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What Is the Metaverse's Future in K-12 and Higher Ed?

Virtual and augmented reality tools are gaining traction in both K-12 and higher-ed institutions, but experts say more planning and collaboration are needed to make the content practical and useful.

man wearing VR headset working in metaverse
While often eclipsed by artificial intelligence as an emerging technology modernizing education, AR/VR technology will play a key role in the development of interactive virtual environments known as "metaverses," to enhance student learning. With virtual reality trending, analysts from the market research firm The Business Research Company project the AR/VR ed-tech market will reach $32 billion by 2026, representing an increase of more than $25 billion since 2020.

Over recent months, K-12 schools and universities have adopted AR/VR ed-tech tools for hands-on science courses, activities and skill development, among other growing uses. For example, the University of Michigan joined several other institutions this year in adopting AR/VR tools for technical skill-building courses, while workforce development officials in Arkansas described plans last month to expand the state’s use of VR for career exploration and training for K-12 students.

According to Johann Wentzel, a Ph.D student at the University of Waterloo in Ontario whose research focuses on augmented and virtual reality, the field has come a long way in less than a decade. He said advancements in AR/VR technology could work together to better enable “a sense of presence, immersion and interactivity" that may characterize the education metaverse in the years ahead.

“AR interfaces and displays could allow aspects of the real world to be better explained, more easily highlighted, or even more deeply interactable than traditional teaching tools could allow. It specifically could allow teachers to not only explain something at the front of the room but bring the content straight to the student’s desk and make it interactive,” he said. “AR and VR are really coming into their own. From a technological standpoint, VR has improved by leaps and bounds since the first Oculus Rift in 2015 ... Improved room tracking, wireless, increased field of view, better controllers, all of these have really deepened the level of interaction that AR and VR can accommodate.”

According to a recent Brookings Institution report, the AR/VR-driven metaverse could be “as omnipresent as TikTok, Instagram and Facebook [now Meta]" as the tech field progresses, and as educators embrace gamification in K-12 learning.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University and senior fellow at Brookings, said she envisions the technology will be used to create realistic and immersive learning experiences similar to the children’s TV series "The Magic School Bus," in which the show's students take field trips into the human body or far away in outer space.

“In my image of the world, it’s a lot like jumping into the Magic School Bus. Imagine if that’s how we taught children,” she said, adding that this type of learning would work well with children's tendencies to learn by recognizing patterns, social interaction and iteration.

“Everything we know about the psychology of learning is that it’s not passive, and everything we’re doing in the education system is passive,” she said. “Human brains have a couple of very fundamental characteristics. They work by being active and engaged.”

Most new uses of AR/VR in ed-tech applications have been in higher education, as several universities look toward creating “metaversities” through partnerships with tech companies like VictoryXR and Meta. Among those schools is South Dakota State University, which announced plans recently to create a digital twin campus, or “metacampus," where students will be able to take courses and interact with one another.

Greg Heiberger, a biology professor and associate dean for academics, said the university has used the technology to lure K-12 students into science subjects.

“We’ve been testing this in the last year really through outreach activities, and we’re bringing VR to high schools ... When middle and high school students come to visit our campus, they’re getting VR experiences," he said. “To some extent, it’s a low-risk way for us to test it, but it’s also an outreach activity to get students excited about science ... We can’t bring all the chemistry labs [and materials] to rural South Dakota, but we can bring a VR chemistry experience there.”

However, the widespread use of AR/VR technology in K-12 courses could be years down the line, with one of the main barriers being content development, according to Hirsh-Pasek.

Citing the Brookings report, she said one of the main things holding the field back is a lack of collaboration between ed-tech developers and education and child-psychology experts. She noted that the challenge is compounded by a need for more cost-effective AR/VR tools, adding that the tech remains largely inaccessible for underserved students in schools with limited funding.

“We just went through COVID, and I think it really shook up the educational system. The tech industry has been moving forward at a pace for a long time, introducing a lot of educational content for children ... For the most part, the formal education system hasn’t caught up to the ‘coolness’ of what’s going on in tech, but I think there really needs to be a two-way street," Hirsh-Pasek said. “Right now, most of the really good products aren’t available for kids from underserved communities ... Like with any industry right now, we need to build a team.”

Wentzel agreed that the need for more collaboration remains a hurdle in the effort to make AR/VR tools practical additions to teachers’ ed-tech tool kits. While the potential of the technology is powerful, he said that “novelty only takes an educational message so far.”

“VR taps into our innate spatial intuition so readily and can allow for much deeper experiential learning. However, educators need to think of how these technologies can actually assist their teaching styles and make them more effective, rather than just implementing this technology for novelty’s sake," he said. "There is so much that VR can do, and the content that’s out there only scratches the surface of the experiences that VR can allow ... Educators and designers have a really unique opportunity to take advantage of spatial technologies like AR and VR to provide more impactful and educational experiences.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.