealthier peers.
It’s not hard to imagine the benefits of being free from time and geographic restrictions. Universities in disadvantaged areas can work together and receive support from people far away. A great teacher could be teaching in an underserved school 100 miles away. A school system that lacks teachers in a particular subject could recruit them from anywhere in the country to teach.
It also gives ambitious students the opportunity to learn from people they don’t have access to locally. A student in Ohio could attend a seminar led by a professor in Seoul. Students in the most remote corner of Alaska could visit NASA, the Louvre in Paris, or the Great 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’s Global Campus surveyed students meeting with tutors and classmates in VR, it found that being an avatar reduced some’s fear of speaking to faculty and interacting with fellow students. Students with agoraphobia and PTSD both reported that they had difficulty interacting in person, but felt comfortable in the virtual classroom.
Ultimately, once the technologies are in place, it is up to governments to ensure that they are properly deployed in public education systems. And it’s forward-thinking education administrators who are creatively using these technologies in their schools and colleges, providing the best practices for others to adopt. Above all, they are competent teachers who know best how to inspire their students. That’s why comprehensive teacher education is 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 lay the groundwork through curriculum development, digital literacy programs, and teacher support and engagement to steer this technology for maximum impact. Crucially, it’s up to governments to ensure that all schools have access to these technologies, so that inequalities don’t widen further just because better-equipped schools can get hardware that others don’t have.
Metaverse technologies have the potential to transform education. This is happening right now, but to realize the potential in the years to come, educators and policymakers must seize the opportunities these technologies offer.