Changing tides: Learning and training in the Metaverse

The Indian Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, pushed the colonial classroom outdoors in 1901. No longer walled in by brick-and-mortar classrooms, students were educated in the shade of mango trees that stood on the cool quietness of the red laterite soil of Birbhum.

It was as if holistic learning was only possible in the open — through a dissolution of factory-modeled educational spaces and rigidity of thought. Tagore aside, the importance of curiosity, play and disruption were ideas that persisted in the evolution of education.

However, very few took it to a material level where the cookie-cutter classroom itself, as a space, was brazenly disrupted and reimagined. In his 2015 interview with architect Larry Kearns, who has worked on blended-learning spaces for Intrinsic Schools in Chicago, the author Michael B. Horn notes how Kearns has architecturally disrupted the cellular-model classroom design by pushing “the teacher’s desk to the margins” and reorganizing the classroom into open studio spaces and “pop-up classes.”

But these instances of pushing the classroom outside definitive walls or that of disrupting the spatial hierarchy automatically accorded to the teacher, have found an odd resurrection in the metaverse. I met Dr. Alex Howland, the co-founder and President of the virtual world platform Virbela, to understand how the metaverse is disrupting traditional teaching and learning spaces.

From Physical to the Meta-Physical

VR platforms like Virbela demonstrate how it is architecturally possible to move beyond the physical domain of a classroom or corporate-training hall to a hyperreal space of learning. While one may argue that Zoom, YouTube and other platforms already provide learning opportunities that are not restricted to physical buildings, the metaverse dives a little deeper by focusing on spatial immersion.

Dr. Howland compares it to the active experience of reading a novel, and immersing oneself in the plot, context, and lives of the characters. Unlike the passive consumption of learning material from a talking head or voice over in a video, learning in the VR creates an elusive sense of movement and agency. For example, in the Virbela platform, a learner can walk her avatar to a community center to learn about global warming, dance in a rooftop concert, stop to greet another avatar, or join a wireless queue to raise a tech issue with the IT staff. With an array of customizable architectural features, several universities, including Stanford, which hosts some of its leadership programs on this platform, have started taking their classes to the metaverse.

Not limited to mimicking real-life architectural constructs of campus environments, Virbela’s Frame products allow complete customization of environments by people with “fairly novice tech skills” to build their own environment. There are teachers who have built environments from snippets of marine life drawn from The Great Barrier Reef, and sent their students on a journey to the blue subterranean world of ancient corals. Some have packed off their student avatars to the alien shores of Australia in 18

th century convict ships to learn about the history of penal transportation and settler colonies. Referring to an e-commerce company, that uses the Virbela campus for employee training, Dr. Howland points out how the company’s virtual fulfilment center functions as a classroom for new employees being coached on machinery, safety, boxes entering and exiting the center, etc. without the hassle of a mandatory presence in a busy fulfilment center.

This move away from traditional learning spaces and passive modes of learning to the atypicality of non-tangible campuses and immersive-learning environments in cyberspace indicates a major change in the spatial identity of learning habitats.

From the Teacher to the Learner

Consumer culture and the Internet’s democratization of education have decentered the teacher’s desk.

The teacher-figure is no longer a singular source of authority in the classroom as, equipped with countless hyperlinks and free access to information, the learner has come to acquire center stage. Metaverse platforms like Virbela focus on centering the learner in its gamified environments that range from cellular classroom spaces to alternate spaces of peer-to-peer learning, the virtual outdoors, and others.

This break from the formalism of brick-and-mortar learning spaces has led the metaverse to create more interactive and fluid learning environments that are capable of integrating learners from different parts of the world who cannot travel to the same physical space of learning.

But, as with most things in life, shifting tides also come with complex repercussions. In his opinion article, “Why Digital Avatars Make the Best Teachers,” Professor Jeremy Bailenson talks about the capability of VR to ensure no learner gets left behind in a virtual classroom.

This is possible through a tracking of the teacher and the learner’s body movements. Bailenson explains, “In a video game, a person must act intentionally to produce behavior. But in virtual reality, tracking equipment [can be integrated to] detect what a person does and…redraw the avatar performing the same action…However, users can alter their streams in real time…For example, a teacher can choose to have his computer never display an angry expression, but always to replace it with a calm face. Or he can screen out distracting student behaviors, like talking on cellphones.”

Though he warns how “We must be careful not to cross the line between strategic transformations and outright deception,” one wonders if such modifications herald an age of a mechanical utopia, that has little regard for the psychological effects of such modified behavioral patterns on both teachers and learners.

While the metaverse promotes a fluid and democratic learning space with a decentering of the teacher/trainer and a re-centering of the learner, we need to look out for other forms of social engineering that replace the authority of the teacher.

Dr. Jayendrina Singha Ray’s research interests include postcolonial studies, spatial literary studies, British literature, and rhetoric and composition. Prior to teaching in the U.S., she worked as an editor with Routledge and taught English at colleges in India. She is a resident of Kirkland.