Educating in the Metaverse

AR use

Using augmented reality to see what is not physically there.

There is not much mention of education in all the discussions this year about the metaverse, but it is thought that it will better allow students to have a cyber-physical learning experience. The virtual world will merge with the real one more and more seamlessly.

For the past 20 months, there has been a global educational experiment in online learning. But don't think that what has happened in education because of the COVID-19 pandemic is an accurate account or prediction of what teaching and learning are at their best, or what they will become in a metaverse. The forced move to online education was awkward for most schools, students and teachers, particularly in the first two semesters. By the spring of 2021, all parties were better adapted to learning online. For the fall 2021 semester, many schools were able to go back to their pre-pandemic methodologies and content delivery. The best schools and teachers have not abandoned what was learned in those online days, and for them learning has continued to shift between online and in person. Online delivery has become more of an integral component of education. The whole move online in 2020 and 2021 should lead to more inclusive and creative pedagogical solutions.

My earlier post on the building of the metaverse did not consider education. No one should think that what we now call online education looks anything like the metaverse. Actually, some online worlds from decades past, such as Second Life, are closer to the metaverse than current online education. The building game Minecraft is enjoyed by millions of young and old learners and has found a place in higher education too. Both of those products have been used to enhance lectures, allow virtual field trips and make students creators. I took tours of campuses in Second Life at the start of this century. They were crude by today's tech standards but they didn't require a clunky headset. I did it once in front of a giant screen and it was more "immersive" but no metaverse.

Current virtual reality (VR) simulations allow students in medicine, engineering, and architecture to practice skills that are difficult to rehearse in real life.

Most followers of the metaverse will say that some forms of it are already here. I discussed in the previous article some companies that already offer applications and platforms that fit part of the definitions (and there are multiple definitions as of now) of the metaverse.  Another company that is making inroads to educational use is Roblox. In its current version, it looks very much like a game, which is often a serious deterrent for educators to consider using technology. But they are expanding the tools offered and giving users and developers more opportunities to create experiences of their own.  with an emphasis on safety.

Roblox has more than 203 million monthly active users in their virtual world. Some might call this platform a "proto-metaverse." But so far, it lacks the VR and AR that are part of all definitions of the metaverse. There is also caution required here for safety since many of those users are children. Roblox CEO David Baszucki may have used some hyperbole in saying during an interview that his company’s business model predicted the metaverse 17 years ago.

The media is already countering any metaverse visioning with cautionary tales of the dangers it might also offer. It ranges from fears that predators might use it to lure children. Since the porn industry has been at the lead with many technologies from VHS tapes and DVDs to online video, there's a good chance that they will want in on the metaverse. A lot of warnings currently come from a lack of understanding about what a metaverse will look like, and the misperception that somehow Zuckerberg and Meta will be THE metaverse rather than a part of it.

John Preston (Professor of Sociology, University of Essex) believes that some aspects of the metaverse are already in universities. His fear is that it will offer revolutionary potential for greater profits to be made in higher education. His research on digital technologies in higher education shows that a metaverse could monetize the student experience even more than now and also exploit the work of academics.

Jaron Lanier, who was an early promoter of VR and founded the first VR company (VPL Research) and made Virtual Reality the term for the head-mounted display has changed his mind on the metaverse. I attended a workshop he did at a conference in the late 1990s and wore his headset and put on the wired gloves to walk through a virtual world while moving around a small room that had a few ramps and objects that became something else in my headset view. It was pretty cool. And pretty awkward. I heard him speak at an edtech conference around 2010 when he had published his "manifesto" You Are Not A Gadget. Lanier's wonder-filled dreams for what these new technologies as we turned into the 21st century could provide for humanity had become nightmares.  His 2018 book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now indicates that the dreams are still nightmares.  In a recent Forbes article, Lanier says, "If you run [the metaverse] on a business model that’s similar to the one that Facebook runs on, it’ll destroy humanity. I’m not saying that rhetorically. That is a literal and specific prediction that humanity could not survive that."

While some people may be creating a virtual research center ecosystem using Microsoft Teams, others are suggesting that we need to forget the tech and focus on human beings, while some feel we need to use digital simulations to prepare students for future careers.

My own metaverse predictions are that it is farther away than the current buzz seems to indicate, and that augmented reality (AR) will play a greater role than virtual reality (VR) - unless they can get rid of that clunky VR headgear. I see that Meta, which owns Oculus (known initially for making hose clunky goggles) has dropped the Oculus branding. Maybe they will also drop the headgear.

The Metaverse Is Being Built

I know that Facebook has generated a lot of talk about the metaverse, but the metaverse will be built and contain many companies and persistent virtual worlds. Those places will interoperate with one another. They will also interoperate with the physical world. Microsoft has described the metaverse as “a persistent digital world that is inhabited by digital twins of people, places and things.”

It will certainly create its own economy, much like what happened from the early days of the Internet. Many metaverse stories seem to portray as a leisure and game environment, but it will take in much more serious industries and markets. It will certainly include eventually finance, retail,  health & fitness and others. (I think it will be incorporated into education too, but that will be an upcoming article.)

Do you recall when Niantic launched its very popular Pokemon Go in 2016? That launch moved the idea of merging the physical world and AR and VR experiences. I read recently that Niantic CEO John Hanke had once called the metaverse a “dystopian nightmare,” but now they are looking to create their own version that will be AR-focused. Their augmented reality development kit is called Lightship. It is intended to make it easier to build AR experiences.

An article on gizmodo.com listed other companies besides Facebook and Niantic that are already building their way into a metaverse.   

Microsoft announced efforts to pursue an enterprise, office-focused metaverse by integrating AR and VR from its Microsoft Mesh platform into Teams which it sees as a “gateway to the metaverse."

Nvidia's OmNVIDIA Omniverse is an open platform where creators, designers, researchers, and engineers can connect major design tools, assets, and projects to collaborate and iterate in a shared virtual space. The company's announcement shows it as part of their broader “omniverse” ambitions. Omniverse is their own branded name for the metaverse and I suspect other companies will also try to brand their part of the metaverse, although a true metaverse will contain all of them. The Internet contains many portals, platforms, domains, and websites, but they are all the Internet or World Wide Web.

Meta, which people consider something new, actually has years of experience building its VR and AR applications. They already have their Horizons Workrooms platform available as a free beta on the Oculus Quest 2. It is a virtual office space designed for workers at home, in the office, or anywhere else. (Note: The Oculus brand


NOTE: In October 2021, Facebook, Inc. announced that it would change its corporate name to Meta, and that the Oculus brand name would be phased out in 2022. Future VR hardware produced by the company is expected to fall under the "Meta" brand rather than Oculus, while "Horizon" will be used for immersive social experiences operated by Meta, including those previously operated under the Oculus brand.

 

 

Farewell to Baccalaureate Degrees?

graduation caps
Image by Gillian Callison from Pixabay

The University of Al Qarawiynn appeared 12 centuries ago in what is now Morocco. In 1088, the University of Bologna was founded. It seems that colleges and universities have always been with us and many of us expect them to always be the leading paces for serious education and research, launching careers and changing the world.

But enrollments for undergraduates have been declining in the 21st-century. InsideHigherEd reports that enrollments dropped by 600,000 (3.5 percent) in the past year and they report on the "demise of the baccalaureate degree."

Why? This past year the pandemic certainly had an impact on enrollments but the trend goes back further. Quick answers include the cost, outdated methods and employers who increasingly find less value in the degree.

Both employers and students seem to be wanting shorter credentialing than the traditional four-year (sometimes) baccalaureate, and alternative credentials. 

If higher education hasn't kept pace the past few decades with technological and social change, it's not shocking. "Change from 1821 to 1822, or 1921 to 1922, was likely somewhat less frenetic than we see from 2021 to 2022."  Somewhat is an understatement.

In the article cited above, Ray Schroeder asks if higher education has kept up by changing: courses, prerequisites, general education requirements, curricula, competencies, emphases and anticipating and incorporating social shifts in working and leisure. He thinks it means "teaching for the future rather than the past."

He asks, "Who on your campus is leading the charge to update the curriculum, to cultivate alternative credentials, to promote revised transcripting that will turn the process over to the student as owner with the university becoming one of a whole host of participants offering documented credentials? Will your institution be left behind, charging $100,000 or more for an outdated and less relevant baccalaureate while others will be offering less expensive, more relevant, just-in-time credentials that are valued by both employers and students?"

 

 

The Virtual Internship

workplace
The in-person internship

Internships for college students (and sometimes high school students) have long been a good experience. They help young people develop a professional aptitude, learn real-world skills, and often create an opportunity for a follow-up job. They took a hit during the pandemic with offices closed and a reluctance on both sides to be out in the world.

Virtual internships became a thing. I assume some existed before but not in great numbers. I read about some undergrads at Brown University who began Intern From Home in March 2020. They wanted to salvage internships during the pandemic for classmates with a free, simple-to-use platform. They were connecting students at more than 200 colleges with virtual internships and it looks like they have doubled that.

They were not the first to do this. Sites like virtualinternships.com offer college and high school students internship opportunities.

When I was a college student many moons ago, internships were rare. When my sons were undergrads, internships were fairly common but often unpaid and in some cases, students had to pay tuition in order to get credit for the experience. If money is an issue for you as a student (as it was for me), then an unpaid summer or semester was not likely. The National Association of Colleges & Employers (NACE) reported that the average hourly wage for undergraduate interns rose from $16.35 in 2014 to $18.06 in 2017.

Career exploration is a big plus for internships. I knew several fellow undergrads who did internships or worked in the field that they planned on after graduation and the experience led them to decide that they did not want to pursue that career. That is disappointing but important.

Reading a report from the Center for Research on College to Workforce Transitions CCWT and other sites all list similar benefits for the internship experience.

    Gain valuable work experience
    Explore a career path
    Give yourself an edge in the job market
    Develop and refine skills
    Receive financial compensation.
    Network with professionals in the field
    Gain confidence
    Transition into a job

 

infographic

Infographic - for larger size see ccwt.wceruw.org

It is disappointing that a new study of online internships shows that, among more than 10,000 students at 11 colleges, most virtual internships last year went to students in middle- and upper-income families. Also more positions were unpaid than paid. (Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin- Madison) They also found that there were higher levels of dissatisfaction with virtual internships compared to in-person experiences. Not unlike online learning, students listed limited opportunities for engagement and learning.