An educators’ introduction to the metaverse
Let’s be clear: the metaverse (however you define it) is decades away.
Which is not to say that it can be ignored in the meantime. Because while it may seem like science fiction or excessive hype at the moment, the fact remains that huge amounts of money and effort are being poured into making it happen – and educators should at least be aware of its possible implications.
What is the metaverse?
There is no single definition.
It is often described as the Internet, but in 3D: an immersive virtual world where users can socialize, play and work. Using our mobile devices, computers and game consoles, we will all share collective virtual spaces, participate in new digital experiences and have the opportunity to be part of an online economy where we can create, own and sell digital assets.
The metaverse will run 24/7: it will never stop. Our digital avatars will be able to move seamlessly from one virtual world to another, wear clothes purchased in the metaverse and interact with other avatars.
That’s the vision anyway.
Which the metaverse is not
The metaverse is not virtual reality.
Virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) are already well-defined technologies that are now being used to benefit education. While the metaverse will be accessible through VR headsets or AR glasses, VR/AR technology will be only one of the components for interacting with the metaverse.
It is not a single entity.
The metaverse will not be owned by one company; rather, it will be a vast, decentralized network of connected virtual spaces that includes the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the Internet.
This is not a step change.
The metaverse will evolve from the convergence of a range of existing technologies: not just VR/AR, but artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, cybersecurity and connectivity.
And it’s not here yet.
It is important to keep in mind that the metaverse is still a hypothetical concept that requires extraordinary technical advances before it can be made to function as intended. For example, there is no protocol yet that would allow avatars to move from one virtual world to another – which is one of the metaverse’s fundamental principles.
What can the metaverse mean for education?
The education metaverse is presented as a virtual reality teaching environment that will enable a more immersive style of teaching and learning: an “embodied” Internet where, instead of just watching content, we will be in it.
But educators really need to ask, “So what? What is it about immersion that leads to a better, more engaging learning experience? And what does ‘engagement’ really mean?”
And how will it differ from our current use of VR?
As we know, VR headsets, simulators and full-body immersion suits already add value to education by providing a virtual alternative to real-world experience. By simulating complex environments, they can give learners extra practice in otherwise dangerous, difficult or expensive physical tasks such as restoring offshore wind farms.
However, one major difference to note between VR and the metaverse is that while the experiences in VR systems stop once you turn them off, the metaverse – being a shared and persistent world – will continue to run. So, even when you remove your headset and leave the metaverse, your avatar can still be present in the digital world. If a digital twin acts up and uses AI, it will continue to undertake tasks such as gathering resources for your next assignment.
The technology still has a long way to go
Many obstacles must be overcome before the metaverse has any impact on education.
For a start, the next level of immersive reality will require much more complex technology.
We are far from being able to produce shared, persistent simulations that are synchronized in real-time for millions of users. The world just doesn’t have enough online infrastructure to support that number of people accessing the metaverse at the same time. It has been suggested that current state-of-the-art computing efficiency would need to increase by 1,000 times to drive truly persistent and immersive computing at scale.
And that amount of computing power will naturally go hand in hand with a huge increase in carbon emissions. While the metaverse may limit the need for physical travel, this must be weighed against its reliance on technology such as blockchain, which is extremely energy hungry.
Then there are the legal, regulatory and ethical issues…
As the next iteration of the digital economy, the metaverse will empower users to develop their own virtual spaces and solutions. It would establish a creator economy that allows users to own virtual assets and experiences that have a “monetary” value. Whether that value will be transferable between different virtual worlds (or to the real world) remains unclear – but the fact that parts of the metaverse will be profit-driven may make it incompatible with the mission and values of education.
Accessing the metaverse will also require more – and more expensive – kit. This is always a barrier to mass adoption and can widen the existing digital poverty gap.
And last, but by no means least, is the issue of data privacy.
The metaverse will enable – or even require – the collection, analysis and use of personal data from each user, including the tracking of eye and finger movements, or facial reactions. Monetizing this data and sharing it with other parties poses the risk with the broadest implications when it comes to privacy in the metaverse.
Making it a safe place for learners will require a review of current legal and regulatory procedures, a reimagining of the security landscape, and significant changes in user behavior.
So how should educators begin to prepare for the metaverse?
It is important to be critical of what is presented as the benefits of any new technology, and the metaverse is no exception.
While there may be some exciting, transformative applications in the educational field, these are early days, and it will be difficult to determine appropriate strategies for use until the infrastructure matures.
The metaverse will most likely first emerge in business and entertainment – and then it may be too late to influence how it develops and how to address the evolving technological, legal and ethical challenges surrounding its use.
For now, educators should focus on proven technologies and look to the use of AI and VR to lay the foundation for future advancements.
Paul Bailey is head of co-design at Jisc.
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