Emerging Technologies Part 1: What is the Metaverse, how do we prepare teachers and families for it, and what does it mean for K-12 education?

By Micah Miner

Emerging technology trends, such as the metaverse, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence (AI), have the potential to transform education. This is not disputed; but the questions we are grappling with now is will this transform education by increasing student learning, achievement, and positive civic and societal engagement; or will it promote cheating, unethical behavior, and dishonest student practices?

This is an attempt to frame and provide clarity to this debate on these emerging technologies and share what their potential impact could be in K-12 education. This discussion will also include how these technologies may impact equity and provide some ideas on how to include them in classrooms in a way that protects student privacy and maximizes learning potential. For this article, we will focus on the theme of virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality and the metaverse and how it could impact K-12 education. The next article will discuss the implications of AI such as Open AI’s CHATGPT and debating their potential application for the teacher and students.

My district is pioneering the metaverse by using VR (Virtual Reality) headsets learning tool and the lessons we learned along the way as we learn and grow. We are especially committed to this because we serve Black and Brown students in our three working class suburbs on the outskirts of Chicago and want them to feel like their learning experiences in our district prepare them for the future the same as our upper class, predominantly white peers across the Chicagoland area. These emerging technologies can provide immersive and engaging learning experiences that can enable and ignite or negatively impact student learning. Yet conversations about how to use these technologies effectively and brave teachers need to take instructional risks with their students as they experiment with how these technologies can drive student engagement and learning. First, I will explain what the metaverse is and provide a brief history lesson on the topic.

Metaverse Definition and History

The metaverse refers to a shared virtual world or worlds that offer interactive, immersive, and collaborative experiences through innovative digital technology. Users access a “metaverse “using headsets and controllers or gloves to interact with a variety of digital games and worlds. It can also include a user-created avatar to travel within and between different digital worlds. Today, it is often described as a fully immersive internet that enables users to access augmented and virtual reality environments. While the term metaverse may seem new, Bernard Marr notes, “The metaverse is not new” (Marr, 2022). We have seen glimpses of it in various forms for almost a century. The visual above (LaBrie, 2023) summarizes a presentation I recently did on the topic at an IL tech conference this month in Illinois and summarizes my main points in this article also. Thank you to Jenni LaBrie for creating it.

The concept has been explored in various forms since the 1935 when Stanley Weinbaum’s short story Pygmalion’s Spectacles, which is about a man who creates a pair of spectacles that allow the wearer to experience a completely realistic and immersive virtual reality. In the late 1950’s, the Sensorama Machine was invented by Morton Heilig, which is considered the first “virtual reality” experience. The term “metaverse” was coined in 1992 by Neil Stevenson in his novel “Snow Crash.” The concept has been explored in various applications, from VR machines to sports broadcasting and entertainment media.” In 1998, Sportsvision broadcast the first live NFL game with a yellow yard marker, which led to the development of augmented reality technology. The Oculus Rift VR headset prototype was created in 2010, which reignited interest in virtual reality technology. The release of Ernest Cline’s book Ready Player One in 2011, which describes a virtual immersive world used to escape reality, further sparked the interest in creating a fully immersive metaverse, which was turned into a successful movie in 2018.

The Metaverse explained with the possibilities and challenges

Web 3.0 is the next stage of the internet, which is characterized by an immersive, 3D experience where one is in the web rather than just on it. This is the Metaverse, a virtual world that is interactive, immersive, and collaborative, with its own virtual economy. While not yet fully developed, the possibilities of the Metaverse are numerous. Users can practice real-world skills and tasks and experience a blend of real and digital experiences. Additionally, treatments for anxiety and phobias are possible for both teenagers and adults. The Metaverse offers an immersive environment for communication, collaboration, and learning, while also providing an opportunity to present a digital version of oneself through an avatar. The Metaverse also enables social connections and even virtual currency for goods and services outside of educational experiences.

As the concept of the metaverse evolves, it is becoming increasingly clear that this virtual world comes with its own set of challenges. One major challenge is cyber security. With the possibility of having one avatar (identity) and travelling between metaverses, issues of privacy, cyber-safety and security are becoming increasingly pertinent. Another challenge is affordability. The high cost of VR and AR (Augmented Reality) gadgets may prevent many people from investing in this technology. Furthermore, the metaverse may be used by some people as a substitute for the real world, which raises concerns about the negative physical and emotional effects of use, or overuse, of VR/AR. These health concerns include eye strain, dizziness, headache, sedentary lifestyle, loss of connection with nature, anxiety, bullying, addiction, isolation, and over-stimulation. It is also important to address privacy and cybersecurity issues in the metaverse to ensure a safe and secure virtual world for everyone.

Reason education is currently discussing the Metaverse

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many schools and districts to transition to online learning, and the limitations of this approach had a profound impact on students, teachers, and families. The sudden switch to virtual learning created an enormous challenge for educators, who struggled to deliver content in an engaging and effective way. As a result, students’ academic performance suffered, and many experienced feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and isolation. The lack of interaction with their peers made the virtual learning environment even more challenging for students. Additionally, the limitations of the technology used in virtual classrooms made it difficult for teachers to connect with students individually, and many students found it challenging to reach out for help. The negative effects of online learning have prompted a conversation about the importance of finding solutions to the challenges of virtual education, and how to improve the virtual learning experience for everyone involved. Addressing these issues is necessary for ensuring that students can continue to learn and grow, regardless of the circumstances.

Educational Examples of how schools are using the Metaverse

The concept of the Metaverse is gaining traction in education as schools, groups, and entrepreneurs are utilizing virtual reality to build immersive learning experiences. Optima Academy in Florida is the first Virtual Reality classical education charter in the country. The curriculum examples for how to use the Metaverse include dissections for biology, space travel for science, immersion experiences for social studies, and virtual field trips to museums and ancient ruins. By incorporating the six Metaverse possibilities of 1) collaboration, 2) communication, 3) learning, 4) digital presence, 5) immersive, and 6) realism with the six C’s of learning (Golinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek, 2016), which includes 1) content, 2) critical thinking, 3) creative innovation, 4) confidence, 5) collaboration, and 6) communication, learning experiences can be designed effectively (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2022). With the potential of the Metaverse in education, it offers an opportunity to create engaging and meaningful learning experiences that can benefit students.

Supporting Students, Families & Schools for the Metaverse

As the Metaverse becomes a more prominent part of our lives, it is important to take steps to support students, families, and schools in navigating this new virtual world. Parents must teach their children how to interact safely and respectfully in the Metaverse, just as they teach them about navigating the physical world. However, since the Metaverse is still in development, parental control and safety measures are inconsistent. It is crucial to remember not to substitute virtual experiences for real-life ones, as spending time in the physical world has greater mental health benefits. Additionally, safety precautions must be taken when using a headset that covers the eyes, and people of all ages may experience VR motion sickness. Parents and teachers should monitor their child’s/student’s technology activities and usage, limit screen or VR time, and communicate with students without judgment to understand their tech use. Developing digital routines for home and school tech is also essential. Finally, the Metaverse offers enormous potential for immersive learning and exploration, and teachers and caregivers will play a crucial role as guides to these faraway places.

How we are using VR to help our students learn in a Metaverse

Our district has purchased VR headsets & controllers this year thanks to the support of our superintendent and the board of education. We will be using this innovative technology but have made thoughtful choices on how we will use it. In the area of hardware, we purchased VR headsets for our nine buildings that are stand-alone and do not need to be attached to any computer. We wanted a flexible headset to accommodate our students with many sizes and shapes as well as diverse hair styles and types. We were able to find a headset that was easily adjustable, simple to clean, and not too heavy. We found a good content provider for our learning experiences. This provides elementary and middle school students in our district with the opportunity to explore a virtual reality “metaverse” as part of their Social Studies and Science curriculum. All students in 4th through 8th grade will have access to VR headsets.

Our instructional technology coaches (InTech Team) will facilitate and coordinate the VR learning experiences in collaboration with our teachers. Virtual field trips, which allow kids to explore real places digitally, will be incorporated into the curriculum, simulations, virtual dissections, and other learning explorations based on connections to the curriculum maps and units. The use of VR headsets and virtual field trips provides an immersive and engaging learning experience that enables students to explore the world without leaving the classroom. We want our students to be prepared for the future, and the Metaverse is becoming an increasingly inevitable part of future careers as our society provides more ways to have a digital and physical life.

We have learned a few things along the way as we slowly begin this rollout:

  1. It is important to manage all the headsets and their content, rather than individually. This helps maximize efficiency of the tech tool with minimal time. We found a platform that can manage the content the headsets have, put the devices in groups for elementary and middle school differences, and manage updates.
  2. We had to find a way to cast what the students were seeing on the headsets in case they are unsure about how to go through the learning experiences. Our InTech coaches can help the students navigate where to go to help them gain the intended learning outcome.
  3. This is most effective as a station or small group experience, not as a whole class. That is why we have decided to have the InTech Coaches plan times to push-in and facilitate the small group VR learning experience or pull them to a separate location. Due to the unique immersive VR experience, the physical layout of the area needs to be intentional, so students are physically safe while they complete the virtual learning. We do not want them to walk into each other or run into things while they are exploring and learning.

We are learning many more things as we roll this out and look forward to sharing what we have learned with other districts as well as have other districts who already have done the work share best practices and things that they have learned throughout their journey.

References:

Micah Miner serves as the District Instructional Technology & Social Studies Coordinator at Maywood, Melrose Park, Broadview School District 89. He believes equity matters, not just globally, but locally and all students deserve equity and access in education and life. Micah has served as a teacher in K-12 settings in both regular classrooms and alternative schools, as a social studies department chair, instructional technology coach, adjunct professor in social studies and instructional technology, and as a school and district administrator. He can be reached on social media @minerclass on Twitter, his LinkedIn profile  here, and his email  micah.miner@maywood89.org.

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