Educational institutions are entering the metaverse, using fully immersive experiences paired with virtual reality tech to engage students in schools across the world. The potential to reach hundreds of millions of learners worldwide is making their investment well worth it, as educators embrace extended reality to reach them.
History is full of famed ‘Morehouse men.’ Graduates of the historically black men’s college in Atlanta, Georgia include leaders from civil rights advocate Martin Luther King Jr. to entertainment icons Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson. While those figures will always hold a special place in history, the next generation of graduates will have a special place in the global future of education — the distinction of being Morehouse metaverse men.
This spring semester, undergraduates at Morehouse College donned Oculus Quest 2 headsets to virtually experience some of the most harrowing and heroic moments in world history, from Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech to the Haitian Revolution.
“When you go there and see the bottom of a slave ship, see the slaves packed in together, you will have a new appreciation for and a greater knowledge of how the events took place,” says Ovell Hamilton, a world history professor at “the First Metaversity,” as Morehouse has called its virtual education programme, which began as a pilot project in 2021. “That is an experience that they would not have if they were sitting in a classroom.”
An all-encompassing metaverse may still be far away, but educational institutions around the world are embracing the potential of immersive experiences like this to redefine the landscape of education.
A group of third year medical students from Queen Mary University in London attended the first British lecture in the metaverse in January 2022, whilst University Academy 92 plans to hold lectures, development sessions, well-being activities, and campus tours in a virtual twin of its Manchester campus from the 2023 academic year (as well as offering degree credentials as NFTs).
“That is an experience that they would not have if they were sitting in a classroom.”
— Ovell Hamilton, World History Professor, Morehouse
It’s a trend spreading equally fast across the world. Chinese higher education institutions, including the Communication University of China, Southeast University, and Northwest University, have already opened their own virtual campuses on various metaverse platforms. They join the dozens of American colleges and universities that are either also in the metaverse, or in discussions to join it, through the same VictoryXR virtual reality software that Morehouse uses.
The metaverse shift is tacit recognition of the value that virtual worlds can bring to the way we teach students across the globe, as Susan Fourtané writes in Fierce Education, bringing with it “an easy playground” for interdisciplinary experiences across fields as wide ranging as the humanities and natural sciences to engineering, design, and political science.
In addition, the metaverse enables a new opportunity to once more redefine what it means to have a global education.
“International guest speakers can easily join a virtual multi-location programme in the Metaversity, delivering conference talks and lectures as a virtual avatar or a digital twin,” Fourtané writes. “This can also reduce the carbon footprint of institutions and engage in a form of training that may be supported by today’s students, the next generation of sustainable leaders.”
The potential audience for education in the metaverse is enormous, building on the forward momentum of edtech companies over the last decade. Video games and other immersive experiences have long engaged students. With the ‘gamification education’ sector reaching a market of $800 billion even before the Covid pandemic, that trend has only grown. McKinsey & Company report that the blend of education and the metaverse is an opportunity “too big for companies to ignore.”
Just consider the number of school-aged children on the two most popular metaverse platforms right now, Roblox and Fortnite, which boast a combined 100 million daily users and over £6 billion in revenue per annum. At one point, the Verge reported that over half of US kids were actively playing Roblox.
It is no wonder, then, that people like Linda McBain, Chief Digital Officer at Save the Children UK, say they have “a huge interest” in the metaverse. “Kids are spending huge amounts of time in Roblox, and parents are getting involved too,” McBain says, noting that the charity’s Italian branch held a Roblox event with a corporate partner in 2022. “Where the metaverse can really naturally fit is bringing experiences closer to home and engaging people in education, training, and skills building.”
Teachers tend to be on board with bringing the metaverse into the school (or rather, the school into the metaverse). More than three quarters of US high school teachers said they believed “in the power of extended reality to ignite curiosity and engagement in class,” according to a recent survey by the XR Association (XRA) and the International Society for Technology in Education.
“International guest speakers can easily join a virtual multi-location programme in the Metaversity.”
— Susan Fourtané, Writer, Fierce Education
The same percentage of teachers reported that they were interested in the metaverse’s ability to encourage interaction and communication between students. And teachers from all subjects believe that virtual immersion has something to offer their discipline.
Meanwhile, just as educators are gearing up to teach in the metaverse, so too are entrepreneurs working to support them. Erik Londré is the founder of Karta, a metaverse build and marketing studio that has helped build Roblox experiences for brands like Unilever and Manchester City Football Club. He says the ability to reach massive audiences is what sets the metaverse apart. “The great aspect of working in Roblox or Fortnite is the huge player bases,” he explains. “You can reach millions of young people.”
“This is permanent.”
— Erik Londré, Founder, Karta
Erik is particularly proud of Karta’s Unilever project for the conglomerate’s hair care brand, Sunsilk. Karta created Sunsilk City to reflect the brand’s central pillar: empowering young women. With over 40 million visits since launching in June 2022, the experience offers minigames that blend fun, education, and challenges to traditional gender norms.
“This is permanent. That’s a big difference from other traditional marketing initiatives, such as events, social media, or adverts,” Erik says. “You can continue using these metaverse worlds, and updating them, and turn them into a new marketing channel.”
Whilst educators rightly focus on the quality of their teaching, to succeed in the metaverse they will also need to invest in the quality of their technology. In a December 2019 study of the most downloaded educational apps for children, the Brookings Institute found that “50 per cent scored in the low-quality range, with only seven apps earning a score that put them in the highest quality category. Free apps scored even worse.”
The education sector as a whole will need to adapt to fast-paced technological changes better than it has in the past. “Schools were very, very late to respond to the internet,” says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University, Pennsylvania, suggesting that educators are “generally behind the game: what happens is that kids figure it out long before teachers and principals, and before all of us as adults are ready to adopt it towards a better education.” These early forays into the metaverse from schools across the world will play a big role in determining whether this time, things will be different.