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The virtual campus - What does Metaverse learning really offer us?

April 12, 2022

In our NEOchats with Rony Germon PhD, CEO of Kwark Universities, we really had our eyes opened. It is one thing to be writing about the future of education, and that that future is really already here, but when you really see a virtual campus like MetaKwark, and talk to someone who is helping to make that happen, it really hits home. This is happening.

Kwang Hyung Lee, President of Korea's Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) recently said that:

"Universities around the world are now on the same starting line. They need to innovate and pioneer new approaches and tools that can enable all sorts of campus activities online. They should carve out their own distinct metaverse that is viable for human interaction and diverse technological experiences that promote students’ creativity and collaborative minds. The universities best equipped with digital infrastructure and savvy human resources will emerge as the new leaders − no matter where they are."

Now that is interesting. There is a feeling of a reset here, where the traditional order of things can be completely upended. The top universities of the world with legacy wealth and enough endowments to make Elon Musk blush, well, they'll likely be ok whatever happens. Outside of this, however, a new generation of education institutions is vying for space in a vast and open market. This is not the "online learning" we saw as a reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic, but rather a fully immersive learning experience.

There are a great many learners who might have opted for digital learning because of prohibitive costs and inflexible schedules at traditional institutions, but who might have been put off by just doing years of Zoom classes and discussion forums on the LMS. The metaverse, however, is offering so much more, and this will likely shake things up in a big way.

Ok, so we know what you're thinking- what exactly might learning in the metaverse look like? You have your VR headset on, and you are strolling into the virtual campus on day one. You admire the NFT artwork on the walls, chat with various student body reps at the information stands, and have a chat in a breakout room with your new classmates. You're not watching this...you are in this. It is time for your first session of the day, and what might that be like?

Learning can be more collaborative and personalised

One of the big pitfalls of trying to deliver online learning in the pandemic-reactive phase was the understandable temptation to simply duplicate. Take the way you do something offline, and use technology to replicate it online. By doing so, we limit the huge potentials by basing the future on what we have already experienced.

To a learner who is already immersed in gaming, virtual Esports tournaments, collecting NFTs, Discord and all the rest of it, a Zoom lecture with an emailed handout must feel a little frustrating. They know how amazing, open and creative the virtual world can be.

The technology at our disposal means that there is now no reason whatsoever to hang on to the traditional, teacher-led "delivery" model of learning. Learners can be leading their own sessions in one space, collaborating on a problem-solving exercise in another, reflecting on their learning in the chill out zone, or sharing their views on recent research in the café. The educator can be present in any of these spaces as and when required, to guide, inspire, provoke and help learners synthesise ideas.

Devices, VR, AR, mixed reality, apps and tools are the new pencil case, blackboard, circle of chairs and printed handout. They are also, however, so much more. The metaverse will take learning into new spaces. If we try to duplicate traditional learning in the metaverse, there will be others that start instead by imagining what could be possible in that new space, and involving learners as stakeholders in unfurling new approaches. Those institutions will attract a new generation who do not want to sit passively in the face of learning, but to dig in, explore, take apart, and experience it for themselves.

Learning can be more immersive and less abstract

A very young learner works with flashcards to name animals she may never see. A teenager recites French verbs under the faded posters of a country he may never visit. A medical student looks at a diagram of the heart, trying to imagine how those valves actually work. An engineering student is so busy with her final project that she is not able to visit the new campus she hopes to go on to for her postgraduate. She checks the brochure; that girl in the photo looks like she has been photoshopped in? Nobody there looks like her.

Or...

Learners with mixed reality glasses walk through the school grounds and spot animals roaming around. Which might actually be found there in reality? What are they called, and how do they live? Surely that tiger does not belong in the grounds of a Slovenian primary school, but is it a Siberian or a Bengal tiger? This particular girl is not sure, but she marvels at the way it moves, and reaches up to find out the answer. She won't forget the answer borne of her own curious enquiry, and one day she will see that tiger for real. Hopefully not in Siberia.

The teenager sits at a virtual café on the Rue des ecoles laïques in Montpellier, and the waiter appears. He has to order a coffee, but if he uses the wrong tense, or the informal form, the waiter will teach him a few angry words in response. Even angry words sound better in French, he thinks, as he listens to the tirade.

The medical student is a nanobit, floating through the veins and arteries of the heart. Is that calcification on the walls? What could have caused that, and how can it be reversed? He decides to go back and take another look, but the valve has closed, and he must flow forward. Was that the bicuspid or tricuspid? He'll be sure to check that on his next circulation. Later in the café, he might just order something healthy. The memory of those narrowed arteries is as fresh as the kale salad he orders, and it feels like a good choice.

The engineering graduate checks in to a virtual onboarding session and campus tour. She will do some of her postgrad in the metaverse, and some in the physical campus. She gets a tour of both without leaving her own home, meeting faculty staff and getting to know other students. There are people there she can relate to, and chatting with them has helped her feel more secure. She belongs there.

We need examples

Glad you asked. This year we will be digging in to many of the new developments, institutions and individuals that are pushing boundaries in the metaverse learning space, so keep your eyes peeled for more. If you have seen any great examples, or want to tell us about your own metaverse learning spaces for technologies, we want to hear from you, so please reach out!

We know that this new world will open things up for learners, but what about behind the scenes? The impact on marketing, student recruitment, student services and all of the administrative processes and departments that hold things together? This change will impact all of us, and this year we will do our best to explore and share insights on what this might mean. Whatever happens, we will learn and adapt together.

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