In 2021, when most school systems and national colleges in the Eastern Caribbean suspended face-to-face learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic, one quick solution was to transition the classroom online and continue learning remotely. While this kept national colleges open, remote learning is limiting and not a proper substitute to face-to-face learning due to the lack of real human social interaction.
In fact, a recent UNICEF survey highlights how a majority of teachers around the world perceive remote learning modalities as inadequate for successful student learning while another recent survey shows how students report having poor interactions with instructors and colleagues amid COVID-19. The main reason is education is inherently social and the passive nature of digital learning limits quality student and teacher engagement and motivation.
One solution to enhance digital learning is the metaverse
The metaverse is described as the next chapter of the internet evolution where interactions occur in immersive 3D spaces emulating physical interactions in virtual settings. Users in the metaverse can move throughout this virtual environment with avatars that are their digital representation. The metaverse has countless benefits and applications for business (real-time interaction for customers), medicine (doctors can interact with the patients virtually), and education (fostering interactions between students and teachers). The expansion potential of the metaverse is so vast that a recent study predicts that 25 percent of all individuals globally will spend at least one hour per day in the metaverse by 2026.
To leverage the metaverse as a 3D immersive space, new technology like Virtual Reality (VR) is one way to connect the physical world by simulating an artificial online environment. It can make remote learning more effective as VR allows for gamification and peer interactions that increases student motivation, promotes active learning, and expands the social interaction of students and teachers in virtual settings.
A virtual campus where students and teachers can actively learn
The surge of the metaverse among higher education institutions is leading to the development of “Virtual Campuses. “A virtual campus is a digital space where students and teachers can talk, learn, plan, and socialize. Students in the virtual campus can take classes, have meetings, attend conferences, and job fairs, and even take campus tours as part of the college admissions process. Many universities globally have begun to replicate their physical campus with virtual campus.
For example, the virtual campus of the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) allows students to participate in real-time virtual lectures and meet in breakout spaces and outdoor areas. Stanford University offered classes completely in a virtual reality setting taking students through explorations and virtual field trips. The Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey, a top university in Latin America, recently emulated a virtual campus where students attend classes, interact with professors, and enjoy spaces to talk and socialize.
Building the capacity of ECS’s National Colleges to use the metaverse
In close coordination with the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) Commission, the World Bank is supporting national colleges in the Eastern Caribbean to become education pioneers by embracing the metaverse. By building the capacity of colleges in the region, regional challenges to improve remote collaboration could be solved by hosting events, holding classes, and accessing student services in the metaverse.
The opportunities the metaverse has to offer are numerous. Having a Virtual Campus would promote collaboration of students and teachers from different colleges, help pull resources together to provide better student services , and organize joint job fairs allowing students from one island to meet with local employers from other islands. This initiative supports students who complete their technical degrees and obtain a Caribbean Vocational Qualification (or CVQ) to have a smoother work transition. Workers who receive a CVQ from an Eastern Caribbean State (ECS) national college are eligible to work in any of the 15 Islands members of the CARICOM economic community. Labor mobility across islands may improve if students can use digital spaces to meet with geographically distanced employers.
A recent survey indicated that promoting collaboration across national colleges in the Eastern Caribbean is a priority. Nonetheless, leaders of national colleges suggest that their current level of cooperation is low due to a lack of a clear framework and financial resources. Heads of the national colleges stressed that it has become imperative for them to work together as a network to face the challenges emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, a virtual campus presents an opportunity to help ECS national colleges design and implement more efficient joint solutions, such as shared digital content platforms, improving student services, and fostering teacher professional development.
The virtual campus developed for National Colleges in the Eastern Caribbean will occur in phases. A first step would be to take stock of the available infrastructure and assess its adequacy to operate a virtual campus (internet, hardware, and software). A second step will be to develop a series of events (for instance, a job fair) with a selected group of interested ECS national colleges using available virtual platforms.
Finally, the vision is to develop a virtual campus, accessible to all members of the education community of ECS national colleges, with a living offer of academic and social events. The future of education is global and will combine physical and digital spaces to provide students with better educational opportunities.