Illustration by Prajna Ghosh

Schools, universities in the metaverse? Why virtual reality attracts edtech’s attention

New Delhi: The setting is a juice shop. An attendant snakes between the tables, taking orders and serving customers – as well as calculating their bills.

But the store is not real. And even the attendant and clients are just virtual avatars.

So, what exactly is happening here? According to proponents of metaverse classrooms, the new buzzword in the edtech sector, the future of education could look like this.

The virtual juice shop could be the setting for a lesson in profit and loss. In another class, students said they could shop a virtual market for a lesson in savings and taxes. All from the comfort of their home.

Metaverse is a network of three-dimensional shared virtual worlds populated with the avatars of living people. It is described by some industry players as the next big thing for Indian edtech namely: expect to grow in a $30 billion industry by 2032.

Until now, the edtech boom has been characterized by online video sessions and pre-recorded lessons where “interactive” meant students could raise their hands and ask any doubts or questions.

But with metaverse in mind, the edtech sector is looking at offering a 3D learning experience where students can learn – as virtual avatars of themselves – by participating in case studies they would otherwise have encountered on the pages of a book. .

UnfoldU – a company that aims to “provide students with tuition at nominal costs through online courses” – launched its blockchain and metaverse-powered ExpandU2.0 platform in March, a step toward its goal of a “mega-education metaversity”.

Last week, test prep giant Career Launcher announced the launch of CL Meta, a student metaverse complete with virtual classrooms, study rooms, career guidance sections and a virtual shopping center where students can purchase educational products.

On Wednesday, IIT-Jodhpur launched a part-time online MTech program for working professionals in augmented reality (AR) and VR for the semester starting in 2022-23.

In the meantime, work is underway to set up ‘metaversities’. An “online school” in Bengaluru told ThePrint it has plans to bring the metaverse to its students.

One of the stated goals of proponents is to take quality education beyond the hubs to students in remote places – to ‘democratize’ education – but some experts are still wary of the reach and impact it will ultimately have.

Also read: With an emphasis on ‘real-world’ mathematics, IIT-Madras offers a free web course to increase numerical literacy

Edtech & Metaverse

metaverse consists of three main elements: a virtual reality (VR) interface, digital ownership and personalized avatars.

First used in American writer Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel ‘snow crash’, the term “metaverse” was popularized by video games Roblox and Fortnite during the Covid-19 pandemic. It gained further momentum with Meta’s (earlier Facebook) launch of a VR social platform in 2021.

Research reports indicate that the market opportunity for metaverse could rise to $800 billion by 2024.

In the edtech sector, industry leaders like Vedantu or BYJU’S have yet to enter the space, but new market players have picked up the cue.

UnfoldU – a company that aims to “provide students with tuition at nominal costs through online courses” – launched its blockchain and metaverse-powered ExpandU2.0 platform in March, a step toward its goal of a “mega-education metaversity”.

Speaking of CL Meta, Sujatha Kshirsagar, chief business officer at Career Launcher, said they had “set up a kiosk in our physical office and let students interact with the AV/VR system”.

“Since the technology is still in its infancy, we need to launch it on a larger scale. However, we believe we are taking a step towards the future of online learning.”

dr. Neeraj Jain, Head of Department, School of AI & Data Science at IIT Jodhpur, said: “AR and VR is the technology of the future that will play an important and increasing role in various fields such as healthcare, diagnostics and robotics, gaming, consumer experience and everywhere we need an immersive experience.”

“This is where the whole technology moves. This will lead to more job opportunities for those who are experts in AR/VR,” added Jain. “This course offers working professionals opportunities to be future-ready in the emerging labor market.”

Invact Metaversity, 21K School

Invact Metaversity, an online platform that aims to build virtual universities in the metaverse, aims to cater to students from Tier-2, Tier-3, Tier-4, Tier-5 and Tier-6 cities who are not at the top their class, said co-founder Tanay Pratap.

“Not all students can progress to exclusive institutions such as IITs and IIMs, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the opportunity to get a good education. At Invact, our goal is to build a learning platform that goes beyond the 2D world at competitive prices,” Pratap told ThePrint.

The metaverse ‘business fellowship’ course at Invact Metaversity was set to go live in June, but was delayed due to an argument between the co-founders – former Microsoft engineer Tanay Pratap and former Twitter India head Manish Maheshwari.

“We saw a huge response to our first training program and saw many working professionals sign up,” Pratap added, saying the course is likely to go live in the next 6-8 weeks.

Students at Invact Metaversity, he said, will be able to turn their assignments and projects into non-fungible tokens (NFTs)† This will allow them to own exclusive ownership of their work, allowing them to sell their NFTs whenever they want.

A 16 week course with Invact Metaversity costs Rs 2 lakh. Of the 3,000 candidates for the maiden program in 2022, only 70 admissions were granted, Pratap said. Students of Invact Metaversity receive a diploma of an in-service training course.

Another proponent of metaverse classrooms is the Bengaluru-based 21k School, an online school that claims to have registered 6,000 enrollments within two years of its launch.

“In line with the National Education Policy (NEP), we have given students the flexibility to study. They can choose between American, British and Indian boards,” said Yeshwanth Raj P, co-founder of 21k School.

“They can even select the groups they can study in. We focused on core subjects only, meaning primary school students study for just three hours.”

The cost for a single student to study in this virtual school is up to Rs 60,000 per year.

“Using machine learning and AI (artificial intelligence), we are able to get a daily analysis of student performance, which determines the level of the next lesson,” adds Yeshwanth Raj P.. “We want to introduce education into the metaverse so that our students who live in different parts of the world can interact with each other.”

Yeshwanth Raj P. said he and his team are trying to solve the problem of “bulky VR sets that can cause discomfort to students with extended use”.

Saumya Pandey, 36, a physics teacher with 21K School, said she wished she had had the opportunity as a child to learn with immersive technology in classrooms.

When asked how metaverse could change the edtech game, Pandey said she’s currently using an app that students can use to virtually travel to any part of the world to learn about different topics. “But we are anxiously awaiting the implementation of the metaverse,” she added.

Also read: Which is at the top of Modi govt’s education survey? Clue: Last time it was lower than the national average

Future of education in metaverse

Gouri Gupta, director of the edtech vertical at the nonprofit Central Square Foundation, said that while the metaverse could hold the key to democratizing access to quality education, the pace at which virtual reality can be used to scale education is a mystery to everyone.

“When we talk about access to education for low-income segments, there are two factors to consider: the cost of infrastructure and the cost of the learning software,” Gupta told ThePrint.

“Since no special infrastructure is required to access metaverse platforms (metaverse can be accessed in limited form with a smartphone), infrastructure should not be a major barrier.

“In terms of the cost of the learning software, it may take some time for the profitable edtech companies to bring this innovation to the low-income segments. However, we cannot ignore the innovation that is happening in the non-profit sector and I am hopeful that many non-profit edtech platforms are already thinking about this.”

Gupta said “we will see relevant technology infrastructure made available in government schools” because of the emphasis the NEP places on technology adoption in the education sector.

Metaverse, she added, can “enable collaboration, peer learning and immersive experiences for our children and become especially useful for those who may find it difficult to access due to financial constraints”.

Prof. dr. R. Govinda, former vice chancellor of the National University of Educational Planning, believes the edtech boom is a “bubble” and will continue to serve the niche audience it already serves.

“The edtech space is market-driven and only tackles a niche population, which is why it can never become like the chalk and board of being available to everyone equally. Technology has historically always presented itself as having great potential, but has actually disappeared. This will continue to happen until technology is equally accessible to everyone,” Govinda told ThePrint.

However, he said this “doesn’t take away that 3D learning or this metaverse has tremendous learning potential”. “If scientific concepts are taught in such an audiovisual way in higher education, students can gain a lot,” he added.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

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