In a recent interview with The Verge, Mark Zuckerberg announced that over the next five years, Facebook will transition from a social media company to a ‘metaverse’ company, akin to a virtual environment where people can be present with each other, at work or at play.
Although the term ‘metaverse’ isn’t new, it has now seen a new surge of popularity. According to tech journalists, it’s either an over-hyped corporate buzzword to excite investors, or it’s the next evolution of the internet.
So what exactly is the metaverse? in short, it’s about engaging in shared virtual spaces, manifested as either 3D environments or immersive VR. It’s important to note that a key aspect of the metaverse is that there is an emphasis on active participation in experiences, which makes it ripe for education and learning, but more on that later.
Whatever we may think of the term metaverse, what is clear is we are on the verge of something new, and even if the term ‘metaverse’ fades away into the archives of tech nerd-dom, the concepts being defined by metaverse will still continue to emerge.
Technologies such as digital commerce (Cryptocurrency), buying digital assets (NFTs), a decentralized authority (Blockchain), accelerated distributed networks (5G), and exponential growth in reality simulation software (Unreal, Unity) are all exponentially growing to make ‘virtual spaces’ a reality in the mainstream.
The Metaverse Today
Right now, the gaming industry is the sole leader and pioneer of what we call the metaverse. Yes, there are VR simulations for some workforce, military, or medical training, and there is experimentation in spaces like ‘decentraland,’ but by and large, it is the gamers that are building the metaverse.
Epic Games (with Unreal engine) is the leading pioneer in this space, now having incorporated music concerts and events into Fortnite. Unity and Roblox are two examples of gaming platforms that are making it possible for millions of creators to deliver games. Minecraft of course paved the way for creating worlds. It makes sense that games are the spaces where people participate, collaborate, and get creative together. If you want to know where GenZ is spending their leisure time, look to these gaming worlds.
In addition to games, an interesting and innovative aspect of virtual spaces is digital ownership. Everything from fashioning your avatar, to buying digital assets (art, music, real estate, etc..) to buying actual ‘moments’ or ‘experiences’ (NBA hotshots). NFT’s are the hottest craze right now, paving the way for a new kind of creator economy.
What Does Education Look Like in The Metaverse
It’s important to note that whenever a discipline enters a new type of medium, it always starts by copying behaviors of the previous medium. So when the film industry emerged in the late 1800’s, the first films copied the format of stage plays, until directors discovered editing. In the early web, everyone was creating web ‘pages’ following the pattern of printed pages, until we discovered the web can be dynamic, and so we called it web 2.0.
New mediums always start with following common practices and conventional models.
Education has rich traditional practices of classrooms, common curriculum structures, grading systems, certifications (diplomas), etc… but that doesn’t always translate in virtual spaces. This was easily evidenced last year when the classroom format was moved to Zoom, and teachers quickly scrambled to redefine what a classroom may look like on a digital display of talking heads.
So it is likely that the first immersive virtual spaces for education will be in the context of campus activities, or class lectures with 3D simulations. Class participation would probably be activity-oriented and enhanced with gamification.
What is exciting about this emerging technology we call the metaverse is that education aka ‘learning’ seems to be the perfect fit. We know this because learning is best achieved by doing, and simulated activities are all about experiential learning. In addition, GenX is already in the metaverse via gaming, so the transition to other virtual spaces (via education) would be a seamless move.
Right now… today… we are in the exploration stage of what learning may look like in a metaverse, no one has yet to build a successful model that works in the mainstream. Not just education of course, but any industry that is not gaming is in the exploration stage. In many ways, both the hardware (devices, headsets, glasses) and the software (processing, rendering) are continuing to mature, but this is happening at a rapid pace.
It is unclear if the first wave of mainstream acceptance happens in adult learning programs, academic settings, or universities, but the door to the metaverse is now opened.