Oh no, it’s another metaverse hot take

via GIPHY

Following on from my late to the party Twitter hot take, here is my even later to the party one on the metaverse (next week – learning objects).

I think for many of us who have been in and around educational technology for a while, the idea of a shared 3D virtual world brings back memories of SecondLife and even earlier excitement about MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) and MOOs (MUD, object-oriented). And while it easy to dismiss another attempt at the virtual world as universal education platform, it’s probably worth revisiting why SecondLife failed and evaluating if those reasons hold true for the Metaverse.

Firstly, we are seeing very similar over-hyping of Metaverse. So, as an antidote to that, here is a quote from a 2009 paper on SecondLife “Gartner … estimates that by 2012, 80% of active Internet users, including Fortune 500 enterprises, will have a ‘Second Life’ in some form of 3-D virtual world environment” … “these virtual worlds are expected to have a large impact on teaching and learning in the very near future with pedagogical as well as brick-and-mortar implications”.

Yeah, that didn’t happen, and in 2015 a tour of deserted campuses found:

I didn’t see a single other user during my tour. They are all truly abandoned . . . . They mostly are laid out in a way to evoke stereotypes of how college campuses should look, but mixed in is a streak of absurd choices, like classrooms in tree houses and pirate ships.

So why did all that promise of SecondLife fail to materialise? I’m no VR expert, but I think there are three main contenders:

  • A lack of purpose – online campuses tended to give online lectures. Once you’ve gotten over the excitement over having different avatars for class mates, it’s difficult to know what this gained over simply live streaming a real lecture.
  • Technical and accessibility issues – the rendering of the 3-D world could be slow, and glitches in navigation could arise. Accessibility was a significant issue with no screen reader support, so they were difficult, if not impossible, for visually impaired learners to use. Navigation also required continual manipulation, and so students with dexterity problems found the environment difficult to use.
  • High user investment – to get good use out of SecondLife you had to invest a lot of time in it. There was a significant threshold to getting set up, navigating and feeling comfortable in that space. Many users, and particularly students who just wanted to study their subject, were averse to doing so.

Looking at Metaverse then, it is worth considering if these barriers still exist. Let’s take accessibility first. Metaverse doesn’t rely as much on small mouse based movements, and there are stronger accessibility teams in place at Facebook. It is likely to still raise issues for many users, but we can expect some improvement from the SecondLife days. Similarly, technical capability will have improved since the days of the SecondLife (although Horizon Worlds has been problematic), with better broadband and rendering capabilities, although it will still require a good connection, and headset, which will not be available everywhere.

In terms of the high user investment, there has been an increase in 3D worlds, from Minecraft to Animal Crossing. There is a fairly high familiarity with gaming, creating and navigating an avatar through a virtual world in a significantly larger proportion of the population. The threshold is thus not as high for participation. And indeed, there may be more of a desire from learners to use the type of tools they play around with elsewhere in education, whereas SecondLife felt more like enthusiastic educators foisting it upon learners.

Which brings us on to the issue of lack of purpose. This one still pertains to a degree. For example, this image seems to show people in a meeting in Metaverse, having a meeting in Teams. Much like the lecture in SecondLife, this begs the question “why, though?”

Where the Metaverse is persuasive is in more specialised application in education. These can be simulations (revisit ancient Rome!), augmented reality (see the historical structure of your street), or digital labs (manipulate molecules by hand). And these will be genuinely useful and powerful I think.

On balance then, the Metaverse stands a better chance than SecondLife in becoming a useful technology for specialised aspects of education. But here the problem arises as I see it. With its huge financial backing from Zuckerberg, the aim is not to be a useful tool that is implemented for one session in a semester. As with Facebook the intention, I suspect, is to be the only place you hang out online, to become the virtual world for all education, shopping, entertainment, work, etc. And this lack of focus is partly responsible for the billions it is chewing through and the frustrations of employees. What is it for exactly? The answer is, seemingly, everything.

But that desired ubiquity is its downfall too. One of the issues with Second Life was that it very strongly divided people into pro- and anti-camps, with little balanced perspective. We are seeing this pattern of overenthusiastic initial adoption, when it is applied as a universal tool, when in reality it is better suited as a more selective and appropriate application. But Meta are not interested in being a specialist tool, they are very much of the “have it all” camp, and this central tension may be its undoing.

One final aspect about all VR and how it is often portrayed in media, is that it seems to downplay our existence as physical beings. We may become absorbed in a game, or a film, or in social media, but we retain some physical sense. We think of learning as a cognitive pursuit largely, but I wonder how much of learning is tied with our physical reality also. Maybe there isn’t the desire to spend hours learning in a virtual world compared with being in the ‘real’ one, even when you are online. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my physical office space is a real boon for me. There’s no such thing as satisfying virtual biscuits after all.

3 Comments

  1. Hi Martin,

    An interesting take! I have a few thoughts on this.

    In many conversations I have had on this topic, people tend to refer to SecondLife as a “failure”. I think this is a little unfair, while it didn’t keep its role in the education world, it is still in going after nearly 20 years. This is quite an achievement for any business given the economic climate. Also I remember the OU being quite successful on SL, so it will be really interesting to see how the lessons learnt in that space transfer to these new experiences.

    Meta/Facebook I think are trying to find a way to invent the future. Tech businesses are often valued by their ability to grow, but FB can’t really grow much more so they need something else. Their Metaverse idea is useful as a discussion point, but often missed is the more practical contribution they have made so far, e.g. such as showing that VR games can make money (https://uploadvr.com/oculus-quest-millions) and of producing headsets for about the same price as a games console.

    I think you are right to say VR apps need a specific purpose. There are lots of developments, particularly in healthcare, going on right now that show the exciting potential of this technology when used along side other teaching methods. I’ve experienced meeting up with people in VR and it does give a sense of presence that videoconferencing does not, but I suppose it depends on the situation as to whether that matters or not.

    On the accessibility side a great deal of work is taking place. This page gives a great overview on what is out there: https://github.com/XRAccessibility/xraccessibility.github.io. A special mention should go to the A11yVR meetup group who do talks every month and post them to their YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/c/A11yVR/featured.

    It is undeniable that the effort required to build and get the most out of the Metaverse and VR apps will be considerable. Success will depend on sharing knowledge and effort across HE & FE and trying to combat the dreaded silos! It is going to be interesting to see what the future holds.

    Liam

  2. […] „But that desired ubiquity is its downfall too. One of the issues with Second Life was that it very strongly divided people into pro- and anti-camps, with little balanced perspective. We are seeing this pattern of overenthusiastic initial adoption, when it is applied as a universal tool, when in reality it is better suited as a more selective and appropriate application. But Meta are not interested in being a specialist tool, they are very much of the “have it all” camp, and this central tension may be its undoing.“ Martin Weller, The Ed Techie, 24. November 2022 […]

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