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

Until now, India's edtech boom was characterised by online video sessions and pre-recorded lessons. Proponents of metaverse classrooms have a whole other thing planned.

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New Delhi: The setting is a juice shop. Weaving in and out among the tables is an attendant, who is taking orders and serving customers — also calculating their bills. 

But the shop isn’t real. And even the attendant and customers are just virtual avatars. 

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

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

Metaverse is a network of three-dimensional shared virtual worlds populated with the avatars of live people. It is described by some industry players as the next big thing for Indian edtech, which is expected to grow into a $30 billion industry by 2032.

Until now, the edtech boom was characterised by online video sessions and pre-recorded lessons where ‘interactive’ meant students could raise their hands and pose doubts or questions. 

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

UnfoldU — a company that aims to “provide tuition replacement to students at nominal costs through online courses” — launched its blockchain and metaverse-powered UnfoldU2.0 platform in March, a step towards its goal of a “mega education metaversity”. 

Last week, test-prep giant Career Launcher announced the launch of CL Meta, a metaverse for students, complete with virtual classrooms, study rooms, career counselling sections, and a virtual shopping mall for students to purchase educational products.

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

Meanwhile, efforts are under way to set up “metaversities”. An “online school” in Bengaluru told ThePrint that it has plans to bring the metaverse to its students.

Among the stated aims of proponents is taking quality education beyond the hubs to students in remote places — to “democratise education” — but some experts are yet wary about the reach and impact it will eventually have.

Also Read: With focus on ‘real-world’ maths, IIT-Madras offers free web course to boost numerical literacy

Edtech & metaverse

Metaverse comprises three major elements: a VR (virtual reality) interface, digital ownership, and personalised avatars. 

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

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

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

UnfoldU — a company that aims to “provide tuition replacement to students at nominal costs through online courses” — launched its blockchain and metaverse-powered UnfoldU2.0 platform in March, a step towards its goal of a “mega education metaversity”. 

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

“Since the technology is still in its nascent stages, we are yet to launch it on a wider 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 future technology that is going to take an important and increasingly major role in a variety of areas such as healthcare, diagnostics, robotics, gaming, consumer experience and anywhere else where we require an immersive experience”.

“This is where the entire technology is moving. This is going to lead to increasing job opportunities for those who are experts in AR/VR,” Jain added. “This course will provide opportunities to working professionals to be future-ready for the emerging job market.”

Invact Metaversity, 21K School

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

“Not all students can make it into exclusive institutions like IITs and IIMs, but that doesn’t mean they should not get the opportunity to gain a good education. At Invact, our aim 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 supposed to go live in June, but was delayed due to a falling out between its co-founders — former Microsoft engineer Tanay Pratap and former Twitter India head Manish Maheshwari.

“We saw a tremendous response for our first training programme and saw a lot of working professionals sign up for it,” Pratap added, saying the course is likely to go live in the next 6-8 weeks.

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

A 16-week course with Invact Metaversity costs Rs 2 lakh. Of the 3,000 applicants for the maiden programme in 2022, only 70 were granted admission, Pratap said. Students of Invact Metaversity will get a degree certificate of an upskilling course.

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

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

“They can even select the batches they can study in. We have put all the focus on core subjects only, meaning primary grade students study only for three hours.”

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

“With the help of machine learning and AI (artificial intelligence), we are able to get a daily analysis of student performance which decides the level of the lesson they will attend next,” Yeshwanth Raj P. added. “We wish to introduce education in the metaverse so that our students who are living in different parts of the world can interact with each other.”

Yeshwanth Raj P. said he and his team are trying to overcome the issue of “bulky VR sets that could cause students discomfort if used for prolonged periods”. 

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

Asked how metaverse could change the edtech game, Pandey said she currently uses an app students can use to virtually travel to any part of the world to learn about different topics. “But we are eagerly waiting for the metaverse to be implemented,” she added.

Also Read: Which state’s topped Modi govt’s education survey? Clue: It was below national avg last time

Future of education in metaverse

Gouri Gupta, director of the edtech vertical at non-profit Central Square Foundation, said while the metaverse could be key to democratising access to quality education, the pace at which virtual reality can be used to scale up education is anyone’s guess. 

“When we speak of access to education for low-income segments, there are two factors to be considered — cost of infrastructure and cost of the learning software,” Gupta told ThePrint.

“Given that there is no special infrastructure required for accessing metaverse platforms (metaverse can be accessed in a limited form using a smartphone), infrastructure may not be a big barrier. 

“As regards the cost of the learning software, the for-profit edtech companies may take some time to bring this innovation into low-income segments. However, we should not ignore the innovation that is afoot in the non-profit space and I am hopeful that many non-profit edtech platforms may already be thinking about this.”

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

Metaverse, she added, can allow for “collaboration, peer-learning and immersive experiences for our children and becomes especially useful for those who may find it difficult to access these because of financial constraints”.

Prof. R. Govinda, former vice-chancellor of the National University of Educational Planning, believes that 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, hence it can never become like the chalk and board that it is equally available to all. Technology, historically, has always presented itself as having great potential but it has actually dissipated. This will continue to happen until such time when technology can be accessed by everyone equally,” Govinda told ThePrint.

However, he said, this does “not take away from the fact that 3D learning or this metaverse has tremendous potential for learning”. “If science concepts in higher education are taught in such an audio-visual manner, students stand to gain a lot,” he added.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

Also Read: Focus groups, recovery courses, surveys — how states aim to fix Covid learning loss of kids



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