Will The Metaverse Kill Traditional Learning?

The metaverse has been a hype topic for a while and dominating google search trends to the point that Mark Zuckerberg changed Facebook's name to Meta and stated that he's planning on investing 180 billion dollars over the next 10 years into his vision.

Learning is going to dominate the metaverse and be a main driving force for adoption after gaming but is that a good thing?

While immersive technologies like virtual and augmented reality have been around for a little while, we are hitting a perfect storm in which real-time engines, such as Unity and Unreal Engine, hardware, 5G communications, blockchain, crypto and AI, are coming together. Companies like Microsoft are making huge moves to acquire games developers and games like Roblox and Fortnite have shown how people can learn, play and communicate in virtual shared worlds.

For learning Meta's push is to transport people into digital twins of places like ancient egypt or be dropped into a shared virtual solar system to help them learn and collaborate more effectively. So is this the best use of the metaverse for learning and will the metaverse kill traditional teaching methods? Well as the founder of a company that uses AI and immersive technology like VR and AR to help people improve their soft skills and leadership ability I'm going to look at three ways the metaverse will impact learning. But first as it's essentially a PR term let's look at exactly what the metaverse even is anyway.

What Is The Metaverse

The term ‘metaverse’ was coined by sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel, Snow Crash. Stephenson created the word to describe a 3D virtual space part of a dystopian narrative, and now the term is used more widely. Snow Crash was published just three years after Tim Berners-Lee famously created the world wide web, meaning the notion of a ‘metaverse’ has been around since the digital dawn age. In 2003, Second Life was invented by Philip Rosedale. Its value for students and teachers was clear from the start, with best practices discussed globally by experts at leading events in the sector, including Online Educa Berlin. Now the Metaverse is a well-known entity driving inspiration across the web, with everyone relishing in its innovative elements for learning. Among the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic were the drastic changes in the workplace and schools; people tuned into Teams meetings instead of socialising in classrooms and offices. The Metaverse has the tools to host a destination that works both virtually and socially, with pre-pandemic lacking virtual innovation and the pandemic limiting social interaction.

The Metaverse For Education

VR and AR have been around for a little while, I'm talking about the original virtual reality technology used by NASA and I'm sure we all remember Nintendo's Virtual Boy. Immersive experiences have always been of interest to game designers and teachers as they possess an ability to make digital interactions feel more human, more realistic and basically trick your brain into believing you have been transported to a new environment. But how does being inside a virtual space actually help people to learn? Well let's dive into a bit of educational research to find out.

Atkinson and Shiffrin’s Information Processing Model shows how many hurdles there are to remember something new. New information encountered needs to get our attention (entering sensory memory) or it’ll be forgotten immediately, or not even noticed in the first place. Once noticed, it moves into our short-term memory, but we need to start working with that information pretty much straight away or  it will just be forgotten. To really remember new information we have to commit to long-term memory. This is a much more complex process of mapping new information onto our existing memories and then practicing it, to strengthen that connection and this is where encoding and active recall come into play.

So how does VR help? There are three core uses of VR that map to information processing: 1. Emotional State, 2. Knowledge Retention, 3. Knowledge Transfer.

Emotional State is important for learning but often overlooked. If you want someone to remember something, you have to make them care about it. In VR, teachers have control over someone’s senses, and so are better placed to affect emotional states, whether it’s creating excitement, curiosity or perhaps a healthy bit of trepidation. To illustrate this consider events that you can remember easily. There is likely a strong emotional or sensory element to them whether this is a joyful day like a wedding or sadness from a funeral.

Once teachers have made someone care about something, they then need to then get them to remember it and this is where Knowledge Retention come in. To move new information from short-term to long-term memory, they need to start actively doing something with it, preferably applying it to real-world situations, as soon as possible. VR enables the possibilities of theory and practice, layering up knowledge acquisition and application, hand in hand rather than separating. Only when we start applying information do we really start to build our knowledge and commit to our long-term memory.

Once a learner cares about the topic, and can remember the core information they then need to put what they’ve learned into practice in a real-world situation this is know as Knowledge Transfer. Even with on-the-job learning in the real world, there’s a big jump needed when moving from carrying out a task supervised to unsupervised and doing something by yourself. This added responsibility of practising and actually doing something by yourself, without help then leads to repeated practice of a skill and mastery. VR uniquely offers the chance to practice in a realistic replica of the real-world and fail safely and repeatedly without any real-world impacts of failure which might put people off practicing a skill. This gives the learner confidence but more importantly helps lessen the cognitive load, requiring less mental effort to take the new information and conceptualising using it in the real world.

By mapping the Information Processing Model onto the three core uses of VR, we can quickly see how they complement each other and highlight the benefits of utilising immersive technologies for learning.

Removing Bias With Data

Learning professionals measure success through effectiveness and engagement of learners with what is being taught. While the theory behind virtual reality for learning sounds perfect does this actually translate into real-world impact?

Well a randomised controlled trial from 2020 compared virtual reality training to traditional in-person when training people in the steps of basic life support. The study focused on a skill that was high pressure and which required people to make key life-saving decisions with the knowledge that CPR delivered quickly and effectively has a huge impact on survival rates. Researchers concluded that participants in the VR intervention group achieved a higher mean of correct clinical decisions when compared to the control group both immediately after training and at follow up when learning would usually decay due to the forgetting curve. In addition, it was observed that the confidence scores of participants increased while anxiety scores decreases and the mean time in making a clinical decision were faster in the VR group. So compared to traditional in-person training VR helped people remember the information for longer, reduced associated anxiety with this high-pressure skill and led to faster clinical decisions in a real world test.

And it's not just about training people on technical steps of how to do something. When I trained as a surgeon mistakes usually occurred in a healthcare setting not because people didn't know the technical steps of how to do something but rather there was a breakdown in soft-skills like communication, decision-making under pressure, leadership or just empathy. This is true for patients where poor communication is the number one cause of complaints against medical staff and this is true in pretty much any other industry. Traditional training typically uses lectures or role-play with actors to put learners into scenarios where they need to deal with an angry customer or provide feedback to a colleague in order to develop soft-skills. The problem is that these training sessions are often episodic or one-off and are completely dependent on the teacher providing useful feedback. The teacher's opinion may often be subjective and influenced by their own bias and there is no gold-standard for soft-skills only guidelines since everyone has their own way of communicating. With the metaverse learners can be put into safe and repeatable environments where they are tasked with talking to an AI-powered avatar in a virtual roleplay. Avatar demographics can be changed quickly and learners can work through multiple scenarios repeatedly in the fraction of the time needed for in-person training. Most importantly their decisions, their tone, their body language and more can be captured as data-points and then compared to other learners and fed back to them and teachers to help them improve. In real world training there is simply no way to create objective data points from things like eye-contact.

PwC found that learners trained with VR for soft-skills were up to 275% more confident to act on what they learned after training—a 40% improvement over in-person classroom learning, and a 35% improvement over eLearning and my company found that learning retention could be improved by over 230%.

VR and AR learning experiences have the ability to surpass the passive, tell-and-test, click-through methods that we know lack engagement and efficacy. The dynamic, highly interactive, and often emotionally realistic content created by XR learning professionals reaches users in a more meaningful way. Learning in the metaverse can connect learners from all over the world and empower them to interact in meaningful ways while providing unprecedented accessibility. That learning is more interactive and impactful, by allowing us to simulate everything from a conversation to a surgery.

Removing Geographical Boundaries and Inequality

As traditional learning is delivered in-person or on-the-job it is very difficult to scale and provide an equity of access to all learners. For example my medical training in the UK was very different to the learning delivered to someone of the same ability in sub-saharan Africa due to resources and geography. In fact the experiences and clinical encounters and operations that I was exposed to in one hospital might be very different to those experienced by someone else in a hospital down the road or even in the same hospital but on a different day. This variability is natural and traditional training often overcomes this by opting for what is known as competency-based training where learners need to achieve basic competencies in certain skills or tasks. But it's still not great and when in-person and on-the-job training was restricted by the pandemic learners in healthcare and beyond saw their training time extended.

Immersive training and the metaverse can help to standardise training, reduce variability and improve equity of access for learners since anyone can be transported into a shared, identical environment and receive the same high-quality learning experience.

For example, imagine the benefits that a first-generation college student would reap by experiencing a virtual university classroom. Think about how much the staff in a rural hospital could gain from immersive training on cutting-edge medical techniques. Now, consider these possibilities juxtaposed to the challenges our education systems face globally, as school students and the workforce face skills gaps and reskilling and upskilling deficits like we’ve never seen before, and academic programs struggle to keep pace.

Connecting Learners and Teachers

Social learning and learning in a shared, safe environment are important for effective learning regardless of what is being studied. Being able to share information, bounce off a diversity of opinions and work with others makes learning meaningful, relevant and fun. Collaboration and social relationships are the foundation for an interconnected suite of skills. In her book Becoming Brilliant educational psychologist Roberta Golinkoff suggests that there are 6 things to consider when building out educational experiences for effective learning:

  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Content
  • Critical Thinking
  • Creative Innovation
  • Confidence
Becoming Brilliant (2016) Showing the 6Cs of how children learn

If we think about shared virtual worlds like Roblox or Fortnite they possess all of these qualities and players learn by working together, being innovative, communicating and having fun. Add in some game design mechanics and educators and learners have the tools to create engaging and effective learning scenarios for pretty much any occasion.

We've also seen the effects of zoom burnout during the pandemic and the lack of human connection leading to people staring into their webcam but perhaps not interacting as they would in real life and it being difficult for large groups or classes to allow for everyone to contribute equally. In the metaverse a virtual classroom or virtual field trip helps to recreate that feeling of togetherness and being in-person even if everyone is remote. Moreover as Zuck mentions in his Meta for learning presentation the entire class can be transported to pretty much any environment from space to ancient Rome to help learners visualise and learn in a more meaningful way.

For a similar effect traditional learning would need to rely on video, expensive field trips to NASA or simply use books and images which lack engagement.

Now while this video has a bit of a clickbait title and learning in the metaverse has some huge upsides, as a surgeon, traditional in-person training will always be needed to help people to learn and reflect on skills and be coached following real-world environments. That being said immersive learning can massively accelerate how quickly and effectively people learn and improve confidence especially for skills that are infrequently used or experienced but have a high value and impact and skills that just lack standardisation and data that are used almost everyday by pretty much everyone like soft-skills and empathy.

To summarise the metaverse for learning has three main benefits over traditional training:

  • Reduces the need for additional trainers, making it scalable, reducing overheads associated with access to expensive real-world assets by recreating them virtually
  • Allows users to fail safely but through immersion and presence, making them feel as if they really are on-site or in situ, so that they take the training more seriously
  • Allows consistency of training each time for every learner, ensuring the training correlates directly to real-world applications and situations, with objective, measured feedback.