Meta-morphosis: how do we find the new classroom?

What will we learn in the metaverse? And how do we get there? Educators, experts and a student talk about this last bastion of digital transformation.
A child is sat at a table in front of a laptop. They are wearing a red, white and green striped sweater and a VR headset. They have both their hands raised in front of them, palms flat outwards, as though touching something.
SARAH VLOOTHUIS HEADSHOT Sarah Vloothuis Senior Manager External Communications

"We were missing that social environment which, with the metaverse, you’d be able to replicate… sort of."

We adults like to think that the pandemic taught us a lot about kids and the detrimental effect that online schooling had on their overall learning, social skills and mental health. But were these issues less about a lack of togetherness and more about an inflexibility that’s built into the educational model? The idea of the metaverse has emboldened theorists to think about the paths less travelled for learning and opportunities to shake things up feel endless. In the second of our explorations into the metaverse, we speak to educators, global education experts and a student about what it could mean for learning and how we might get there.

After all, the physical framework within which children and young people are taught hasn’t really changed much in… well, forever. Across the world there are classrooms. Thousands upon thousands of them. Some are better equipped than others. Some are not even a room at all. But one thing is the same – a teacher imparts knowledge to students. It’s generally an experience that feels largely unbothered by the kind of technology we take for granted in the workplace, or even at home. Digital transformation has not changed the education sector anywhere near as much as it has everywhere else. And, boy, did we feel it when Covid 19 arrived and the luckiest children were sat in front of laptops and tablets, frustrated and distant from their peers and teachers. Some, like Ren, were initially instructed to not use any webcams and the chat function was restricted. Others were connecting by mobile data that lagged, dropped out or ran out. It seems archaic in the context of conversations around three dimensional virtual worlds, doesn’t it? Especially when you consider that the closest thing we have to a metaverse today, Roblox, has over 50 million daily active users – most of whom are school-aged – and who routinely use it to go to concerts, hang out with friends and even hold parties, as Ren and many others did for lockdown birthdays.

Ren could not be a more typical Gen Z. Even though they found online learning a miserable experience (“you weren’t really talking to people at all”), as an avid gamer who is well-used to being an avatar in a virtual world, they find the idea of going to school in a Ready Player One style metaverse not at all troubling. For them, it’s about the nature of the interactions and how it can bring a more personalised approach to learning than they currently experience. “There are some people who prefer to learn by doing stuff. And there are other people who prefer theory. So, tailor their learning to them better, using AI,” they shrug. And they’re right, it does seem obvious. After all, automation and personalisation are the new frontiers of so many industries – from marketing to medicine – why not education too? Adam Pensotti, who heads up Canon’s Young People Programme (YPP) sees the power in allowing students to guide their own learning, as well as finding ways to interweave disciplines as a means to a more rounded outcome. “English, Maths, Physics, Geography – why should we learn them in this very narrowly defined line of information that just stacks one on top of the other? Because they’re all so connected,” he says. “The metaverse allows us to challenge convention and gives us a blank sheet of paper. In theory, you can have it any way you want.”

A man in brown shorts and a black t-shirt faces a crowd of young people, who are all holding cameras to their faces to take his photograph. He is leaping in the air, doing a star jump.

The Canon Young People Programme opens new ways of learning by combining disciplines in a setting that often takes students out of the classroom and into experiences. A template perhaps for how learning can take shape in the metaverse.

The students who take part in the Canon YPP learn a broad set of new creative skills in a motivating mix of tuition, hands-on practical, out of classroom experiences and independent learning. All face to face, of course, but not entirely dissimilar, perhaps, to how Ren views the experience of learning in the metaverse, where the way students absorb knowledge sits front and centre. Throughout the YPP, it has also been recognised that the simple act of reconfiguring a classroom, something as easy as pushing the tables to one side, can dramatically increase engagement and change the way some students learn. Testimony too, perhaps, to how the metaverse could be a more accommodating place for learners of all styles.

But what of the teachers? Ren, unsurprisingly for a 14-year-old, thinks they will eventually become defunct, their roles assumed by Artificial Intelligences (“people are working out trying to make realistic human AIs, so once that’s perfected, I think you could do that”). No more teachers? It’s been a wish held by many generations of schoolchildren, but as the saying goes, ‘be careful what you wish for’. In the future, an AI may be able to generate the appropriate virtual learning framework for each individual child, but for Jonathan Jacobs, the Director of Specialism at West London’s Global Academy, there are some things that will require even more humanity as the metaverse progresses. “Technology and tools are a great enabler to enhance and develop education,” he says. “But it’s not about getting rid of the pastoral support and real-life human connection that we get in education.” However, he does admit that onboarding educators into the metaverse won’t be without its challenges. “What we found when we were e-learning in 2020 is that young people were able to easily adapt. But we also found that one of the biggest challenges was around staff finding it difficult.” This limited experience has shown Jonathan that moving education into a dramatically new space will no doubt require a completely changed approach to teacher training and continuous professional development. This, he notes, will take a certain amount of additional funding.

“You know at the start of Ready Player One? Wade Watts had this school issue headset and stuff that he used to get into The Oasis. At the start it’ll probably be, like, a basic framework of a regular classroom. But as time goes on, they’ll upgrade it and make it better.”

Unsurprisingly, as money is the biggest issue around education generally, it’s right at the top of the metaverse priorities by a significant margin. Assuming a fully functioning metaverse already existed, to create educational experiences that are aligned to approved curriculums and have them ready to use would be the equivalent of starting from scratch. Cross-curricular teaching environments and experiences would need to be created, tested and proven to work. Given that a single curriculum reform today can take around 12-18 months, bringing a whole suite of education with an entirely new scope and scale to life, while also providing a dedicated safe space in which to deliver it sounds, frankly, like a blank cheque. All the while, schools would need to be operating as normal in the background. As Jonathan rightly points out, such a colossal undertaking would require a huge network of educational establishments to share the same metaverse ‘resources’ for it to be even remotely financially feasible. Which then begs further questions: will education no longer have geographic boundaries? And, if so, who pays for it? And what does this mean for any countries without the means to be part of the network?

Equally, while some subjects are universal, Jonathan is also concerned by the matter of specialist education. As students get older, they narrow down their choices to those that will better serve their career goals. Certainly, at Global Academy, where the students learn skills for careers in media, the education they require isn’t widely available. It is here, he believes, that there are opportunities for industry to intervene, funding vocational content in the metaverse that not only supports their sustainability goals, but creates a ‘pipeline’, making it easier for them to find talent with the skills they are lacking in their organisations. “Could industry fund this?” he asks? “I’m seeing a lot more ‘sponsored education’, to put it in a loose way. It gives organisations the knowledge and skills they need, more efficiently and earlier through these kinds of opportunities.” Given current concerns around the digital skills gap, this concept certainly has legs and is, to a degree, already happening. Jonathan also highlights how the metaverse could be a great space for his students to practice less obvious employability skills, like interview techniques, or even what attending a networking event might be like.

It would, however, be naïve to assume that access to the metaverse could be equal to all learners in an inequitable world. The periods of lockdown learning highlighted just how big the digital divide continues to be, whether that’s through a lack of affordability, the absence of accessible content or issues of digital literacy. There is an argument that the metaverse will simply compound this divide if only wealthier societies shift towards it for work, education and leisure. However, Jonathan is among the optimists who believe that as equipment and access costs drop, and content develops (funded at least in part by industry) opportunities to learn in the metaverse will become realistic for all. Ren too likes the sound of this and is excited by technologies such as language translation, which mean they could potentially be in a classroom with students from around the world. “You won’t be limited by catchment of what school you go to. Theoretically, I could go to school with someone from, say, France. Or Japan.”

A girl in glasses sits on a wooden chair, holding a red sign showing the 1st United Nations Sustainable Development Goal, written in Polish. She has studio lights shining on her and to the right of the image is the close up of the back of another student, who is presumably taking a photograph of her.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals provide an important framework that should equally be applied to the metaverse as the physical world, believes Jayashri Wyatt, Chief of the Education Outreach Section at the United Nations Department of Global Communication.

It is, of course, highly telling that even the most well-resourced educational establishments in the world have returned wholesale to classroom-based education. “I do think there is no replacing in-person instruction and the Covid pandemic has shown us that,” says Jayashri Wyatt. As Chief of the Education Outreach Section at the United Nations Department of Global Communication, she is perfectly placed to consider the impact of the metaverse from an international perspective. She too is cautiously excited by the potential for education but knows that there is a great deal of work to be done to bring equity, safety and the values of the United Nations to the metaverse. Within the Sustainable Development Goals, ‘Quality Education’ sits at number four, to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” And by very definition of the word ‘goal’, we have not reached this target yet in the real world. So, isn’t adding a layer of metaverse just doubling the size of the mountain we need to scale?

“Right now, the metaverse is a little like the Wild West because it’s under construction. And I think we need to decide what kind of a world we want it to be,” says Jayashri. “As the ‘new internet’, it’ll be an incredible place where information can be shared in real time in ways that we haven’t had before. There are going to be amazing organisations and people and things that we want to accomplish that will be very positive, but like any new technology, there can be unintended consequences.” Jayashri cautions that while it’s easy to feel excited by the potential of a virtual world for learning, “we’re very much, as a species, a work in progress,” and this new world must also mirror values that are still very much a challenge for our current one. “We must recognise the dignity and rights of each and every human being. No matter where they’re from or what their background is. So, of course we want to continue to infuse any new technology with these kinds of values. And, most importantly, equal access for all.”

“I have a lot of online friends and it doesn’t really matter that we’re most likely never going to meet in real life. Because what matters is like what we do together in general. And with the metaverse you could do way more without having to physically meet.”

There is an element of assumption, of course, around how we believe our young people are going to engage with the metaverse, based entirely on the perception of the ‘digital native, never offline, TikTok obsessed’ generation of which Ren is a part. But this assumption largely dismisses the fact that they cheerfully live a ‘phygital’ life, in which going to school in person and hanging out with friends in Overwatch are equally valid. In previous generations, television was considered an existential threat – an opinion that we now find laughable. By the time any kind of working educational model for the metaverse comes into play, will we still be worrying about the how much time our children spend ‘online’? Will the metaverse even hold the same level of appeal when so much of their daily lives are spent there by educational necessity?

Ren thinks about this too. “Once the metaverse comes out, are people just going to shift from reality to metaverse? Because if that happened, that would be a bit rubbish, wouldn’t it?” they laugh. “I mean, you won’t be transported to an alternate reality. You’re just putting on a VR headset.” Today, their hopes and fears for the future are very much grounded in the real world and this feels unlikely to change. “The same issues are going to occur – I mean, being in the metaverse is not going to stop climate change.” Ren still wants to travel and have real-world adventures, saying that, ultimately, the metaverse “takes away the sense of anticipation and leaves no room for surprise”. Like Ren, Jayashri does not see the metaverse as any kind of substitute for real life. “It is so important for children and young people to go outside and put their feet on the ground. And breathe fresh air. Inhale reality. Experiencing nature’s beauty helps us to recognize our own humanity and connection with other forms of life.”

The Canon Young People Programme aims to inspire, educate, and empower young people from all over the world and uses the United Nations’s Sustainability Development Goals as a means to encourage them to share their stories and spark change in their local communities.

Sarah Vloothuis Senior Manager External Communications

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