What is the metaverse?

Why should Educators in Aotearoa care?

Imagine yourself as a young person taking your first steps into a new environment on the first day of school. Perhaps the school is steeped in history. Perhaps this all feels very grown up. Perhaps you're anxious about where to go, what to do, and how you’ll navigate this next step on your learning journey.

You walk across the school field, eyes fixed on the enormous building ahead that vaguely reminds you of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. As you get closer, you see the fine details in the old red brick, the marks from the passage of many feet in the well worn floors, and the huge oak double doors standing open, inviting you to enter.

As you step inside, a simple map pops up in front of your eyes. The line to the Student Services office catches your eye – these are people you’ve been told will be able to make sure your learning needs are met. You’re looking forward to meeting them.

Finding your way through the corridors, avatars of other ākonga greet you along the walk. They tell you about the school and reassure you that you’re welcome here, that you’re safe. They tell you about how great the facilities are, where you can go to ask questions, who their favourite kaiako are, and share inside secrets that only other students would know.

You relax. Perhaps this won’t be so scary after all.

The experience I’ve just described is a school induction metaverse experience created by Year 12 ākonga in a digital technology class I was teaching in 2017. Sure, it was scrappy and had a few bugs (alright, maybe more than a few – but I’m biased). A few walls disappeared at random. Occasionally the player would spawn under the floor and be unable to escape.

But man was it cool! I sure as heck didn’t teach them how to make that!

I didn’t (and still don’t) possess the skills to help create something on that level. I gave them the reins of their project and they galloped with it – creating a virtual world to support new ākonga with the transition from intermediate to secondary before their actual first day – an experience they wished they’d had themselves.

Back then, watching the ākonga work blew my mind. It still does now. It was the beginning of a metaverse unfolding before my eyes. Rangatahi leading the way, connecting the real world to a new virtual one from a place of passion and purpose.

Not to confused with Facebook (meta) - so what is it exactly? 

Not to be confused with Meta (the new “face” of Facebook), the notion of the metaverse has been around for 30 years. The term, metaverse, is a combination of the prefix meta which implies some kind of change or transformation and the word universe, which in context describes a virtual environment linked to the physical world.

In other words, a new and engaging reality evolving from and connected to our physical one in which we can explore, connect, play and learn. Sometimes this reality would be accessed through technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), and sometimes not.

While the term has been around for quite some time, we don’t (yet?) have the metaverse – the networked virtual world in which all of us can connect and co-exist together.

Rather, we have metaverses (plural) – contained virtual worlds such as the one I described above, or Second Life, or games like Minecraft and Roblox.

Why does this matter? Because it means the notion of the metaverse is still in its infancy. This is good news for educators, and the ākonga we teach. We can have a part to play in shaping it, and we haven’t missed the boat.

Why should you care about the Metaverses? 

When education isn’t keeping pace with digital progress, technology is what defines the learning opportunities rather than those who understand what actually makes for effective learning.

This has happened before.

In 2007, the iPhone was launched and with it came the explosion of the mobile app market. The market was quickly flooded with thousands of “educational” apps created with no research on the science of learning behind them.

By the time the educational community caught up, it was too late. Sure, there came (and still are) great learning apps, but the sheer number of low quality products also continues to make it incredibly challenging for kaiako and whānau to find those that are truly educational.

Metaverses are becoming increasingly commonplace in education. There are also plenty of signals that point to the possibility of the metaverse coming soon, and if and when it does, it will be unignorable.

If we’re going to ensure these immersive, real-time, and eventually interconnected metaverse spaces serve the needs of our rangatahi and tamariki, then it’s important for us to be thinking about, designing, and experimenting with connections between the physical world and the virtual experiential one that support effective learning.

The time for kaiako and ākonga to start leading the conversation around the metaverse is now.

What can you do to get involved in the Metaverse?

As an educator, you may be wondering what you should be doing to get involved and upskill yourself to guide ākonga in these virtual learning environments.

Here are three things you can start doing right now to become a metaverse pioneer:
  • Know how important you are
  • Learn about the metaverse
  • Take part in the conversation

1. Know how important you are

First, it’s important to know how necessary your role is. A good metaverse connects what’s happening in the virtual world to the real one, and it’s kaiako who guide ākonga to make this connection.

As a guide for ākonga in the metaverse, you’ll be doing some of the same things you already do for them in the classroom. A good metaverse learning environment needs kaiako to:

  • select the right virtual spaces and experiences that reflect who ākonga are and that work for their specific needs
  • help navigate spaces that might bring up difficult things for ākonga
  • grow ākonga beyond their comfort zones and help them to tackle new challenges based on their strengths and difficulties
  • link what ākonga are learning with what they already know
  • guide the experience based on what’s been observed to spark new interest and learning inquiry
  • ensure metaverse learning experiences are used in ways that are inclusive

Without educators, effective learning in the metaverse will be left to chance. Or worse – big tech companies or people looking to make a quick dollar.

2. Learn about metaverses

A quick Google search for “metaverse in education books” will take you down a rabbit hole of great reading suggestions. If you’re looking for ways to learn more about metaverses that are locally contextualised, here’s two to get you started:

  • Try out Microsoft’s Minecraft: Education Edition with your class. Ngā Motu, created by New Zealand game developer and founder of Piki Studios Whetu Paitai, is a Minecraft world where students can explore concepts of te ao Māori and is a great place to get started. There’s also a set of bi-cultural resources to support kaiako and tamariki to explore Ngā Motu together created by CORE Education and accessible for free

3. Take part in the conversation

The thing I miss most about being in the classroom is the curiosity and creativity of young minds. If I were teaching again, a learning inquiry I’d love to explore with ākonga would be “if the metaverse is a new place for us to ‘be’ together, what will be our tikanga?”

Developing a learning inquiry with your own class is a great way to get the conversation going and to learn alongside and from rangatahi. As we all know, and like I experienced back in 2017, rangatahi have a way of blowing our minds and trailblazing when we empower them to lead.

Some other ideas to take part in the conversation include:
  • try a metaverse learning experience with your class and write a reflective blog piece
  • host a kōrero about the metaverse and its implications at your next staff hui
  • start a conversation on your favourite education forum and see what comes back
  • talk to rangatahi in your own whānau and see what they have to say about the metaverse
  • reach out to your nearest tertiary provider or organisation embracing metaverse technologies to find out about what they’re doing
  • drop me an email (here’s my bio with my email address) and tell me your thoughts about this blog post. What’s making you excited? What do you disagree with? What would you like us to cover in our upcoming webinar about the metaverse?

A parting pātai

It doesn’t take a deep scan to forecast that we’re going to be hearing a lot more about the metaverse in education in the next few years.

The opportunity in front of us right now is to engage with both our communities and the wider technology community to co-create a connected, impactful, and inclusive metaverse. One that supports good learning. One that is good for ākonga and whānau.

What part will you play?

Key points

  • The metaverse is a new and engaging reality evolving from and connected to our physical one in which we can explore, connect, play and learn.
  • We’re already experiencing metaverses. The metaverse is still being developed, and is (probably) coming soon.
  • Kaiako, ākonga and whānau are critical to the development of the metaverse. Without them, effective learning in the metaverse will be left to chance.
  • There are lots of ways to experiment with, learn more about, and become involved in the conversation about metaverses in education.

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