Anyone who has seen the recent reports of Facebook renaming itself as Meta and the accompanying videos of Mark Zuckerberg sharing with us his vision of a future internet that integrates with our physical environment while we wander around as virtual avatars might be forgiven for thinking the metaverse was a new idea that has emerged from the creative genius of Mark’s imagination.
The Metaverse has in fact been around for quite some time. The term ‘metaverse’ was first used in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel, Snow Crash. In the novel the main character Hiro moves in and out of a place called the metaverse, which is a small-scale urban landscape created via code where users can have lifelike experiences.
Today the metaverse is an ad-hoc collection of virtual reality technologies, 3D virtual worlds and augmented reality tools that have been developed by a range of different companies and organisations based on different technologies. The dream of people like Mark Zuckerberg is that these virtual worlds would become connected so that users like you and I would be able to have a consistent virtual presence that could move between the virtual worlds.
The thing that makes this important is that the plan is to decentralise the technology so that no company owns it and so that users like you and I can retain control of our own data and information and generate income from it when we want to share it. Identity would be established through blockchain which would also enable virtual currencies to enable virtual economies that act independently of any government controls.
So, what does this mean for language teaching?
If this sounds exciting, don’t get carried away just yet. Back in 2007 Gartner, the influential technology research and consulting company forecast that 80 Percent of active internet users would have some form of 3D presence in a virtual world by the End of 2011!
At the time I was working for a virtual language school designing Business English courses to be delivered in the Second Life virtual world. Most of the educational technology experts at the time were convinced that this was the future of education and there was an amazing atmosphere of collaboration and exchange with educational establishments setting up virtual campuses and virtual experiences that included flying around inside some of Van Gough’s paintings, jumping off the Eiffel Tower and visiting the biggest Mosque in Morocco. The British Council even recreated the London Eye and had their own island.
So, what went wrong last time?
Well, ironically one of the things that killed off interest in virtual environments like Second Life was the huge explosion of very simple to use social networking applications like Facebook and Twitter. Many of the virtual worlds had very clunky and complex interfaces, they were very connectivity hungry and would only run on high spec computers. These simple to use platforms like twitter and Facebook enabled users to access huge communities of like minded people with a much lower tech accessibility bar and a much lower learning curve.
So should we be interested in the metaverse?
Well, yes I think we should, though I say this with some reservations. The utopian idea of ‘the’ metaverse that Mark Zuckerberg is pushing is still a long way off and is still likely to suffer from some of the same restrictions and limitations as environments like Second Life. The main ones being the need for very fast connectivity and a high spec computer.
However, in the post pandemic, Zoom fatigued world that we are moving towards there certainly is some potential for delivering English language learning using 3D virtual worlds and other ‘metaverse’ type technologies.
Some may well ask why bother if we have technology like Zoom, which after all is still new to many teachers. That’s a good question to ask and there are a few answers.
Firstly, Zoom and technologies like it aren’t particularly new, video conferencing dates back to the late 1990s and Zoom was a late comer in 2011. Yet when the pandemic hit, many schools and teachers were caught unprepared with teachers who were woefully untrained in the use of these technologies and schools that were unsure how to manage a virtual school. Sure we’re all much wiser now, but with that has come additional competition for a much larger virtual market of tech savvy students. These students come with higher expectations and that market is going to continue to grow along with the expectations of the students.
Technologies like Zoom are also limited to a talking head view of participants and very clunky breakout rooms for group and pair work. This can lead to a very teacher focused version of the language class that very few people would see as being a shining example of communicative language teaching.
Let’s have a look at some of the metaverse type alternatives on offer now!
One of the biggest objections that many teachers have made about platforms like Zoom is that they aren’t very suitable or appealing to younger learners. If that’s how you feel then be sure to give Skittish a try. Skittish is a colourful 3D world where users can choose an animal as their avatar and move around and interact using voice. The sound is proximity sensitive, so your avatar has to be close to another avatar in order to be able to speak to them. You can also set up fenced areas that act as breakout rooms, add video screens for students to watch videos, use the main stage so that all students can hear you and set up small chatbots with dialogue that you can edit to create tasks. This is a hugely enjoyable environment with loads of potential to deliver fascinating lessons for younger learners.
Spatial is a great 3D environment where avatars can meet in a variety of different room settings. When you register, you create an avatar of yourself by taking a picture with your webcam. You then appear as a truncated body with a representation of your own face on. You can move around the environment and interact with people using your voice, and switch on your webcam too if you want people to be able to see the real you. For an example of how this can work for teaching, try visiting iTeacher Metaverse.
Cosmos is a like a 2D cartoon type of office with a number of different rooms. You can move between the rooms and move into different spaces to have interactions with different groupings of people. You have a small avatar who you move around the screen to the different spaces, so this is a little like having a school that you can move around and have different groups of students working in different space. This would be great for project and team work. You can also have your webcam on and share the screen, just as you can in more traditional virtual classrooms. Cosmos also comes with a range of games that you can add to your environment and has a desktop app, which is a big advantage for teachers.
If instead of dropping your students into a virtual world classroom you’d prefer to drop virtual worlds into your classroom, check out CoSpace. s a great resources for getting kids to create their own interactive 3D spaces and creations. If you register as a teacher you can create classes and assignments then add your students to the class and set them the assignments. Students get a code to enter your class and can then create virtual spaces. Check out some of the examples in the gallery to get some idea of what is possible.
Students can browse or create these using a standard screen or VR headset.
Second Life, which I mentioned earlier in this article is still very much alive and well and continues to be used by a hardcore dedicated community. It’s still worth exploring and you can download the Second Life viewer and create a free profile to access the virtual world. Once you have done this check out this guide to destinations in Second Life to see some of the places you can visit. If you are interested in exploring the educational potential of the platform then I recommend you check out the Let’s Talk Online site. The site which is managed by Heike Philp has been the home to a number of EU funded educational experiment in virtual worlds for more than a decade.
Decetraland is a lot like Second Life but it works within the web browser and doesn’t require any specific downloads. You can access the world using a guest pass, so if you want to explore it you can do so without having to part with any of your personal information. Decetraland is built on some of the ethics that Mark Zuckerberg is promoting in relation to his vision of the metaverse. Anyone can join the world become part of the committee that manages it and start to build and design objects within it. Including a school. It’s a very interesting and fun world to visit and there’s a guide when you arrive who takes you through an easy tutorial so you can be active in the world in less than five minutes.
So, there are lots of ways we can start training now for the future, whether it’s to ensure we have the skills to stay employed, or to start our own school, or to create new places we can meet and share with other teachers. Let’s keep building on the skills and insights we’ve developed over the last two years and welcome the next big leap forward.
If you’d like to specialise in Teaching English Online, check out our Development Course here.