Learning in a metaverse

I will open by declaring two positions. Firstly, I believe that the metaverse idea is very interesting. I am uncertain how it might unfold, of course, but there is value in many of the ideas that we are yet to really see. Secondly, I am deeply annoyed by Zuckerberg hijacking the idea to satisfy the needs of Facebook as a business and his personal whimsy. If a metaverse were realised by someone who was neither white nor male, or a billionaire from Northern California, the exploration might be more rewarding. 

What we have observed in social media hot takes feels like an example of what Roy Amara observed in the 1960s “we overestimate the impact of technology in the short-term and underestimate the effect in the long run.”  Zuckerberg’s self-indulgent video presentation of his metaverse hopes and dreams is obscuring more useful problems that might be solved over time. (Let us not underestimate, though, how odd and irritating he can be). 

The period of working and communicating since March of 2020 has revealed significant frustrations about the current status of human interaction mediated by technology. Zoom fatigue and the effort and uncertainty of properly understanding each other reveals how inadequate these tools are in replacing our real world experience. Not to mention whether that substitution is worth the effort at all – these technologies will always disappoint if they are pitched in that way. At each turn, we are expected to squeeze and mould our real life expectations and needs into the confines of the technologies we use.

why are humans required to conform to the needs of computers, rather than the other way around? “Why don’t we flip it?”

Alex Kipman, Microsoft HoloLens

One strand of thought in discussions of mataverse like developments is the opportunity to design experiences which allow us to behave much more naturally, with technology fitting around those modes and expectations. Slightly counterintuitively, the goal is to shape the technology around our natural actions, allowing us to be more human whilst using technology. Alex Kipman from HoloLens summarises it thus: “why are humans required to conform to the needs of computers, rather than the other way around? “Why don’t we flip it?”. This is the opposite of our experience of working life via Zoom, where the affordances of the tech, hardware and software, limit our human experience and exhaust us as a result.

There is a strong tendency in our discussions to lapse into a binary debate. Things are either all tech or completely organic. Neither have been true of work for some time. We routinely weave our way through technology tools and face to face encounters on a daily basis. An all day meeting will suck at points whether in a room or through a screen. I suspect the same will be true of even the most immersive environments. (Virtual horses for Metaverse courses). They should not substitute real world social encounters, but they will, for a time, help us communicate and collaborate in ways that we are unable to when physically distanced. The Microsoft model of AR and digital twin technologies seems more attractive to me in this respect, using technology tools to support and enhance our real world tasks. 

The learning world is well and truly speared on this problem. Being in the room is the standard by which experiences are measured (regardless of efficacy) and our current inability to replicate that feeling via technology is an insurmountable hurdle. We would be better off solving the problems to which being in the room is the preferred solution in different ways that are not attempting to mimic it and how it feels. (To say nothing of the goal of feeling good being an interesting choice of objectives for learning services). At some point, the ability to use the building blocks of the metaverse (not only the one Zuck is pursuing) will allow for the feel good learning experiences and a good chance of real-world mimicry for remote participants. Our design opportunity then will be to select those tools to a benefit that reaches beyond only an emotional response and to apply the ability to explore, practice and rehearse what we want to improve in. Having a good time is not the goal in any circumstance. 

Whatever a metaverse may be, it will not arrive fully formed all at once. This is the fatal flaw of the visions painted for us. They are a boosters view of a potential future state where that particular world exists in all 360 degrees. The development of the internet has not been anywhere near that tidy. If a metaverse is analogous to the development of the mobile internet, there will be hardware failures along the way (the Facebook phone for example) and killer applications, such as the selfie, might take us by surprise. The video phone was mooted in the 1960s and yet was not fully embraced until it was wrapped into the iPhone as FaceTime in the last few years. It’s likely that the useful and viable tools of the metaverse will emerge similarly, creating that all round experience over time as experiments prove genuine value. Like our real world, it will be messy.

Zuckerberg needs the Meta metaverse story to work. The business needs a future facing story where the neglect of safety in the pursuit of growth is not stinking up the narrative. A new hardware platform is needed where Apple don’t change the rules and the operating system is under close control. He also needs to attract developers to an exciting and less morally shallow endeavour. I am not sure why the cartoony, avatar treatment helps any of that. Few seem to enjoy his story so far, but there are others with potential. 

The metaverse risk for L&D is that we grasp an opportunity to build actual virtual classrooms and the opportunity is that we use the new tools to greater effect where more immediate connection and collaboration can take us beyond any classroom.

Photo by Michelangelo Buonarroti on Pexels.com

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