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February 1, 2022

Welcome to the Metaverse

We hear about the metaverse all over the web. But what exactly is it and how might it be interesting for the college network to keep an eye on this digital revolution?

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that 2021 is the year we started talking seriously about the metaverse. During the pandemic, many things went digital out of necessity:

  • socialization
  • shopping
  • work
  • etc.

We have changed our life habits and participated in the democratization of virtuality.

The use of virtual reality, digital learning environments and conversational platforms are the most frequently discussed themes on the Eductive website. In my opinion, this reflects a trend in the democratization of the use of virtual reality in the college network.

Brief history of the metaverse

The Greek philosopher Aristotle said that man is a social animal. Indeed, humans have always been in search of means of communication that promote engagement. From the oral tradition, we moved to writing, then to photography and video. Since the popularization of the Internet in the 1990s, cyberspace has continued to evolve. Humans have created a variety of computer-mediated virtual environments, including social networks, video conferencing, 3D virtual worlds (vTime), augmented reality applications (4D Interactive Anatomy), and non-fungible token games (Upland). These virtual environments, while not permanent and not connected to one another, have allowed for varying degrees of digital transformation.

What’s next? Evolving in a virtual world in which we can be whomever we want to be, wherever we want to be. This is the premise of the metaverse, which is a permanent and interconnected digital immersive environment in which people can interact through avatars.

From a technological point of view, the metaverse is inevitably the next evolution of the internet: it will no longer be a matter of using the internet as a tool for exploration, but of evolving within the internet to explore it.

The term “metaverse” has been revived by the company Meta (formerly Facebook). It was coined by science fiction author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash. In his work, Stephenson imagines the metaverse as a shared and connected universe in which people can interact and where the status of these people is determined by the sophistication of the avatar. Meta, by appropriating the story, reveals a dimension of social virtuality that is already developing, to a lesser extent, in games like Fortnite or Roblox, for example. These games allow players to evolve in virtual universes through an avatar that can be customized with skins purchased with virtual money.

There are 2 types of metaverse:

  • the metaverse where augmented reality supports everyday uses
  • the metaverse that offers a platform for escape from real life, and in which the user is fully immersed

The virtual universe offers to:

  • transform the multidimensional aspect of video games
  • revolutionize the television world by offering a digital entertainment alternative
  • catalyze the transition from social media to virtual media

This is why many companies are rushing to the metaverse and see it as a paradigm shift in the way we consume, produce and communicate. At the top of the list are the gaming industry and GAFAM.

To create a need and bring the virtual world into our homes, Meta’s method is to drastically lower the price of the Oculus Quest headset so that people can easily access the metaverse. Surfing on the pandemic, the company also develops the idea of the possibility of living multiple experiences in the comfort of one’s home. It goes without saying that evolving in a virtual world requires the personalization of one’s avatar. This involves purchasing non-fungible goods (NFT), virtual land, virtual clothes, etc.

It’s easy to see why companies are jumping on the bandwagon. The metaverse opens the door to a new economy.

Metaverse and learning

What about the future of learning and education in all this? In an exchange on LinkedIn about the metaverse and entertainment, I was asking network colleagues what they thought of the Alter Ego show, which gives artists the opportunity to perform as an avatar they have previously created and customized. We talked about the technological aspect of course, but also about the possibilities of collaboration, productivity, experience, etc.

To create in the metaverse, you need to have some creativity and know how to code. Anyone who has the skill to do so will be able to develop spaces, platforms, games, and non-fungible goods, and sell them. What’s fascinating here is the possibilities for creativity. What’s scary is what’s happening with content development through apps like TikTok, Instagram, or other platforms that allow influencers to raise millions in revenue through the creation of content funded by large consumer goods brands.

Video excerpt of the Alter Ego show

It’s about time that higher education became aware of the socio-economic transformation that is taking place. The metaverse certainly offers multiple avenues of learning. However, without wishing to be metathesiophobic (afraid of change), I consider it to be a transformation that risks redefining the balance of humanity in a disruptive manner and endangering human relationships.

2 obese people on flying chairs (cartoon image)

Screenshot from the Disney movie Wall-E

It reminds me a bit of the cartoon WALL-E. You know, this little robot that goes into space to discover humans zombified by the “all-digital society,” who don’t move anymore, who feed themselves summarily to promote brain activity and who only communicate with each other through digital? What will happen to our physical bodies if we escape into the virtual world? How will we know what is real and what is not? If we can escape into a virtual world that suits us, that is all beautiful, all smooth, and all coloured, will the curation and cancelling of the realities of life make us completely disconnected from the world around us?

Add to this the question of data. What will happen to our information when we ourselves become digitized through our avatars? It will no longer be a matter of sharing vacation photos on a social platform, but of providing all our data on our actions and brain activity. Indeed, Meta is currently working on the medical technology of electromyography in order to intercept the information coming from the cerebral nerves and to transmit our emotions in real time, so that the avatar corresponds as much as possible to our individuality. All this reminds me of François Rabelais’ sentence in Pantagruel, “Science without conscience is but the ruin of the soul.” I don’t want to be alarmist, but I raise the question again, “What about teaching in all this?”

A technological advance not to be taken lightly

It is obvious that the metaverse is a technological advance. Let’s think about the positive impacts that such technology could have on the environment, for example. With the democratization of the metaverse, we could reduce CO2 emissions, since we would no longer have to travel as much—we would no longer take the car or the plane as much to travel, to visit our relatives or to go to work.

On the other hand, this paradigm shift triggers warning signals. Meta’s announcement of the metaverse does not erase Facebook’s reputation and the various scandals related to data collection. The emergence of social networking platforms, the polarization of ideas and misinformation are all problems we are struggling to address. We are already in the process of dematerializing our bodies into avatars interacting in virtual worlds. We are human and we need to eat, drink and be physically active to function. The metaverse will undoubtedly have devastating impacts on our way of life and our vision of the world. The term is probably harsh, but I assume it. The development of the metaverse involves many existential issues.

To answer the question raised above, the time has come to work harder than ever to develop the critical thinking skills of our students and to preserve the balance that has allowed humanity to get this far. The metaverse will be a tool like any other. It will be up to us to avoid falling for the promises of companies eager to make a profit and stay in power. Only if it evolves in parallel will higher education risk being swallowed up in new standards where it would no longer have a say.

About the author

Florence Sedaminou Muratet

Florence has 20 years of experience in education. She has worked in France, South Africa and Hong Kong and designed curricula in Humanities and French. With Eductive, her interest focuses on digital transformation’s challenge in higher education. She has taught French, History and Humanities from secondary school to university and more specifically for six years in the IB network, where she obtained a certification in leadership in educational change. Project manager and consultant in digital pedagogy, she is also a Ph.D. candidate at UQAM. Florence’s research focuses on the representation of diversity in the digital age and is involved in various projects in artificial intelligence. She is particularly interested in the anthropology of digital uses in West Africa.

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