Can the metaverse improve learning? New search returns promises

The Metaverse is the latest technological frontier, with Facebook (now called Meta) and other tech giants racing to build a parallel social and professional universe in virtual and augmented reality. And many schools and universities are wondering: will this new empire also work for education?

A new study, co-authored by one of the world’s foremost researchers on edtech effectiveness, Richard Mayer, offers some answers to that question.

Mayer is ranked as the most prolific educational psychologist in the world by Contemporary Educational Psychology magazine, and he has a much-cited theory about multimedia learning.

And his latest scientific paper, published last week, describes an experiment designed to test the hypothesis that a virtual reality lesson would be more effective than the same lesson delivered over standard video.

The study took place with about 100 high school students who went on a short “virtual field trip” to learn about climate science. Some students experienced the field trip with a VR headset, while others watched the same material in standard video on a computer screen.

The researchers hypothesized that students who watched in virtual reality would report more enjoyment and interest, and thus perform better when testing the hardware.

The results were promising for those who built the metaverse. Students in the VR group performed significantly better on an immediate post-test and on a test given later in the trimester. And the VR group reported “higher ratings of presence, interest and enjoyment,” the report said.

“The results support a better understanding of how creating unique educational experiences that feel real (i.e., create a high level of presence) through immersive technology can influence learning in various affective and cognitive processes, including pleasure and interest,” write Mayer and colleagues.

The VR excursion as part of the experience was short – only about nine minutes. “Virtual excursion shows that even short virtual excursion experiences can influence long-term outcomes by creating more interest in the subject,” the researchers say.

The paper noted a clear logistical advantage for virtual excursions compared to taking a bus for a personal outing. “Virtual excursions make it possible to experience things that are too expensive, dangerous or impossible in the real world,” he says. The experiment did not address the difference in educational value between a real field trip and a virtual one.

Gregory A. Heiberger, associate dean of academics and student success at South Dakota State University, said the results are encouraging for those looking to teach VR when VR hardware is well designed for use in a particular program.

“Students need to be motivated. They must be excited. They have to be focused. And it gives them a different experience,” he says. “It’s a really well-designed experience that says, ‘This is a game-changer. It’s revolutionary. This is different.”

However, he pointed out that there are bigger questions about the broader efforts to build a metaverse. “I don’t want to look like I have rose-colored glasses,” he says. “There are many concerns about the future of the community metavers, for [social] interaction, for data privacy” and other issues.

But he says virtual reality shows promise for programs like nursing, pharmacy and medicine for teaching certain skills, as part of a larger curriculum that also includes hands-on, personal learning.

“If we can do things in metaversity” [a university in the metaverse] or a more tactile or practical VR experience than a 2D simulation,” he adds, “that’s powerful.”

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