Could the metaverse disrupt public education?
Kids attend concerts on Fortnite. Why not attend school there, too?
In April of 2020 we were in the apocalyptic stages of the pandemic: schools, stores, airports, restaurants and entertainment venues were all shuttered and billions of people were relegated to their homes. People couldn’t congregate together anywhere for fear of a “super-spreader” event. And yet that didn’t stop rapper Travis Scott from holding a concert in which 12.3 million people crowded together to attend.
The trick? The concert was entirely virtual. Not live-streamed on a TV channel or broadcast through YouTube, Instagram or some other social media platform. Instead, the concert was held inside the three dimensional world of the popular game Fortnite.
What started as a game has evolved into something much more akin to Second Life or OASIS, the virtual reality simulation that nearly all humans use in Ready Player One (and originally, though lesser know, in Snow Crash). But while Second Life seemed to sputter out in the 2010s after some early promise, Fortnite now seems to be capitalizing on our desire to build a new society without leaving earth. Technologists refer to this new, interconnected virtual as the metaverse.
According to Wikipedia, the metaverse is “made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe.” And it’s popping up in headlines all over, from Facebook’s investment in its version (Horizon) to the more illicit side of Roblox, another game that, like Fornite, allows users to build and operate in an alternate reality.
In Fortnite, for example, players can build their own islands, create their own avatars, and host virtual dance parties. A NY Times article recently quoted the vice president of Epic, Fortnite’s developer, as saying, “It’s more than a game. We’re building this thing called the metaverse — a social place.”
Other games that dabble in the metaverse, like the aforementioned Roblox and another, Minecraft, are wildly popular among kids. So that got me thinking: if kids are willing to build islands and attend concerts and dance parties, why wouldn’t they want to attend school in the metaverse?
When the pandemic struck, my staff and I gathered in early April to distribute Chromebooks to every student. That was the start of 18 months of classes held via Zoom, Google Classroom, and Google Meet. While it sufficed given the extraordinary circumstances, it wasn’t without challenges: many families didn’t have reliable internet. When they did, students didn’t log on much. When they did log on, they were mostly black boxes. Teachers struggled to connect with students, and students struggled to connect with the content — and each other. Might attending a 3D school inside the metaverse alleviate some of those challenges?
Many businesses, Facebook included, are already thinking about a futuristic environment in which meetings are held in the metaverse instead of Zoom, allowing colleagues to interact with each’s others holograms — virtual replications of their human self, not just the clunky, alien avatars now occupying the metaverse. I could imagine a future in which we did the same for school.
Why? Enrollment in physical schools is already down this year, with cyber-school enrollment maintaining some of the gains it made during the pandemic. The only problem? Virtual schooling is currently not that exciting (and also not that effective). If you’ve ever used Google Classroom, Moodle, Canvas or any other online learning platform, they’re boring at best. They still rely on 2D interactions: kids staring at a screen. The metaverse might allow for a more immersive, interactive and thus more engaging experience, as students and teachers can “physically” interact without being physically near each other.
I could imagine a world in which we handout VR headsets next time, all directly connected to the internet via mobile 5G chips. Instead of Zoom meetings, kids would sit next to each other in schools within the metaverse. They would work collaboratively on projects, their holograms interacting at tables, eating lunch together in the cafeteria, doing fitness tests in the gym, and playing together at recess.
This sounds equal parts dystopian, futuristic, unrealistic, awesome, and revolutionary for public education. And potentially all education.
Shifting even a small portion of public education to the metaverse could have profound impacts: less money allocated for repairs to aging buildings, the potential elimination of catchment areas and district boundaries, new approaches for teaching training, the potential for remote work for thousands of teachers, rethinking how we serve free meals to qualified students, and numerous other major implications.
But are students ready for this? Recently I was talking with a student of ours who was having a rough day. I started asking him questions about life outside of school to distract him and help him calm down. “What’s your favorite thing to do after school?” I asked. / “I usually go home and if my friends are online we’ll hang out,” he said. / “You hang out with your friends online?” I asked. “Yeah,” he said, “my grandma doesn’t like me going outside, so we’ll play Fortnite or Roblox and chill.”
Thanks for reading. Have a great week.