Our changing nature: Education in a hybrid world

By Marta Bertanzetti

Consultant, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– Digitalisation of education is accelerating. As the metaverse, virtual reality and immersive technologies become a reality we look at how they might impact our classrooms.
– Potential positives of being able to access the metaverse in education include hands-on learning in different environments and technologies helping to improve inclusion in education
– Safety, privacy and inclusion remain concerns for full application of education in immersive technologies

“We’ll be able to feel present – like we’re right there with people no matter how far apart we actually are”. With these words, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg announced the company rebranding as Meta, sketching his futuristic plan to build the “metaverse”, a place where physical and virtual worlds collide through the power of extended reality.

Futuristic as it may sound, the term metaverse was coined already back in 1992 by science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his novel ‘Snow Crash’. The book narrates the story of Hiro, a hacker and pizza delivery driver who spends a great deal of his time in a computer-generated universe, which he accesses by wearing goggles and earphones.

This is emblematic of how human interactions could radically mutate over the next decade. Immersive technologies are in fact already transforming our everyday life, from how we socialise to how we choose our clothes and home furniture. The power of these emerging technologies raises questions for the future of education. How will virtual reality (VR) transform learning spaces and infrastructure? What kinds of implications could this have for diversity and personalised learning? What about education quality and equity? The OECD report Trends Shaping Education 2022 takes a closer look at these issues. By analysing the key megatrends affecting society today, the report aims to investigate how different societal phenomena are transforming education, with special attention paid to digital technologies. More specifically, it asks how these technologies might alter the way we communicate and experience reality – and, most importantly, how education could adapt.

Living between the physical and virtual

Teaching and learning outdoors – for example in forest schools or school gardens – is key to helping students learn about and value nature. As well as being beneficial for learning and general well-being, children’s regular contact with nature has been linked to increased environmental sensitivity. Ensuring high-quality outdoor spaces for children’s play activities and healthy school facilities are fast becoming increasingly crucial policy areas – especially in the densest urban centres.

But, as we spend more and more time online, a question arises: Can we experience nature in a virtual environment, or will that always remain a contradiction in terms? If we can, will the virtual version achieve the same outcomes as the real thing? Immersive technologies might actually revolutionise the way we relate to the natural world since they are increasingly able to reproduce natural areas such as natural reserves or beaches.

Whether nature can be truly replicated in a virtual space or not, the fact remains that these immersive technologies have great potential for creating engaging learning environments. For example, virtual classrooms and virtual field trips allow children to have a more sensory experience of a different country or historical period without the need to travel, thus saving time and money. Moreover, research has shown that VR (in addition to other digital technologies) can be successfully used to diagnosis children with ADHD, and can offer innovative learning solutions for students with special education needs.

Yet, there are still many unanswered questions about immersive technologies’ influence on child development. For instance, there are concerns that immersive technologies may make it hard for children to distinguish between virtual and real physical experiences. Moreover, digital reproductions of the world may open the possibility of conflict in real spaces as well, including the risk of their heavy commercialisation.

These evolutions give rise to the need to preserve and regulate public spaces in a virtualised world. Issues around safety, privacy and inclusivity are emerging already – for example when a programmer created an augmented reality (AR) app to see a filtered version of San Francisco without homeless people. Education is key to mitigating the harmful content and environments that may result from extended reality. By incorporating e-safety in the curriculum, schools can help children engage in more positive online behaviour and teach them about empathy and privacy.

What next?

If the metaverse becomes reality, many other questions will emerge. Will children go to school and learn in the metaverse? What will that feel like? Will students be able to engage emotionally with their peers as if they were physically together? It seems that feeling truly present with another person will be the hallmark of the metaverse, its intrinsic revolution. But will the metaverse really be able to overcome the physical and social divides, reconceptualising the notions of distance and social space?

After the COVID-19 pandemic, the digitalisation of the education sector is advancing at even a greater pace. In such context, assessing students’ attitudes towards learning in a cyber-physical realm will become increasingly crucial. The key to success may be to actively engage students and teachers in collectively thinking and building a shared vision of what learning will look like in a hybrid world.

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Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Gorodenkoff