The Metaverse has the potential to transform education in the classroom. Still, we need to be careful about how we allow big tech companies to invade our schools. Next-generation educational technology must not come at the expense of our children becoming nothing more than another source of data mining.
Before we add Meta, Google, and Tencent to the fabric of our education system, we need a clear reassurance that it’s not just business as usual. Before we let our children approach the metaverse, we need to 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. Zoom virtual classrooms have already become the norm thanks to the pandemic. What if instead of the teacher giving the lesson, the students had a popular celebrity teleporting to their room via the metaverse?
Historians are already working on projects to faithfully recreate sites from the past such as St Andrew’s Cathedral and the lost Palace of Westminster, which burned down in 1834 a student taking a front seat on the battlefield during the Civil War; The Metaverse could make all of this possible.
However, despite all the opportunities for educational enrichment, the Metaverse also poses a major threat to child safety.
In 2016, British policy consultancy Cambridge Analytica collected data from millions of Facebook profiles without their users’ consent. The company would appeal to users by inviting them to play free games either on Facebook or in a separate app. These games would then require users to sign up and agree to share not only their data, but that of their friends and mutual friends as well.
Once the data was compiled, Cambridge Analytica psychologically profiled users before targeting them with tailored political ads aimed at convincing them to vote for the Leave campaign or for Donald Trump in the US presidential election.
Facebook went through a lengthy defense, claiming they were not to blame. After the scandal, many have come to terms with the fact that Facebook’s business model is based on the sale of personal data and that the service would have to be charged if the regulation were too strict.
We know Gen Z shares a lot more online because they spend more time online than their older peers. They are less skeptical about how their data is shared, despite being the first generation to have their entire lives digitally tracked. Facebook’s age limit is 13, although there are few controls to prevent younger children from signing up.
However, we must exercise caution. The “free” business model of Web 2.0 gives schools the opportunity to interact with all human knowledge online. However, this must not come at the expense of data collection and contextual advertising, which can distort the minds of our young people.
It is worth remembering that in the Metaverse it will not only be possible to extract information about screen time and clicks. Our eye movements, body movements, and even vital signs like heart rate could be tracked to create even more incredibly accurate digital profiles of people. I sincerely hope that education does not fall victim to the surveillance capitalism model.
We need a happy medium. The open source spirit of the past two decades should always be felt in education. However, we must ensure that this does not come at the expense of privacy and data collection. One of the guiding principles of child protection is the assumption that children before the age of 16 cannot consent. The same principles should apply to their online data. It must remain tamper-proof until they fully understand the implications of its sale.
The transformational potential of the metaverse for teaching is revolutionary. We must use these technologies for the benefit of our children. If we allow our kids to become part of Big Tech’s voracious data collection business model, it’s our own fault.
Léon Hady is the founder of Guide Education. He is an award-winning principal and contributor to BBC News and The Independent.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.