What is the metaverse and what could it mean for online teachers?

After having watched the recent keynote speech by Mark Zuckerberg, I feel both excited and slightly uncomfortable (similar to how I feel whenever I watch an episode of Black Mirror). But I thought it could be interesting to think a little bit about what the metaverse might mean for us online teachers in the future.

What is the metaverse?

I'm not into gaming nor programming, so this word only popped up on my radar a month or so ago. The metaverse. What is it?

It's being talked about in terms of 'the next generation of the Internet', 'still being built', that 'you are inside of the experience', and that it's an 'embodied Internet'. It's relating to virtual reality and augmented reality. Inside the metaverse, we will be able to work, learn, play, shop and hang out.

Previously, we've used devices (phones and computers) to look through a screen into the Internet, and it's also been based around platforms and apps. In the metaverse, we will instead have a sense of being 'inside', and we will also be able to create an avatar of ourselves that we can use across platforms and spaces (instead of creating separate profiles for each app and platform).

We will be using different types of tools, perhaps virtual reality headsets or smart glasses, and maybe also devices that track our hand movements.

We will be able to create virtual spaces and invite others in. In the keynote speech, they gave an example of creating spaces for learning, where you could be in that space and look around. For example, if someone wanted to learn about history, they could be in a space from a certain era and see what it looked like. Like this avatar who is strolling through ancient Rome.

Or you could choose a geographical location for a certain activity, like these two people who are playing chess in Barcelona. Well, one of them seems to actually be in Barcelona, whereas the other is an avatar, and they are playing chess through a hologram.

What could the metaverse mean for online teachers?

The idea of being able to create more immersive experiences for your students certainly makes me quite excited. For example, if I'm teaching Swedish, why not do it in a virtual reality Swedish space? I could offer an immersion course in the metaverse. Or if I'm teaching on a particular vocabulary topic, let's say the Vikings and Norse gods, I could use a space that is 'set' in that time. I could teach one lesson in a typical Swedish kitchen, where I could show vocabulary in that space. And so on.

I think using the idea of a shared virtual space could be potentially really powerful for, for example, language learning, instead of looking at text books, Powerpoint slides and shared screens/whiteboards.

This ability to share a virtual space in a more immersive way will also affect how we work and collaborate, of course. I'm imagining that it may be much easier to 'visit' each other in these spaces and interact.

Right now in 2021, most of us are very used to Zoom and similar technologies, but we're still sat in front of a screen, looking at each other. To be able to move around in a space more freely, with an avatar that can also pick up facial expressions and gestures, will be an entirely different experience. Basically, no more emojis. And it won't just be our heads, it will be a whole 3D representation of our full body.

The two faces in the middle of this picture are not pictures of the people using the VR headsets, they are their avatars, and they will show the same facial expressions as their 'owners':

Another big area that they seem to be focusing on is the ability to buy and sell digital items. And anyone can create these items. So for teachers, it may be that a teacher creates a virtual school environment that exists exclusively in the metaverse, where they can also create and sell specific digital items that the students need when they are studying in that space.

There are many more things that could be possible in the metaverse, but these are just some things that I think could become significant for online teachers in the next decade or two.

There are many different companies and creators currently working on the technology required to populate the metaverse, and I'm imagining it's a bit like the race towards the Internet in the 80's. Like in the brilliant TV-series Halt and Catch Fire (highly recommended!):

The major trends that are driving the development of the metaverse are:

  • digital identity (the mainstream adoption of virtual personas and items)

  • the competition - or tension - between open standards (decentralised Internet, like for ex that anyone can buy a domain and build website, open source options) and closed platforms (like Facebook, Apple, Google)

  • artificial intelligence (and 'deep learning')

  • cybernetics (AR, VR, neural, brain-computer interfaces)

  • blockchain technologies (being able to do financial transactions without a clearing authority)

  • low code and no code platforms (less need for programmers in order to create new things)

  • simulating reality

  • distributed networks to increase data speed (further development of cloud computing for example)

The metaverse exists already. It's not something that's just a future vision. It's here and it's being driven by advancements in these areas above.

But we're likely to see massive changes in the next decade or so, in terms of what we will be able to do and what opportunities we as teachers will have in the future.

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