Remote learning is becoming more of the norm thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. From school-children learning their ABCs to college students zooming into a lecture, remote learning affects all ages. Many students have found the shift to remote learning to be difficult and isolating. Gone are the days of playing tag or swinging together on swing sets. Instead, students socialize through social media, texting, video chatting, or playing online video games with each other. As the metaverse, a term referring to a virtual universe powered by the internet becomes more of a reality, it offers new ways of socialization and education for students.
There are many different industries that contribute to metaverse technology, but one of the biggest is virtual reality (VR). VR allows individuals to create virtual avatars to interact with other avatars in a virtual setting. VR, not surprisingly, is used quite a bit in video games. More recently, VR technology has pivoted toward the education sector with successful results. In 2019, Stanford University hired the VR company Virbela to create a virtual campus for the LEAD business school. “When designing the Stanford virtual campus, it was important to create familiar spaces for students that reminded them of the university’s physical campus in California in order to foster deeper connections,” explained Alex Howland, CEO, and Co-Founder of Virbela. Before creating Virbela, Howland was an instructor at the University of California, San Diego, teaching industrial and organizational psychology. He used his background in psychology to design productive virtual settings for students and teachers alike. “Virbela enables schools and universities to build their own virtual campus and create different learning environments to engage students, empower faculty, and bring the spark back to learning,” Howland added.
A lot goes into designing virtual learning settings. According to Howland: “Our development team worked with Stanford to create a virtual version of the Stanford Hoover Tower that students can climb to enjoy the view, and digital replicas of art found at the Stanford physical campus, as well as decorating many spaces in the virtual learning environment.” Not only does Virbela’s virtual campus boast of geographical accuracy, but is also extremely user-friendly. “Along with some of the more customized spaces and features, image panels and web panels are dispersed throughout campus so that posters and images can be updated easily by students and faculty alike,” added Howland.
In using the virtual campus, students create avatars and wander around the virtual setting, even participating in virtual classrooms or meetings. Studies have already begun to show that these virtual interactions are helping students to feel more connected, and Howland agrees: “The Stanford virtual campus powered by Virbela enables students to feel a sense of community and presence with their classmates and school faculty even though they are physically distant. Many of the interactions students and faculty have in-person also happen within the virtual world, like maintaining an appropriate distance from each other’s avatars and making eye contact with whoever is speaking.” The virtual campus has also been coded with games to encourage more socialization from users. “Students and staff alike use the in-platform team-building game, Invisible Path, as an ice-breaker and communication building activity,” said Howland. “During the Invisible Path game, each player takes a turn being the ‘runner’ who is unable to see the path in front of them. Other team members will guide the runner through the maze, ensuring they collect key items and avoid penalties along the way.” Built-in activities like this force users to collaborate and socialize in a virtual setting, overcoming boundaries like social anxiety in the process.
Besides virtual campuses, VR is also being used in schools to teach virtual labs, like the classic frog dissection for high school biology class. Using VR headsets, students can travel to Jupiter or practice performing surgery for medical school. With a rising metaverse, these applications would only be amplified to other subjects and experiences. As the metaverse encourages virtual interactions, this new VR education would be fitting for a post-pandemic society, allowing students to learn in a safer environment.
While VR indicates more connection and successful learning, many question the affordability of this technology. Unfortunately, most schools can’t afford to create custom virtual campuses or give each student individual VR headsets to use. As the metaverse is launched, it will need to make opportunities for education to use its services at an affordable rate.
Interview with Alex Howland of Virbela