Sheila Jagannathan, Global Head, Open Learning Campus, World Bank, Washington DC
The learning industry has come a long way from the PC internet boom that gave rise to eLearning in the late 1990s. The second wave of mobile computing and social media ushered in microlearning through shorter, video-based learning on demand. Industry watchers are now suggesting that the third era of computing is upon us. Flat static pages on the PC and phone will be replaced by a metaverse of digital 3D spaces, where we interact as lifelike avatars. The metaverse is an embodied internet where you’re never alone. Unlike a Zoom call that is scheduled and disappears when you’re done, the metaverse is “always on” and affords social interactions with peers. This transition has profound implications for capability-building and learning.
A New Way to Teach and Learn
The new generation of virtual reality (VR) headsets is the portal to the metaverse. Head-mounted VR displays engulf the senses and offer an unrivaled sense of embodied presence. Users can move freely through a 3D scenario and interact with the world around them with their hands, just like real life. VR technology is mature enough that it’s no longer part of Gartner’s Hype Cycle, and it is becoming affordable enough (under $300) to address global capability gaps. An internet connection is not even necessary for single-player sessions.
VR engages the brain’s motor system and builds muscle memory. Just like a flight simulator prepares pilots for emergency landings, VR can train anything, from farming skills to fire fighting. Skills that play to the unique strengths of the metaverse include spatial training, such as involving the hands and body for tasks that are too dangerous, expensive, inconvenient, or simply impossible to practice in real life. Other examples include simulating scenarios for routine and abnormal operations, emergency response, stressful workplace situations, critical procedures, and high consequence events—all in a safe and controlled environment that can then be repeated until it becomes second nature.
6 Ways the Metaverse Can Positively Impact Learning and Capability Building
1. Learn and connect in an immersive virtual campus
Before and during COVID-19, learning had already begun to move from physical classrooms to more virtual and blended spaces. The metaverse facilitates an immersive campus life, where learners wearing VR headsets enter the virtual campus or university to learn, explore, and socialize. In this digital space, for example, learners can delve into different learning pods, visit libraries and breakout rooms, meet coaches and counselors, and hang out with peers.
These digital experiences can truly democratize education, by bringing people from geographically dispersed locations and varied economic backgrounds together to learn, in a cost-effective, flexible, and quicker duration. For example, in September 2023, the planned Kenya-KAIST virtual campus located 60 kilometers from the capital city of Nairobi will allow the institution to extend its reach across continents, allowing students to learn together on cutting-edge topics without having to leave their home countries.
2. Enhance real-world skilling in Virtual and Hybrid environments
The metaverse provides experiential, embodied skilling opportunities using real-world scenarios and high-pressure situations, where you can make mistakes without consequence. When well designed, it combines VR with data science and spatial design to improve learner engagement, confidence, and application. Some examples of the benefits of training in the metaverse include:
• Experiential learning. Pharmaceutical leader Novartis trains life-saving lab skills with high-fidelity, multiplayer VR simulation. Students step into a virtual lab to interact with instructors and practice welding tubes, removing bag caps, and labeling bags with unlimited do-overs.
• Deliberate practice. The metaverse provides intense practice and feedback loops, where learners practice many variations of a concept to hone skills. Walmart’s Spark City game is different every time the game is played. If customers appear within 10 feet, players have to ask if they can help, but not before they’ve addressed spills and other safety hazards.
• State-dependent learning. Providence Health triggers psychological stress of responding to microaggressions in the workplace. A live actor captured in 3D volumetric video appears through the camera lens of your phone or tablet as a hologram standing in the room in front of you, for learning and retrieval taking place under the same conditions.
3. Explore different worlds through visualization and storytelling
Visualization and storytelling are two hallmarks of a metaverse learning experience and much needed today after the profusion of boring Zoom experiences during COVID-19. Through VR technology, learners can step into an entirely different world or into another person’s shoes. For example, health care leader DaVita builds patient empathy by using an interactive, multi-sensory first-person story.
Stepping into metaworlds facilitates visualization of scenarios, including complex development challenges. For example, a learner can use a VR headset to examine a street transformation in South Asia or explore life in a green Smart City. Through bite-sized 360 degree stories, virtual tours, and visualizations, learners “enter” crucial global development challenges, including climate change, education, gender, urban development, international trade, and public health.
4. Build human capabilities in interpersonal or difficult situations
Training staff for soft skills, such as communication, leadership, listening, and empathy is hard to achieve and also measure. The metaverse facilitates this by immersing learners in real-world conflicts and allows them to practice their soft skills in a safe environment, for example, having sensitive or difficult conversations with employees or customers.
For Verizon staff, safety training scenarios concerning robberies can create a sense of danger and overwhelm. By using VR, Verizon helped over 22,000 associates across 1,600 stores train for this complex scenario; the company reported that 97 percent of those trained said they felt prepared when put in such dangerous situations.
5. Improve accessibility for people with disabilities
The metaverse holds promise to improve educational and social access for people with disabilities. For example, an immersive environment offers young adults with special needs, autism, and social interaction issues the ability to improve their interpersonal and job skills, such as visiting a mall or grocery, shelving products at a store, or loading goods in a truck. Through VR apps, they can practice skills and interact with others in a safe environment without feeling overwhelmed or anxious.
VR can also help those with mobility or anxiety issues to improve their quality of life. For instance, the Starlight charity uses VR technology to give pediatric patients the chance to “escape” the walls of their hospital room and be transported into another world. Through VR goggles, they experience playing soccer, hanging out with friends, or visiting faraway places.
6. Increase data capture on learning performance
Using the metaverse to create immersive learning experiences allows organizations to collect hitherto untapped data to gain insights into learner behavior to track progress, identify gaps, and continuously improve the learning experience. Useful data on learner actions includes usage, performance, attention and engagement, sentiment, and predictive analysis. Teachers can also play a more active role in collecting data and analyzing lessons on the effectiveness of such environments for learning. For instance, hand movements are tracked in Pfizer, Novartis and Bristol Myers Squibb’s pharma sims. If users cross their hands or angle them the wrong way under the biosafety cabinet, the sim immediately provides feedback and starts over. Every digital footprint can be measured and a dashboard of telemetry data can provide actionable insights to improve the simulation experience.
The metaverse literally means “life” after the internet. Early applications of this new way of learning include virtual campus activities, 3D simulations, and gamified activities. This is only the start—through this technology there are boundless opportunities to reimagine and democratize education in novel ways.
This blog was also published on World Bank blogs.