On the Metaverse
I ask a History teacher whether we should invest in USD$1,499 Meta Quest Pro headsets
It seems to me that the world of tech is constantly trying — and more often failing — to make its stamp on education. I think I would be more willing to listen if they could deliver me a decent LMS or even just a basic functioning database. The New York Times reported this week that Meta (Facebook’s new umbrella company) is no longer down with the kids. They’re losing the youth market and haemorrhaging revenue due to pesky privacy improvements made by Apple.
Meta has been trying to hype up the potential use-cases for the Metaverse, including immersive history experiences. As far as I can tell from the promotional material, it seems to be some kind of Bill and Ted adventure. The comments on Benedict Evans’ tweet below make me both despair and hope. Reassuringly, there are still plenty of people who understand what learning actually is. This recent Hechinger Report was more generous but rightly pointed out the lack of consultation that’s often involved in these kinds of new shiny takeover attempts.
I’ve been known to be pretty cynical about the whole tech-utopian endeavour, so I thought I would ask an expert. Josh Levy is Head of History at one of the top departments in the state of New South Wales. I asked him whether he thought the Metaverse had a place in education. Here is his notably balanced view:
We all understand that in order for good learning to happen, there needs to be genuine engagement with the kids. Most people try, and certainly in this day and age, you need to do the engaging before the learning can happen.
Now, in a perfect world, from a teacher's perspective, the learning would be engaging on its own, but we're not that naive so we do begin with some stimulus. It’s not often as grandiose as AI technology, but something to spark the interest.
At some point, we go, "Yeah, that's great for engagement," but it's actually limited as far as learning is concerned. At some point, we need to change horses. It's a bit deflating when you start with something really shiny and colourful and exciting, and you say, "Right. That's done its job. Now, have a look at the white board and write this down."
None of us really want to do that, so we push out the engagement part for as long as it can go because we like having kids in our room who are excited about whatever we're doing, but there is a point at which it's run its course and we have to do the learning part.
Having said that, I don’t believe learning can’t be engaging in itself – it most certainly can, but teachers need to work hard to present learning in as engaging a manner as possible even after the initial stimulus has run its course. In the context of the Metaverse, I still hold to the view that if AR and VR technology offers any value at all, it’s in its capacity to generate interest, not develop actual learning.
He pointed out the problems with trying to engage students by bringing their world into the world of school.
There's a reason history teachers search around to find a film that was made on the subject they're teaching. They might have serious questions about the veracity of the information, but that's not the point. It's something immersive, something engaging, where students can be drawn in somewhat subconsciously. I do think there's merit in that even if it's only from an anecdotal, non-scientific, just experiential perspective.
What I'm skeptical about is the logic that asks, "What do kids like these days? They love games. They love gaming experiences. Let's replicate that." I think that one of the reasons kids love games is because it's not in a school and it's not educational. I don't know about the kids at your school, but kids who go home from this school, on average, are going to their own gaming room with their own gaming chair, with a huge screen. I can't replicate that. It's going to be a cheap facsimile at best.
I asked Josh about whether the Metaverse experience could meet the domain-specific goal of History. What if students could witness the assassination of Franz Ferdinand? Wouldn't that enhance their understanding of the causes of World War II?
Well, I think there are significant limitations. What is history teaching? It's in two parts, and one is more important than the other. The traditional emphasis, which, to me, is the less important part, is the knowledge part, teaching them about things that happened some time ago, about people who lived some time ago. I say to my class, "Look. I'm a history nerd. I listen to History podcasts, I watch history documentaries. I'm interested in it for its own sake, but I don't expect you to be." The situation won't come five years from now where you're in front of a future employer and they say to you, "Well, look, Johnny, you've ticked every box but just before I let you go, who assassinated Julius Caesar and when?" It's not going to come up.
For me, the focus on skill development is paramount. Yes, there is great value in knowledge acquisition, both independent of skill development and in its facilitation of skill development. However, I see the content up as the vehicle for what I think is more important, which is the skill side: it’s about information gathering, about information processing, about analysis, about various forms of communication. These are genuine life skills that can be applied in lots of different ways. Interestingly, when I introduce a new topic to my students and employ every rhetorical device to ‘hook’ my students, it is usually two things that seal the deal: firstly, demonstrating the relevance of the topic to current events and issues, and secondly, explaining how the skills we will target can be transferred and applied to their different subjects and, potentially, to a range of vocations.
Is the Metaverse particularly useful in presenting knowledge? In other words, if I put the headset on, am I going to know more? I don't think so. There are some real concerns about the authenticity of what is presented in that environment. On the skill side, where it's really at, I think it offers extremely little. Certainly, it is potentially very engaging. However, I don't think it's the only way you can get engagement, and I don’t think it's a very practical way of getting engagement, but it certainly would be engaging. If it’s a choice of, "Open up your textbook to page 385," or "Put that headset on,” I know which way the kids are going to go.
I see skill development as almost completely dependent on domain knowledge — to my mind, the latter is impossible without the former. But I completely understand his reasoning about the shortcomings of this particular tech. He rightly brought up the problem with teaching information in the absence of any kind of application or synthesis — the stuff that provides us with evidence of learning. He made another valid point, acknowledging the opportunity cost.
It's not out of cynicism that I end up rejecting this — it's just the practical considerations of teaching in schools, and I'm in a very well-resourced school. The equity issue is huge even if we accept the educational benefits of it, which are dubious. Schools are just not going to spend the money on that. I would hate to think what the reaction would be if they went to the government school down the road and said, "I've got this great idea for your kids. All you need to do is to invest $600,000 in this equipment." You'd be laughed out of the building.
I think that for the time being, schools are safe from the overreach of tech. Perhaps someone in tech will even read this piece and have the good sense to reach out to practitioners and consult industry experts — teachers — on what History actually is!