Digital technologies have transformed education over the last two decades. I’m only in my 50s, but when I went to school the most technologically advanced thing in class was a pocket calculator. Now, iPads and other tablets are commonplace. Museums and galleries the world over have integrated touch screens and interactive elements to their exhibits. Apps like Duolingo have brought language learning to smartphones. The fact these things have become normalized so quickly is a testament to the rapid way we’ve all seamlessly integrated new technologies into our lives.
But there are limits to 2D technologies. While remote learning tools kept the wheels of education turning during the pandemic, anyone with teenage kids can attest to the fact that it was often a frustrating experience. It was hard to keep them engaged for lengthy periods interacting with a flat screen. They lacked that vital sense of presence — interacting with their classmates and teachers in a shared space.
The metaverse is the next evolution of the internet — and it’s this sense of presence that sets it apart. It spans a range of technologies, including virtual reality (VR) headsets that transport you to whole new environments; augmented reality (AR) glasses that will one day project computer-generated images onto the world around you; and mixed reality (MR) experiences that blend physical and virtual environments.
Presence matters. For most of us, learning is social — we learn from and with others, and from each other’s experiences. It’s about interaction and discussion as much as it is about absorbing facts. Academic studies have found that VR can positively improve comprehension, knowledge retention, student engagement, attention span and motivation. I think that’s something we all intuitively understand. It is so much easier to remember doing something than being told something.
That’s what makes the possibilities for learning in the metaverse so exciting. Instead of telling students what the dinosaurs were like, they can walk among them. Entire science laboratories can be built and filled with equipment that most schools would never be able to afford. Medical students can practice complex surgery without risk to patients or themselves.
This isn’t science fiction or wishful thinking — it is happening right now. At Japan’s N and S high schools, the largest online high schools in the country, more than 6,000 students learn in VR using Meta Quest 2 headsets. Their teachers report that this enhances the learning experience and enables students to nurture social skills even when they are physically far away.
One example that came up at a roundtable event I chaired with educators, academics and others in London last week is a school that has built a digital version of the Globe Theater — the circular Elizabethan theater where Shakespeare’s plays were performed — and is putting on their end-of-term show on its famous stage, completely virtually. Young people won’t be in the same physical space as their classmates, and they won’t be traveling to London, but they will still be able to collaborate and learn how Shakespeare’s plays were created for this unique space.
At Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, biomolecular chemist Dr. Muhsinah Morris teaches her students in a virtual lab — a digital twin of the real chemistry lab at the physical university. In the virtual lab, students can conduct experiments just as they would if they were there in person. Morehouse found that students who learned in VR had an average final test score of 85, versus 78 in person and 81 for traditional online methods. They also reported an uplift in student attendance and engagement.
At the roundtable, one theme that came up repeatedly was equity. Children from poorer backgrounds falling behind, and staying behind, their wealthier peers is a complex problem I was confronted with repeatedly when I was Deputy Prime Minister in the UK. This educational divide is global, as demonstrated by the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment, which reports a pattern of poorer pupils lagging behind their wealthier peers around the world.
It’s not hard to imagine the benefits of being freed from the limitations of time and geography. Colleges in disadvantaged areas will be able to collaborate and get support from those far away. An outstanding teacher could teach in an underserved school 100 miles away. A school system that has a shortage of teachers in a particular subject could recruit them to teach classes from anywhere in the country.
It also opens up opportunities for ambitious students to learn from people they don’t have access to locally. A college student in Ohio could attend a seminar led by a professor in Seoul. Students in the most remote corner of Alaska could tour NASA, the Louvre in Paris, or the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo. A personal tutor could run a session with a student in a completely different city without either having to leave their house.
When the University of Maryland Global Campus surveyed students who met with tutors and classmates in VR they found that, for some, being an avatar reduced their fear of speaking to faculty members and interacting with peers. Students with agoraphobia and PTSD both reported experiencing difficulty with in-person interaction, but were comfortable in the virtual classroom.
Once the technologies exist, it is ultimately governments that will have to make sure they are utilized properly across public education systems. And it is forward-thinking education administrators who deploy these technologies creatively in their schools and colleges who are going to provide the best practices for others to adopt. Above all, it is skilled teachers who know best how to inspire their students. That makes widespread teacher training an essential component of any government strategy — none of it will work without teachers who know how to get the best out of these products.
Governments can start laying the groundwork through curriculum development, digital literacy schemes, and by supporting and convening educators to help steer this technology to have the biggest impact. Crucially, it will be up to governments to help to ensure that all schools have access to these technologies, so that inequalities don’t get further entrenched simply because better resourced schools can get hardware others can’t.
Metaverse technologies have the potential to transform education. It’s happening right now, but to realize the potential in the years ahead will require educators and policymakers to grasp the opportunities these technologies present.