Classrooms of the future: Education in the metaverse

Published: Fri 16 Sep 2022, 3:00 AM

Last updated: Wed 2 Nov 2022, 12:09 PM

The Web3 classrooms of the future are nearly here. The only question is, are you ready for them?


Rida Jaleel

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“Margie even wrote about it that night in her diary. On the page headed 17 May 2157, she wrote, “Today Tommy found a real book!”

It was a very old book. Margie’s grandfather once said that when he was a little boy, his grandfather told him that there was a time when all stories were printed on paper. They turned the pages, which were yellow and crinkly, and it was awfully funny to read words that stood still instead of moving the way they were supposed to — on a screen, you know. And then when they turned back to the page before, it had the same words on it that it had when they read it the first time.”

When Isaac Asimov wrote The Fun They Had in 1951, we were more than half a century away from the pandemic that changed the face of education and schooling forever. Even though we are far from 2157, with its advent, we were forced to encounter the reality that kids can and will learn even outside the traditional structures of brick-and-mortar schools, face-to-face interaction, and physical books—especially when pursuing the traditional model might endanger their very lives. This reality is perhaps taken a step further (or rather, several steps further) through the introduction of Web3 education.


What is Web3?

Now, this might be a term that you’ve heard floating in news verticals and water-cooler conversations at work. But, if you’ve never deemed it important or affective enough to pick up, then you might have to start now. Because, even without the gift that keeps on giving — AKA the Coronavirus — metaverse schooling will soon be the norm that your children might have to get used to.

If Web1 was static ‘read only’ pages on ISP web servers, Web2 signified a more social, participatory nature of the internet where you could initiate a two-way exchange with it. Think Facebook, Instagram, video games and blogs. If in Web2, you could share with the internet as much as it shared with you, in Web3, you are the internet. Web3 signifies a decentralized technology where you transact your data and assets the way you like it, without limitations. Here, you can interact with people from across the world, visit museums and institutions, partake in virtual discussions, drive a car, host a party, and even dissect a frog, all in the comfort of your room, or as they like to call it, the metaverse.

What will the classroom of the future look like?

With the onset of the Dubai Metaverse Strategy, Web3 is galloping from a sci-fi dream of many to reality quicker than anyone could have anticipated. Although Web3 education is currently in the workshop getting a few key tenets tweaked, some schools like the Dallas Independent School District in Texas have already materialised the metaverse for their students when the school had to shut down owing to Covid. Through STEMuli, these children can log onto the platform on their respective computers and have their avatar go to their digital classrooms where they learn, play games, walk places, and raise their hands to share answers. The credit they are awarded for being diligent or creative can be used to either upgrade their gaming experience or translate into actual earnings.

The UAE’s Gulf Medical University, too, is scheduled to open a branch in the Dubaiverse where you can have consultations and speak to health experts—all virtually and in your language. Sounds mesmerising, doesn’t it?

The advantages of metaverse schooling

With the ongoing inflation and rising prices, one of the biggest concerns of Gen Z is money. For many, choosing to go to college would mean having to work multiple jobs and the sword of student debts swinging over their heads for the rest of their lives. The job market saturation and the need for future-proof careers have made continuous upskilling the absolute need of the hour. But, where’s the money for all this?

Web3 explores the possibility of a differentiated, adaptable mode of education where you can pick and choose subjects and courses based on your interests and aptitude and pay for only those. With initiatives like the Open Badge Passport, it is possible for you to acquire digital credit for your performance in these courses which are then transferable to real-life jobs.

Through education in the metaverse, the very texture of learning will undergo a dramatic, unprecedented change. Rather than a one-way mode of instruction—where educators dictate and students take notes—in the metaverse, kids can experiment and indulge in the dynamic, flipped model of education where educational liberation is the ultimate cornerstone. Students can conduct experiments, view 3-D renditions of Egyptian pyramids, take trips to space, and create fun avatars for themselves. A true “choose-your-adventure learning experience,” as the founder of the K20 Educators, Vriti Saraf, rightfully puts it. Once this universe is fully developed, you don’t have to choose between Math and the Fine Arts; you can do them together, through virtual collaboration and cross-curricular teaching! Moreover, having a complete digital record of student performance and recollection can facilitate educators in knowing the weak and strong points of each student and strengthening efforts in the required topic/subject.

Another advantage of this is that the very concept of Web3 hinges entirely on the principle of DAO or Decentralized Autonomous Organization. This means that no longer will your identity and information be monopolised over by an all-knowing data police. This tenet allows all the transactions and interactions that take place through Web3 to be decentralised and democratic—including education. It transcends physical boundaries and linguistic barriers, equalising and bridging the socio-economic and cultural gaps that hinder some students while bolstering others. Anyone who possesses the desire can now learn.

Disadvantages of metaverse schooling

Yes, anyone can now learn but that also means that anyone can now teach. There’s the catch you’ve been waiting for. Apart from being rather underdeveloped, the execution of the Web3 technology in the realm of education has a few other significant glitches to smooth over. One of them being the question of standardisation. The subjects are as multifarious as teaching methods. Since there isn’t a governing entity—like a school district/board—to make the big decisions, who determines which curriculum/course material/technique is the most appropriate?

Another related issue is of standardised certifications. As of today, there is no recognised universal certification that Web3 schools can issue. Unless the entire job market integrates this advanced technology and makes ‘stackable credit’ possible, Metaverse schools will still be largely incomplete and controlled. (It will have to be executed under governing institutions like schools or universities, thus limiting it again by the established curriculum and reading material).

Sure, through artificial intelligence and virtual reality, children will now absorb knowledge like never before. But the question we ought to ask ourselves is: is that enough? Even though Web3 technology is touted as the technological messiah of equality in distribution and collection of information, the truth remains that metaverse schooling could further rob our children of the possibilities of physical contact and interpersonal connections. Little Margie in Asimov’s short story longingly thinks of the rambunctious bustle of classrooms of the past where kids learnt their lessons, shoulder-to-shoulder, got the chance to kick a football with each other, swapped lunchboxes, and imbibed the important lessons of co-existence, compassion, teamwork, social skills, social work, and privilege.

It’s no secret that a long-term shift to remote Web3 education with little to no scope for hybrid learning is unfair to a large subsection of students; those with learning disabilities, problems with isolation, and difficulty in adequately grasping technology. Another barely concealed bleak reality is that, according to the Newport Academy, California, nearly 50% of teenagers believe themselves to be addicted to technology and devices. Without a doubt, enabling a wholly virtual mode of education will only further exacerbate this tech addiction in children, acting as a poor substitute for human warmth and “irl” friendships. Furthermore, McKinsey’s Center for Social Benefit through Healthcare states that remote learning directly correlates to “a decline in students’ mental health and physical fitness.” In short, the more dependent your children become on virtual learning, the harder it’ll be for you to ask them to get off their devices and stop and smell the flowers.

In a traditional classroom, with uniformed students swapping notes and scraps of conversation, heartbreaking socio-economic divisions mostly hide behind an invisible curtain. To a large extent, these children get access to the same kind of resources and teaching material, at least within the purview of the classroom. But one of the fundamentals of Web3 that gives it its uniqueness is that it is also a means to create “artificial digital scarcity” that then makes these tokens all the more valuable and warrants the pumping in of wealth for its acquisition.

Even though, currently, Metaverse schooling is championed as the movement for equality in education, the hard reality is that the other tech elements involved—Occulus Quest 2 VR headsets, VR headphones, and a desktop computer/laptop—already make it inaccessible to a large section of the population. Even though the former two gadgets are deemed optional for now, the students who can afford them are bound to have a much more immersive and thorough educational experience than ones with just a laptop—even that is a luxury for students from marginalised, financially at-risk families and communities. According to the Asian Journal of Psychiatry (2020), “an increase in the number and thus the rate of suicide among students is a disturbing reality of mental instability caused by this new situation. Incidents have been reported across the country from different (Indian) states and the commonality. Most of the reported cases of student suicides were attributed to not being able to attend class online.” This is the same across a lot of South Asian countries.

There is also no guarantee that this model of digital exclusivity won’t ever be exercised within the realm of education, too. Considering these scenarios, it’s not a stretch to speculate that education in the metaverse, like every other cutting-edge invention, will ultimately leave the vulnerable out of its victory run, further entrenching the digital divide that is so prevalent in the world today.

Regardless, one of the most poignant, driving truths about parenthood is that no matter your station in life, you invariably want the best for your children. They are your ticket to the future, and in the digital age, the ‘future’ might as well be synonymous with ‘technology’. Being well-versed in Web3 and gaining (virtual) admittance in the (virtual) schools of the future may seem imperative to not be left behind in the race of acquiring digital nativity. No matter the journey, let’s hope that the destination is a pleasant place: one that imparts virtual lessons and assets that help live real life.

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