Pondering the potential of the metaverse in educational spaces, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, imagines infinite possibilities for learning opportunities.
“It will enable us to visit places we’ve never visited before,” Hirsh-Pasek said. “To learn French while we’re sitting in a French cafe. To go visit places in South Africa that we might have only heard about or seen on a Google map. Imagine if you could jump into the Google map. Imagine if you could go back and forth on a timeline and now really go back to the future.”
That’s the promise of the metaverse, she said. But the technology is not 100% there yet, she added.
Hirsh-Pasek co-authored a Brookings Institution report on education and the metaverse in February that defines the metaverse as a “third space” combining the virtual and living worlds.
“The metaverse of the future is likely to fully support augmented and virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and the connectivity to link all worlds,” the report said.
Cost versus student engagement
Cost and isolation are the biggest risks Hirsh-Pasek foresees districts facing as they consider integrating the metaverse into classrooms.
Virtual reality glasses currently available to immerse students into the metaverse are usually very expensive, she said, although costs will likely go down over time. In addition, the technology could take students away from developing personal connections with others if not facilitated well, Hirsh-Pasek said.
The idea of the metaverse is not new, it’s just been waiting for the technology and infrastructure to catch up, said Michael Young, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education with expertise in cognition, instruction and learning technology.
“The concept is probably perfect for making schools more engaging and getting beyond the walls of a classroom,” Young said.
Hirsh-Pasek imagines districts using the metaverse to take virtual field trips. Young, meanwhile, envisions a classroom transforming into an interactive augmented reality projection where students have special gloves that allow them to move around the universe.
In a way, it could be like a whiteboard shared by classmates in three-dimensional space, Young said.
Will students get left behind without the metaverse?
When any kind of technology becomes mainstream, anyone can be left behind if they don’t embrace it. The same goes for the metaverse in education, Hirsh-Pasek said.
In reality, Young said, the research is out there on how to use metaverse technology to instruct students. It’s just a matter of when the hardware for the technology will be developed and widely available, he said.
While he can’t predict when that will happen, Young said it’s conceivable that high-end, newer schools could be able to embrace metaverse technology within five to 10 years.
But Rebecca Kantar, director of the Roblox Community Fund, said the metaverse is already mainstream for the younger generation.
“Increasingly, parents, community members, caregivers, educators are understanding the power in the immersive experiences that students have already figured out are fantastic through interacting with Roblox and other platforms,” Kantar said.
The online gaming platform Roblox was founded in 2004 and grew to nearly 50 million users worldwide in 2021. Roblox is not a game itself, but rather a system where users go to play games made by other developers.
The Roblox Community Fund is focusing on bringing Roblox into classroom spaces that could best benefit from the 3D, interactive, virtual environments the platform uses.
To expand the company’s education efforts while supporting students, Roblox announced an initial $10 million grant in November for educational organizations that develop curriculum and educational experiences using Roblox in unique and compelling ways. The grant could also be used for professional development and technology support.
Kantar hopes to see the funds used to power learning opportunities that allow students to explore the wild or travel through time and space.
It’s also important students are exposed to technology they might use as adults, Kantar said, and that applies to the metaverse, too.
“We want kids who are ready to participate in adulthood as fully formed functioning members of society, and they need to have an understanding of how different technologies and different ways of humans leveraging those technologies interact with their lives,” Kantar said.
Don’t leave educators out
That doesn’t mean the metaverse should be used all the time in a classroom, she said.
“There are appropriate times and places for metaverse to be incorporated into classwork,” Kantar said. “I don’t think Roblox or anyone else is interested in usurping the role of other curricular materials that might lend themselves really well to support different types of learning, nor are we trying to displace the educator or the premise of a school day.”
Roblox is not currently compatible with Chromebooks, which are often used in classrooms, Kantar said. But the company is looking to address that.
Young and Hirsh-Pasek agree educators should collaborate with companies as a metaverse curriculum is developed.
It’s critical that schools with less access to technology and strong internet infrastructure are not left behind as others advance using this platform, Hirsh-Pasek said. Everybody needs equal access to the metaverse, she said.
“If it’s prohibitively expensive, if it’s something that isn’t accessed by under-resourced kids, if it comes in at a place that widens the gap, if it comes in a place that tries to take over and explain education rather than listening to the professionals who are already in the sector, it doesn’t work,” Hirsh-Pasek said.