Step into the Virtual Classroom

A laptop on a blue background next to the icons of books, a graduation cap, and a VR headset
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In Kazuhiro Ishiguro’s 2021 novel “Klara and the Sun”, the main character is a semi-intelligent humanoid doll that, among other things, helps her owner study. In actuality, she’s a companion that reminds her owner to study, but perhaps she also pitches in some tutoring as well.

Hopefully, the titular Klara doesn’t become ubiquitous in our world — reading about her is akin to a drive through the proverbial uncanny valley. Her existence does, however, highlight something that COVID-19 brought to the forefront: the future of education is likely remote learning. It’s tempting to give COVID-19 all of the credit for this change in learning habits, but this has been on the horizon for nearly two decades. The pandemic has simply accelerated the process.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were already six million undergraduate students enrolled in online courses in 2019, a number that doubled once the pandemic started.1 From online learning platforms used by universities (Blackboard, Canvas, etc.) to websites dedicated to education (Khan Academy, Coursera, Desmos, Moodle), to learning channels and videos on YouTube, remote education has been on the rise and it shows no signs of abating.

While the flexibility and cost-effectiveness of remote or online learning provides advantages, it also creates or compounds existing complications. The educational industry must deal with the lack of real-time social interaction in online learning, the inability to use physicality in online spaces, and the dire teacher shortage. All of these problems could be resolved by emerging metaverse technology.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that school gives the man “the fantastic amount of guts it takes to add to culture.” How exactly does it do this? It is more than the acquisition of knowledge. Access to knowledge and study materials has not been equal for all people throughout time, but with the founding of free, publicly accessible libraries in the 19th and 20th centuries and the creation of the internet and its plethora of free or cheap resources, knowledge has never been more available to more people.

Books and videos don’t give you guts, the stuff Vonnegut says you’ll obtain at school. Confidence (a.k.a. guts) is cultivated in the marketplace of ideas. It comes from sitting in a room with your peers and defending a viewpoint. It comes from getting a mark on a paper and going to talk to your teacher about it. It comes from social interaction.

Unfortunately, it is hard to quantify social interaction’s impact on ideation. It is, however, easier to quantify the impact of social interactions on economic mobility. In a recent study, Professor Raj Chetty and his team uncovered important links between friendship and economic mobility. Professor Chetty found that people with high socioeconomic status (SES) were more likely to have friends who also had money.2 People with high SES were also more likely to have attended university where they make friends with people at university.3 Most importantly, the team found that economic connectedness, a metric based on social connectivity, was the best indicator for economic mobility.4

These findings show the crucial role that social networks have in people’s lives. As the world grows more remote, the educational industry will have to find a way to replicate the social environment to fill the intellectual and social gaps created by moving away from physical classrooms. The metaverse could help correct these difficulties by providing a virtual space that more accurately resembles the traditional classroom.

Not only that, but metaverse technology has a chance to capitalize on a still unrealized aspiration of educators that has been mentioned since the dawn of the internet age: the metaverse could help people from different backgrounds meet and learn from each other in a way that the best technologies currently in use cannot.

If you’ve ever taken an online course then you are familiar with the socializing aspects of these courses. On Coursera you’re encouraged to share feedback and responses to a community of users. On Codeacademy you’re encouraged to post to forums and join the Discord channel. At my own university, UC Riverside, there is a Discord channel, Piazza space, and Zoom meetings for job fairs, orientations, and general information sessions.

None of these services can provide a simulation of the face-to-face experience of physical classrooms. Perhaps you can get an instant response on Discord. Maybe you’ll get a timely reply on a forum or message board, but more often than not what you experience is not the ping-ponging of ideas that makes school so worthwhile nor the building of relationships that might result in lifelong friendships and economic success.

For young learners a major challenge is physicality. Play is a key component of early childhood education. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, “Brains are built over time, and the foundations of brain architecture are constructed early in life.”5 Furthermore, “It is vitally important that experiences provided in the earliest years are appropriate for the child’s stage of development. Encouraging self-directed, creative play is one important strategy for supporting that goal.

Indeed, the key dimensions of play are precisely those that fuel the development of increasing capabilities as a child gets older by promoting a state of low anxiety and providing opportunities for novel experiences, active engagement, and learning from peers and adults.”6 Play is crucial to developing brains and it simply cannot be replicated in today’s popular online learning or meeting platforms.

Young children need to be in varied spaces with the ability to physically explore said space. Making time for play in scheduled playdates does not make up for the role that play has in everyday early childhood education. Not only can virtual spaces replicate physical classrooms they may be able to improve on them by adding simulations that are unrealistic or too expensive or too dangerous to have in a traditional classroom. This is yet another opportunity for metaverses to solve an educational problem created by an evolving society and, potentially, improve on the original structure.

Perhaps the biggest problem in education in the United States is teacher recruitment and retention. As it stands, there is a major teacher shortage in several states. In January 2022, 44% of American public schools reported having at least one teaching vacancy.7 Clearly our current educational websites cannot fix this problem nor can a video, Zoom meeting, or message board replace teachers or make up for a teacher-student relationship.

The importance of relationships in education was discussed earlier in the context of student-student relationships, but teachers also play a vital role in a student’s intellectual development. One study found that healthy teacher-student relationships predict growth in literacy and math from pre-K through fifth grade.8 Metaverses will allow teachers to continue to create those relationships. In order to have those relationships, however, we must have teachers.

Metaverses could potentially remedy this problem by expanding the supply of teachers. If teachers can be recruited from anywhere in the country it will create competition for teaching jobs without requiring the teacher to relocate. If remote teaching is a viable option, i.e. one that more closely resembles in-person teaching, the job becomes more attractive to potential employees. Also, ideally, increased competition in a larger marketplace would induce state legislatures to commit more money to education and teachers’ salaries in an effort to attract the best teachers in the country.

I would be remiss if I didn’t admit to my bias and discuss my role as an educator over the last decade. As a teacher, I can tell you that students are often not the best managers of their time and that makes self-directed online learning a challenge. Additionally, in my experience videos don’t help everyone. They tend to help people who are something close to an autodidact.

The metaverse would help students who need to pause a video and ask a question, or students who send me screenshots of problems and ask why a limit exists, or students who can’t figure out how to switch their calculator into radian mode. Aside from these, there are also the students who need school not for the intellectual instruction as much as for the order and schedule it imposes. Study habits, organizational skills, and group learning activities are easily lost in our current remote education milieu.

A big concern as education moves into this remote space is what will happen to those students who don’t have access to technology? It is ironic that the devices that are supposed to equalize and level often do the exact opposite. In creating educational metaverses we must also consider how they can be utilized to include people from communities where access to technology is limited.

Right now, remote and online learning is still a privilege. It can be cheap but it also requires startup money for equipment and time — either as a parental supervisor or as a working professional looking to advance their career. Implementing technology to improve education must consider improving the education of the entire population. Keeping this in mind, the development of educational metaverses can help realize the dream of educators and students around the country.

For the last three decades our lives have been moving increasingly online. With regards to education, you can already earn advanced degrees from leading institutions without ever stepping foot in a classroom. And therein lies the problem. No, I’m not suggesting we return to classrooms; at present we haven’t left them entirely. I’m suggesting that we harness the technology we have and are developing to step into the virtual classroom, a space where all of the important aspects of education — intellectual, social and physical among others — can be adequately nurtured.

In the metaverse, teachers can get back to building relationships and providing the pastoral care that fosters lifelong success. The seeds of the future are sown in educational institutions. Those institutions deserve and require the best that we have to give to them and the next generation. Metaverses can help make that a reality.

  • National Center for Education Statistics. (2022). Postbaccalaureate Enrollment. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved May 31, 2022. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/chb
  • Chetty, R., Jackson, M.O., Kuchler, T. et al. Social capital I: measurement and associations with economic mobility. Nature 608, 108–121 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-04996-4
  • Chetty, R., Jackson, M.O., Kuchler, T. et al. Social capital II: determinants of economic connectedness. Nature 608, 122–134 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-04997-3
  • Chetty, R., Jackson, M.O., Kuchler, T. et al. Social capital I: measurement and associations with economic mobility. Nature 608, 108–121 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-04996-4
  • Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2016). From Best Practices to Breakthrough Impacts: A Science-Based Approach to Building a More Promising Future for Young Children and Families. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
  • Ibid.
  • “U.S. Schools Report Increased Teacher Vacancies Due to Covid-19 Pandemic, New NCES Data Show,” National Center for Education Statistics, March 3, 2022, https://nces.ed.gov/whatsnew/press_releases/3_3_2022.asp.
  • Robert C. Pianta, Bridget K. Hamre, and Joseph P. Allen. “Teacher-Student Relationships and Engagement: conceptualizing, Measuring, and Improving the Capacity of Classroom Interactions.” In Handbook of Research on Student Engagement, edited by S.L. Christenson, 365-381. New York: Springer. 2012.

About the Author

The photo of Bobby Wilson

Bobby Wilson

University of California, Riverside

  • Field of Study:Engineering — Data Science
  • Expected Year of Graduation:2023
  • Chosen Prompt: How the metaverse can help learners and educators improve their online education experience as well as replicate the social environment to fill the intellectual and social gaps created by moving away from physical classrooms.
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