The Metaverse. No, it’s not the latest comic book movie plotline. Yes, it is the thing you’ve probably heard Mark Zuckerberg talking about. But what is it exactly?
At its simplest, the Metaverse describes a not-so-distant future version of the Internet, where human beings will use immersive technology to go beyond their physical environment. Imagine swimming through a coral reef from your living room or taking students on a field trip to walk on the moon without them ever leaving their desks.
Harvard Graduate School of Education researcher and Ph.D. candidate Eileen McGivney, who taught a course on digital literacy last spring, is part of a team that wants to help educators understand the challenges and possibilities of bringing the Metaverse into the classroom with their new manual, An Introduction to Learning in the Metaverse.
"In recent months the buzz around the Metaverse has exploded, and this guide can help educators and educational technology designers understand what its promise is for learning versus what's just a gimmick," says McGivney.
Produced by award-winning education experience company Meridian Treehouse with support from Meta Education and Immersive Learning, the independent team of researchers, including McGivney, marine biologist and National Geographic Explorer Erika Woolsey, and historian and digital storyteller Kai Frazier, created the guide to offer practical strategies for educators to integrate the different tools that fall under the term “extended reality,” or XR, into learning experiences. These immersive technologies include:
- Augmented Reality (AR): Using a smartphone or tablet to superimpose digital content onto the physical world. Think Snapchat filters or games like Pokémon Go.
- Mixed Reality (MR): Users interact with physical and virtual objects with a head-mounted, see-through display. Students might scan a physical space and embed an undersea environment where fish can swim around them.
- Virtual Reality (VR): The physical environment is completely replaced with audio and visual stimuli in a virtual world. A headset like Oculus can allow a student to shrink down and explore the human body from the inside.
For anyone who thinks this all sounds a bit overwhelming, there’s reassuring news.
“The Metaverse isn’t here yet and even those who consider themselves expert don’t really know what it will look like,” McGivney says. “There’s still time to question and think about what we want it to be.”
For educators in particular, that means figuring out when and how XR is most appropriate for learning. For example, current technology is not suited for especially long periods of usage, so teachers wouldn’t want to create a 45-minute virtual lesson. But XR learning can be a great gateway into a new topic to spur interest and motivate students to learn more.
In fact, a recent study found that using VR to take students on a virtual field trip to Greenland to learn about climate change produced higher interest, enjoyment, and retention than peers who simply watched a 2-D video.
“Half the battle is getting kids to care about what you’re trying to teach, so VR, because of the way it situates someone in the environment and the power it can provide for storytelling, it gives someone an emotional experience, which really connects to student excitement and investment,” McGivney says.
So when is XR a good option for learning? A rule of thumb for teachers to follow is to use XR for experiences that otherwise would be too dangerous, impossible, counterproductive (for example, cutting down trees to learn about the effects of deforestation), or prohibitively expensive — what the guide refers to by the acronym DICE.
Here are some other things for educators to consider when inclusively designing for XR learning.
- What are your learning goals? Consider how XR can enhance a learning experience rather than just reproduce it. Say you’re a science teacher and your class is about to learn about the tidal zone. If you’re in a landlocked area, XR can be a great way to give your students the experience of being on the beach, but if you live close to the shore, a real-life field trip is still the better option.
- What will you need? Think about what technologies your students will need and what they will realistically have access to. You might want to design your own new XR content, which is challenging, but as the guide points out, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. There are lots of resources already out there to explore. This Educational VR Applications Database from Stanford University is a good place to start.
- What are your expectations? Teachers know how to measure learning outcomes for a traditional lesson, but you should reconsider what success looks like for a virtual curriculum. “We should think about the tech, not to teach a particular topic, but to give students an experience to see the value in what they are going to learn later,” McGivney says.