111 510 510 libonline@riphah.edu.pk Contact

Worlds apart

I would like to put on my engineer’s hat today and talk about a technology that is still in its early days but, aside from electric vehicles and fintechs, promises to become one of the biggest mega trends over the next decade. It will find obvious applications in communication, co-working, social media, gaming, and all manner of entertainment; and early versions were drive tested in the education sector during the pandemic.

Here, in our corner of the world, unless a person is connected to the technology sector, almost nobody is paying attention to it yet. I am talking about the omniverse, also called the metaverse or the multiverse. You may have caught the news a few weeks ago that Facebook’s parent company has rebranded itself ‘Meta’ and rededicated itself from being another social media platform to being a metaverse company.

If you are from my generation, you will remember ‘The Matrix.’ If you are a little younger you may have seen Steven Spielberg’s 2018 film ‘Ready Player One.’ Both films depict futures with virtual worlds, simulations, where the laws of physics do not have to apply but can be what they are programmed to be. They can be made to model the real world or be completely fantastic. Virtual worlds can be experienced in typical game-like fashion on a screen or more immersively using virtual reality (VR) headsets. Users can interact with each other in these virtual worlds, like in modern multiplayer games, or be invisible to each other and explore the worlds they are in solo and undisturbed.

The metaverse (what Facebook calls it) or omniverse (what Nvidia calls it) or multiverse gets its name from the hypothetical ‘multiverse foam’ in physics, where each bubble is a parallel universe (one of them the universe we live in), each possibly with its own laws of physics. The man-made omniverse is envisioned to be a collection of parallel virtual worlds that users can check into and out of.

If you think this all sounds sci-fi and too far out, I must inform you otherwise. Companies that are part of building the omniverse (Nvidia, AMD, Unity, Roblox, and many others) have seen their share prices multiply anywhere from two and seven times since the pandemic began. The omniverse is arguably the hottest new investment thesis on Wall Street. Mojang’s Minecraft (acquired by Microsoft in 2014) and Roblox are to the omniverse what YouTube is to video. The omniverse is already here and – putting my education hat back on – already saw use in select schools around the world during the pandemic.

So, what does this technology offer schools, students, and educators? When you explore Roblox today you can find many simulators for science lessons, physics in particular. There are simulators that allow you to conduct experiments while changing gravity, even weightlessness. The scale of lab experiments in schools is constrained by what fits on a workbench. In these virtual worlds visitors can conduct and observe experiments with objects like cars and buildings!

The tools to build these virtual worlds are simple enough to the point where many of them have been developed by school-age children. Granted many of these virtual worlds look a little simplistic and are not at par with the hyper-realistic graphics of most recent gaming titles that take years and millions of dollars to develop, but they suffice for many educational uses. However, over time the tools to author these virtual worlds are certain to continue to improve as well. For developers able to put in more time and effort, there is the Unity game engine which gives virtual worlds a much more polished look.

Last year, at the height of the pandemic while much of the world was still struggling with Zoom, some schools in Singapore were experimenting with Roblox to teach physics concepts like chain reactions and making students build virtual Rube Goldberg machines while simultaneously providing light hilarity.

A school in Canada assigned students the task of researching habitats for different animals and then collaborated to build an ethical zoo in Minecraft’s Education Edition. The product of this team effort was so substantial that they added a scavenger hunt element to it and made their virtual world accessible to other schools.

Students in the UK used Minecraft in their study of architecture. These platforms have proven very effective in maintaining student engagement in synchronous and asynchronous classrooms while schools were closed when video streamed classes proved insufficient.

A teacher at a small rural school in New York state experimented with the use of Minecraft in his special education class with children of different socio-emotional needs and challenges. Virtual worlds like this have also been used to improve the learning experience for autistic children by providing structure, letting them filter their experience and allowing them to be creative.

Phygital Labs is a non-profit that builds lesson contents, including for virtual interactive spaces. One of them is the International Space Station (ISS), built using Minecraft, that comes with a series of lessons that cover biology and physics that let students recreate some of the experiments conducted by astronauts on the real ISS.

The list of lesson content that could and have been done in these virtual worlds is endless and so are the various ways this technology may be used for teacher training (through simulations) and assessments etc.

As you read about these classroom reflections, you cannot help but see the larger point: All these success stories are teacher-led initiatives. None of them had their origin in a regional or national education department. It is a prime example of bottom-up grassroots innovation, made possible by adequately resourcing schools and empowering teachers to develop solutions that work in their school communities – real devolution. This is the direction schools across the world are headed.

Meanwhile, here in Pakistan we are still debating how much choice schools ought to have in selecting their textbooks, how many hoops they should be made to jump through if they want to do things a little different, and whether they can be allowed to develop and teach in ways not approved by a bureaucratic apparatus. That is why Pakistan’s highly centralised (whether at the national or provincial level) top-down approach to education decision making, coupled with disparate but generally poorly resourced public schools, is so antithetical to the bottom-up approach that allowed for the kind of experimentation recounted above.

This idea of uniformity of what should happen in all schools is causing paralysis. It is a poorly thought through populist slogan that may sound good to those who have never worked in a classroom a day in their lives but is ultimately impractical. We have public schools consisting of only one or two classrooms, two teachers and a blackboard but we also have schools that are fortunate enough to be fully equipped with computer and science labs. We cannot kill good programmes because we cannot deliver them to all children simultaneously, because that might never happen.

It is only a matter of time before the small clique of well-resourced private schools in Pakistan will pick up on this trend and adopt it as well. Unfortunately, the bulk of public schools are unlikely to ever be able to take advantage of these technological advances showing once again how school experiences within Pakistan and between Pakistan and the developed countries remain worlds apart. It reminds me of a quote I came across in an article: “It is better to be a poor kid in a rich country than a rich kid in a poor country.”

Dr Ayesha Razzaque, "Worlds apart," The News. 2021-11-21.
Keywords: Education , Education department , National education , Education decision , Textbooks , Teachers , Canada , Pakistan , AMD , VR