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Are we ready for metaverse schools to be the new norm?

Global school group, Inspired, is the first of its kind to be launching a school in the metaverse, but what does that mean for education and how do students and teachers feel about it?

‘We are becoming better at realising that, as educators, we aren’t just “exam conveyor belts”. Students entering the job market in 2022 require an entirely different skill set to be able to thrive and succeed,’ says Emma Patton, a 35-year-old physical education teacher working in Milan.

Based in an international private school, St Louis, Patton is one of several secondary school teachers who has found herself at the forefront of the next big step forward in education.

The school, owned by international group Inspired and based in Milan, Italy, is currently piloting the country’s first virtual reality (VR) education programme, while its parent group sets out to become the world’s first creator of a metaverse school.

‘Schools increasingly want their learning to be relevant to the world we live in and embracing such technologies obviously puts them at the forefront of this on many levels,’ Patton continues.

Technology is a huge part of the skills that employers look for in their candidates, so it is our job to expose our pupils and equip them with these things, she adds.

But what is a metaverse school?

Nicholas Wergan, global education director of Inspired, says that while VR gives students individual learning experiences in the classroom, the metaverse creates a classroom of students and teachers that can talk and work collaboratively – from around the world.

‘It’s no longer a solo journey, but a journey of collaboration,’ he says.

Wergan says one of Inspired’s strategic priorities is learning through technology. The group is constantly searching for ways to use it to not only motivate students – through iPads and laptops – but to deepen their experiences in the classroom.

March 2020 forced schools to immediately switch to online synchronous technology and the last two years have seen the bar completely rise for tech in education, Wergan says.

‘That’s what pushed us to open our first online-only school, as well as look for ways that we didn’t have to let children sacrifice the more practical subjects, including PE, Drama, and Science,’ Wergan adds.

St Louis School’s pilot is currently being tested on children aged 13 and up in a majority of subjects, but Inspired plans to get it into classes for those aged as young as ten. According to the global education director, the self-management that comes with operating the headsets makes it inappropriate for anyone younger.

Pietro Silvestrin, Maria Ester Massari and Lamberto Alberici, three 16-year-old students from St Louis School, agree that the use of VR could help visual learners more at a younger age, but there is little information about the potential harms that this modern technology could have on children, they note.

So how could VR improve education?

Massari, who has tried out VR in biology, physics, and computer science, says she feels she has already started to get a deeper understanding in a lot of topics.

‘Seeing objects in 3D rather than a two-dimensional screen or book gives students more freedom to interact with the subject at hand,’ she says.

Depth is often lost in seemingly 3D objects on computer screens, but if you can hold something life-like – it is so much easier to have a deeper understanding of it, she adds.

The headsets also allow students to carry out zero-error scientific experiments – something that would be impossible to achieve in real life.

PE teacher Patton says she has used VR tech to allow her students to explore and interact with 3D models of the skeletal and muscular systems first-hand. This way they not only get to identify the anatomical names of those parts, but the way in which they interact with each other and fit together.

The VR app also provides ‘excellent and immediate feedback’ with regards to technique in sports such as heading a football – from utilising hand positioning for additional power, to foot placement to allow optimal accuracy and reaction times, Patton adds.

She notes that the studies into player concussions, especially in younger players, highlight the need for safer training methods. VR is a great example of how hundreds of high-quality reps can be completed to aid player performance with zero impact, she says.

Bruce Mallord, head of computer science at St Louis and leader of the Inspired VR pilot, says studying in the metaverse is the jump that 3D movies and experiences never actually made.

‘Those never really took off in the way they were sold to us,’ he says. ‘We’ve got the Internet, and everyone has their own screens and videos – but we’re still in a 2D world.’

VR will give students the chance to pull apart an atom, pick up and dissect human hearts, or even get to look inside one. It will also allow them to see maths equations and mind maps in 3D, or even go as far as taking children back and forth in time.

Could VR replace real-life experiences?

The more experience a student gets outside of school, the better, IT head Mallord says.

‘But wouldn’t it be cool if you could instantly go to Paris, Berlin and Milan – and compare all three at virtually no cost, in one lesson?’ he asks.

‘With VR, you can travel time, go inside a volcano, the bottom of the ocean, Mars, you can control an electric circuit, watch mountains grow, become tiny and look at molecules, or grow giant and look at entire galaxies.’

‘All the bureaucracy with teachers and parents would instantly disappear,’ Mallord adds.

16-year-old Alberici, however, says VR trips are something he is very sceptical about. School trips are made for two reasons: for the student to learn new things and for the student to bond and spend some time with their peers, he says.

‘But VR can’t possibly create such an environment because it takes away the human interaction that is key to those trips,’ Alberici notes.

Emanuele Mocchetti, another 16-year-old student attending St Louis, views VR trips as something that may have come in handy during the pandemic lockdowns, when no one could leave their home towns or country.

‘They could even come in handy during classes to visit a particular moment in time or place for a short-term assignment,’ he adds.

But VR locks you into a certain situation where you can’t use all your senses, he notes. Touch and smell, for example, are very restricted.

Mallord also notes the possible dangers that come with being immersed in the world of VR.

‘There will be a struggle where people mix up their realities,’ he says. ‘What I am scared of is that we jump in too far and too deep – children could have a terrible, long-lasting effect.’

As for potential privacy issues during class, Mallord points out that the devices his school uses – Oculus Quest – have a function that allows teachers to put up a so-called ‘walled garden’, meaning external users cannot just access their metaverse classroom unless given access. ‘It’s like a Zoom call with a private password-protected room.’

So why hasn’t VR been implemented in every school yet?

VR headsets are expensive, there is no doubt about that. Inspired has chosen to use Oculus because they want students to get the best experience possible, but those – as well as licences for different software and basic training for teachers – can run up quite a pricey bill.

Because of high prices, there is still a limit to the range of applications available to help with the learning.

There are tons of ideas for VR, but there is a lack of developers due to the complexity and time consumption it takes to establish those applications, says Mocchetti.

But as a market grows, so will the variety of products available, and more and more people will start implementing it, Massari notes.

IT head Mallord highlights that training teachers won’t add too much to a school’s bill, as it’s as easy as showing someone how to use an iPad for the first time.

‘Last Friday, I worked with four teachers who had never seen it before – within 30 minutes they were quite confident already,’ he says.

Aside from the financial costs, VR can also take a toll on our physical and mental health.

Patton says VR requires brand new thinking and planning. For teachers, time is always a ‘scarce commodity’ and VR demands even more investment in time, thought and energy, she says.

Alberici stresses the importance of taking time off when using VR. ‘Not only for the physical effects, but for the way the user might start to lose sight of the real world,’ he notes.

He adds that the effect on people’s eyes while using the headsets feels a lot more ‘detrimental’ than using a computer screen. ‘Your brain is forced to understand a stimulus that is quite different to the norm.’

There are currently no scientific reports on the way VR damages eyesight. But, much like computer screens, our eyes will feel the effects of the technology after several hours of use.

‘The headsets are what I would call “face-heavy tech” – and given the way we are also required to wear face masks due to coronavirus government regulations in Italy, it can get so hot under there,’ says Mallord.

Although the only way that it could really damage students’ and teachers’ wellbeing is if a school goes nuts and asks the tech to be implemented in every single class, five days a week, he notes. ‘We’d see children with severe neck aches, eye strain, and some feeling sick too.’

So could metaverse schools be the future of education?

‘There’s going to be an explosion in the meta world in a way that you and I have not even understood over the next coming years,’ says Wergan. ‘Children will expect their meta world to be aligned with their learning, so VR will be a tool teachers and students will start using more and more – like they do laptops today.’

Patton notes that VR will be a valuable tool that will need to be ‘embraced’ as it becomes ever more present in everyday life. ‘No one would have believed people could work from home or conduct global business over Zoom so successfully – yet here we are,’ she adds.

‘The use of VR is steadily increasing and we are at a point where more and more schools are seeing positive results of its use in the classroom,’ says Alberici.

‘By the time my children are going to be in school I expect VR to be fully implemented in the class,’ the 16-year-old adds.