Enhanced learning: into the metaverse

Publication Date
Dr Neil McDonnell, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, the University of Glasgow, winner of the 2022 RSE Thomas Reid Medal

If you had magic powers, how would you teach your subject? You might take students inside the volcano to witness its eruption or let them handle the Zika sample in the lab. You might let them build their turbine on location and to scale to test its efficiency; let them tweak gravity or the speed of light in experiments, or take them back in time to see the battle from Napoleon’s vantage point. What you most likely would not do is make more textbooks and PowerPoint presentations. That tells us that those are tools we use because they are practical and available, not because they are ideal.

Extended Reality (XR) technologies such as Virtual and Augmented Reality promise us just such magic powers, and much of my work in recent years has been directed at fulfilling that promise for as wide an audience of learners as possible. As with the early internet, the first-adopter barriers for XR in teaching are cost, appropriate content, and accessibility. And yet what we have come to recognise about the matured internet is that it now often lowers cost, proliferates apt teaching content, and increases accessibility. Might we hope for the same from XR? I think we can.

XR technologies allow us to place 3D information in a 3D medium and thus they represent a step-change in our ability to communicate about an extraordinary range and variety of topics. I think this is epochal. The incredulity with which today’s learners reflect on manual library searches, or social rendezvous without mobile phones, will be replaced by their own offspring’s bemusement that we ever tried to teach 3D subjects like architecture, engineering, or chemistry with only flat 2D screen/page surfaces.

Those of us who succeeded in a world where we had to translate 2D information for application in our 3D world might be slow to see the need – “we turned out alright” – but that is to overlook those who we lost along the way. Whatever the cognitive cost of this translation we can be sure that it is not distributed equally across our population and that XR offers an opportunity for equity in this respect.

This turbulence in the public image of XR has masked a story of consistent improvement in both utility and sophistication towards a future in which teachers wield magic. Let’s stay the course.

We are not there yet, however. The requisite headsets remain a practical encumbrance and for many, an unmanageable cost. It may take years yet before the form factor, performance, and price align to allow ubiquitous access. For now, we mitigate these shortcomings by pooling resources for shared access – as we have at the University of Glasgow – or by allowing web or phone-based routes to view the experience of the teacher or classmate (VR by Proxy). Imperfect though this is, the progress is clear and today’s XR use in teaching is already highly inspiring. 

A visualisation of students taking part in an XR lesson about salmonella (Battling Infections) using the Edify teaching platform in Glasgow’s ARC XR facility.

What about the future? The social currency of the term ‘Metaverse’ has had a meteoric rise, and then a reactionary crash, in the year since Facebook rebranded themselves Meta. The rebrand was intended to signal their long-term ambition to create the XR social network of the future, but for those of us working on these extended reality platforms, it has mostly created background noise.

This turbulence in the public image of XR has masked a story of consistent improvement in both utility and sophistication towards a future in which teachers wield magic. Let’s stay the course.

Dr Neil McDonnell is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Glasgow; a former Lord Kelvin-Adam Smith Fellow in Virtual and Augmented Reality, and winner of the 2022 RSE Thomas Reid Medal.

This article originally appeared in ReSourcE Winter 2022.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.