The metaverse has the potential to transform education in the classroom. Yet we must be careful how we allow Big Tech companies to intrude into our schools. Next-generation educational technology must not come at the cost of turning our children into nothing more than yet another data extraction source.
Before we allow the likes of Meta, Google and Tencent into the fabric of our education system, we need clear assurance that it will not simply be “business as usual.” Before we let our children anywhere near the metaverse, we must be absolutely clear who is watching, and how.
In the next 10 years, the biggest development in education will be the introduction of the metaverse into everyday learning. Virtual Zoom classrooms have already become the norm thanks to the pandemic. What if instead of the teacher giving the lesson, it was a students’ favorite celebrity beamed into their bedroom via the metaverse?
Historians are already working on projects to faithfully recreate locations from the past such as St. Andrews Cathedral and the lost Palace of Westminster which was burned down in 1834. Imagine a student having their next history lesson inside the Colosseum at Rome, or consider the implications of a student taking a front seat on the battlefield during the American Civil War; the metaverse could make all of this possible.
However, for all the opportunities for educational enrichment, the metaverse also presents a big threat to child safety.
In 2016, the British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica harvested data from millions of Facebook profiles without their users’ consent. The firm would target users by inviting them to play free games either on Facebook or on a separate app. These games would then require users to log in and give their consent to share not just their data but that of their friends and mutual friends.
Once the data was compiled, Cambridge Analytica would then build psychological profiles of the users before targeting them with tailored political advertisements designed to persuade them to vote for the Leave Campaign or for Donald Trump in the US presidential election.
Facebook mounted a lengthy defense and claimed they weren’t at fault. Following the scandal, many resigned themselves to the fact that Facebook’s business model relied upon the selling of personal data and if too much regulation was brought in, the service would have to begin charging.
We know Generation Z shares a lot more online because they spend more time on the internet than their older peers. They are less risk-averse to how their data is shared despite them being the first generation to have their entire lives tracked digitally. Facebook’s age limit is 13 though there are few checks to stop children younger than this from signing up.
So-called Web 3.0 and blockchain technologies promise to challenge this model by decentralizing the internet and allowing individuals to monetize their content and themselves without relying on a third party of their terms of service. In effect, this puts ownership at the forefront of Web 3.0. We can’t be surprised, we live in a capitalist society; the internet is the biggest and most profitable marketplace to ever have existed.
However, we must exercise caution. The “free” business model of Web 2.0 gives schools the ability to interact with the entire canon of human knowledge online. However, this must not come at the cost of data harvesting, and contextual advertising that can warp the minds of our young people.
We must remember that in the metaverse, it will not only be possible to extract information of screen time and clicks. Our eye movements, body movements and even vital signs like heart rate could be tracked in order to form even more eerily accurate digital profiles of people. I sincerely hope that education will not fall prey to the model of surveillance capitalism.
We need a middle ground. The open-source spirit of the previous two decades should always be a given when it comes to education. However, we need to make sure that this doesn’t come at the cost of privacy and data harvesting. One of the guiding principles of child welfare is the assumption that children cannot give consent until they are 16. The same principles should apply to their data online. It should remain inviolable until they fully understand the consequences of selling it.
The transformative potential of the metaverse for the classroom is groundbreaking. We must leverage these technologies for the benefit of our children. If we allow our children to become part of Big Tech’s ravenous data harvesting business model, then we will only have ourselves to blame.
Leon Hady is the founder of Guide Education. He is an award winning headteacher and contributor to BBC News and The Independent.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.