Our educational system has had only minor changes in the last century. Today, we’re at the tipping point of a formidable transformation in how students learn. By joining education and gaming through virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are already becoming more accessible, practical, interactive and relevant to a broader group of learners. And soon, the laws of the physical world will no longer apply as students conduct experiments in the metaverse.
The metaverse is a loosely defined concept referring to shared, immersive, lifelike digital spaces in which people’s avatars and their goods can freely interact, accessible through high-end VR/AR headsets, goggles or other device screens (for a less immersive experience). As the Washington Post noted, many of the core technologies enabling these virtual realms already exist as independent, closed platforms within the gaming world (e.g., Fortnite, Minecraft, Roblox, Second Life), but the idea is that future integrated platforms will support the activities of daily life in workplaces, entertainment venues, classrooms and more.
While most pundits agree a completely integrated metaverse is still many years away, technology research firm Gartner predicts that “by 2026, 25% of people will spend at least one hour a day in the Metaverse for work, shopping, education, social media and/or entertainment.”
Students learning in VR-based systems have one foot in the metaverse already, according to a Deloitte survey on digital media trends. Even when high-end VR headsets and goggles are out of reach, less immersive VR experiences are still accessible through existing smartphone, tablet and desktop screens. Today, there are excellent educational simulations that are closed systems with known parameters, but in the future, there will be simulations modeling physical systems that function realistically. There are already video games with such cause-and-effect physics engines; the goal is to be able to offer the same level of realism to students learning to solve real-world problems.
Therefore, it’s not too soon to consider how education within the metaverse can provide an even richer and more satisfactory learning experience for both students and teachers—and a potentially profitable one for academic institutions.
The metaverse now offers the opportunity to elevate education with immersive experiences that bend the laws of the physical world and open completely new ways of teaching and learning skills with unlimited potential. In the metaverse, we can bring cutting-edge technology innovations to teachers and students at a far lower cost and with limitless possibilities.
For example, students studying a cure for cancer can use the infinite scalability of a simulation to see how healthy cells work at a molecular level and their subsequent distortions. They could experiment in the simulation, built with known genetic sequences, to make genetic modifications to return the cell to normal behavior—without the restrictions or costs of the physical lab.
Virtual reality-based learning already supports student engagement, conceptual understanding and resource availability. Here are three ways in which the emerging metaverse can further improve education by increasing inclusivity and opportunity:
1. Accessibility. The pandemic has highlighted inequities in education (as well as American culture in general) and left students struggling. Traditional tools and learning systems that may work well for a specific subset of students may not for neurodivergent students who need specialized, personalized instruction. One of the most exciting reasons for education to transition into the metaverse is to improve their accessibility to controlled learning spaces in which they feel safer and more relaxed than in real-world environments.
2. Diversity. The metaverse can also promote more diversity in the traditionally white male-dominated STEM fields. One of the reasons for the gender and diversity gap in STEM fields is due to a lack of STEM identity, which is the vision a learner has of their belonging and ability to succeed in science. Both girls and minority students can become discouraged by the lack of diversity and believe at a subconscious level that they will not succeed in science careers. Education within the metaverse can enable students of minority groups to connect with each other more easily and create a supportive community. Learning materials can speak directly to learners at an early stage, making the subjects engaging and, in turn, helping students to see themselves as a vibrant part of the STEM community.
3. Economic opportunity. Education within the metaverse can become even more accessible, practical, engaging, interactive and relevant to a broader group of learners. It may become easier to disconnect courses from degree programs so more students can have access to whatever classes they want, wherever they might live and from prestigious universities they might not otherwise be able to attend or afford in person. Moreover, within the metaverse, students will be able to build out their virtual avatars with skills and experiences relevant to real-world job opportunities, as documented and guaranteed by non-fungible tokens (NFTs).
In the metaverse, students from different classes around the world will be able to connect and experience simulations together. The brightest young minds in engineering, biology and chemistry around the world can join forces through their virtual identities in the metaverse to seek solutions to the global climate threats.
Stories about in-game real estate purchases and live concerts have characterized recent media coverage of the metaverse. But the real story is that young people everywhere have a better tool for exploring and learning about the universe when they are inside of a simulation where the laws of the physical world don’t apply. In the near future, we’re going to see massive positive change within the STEM fields.