Picture this—Your 10-year-old self is attending history class but you are not sitting on your school’s wooden bench with elbows resting on the desk and palms supporting your droopy head. Instead, you have ensconced yourself on a sofa at home and have put on a special pair of glasses with a headset that transports you to an India ruled by Mughal emperor Akbar. Unlike a regular lecture, this 45-minutes history tour is bound to engross you to the hilt by offering a first-hand experience of the social, cultural and economic life of that era in a virtual set-up. Welcome to the world of metaverse.
Like many other fields, education is also set to experience a transformation due to ever-evolving technology—a drive which was accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. With schools shutting down, educational institutions were forced to adapt quickly to various technology solutions to host classes and educate students globally—making them more open to adopt future technological shake-ups.
A section of experts believes that just like cell phones were adopted at a mass level, digital advances like metaverse will also see mass adoption within the next few years. With the idea of metaverse picking up pace across sectors, it is just a matter of time before institutes start experimenting with the space seriously, bringing in a new wave of technology-driven innovation in education.
Multitudes Of Metaverse
One thing is clear—metaverse has the potential to make education more engaging than the traditional offline mode. It will allow educators to design a virtual world that takes the entire classroom to another detailed setting like a physics lab, historical monument, factory or even the surface of a planet. Its digital landscape makes it scalable and customisable, making learning in this environment cost-effective and immersive.
Metaverse could be successful in democratising education and bridging the divide between urban and rural education by giving the same experience to all. “Teachers can build a virtual landscape where students from all walks of life can come and study, and subsequently solve real-world problems together. This will enable classroom innovation like never before,” says a tech expert working with a government agency.
Many Indian educational institutions have already started experimenting. A bunch of high-end schools in Delhi NCR and in other parts of the country have set up augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) laboratories where they let students experience the virtual mode of learning and training. In addition to being looked at as an immersive space, it also has the power to virtually bring your choice of education institute to your drawing room.
This year, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), a national-level education board, even collaborated with social networking giant Meta to explore the use of metaverse in education and training.
Dr Biswajit Saha, director, training and skill education, CBSE says that metaverse presents a lot of opportunities—from universalising STEM education in India, skilling students for jobs of the future to even strengthening immersive or project-based learning. “By empowering students through immersive technologies like AR and VR, skilling on metaverse can make our workforce creator and producer oriented,” he says.
Filling Infrastructural Gaps
Parag Chaudhuri, associate professor, department of computer science and engineering at IIT Bombay, is of the view that there are many good ways in which the metaverse can be used in education. For instance, students can potentially perform complex experiments in shared, virtual lab set-ups from remote locations, he says.
“This can bring hands-on experience to students who do not have the privilege of having access to expensive experimental set-ups or equipment. The metaverse can similarly supplement all levels of education—starting from primary to university. It is also a very active area for research,” Chaudhuri adds. With basic education, metaverse can be used as a supplement to regular school teaching.
It also has amazing benefits in skilling, says Manav Subodh, co-founder of 1 Million For 1 Billion, a social innovation and future skills platform, adding that it will open up many dimensions in skilling youngsters.
“Many start-ups, which are working in skilling youths, have created metaverse labs in which they provide different sorts of training. For instance, if you want to learn to weld, there are virtual labs where you can get that training and if you commit any mistake, you will not get hurt,” he explains.
Metaverse could also be an answer for places that have infrastructure issues, says Subodh, who runs a platform which has been working with many start-ups and schools in the country to set up AR and VR labs.
Like Subodh, many believe that bringing these immersive technologies into learning environments will promote the growth of children through multimodal learning. It would also widen students’ horizons, introducing them to lifestyles and cultures beyond their own.
“Students and teachers around the world can meet and interact in the metaverse just as they would in the real-world classroom. They can learn about any subject of their choice, irrespective of their geographic locations,” says Priya Samant, CEO and co-founder, Abris.io, a US-based firm which works in virtual spaces like the metaverse. A multicultural environment will foster learning varied skills and respecting different cultures and thought processes, says Samant.
“This learning experience broadens the visualisation and knowledge acquisition capabilities of the student while supporting teachers to imbibe the core value of thinking out of the box for the students,” she says, adding that the knowledge and skills of non-fungible tokens and other Web3 technologies will prepare the next generation to become artists, entrepreneurs and technologists who will revolutionise the creator economy. “This is truly one of the biggest game changers for the education sector in the 21st century,” she says.
Echoing Samant’s thought, Rajesh Panda, founder, Corporate Gurukul, a Singapore-based edtech firm, says that the platform has the potential to revolutionise the entire education industry and transform the prospects of learning for both existing and future generations as it opens up scope for a lot of innovation in academic learning.
Using the example of a history class, Panda says, “Through AR and VR, a dull history lesson can turn into a virtual reality video game where students can jump in and out of timelines in their VR avatars while experiencing a completely different time zone.”
Roadblocks On The Way
Positive and useful aspects aside, many experts feel that there are enough technological, health, social and policy barriers that need to be dealt with before trusting this new world with children without a second thought.
Chaudhuri explains how the technology for personal immersive display through head-mounted display in its current form can cause significant eye strain when worn for over 10-15 minutes. Depending upon their capacity, people may even suffer from nausea or other adverse side effects. One reason for this is the vergence-accommodation conflict that our eyes and optical system face after donning such displays.
“There are many other technological challenges, like fidelity of rendering, including bandwidth and latency requirements that come with it, and believable virtual characters, that are the subject of active research in this area,” he says.
In terms of policy, there is currently no law governing people’s existence in the metaverse. Hence, there is a need for caution and constant research and learning about the area, says Chaudhuri.
“My view about its potential to transform the education landscape is of guarded optimism. It certainly has the potential to be a game changing idea but it will require a lot of coordinated technical and legislative will to lower the bar to enter this virtual existence—to make it safe and comfortable for students so that learning can take the front seat when this is deployed for education,” says Chaudhuri.
This also brings in another major concern in this shared virtual world—privacy. It gets heightened if the data is being collected and held by corporate entities and not the users themselves.
“Biases and other ills from our existence are also rampant in the metaverse. Just like machine learning from data is fraught with dangers due to biases that we implicitly encode in that data, human behaviour reflects in the metaverse,” the tech expert associated with the government agency quoted above, says, using the example of bullying and trolling in the virtual world to make his point.
CBSE’s Saha also points to the safety implications: “We need to tread with caution. The safety of students, in terms of cybersecurity and digital well-being, is of utmost importance. As the metaverse gets made, we need to make sure it is safe for our children and future generations.”
As far as the digital divide is concerned, many highlight the danger of metaverse further widening the divide as it needs a robust digital infrastructure and devices which only the government can provide. “To begin with, we need good open-source 3D content. It should be accessible to everyone. So, if we can make it democratic rather than exclusive, its benefits can reach a large number of people,” says Subodh.