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.”