The metaverse and language teaching

In the 1990s, the animated television series The Magic School Bus became famous for its louder-than-life main character, Mrs. Frizzle, who took her students on wild and wacky excursions that defied all logic. Ms. Frizzle’s class took a trip to space, did an in-depth exploration of the human digestive system, and even took a time trip to visit dinosaurs. At the time, the cartoon seemed to be little more than fantasy. But with the recent craze around the metaverse — something The New York Times called a “convergence of…virtual reality and a digital second life” — it’s possible these kinds of adventures will come true for school kids everywhere. .
Virtual reality, that is.

In February, the Center for Universal Education at Brookings (CUEB) released a policy brief on the metaverse and its potential to interface with the education system. The report outlines several key points about gamifying learning activities and how best to use the metaverse as an effective tool in a classroom.

“Make no mistake, the Metaverse is coming,” the report read. “It is our duty to spell out how engagement in this ever-active virtual universe enhances education rather than harms it and how it can preserve key socially interactive qualities that are central to how humans learn.”

The concept of a metaverse first became common knowledge in the second half of 2021 when Facebook rebranded itself as Meta Platforms, but it’s actually been around for a while. Essentially, the metaverse serves as a virtual reality platform where users can create a three-dimensional avatar to interact with other users.

Technology leaders like Mark Zuckerberg see the metaverse as the next major horizon of computing. Zuckerberg has expressed his vision for the metaverse as a way to synthesize one’s own physical reality with an overarching virtual life.

“You can see the successor to the mobile internet there,” he told The Verge in July 2021. “You can think of the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content, you’re there. .” When it comes to educational applications of the metaverse, the benefits seem clear – history teachers could use the metaverse to engage students in virtual realities that depict key historical events. Language teachers, on the other hand, can use the metaverse to create cultural enrichment activities that immerse students in the target language and its culture.

But not so fast – in order to ensure that educators use the metaverse in a productive and engaging way, the CUEB report highlights the fact that developers of education technologies must learn from the mistakes of other edtech platforms, such as apps two-dimensional educational and video games (think Duolingo or Rosetta Stone) that have grown in popularity over the past two decades.

“In 2015, when our research team first drafted a set of guiding principles for developing genuine ‘educational apps,’ the market was already flooded with over 80,000 so-called educational apps,” the report says. “The vast majority of these apps had no research behind their design or implementation that related to the science of how children learn.”

CUEB has identified several key elements of an educational play experience that can have a truly positive impact on children’s learning outcomes. When developing playful educational experiences, the CUEB reports that the following principles are crucial:

  • Games should be active rather than passive. In other words, pressing buttons or swiping to identify the correct answer is simply not enough for children to acquire new knowledge.
  • Games should engage students rather than distract them. Each quality of the game or application should be carefully curated to ensure that it does not distract, but rather helps to immerse the student in the lesson and/or storyline.
  • Games should be meaningful, in the sense that the child should be able to connect the setting at hand with content they already know, rather than being completely unfamiliar surroundings.
  • Games should be social – children should not play in complete isolation, but should collaborate with their peers and educators to solve game challenges.
  • Play experiences should be iterative, which means that children should be able to test different hypotheses in their attempts to solve a given problem.
  • Gaming experiences should also be joyful – simply put, students should be able to have fun and enjoy themselves while learning.

“Together, the principles of activity, engagement, meaning, social interaction, iteration and joy coalesce into what we call ‘playful learning’, a science-based umbrella term that incorporates broadly how children learn through both free play and guided play,” the CUEB wrote in its recent report. According to the CUEB report, most educational apps available to children these days do not effectively incorporate all of these principles – in a 2021 analysis of the most downloaded apps for young children, CUEB found 50% poor quality in terms of how well they have incorporated the above principles.

Researchers in the field of second language acquisition have long wondered about the potential role these apps and games can play in second language acquisition. Language learning apps have seen a surge in popularity over the past couple of years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Duolingo claimed to have seen about twice as many new users join the platform as usual in the first few months of the pandemic. But how effective are these apps in helping individuals, especially children, achieve high levels of performance in the target language? Duolingo, for example, might not be the most active or social educational gaming experience, but it does a decent job of addressing some of the other principles of game-based learning. A 2019 case study of children learning English in Indonesia suggests that Duolingo can be a particularly effective tool if parents or teachers provide some kind of collaborative supervision. That is, by enhancing the collaborative and social nature of the platform and encouraging children to learn in the company of others, students may be able to hone their language skills more than they wouldn’t do it using Duolingo alone. Rosetta Stone, like Duolingo, is also a popular language-learning app, but it suffers from the same downside: it’s extremely asocial, in the sense that users engage with the tool in near isolation, with little input. input from peers or collaborators. When developing language learning tools for the metaverse, it’s clear that developers need to think about ways to create a social experience that children can learn from.

While the metaverse holds great promise for exciting and engaging educational experiences, if its presence in educational settings is indeed as inevitable as the CUEB report suggests, then edtech developers must learn from the flaws of past efforts to gamify the language teaching. “The metaverse is just one – immersive – context that can in principle bring the best of digital technologies to education if and only if it’s done right, with the science of learning and real kids at the core. ‘spirit’, the CUEB report reads.

Hirsh-Pasek, K., Zosh, JM, Shwe Hadani, H., Michnick Golinkoff, R., Clark, K., Donohue, C. and Wartella, E. (2022). “A Whole New World: Education Meets the Metaverse,” Brookings Institution,

Andrew Warner is a writer based in New York City, where he is currently pursuing a master’s degree in applied linguistics at Columbia University. A lifelong language lover, he enjoys writing stories about the intersections of linguistics and technology. He worked with L.Language magazine, Multilingual magazine, and Sactown magazine.

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