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Can the Metaverse Improve Learning? New Research Finds Some Promise

The metaverse is the latest tech frontier, with Facebook (now called Meta) and other tech giants rushing to build a parallel social and professional universe in virtual and augmented reality. And plenty of schools and colleges are wondering: Will this new realm work for education?

A new study co-authored by one of the world’s most prominent researchers on the effectiveness of edtech, Richard Mayer, offers some answers to that question.

Mayer ranks as the most productive educational psychologist in the world by the journal Contemporary Educational Psychology, and he has a highly cited theory of multimedia learning.

And his newest scholarly paper, published just last week, describes an experiment designed to test the hypothesis that a lesson in VR would be more effective than the same lesson delivered via standard video.

The study took place with about 100 middle school students taking a brief “virtual field trip” to learn about climate science. Some students experienced the field trip while wearing a VR headset, while others watched the same material in standard video on a computer screen.

The researchers guessed that the students watching in VR would report higher enjoyment and higher interest, and that they would do better on tests of the material as a result.

The results were promising to those building the metaverse. The students in the VR group scored significantly better on an immediate post-test, and on a test given later in the term. And the VR group reported “higher ratings of presence, interest, and enjoyment,” according to the report.

“The findings support a deeper understanding of how creating unique educational experiences that feel real (i.e., create a high level of presence) through immersive technology can influence learning through different affective and cognitive processes including enjoyment and interest,” Mayer and his colleagues write.

The VR field trip in the experiment was short—only about nine minutes. “The virtual field trip shows that even short virtual field trip experiences can have an impact on long-term outcomes due to creating a greater interest for the topic,” the researchers argue.

The paper noted an obvious logistical benefit to virtual field trips over getting on a bus for an in-person outing. “Virtual field trips make it possible to experience things that are too expensive, dangerous, or impossible in the real world,” it says. The experiment did not address the difference in educational value between a real-world field trip and a virtual one.

Gregory A. Heiberger, an associate dean of academics and student success at South Dakota State University, said that the findings are encouraging for those looking to do teaching in VR when the VR materials are well-designed for use within a curriculum.

“Students need to be motivated. They need to be excited. They need to be focused. And this is providing them a different experience” that promotes that, he says. “This is a really well-designed experiment that says, ‘This is game-changing. This is groundbreaking. This is different.”

He stressed, however, that there are bigger questions about broader efforts to build a metaverse. “I don’t want to sound like I have rose-colored glasses,” he says. “There’s lot of concerns about what the future of the metaverse looks like for communities, for [social] interaction, for data privacy” and other issues.

But he says that for programs like nursing, pharmacy and medicine, VR seems promising for teaching some skills, as a piece of a broader curriculum that includes in-person hands-on learning as well.

“If we can do things in the metaversity [a university in the metaverse] or a VR experience that is more tactile or hands on than a 2D simulation,” he adds, “then that’s powerful.”


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