This is part 3 of a series of articles on the emerging concept of ed3. As a curious and creative educator, my goal is to thoughtfully examine how web3 technologies will impact education in our changing world. Before I dig into this final piece of the ed3 puzzle I encourage you to read my first two articles on this topic. The first article introduces the idea of ed3. The second article lays out why ownership of student identity is important in this emerging ecosystem. This final article will speak to pedagogy and equity.
Link to my previous articles here:
Ugh, the Metaverse
If you have spent any time in a classroom over the past one or two years you have invariably heard students talk about one of the following topics: Roblox, Fortnite, or Minecraft. If not, then I don’t think you’re listening close enough.
So what is it about these games that get students so excited? It’s actually pretty simple. They offer three things that school doesn’t: play, imagination, and fun. I know, as a former Algebra teacher I am shocked as you are. Do you mean they’d rather play Roblox than factor a quadratic equation? What’s wrong with these kids?!
Instead of feeling concerned about this, it actually puts us on the precipice to enact the most transformative educational change for our children since the printing press.
For the last five months, a lifetime in web time, I have gone considerably deep down the blockchain rabbit hole. I have read countless articles, listened to hours of Twitter spaces, and joined a number of Discord servers. Through these experiences one thing has come clear to me–there is a major misconception of what is actually involved in the craft of teaching.
Rather than go through each of these misconceptions one by one, the important thing to point out is where this misalignment comes from. What I have heard is that teachers are halfhearted, simple, unimaginative, and superficial. Yet, the educators I talk to every day are the most dynamic, complex, creative, and thoughtful people I know. So why this disconnect?
People in the web3 space are talking about their teachers. They are projecting a bias that they have about their experiences in school. This doesn’t put a blanket over their experiences. It also doesn’t say that every teacher is this amazing dynamo of inspirational amazingness. But during my engagement in the web3 space teachers are spoken about like we are either the “Wah wah wah wah wah” from the Peanuts cartoon or the “anyone, anyone” from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (thank you pop culture).
There is one question I keep asking myself–”How can we get the amazing thinking of people in the web3 space to collaborate with the educators doing the innovative work in our schools?” This question has led me to the following realization if we can execute this collaboration. Teachers are about to enter an age in which they partner with researchers and designers to implement a pedagogy that can ensure equity and access for all of our learners.
In this final piece of my trilogy of articles, I will apply the ownership of learning identities from my last article to how it can support innovative pedagogy and a commitment to educational equity.
Ownership as the Rocketship
In my previous article, I outlined how decentralized technology allows learners to own their education. The main points I argued are that there are four parts to ownership: a trustless environment, data reconciliation, reducing points of weakness, and optimizing resource distribution.
The next step is to answer the question of how this will support pedagogy and equity. I bring up pedagogy and equity because of the insights shared by ed-tech pioneer Justin Reich. In his book Failure to Disrupt(1) he said the following when speaking about the important shifts in how technology can improve education:
“Change won’t come from heroic developers or even technology firms, but from communities of educators, researchers, and designers oriented toward innovative pedagogy and a commitment to educational equity.”
I am pretty sure I have quoted this line in every article I have written about web3 and blockchain. All of these technologies are meaningless if we lose focus on pedagogy and equity. Let’s look at the current state of pedagogy and equity before we examine how blockchain and web3 technology will shape the future of teaching and learning.
The fictional economics teacher played by Ben Stein in the classic 1980s movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has become the archetype of the disengaged drab teacher of yesteryear. Using his nasally monotone, the teacher stands at the chalkboard delivering a lecture on early 20th-century economic theory to a class of bored high school students. What has become part of the pop-culture lexicon, he calls out “anyone, anyone?” as he posits fact-based questions to the class.
As a teacher firmly entrenched in progressive pedagogy, I watch this and cringe. I imagine the possibilities of implementing a learning experience rich with creation and interaction that would require just a smidgen of modern teaching pedagogy attached to it.
To the uninitiated, they may look at that scene and think, “wow, how boring is early 20th-century economic theory?!”
But that’s not the whole picture. Progressive educational theory would say the problem is that the students are passively engaged–they are absorbing facts and they are not leading the learning. Those of us grounded in this student-centered teaching know that the answer is to get the students to be active by placing them in the driver’s seat of the learning experience. It is not the content that is the problem, but the context of the learning.
The Elephant in the Room
The most pressing challenge for us in education is how we can ensure equity for our students as we design these engaging learning experiences. The clip from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off also serves as a great example of where we’ve gone wrong in this area as well. This fictional suburban high school in Chicago is mostly devoid of any people of color. The well-to-do students that play hooky to steal their father’s rare sports car and go joyriding are the perfect fodder for white privilege.
Our initial reaction is to feel sorry for the kids in the economics class who are the “victims” of a disengaging learning experience. But by all appearances, the school appears safe, well-staffed, facilities-rich, and led by a dean of students that actually has the time and freedom to leave the school for the entire day to track down the absent students.
I am not concerned that the learning experience with our economics teacher will negatively impact their ability to access higher education, a well-paying job, and other tools of financial independence. In fact, the very high school that the movie was filmed at, Glenbrook North High School, is ranked in the top 50 in the country with a 13-1 student-to-teacher ratio and has received the nation’s top distinction as a Blue Ribbon School.
We can also point to the premise of the movie which is based on Ferris’ chronic absenteeism. He gains social status and acclaim and sets himself up to be the hero character by his efforts to not attend school, illegal ones at that. I have yet to see that premise applied to a student of color in any Hollywood movie I’ve seen.
Short of dissecting the racist foundation this entire plot was built upon, it does give a window into what inequity in our schools looks like. Both absenteeism and disengaging instruction have much broader impacts in schools with a predominantly non-white student population.
Inequities are amplified when we add a layer of technology to this broken system. Access to computers, WiFi, and trained educators that can teach using these tools decreases in school districts with a high population of students of color. There is an entire infrastructure that is required to ensure the effective implementation of these tools. A clear problem emerges when we understand that our school systems are already built upon a foundation of unequal access to this robust infrastructure.
I will come back to this issue later as there is no easy answer to this problem.
Where Do We Go Wrong?
To return to Justin Reich’s argument, this is where most technology tools of the last ten years have gone wrong. We have thrown apps at this learning paradigm hoping it would do all the work for us. School districts have spent millions of dollars on puzzles and games whose primary learning outcome is the memorization of facts. A thorough summary of this era can be found in an article titled “Putting Education in ‘Educational’ Apps: Lessons From the Science of Learning.”(2)
In this article there is one key quote that addresses what I am describing:
“The majority of apps in today’s marketplace can be considered part of the “first wave” of the digital revolution. In this wave, apps are simply digital worksheets, games, and puzzles that have been reproduced in an e-format without any explicit consideration of how children learn or how the unique affordances of electronic media can be harnessed to support learning.”
Fortunately, educational pedagogy and practice have evolved since this last wave of education technology apps. In the same article, the authors outline four principles that are drawn from consensus on the science of how children learn. These are the following: learning should be active, engaging, meaningful, and socially interactive. Recently these four principles have been amended to include iterative and joyful. (3)
It is a little bit of the chicken and egg theory. But maybe it wasn’t the technology that was at fault after all, but the pedagogy.
Doo-doo, Meet Fan
And then there was coronavirus.
You would figure with all the developments in teaching pedagogy and practice along with the proliferation of educational apps that we would have been well prepared for the shift to remote learning that took place in the spring of 2020. However, recent research has demonstrated we were actually a lot farther off than we anticipated.
A 2021 study published in the Journal of Children and Media(4) found that 50 percent of the most downloaded paid educational apps for young children in the app store were scored in the low-quality range. Out of all the apps reviewed only 7 were found to be in the range of the highest quality. In this study, the same four pillars of learning mentioned above (active, engaging, meaningful, and socially interactive) were used.
This clearly signals we are falling well short of delivering on the promises of technological innovation by using these tools. Unfortunately, they were woefully inadequate at providing the engaging learning experiences that we hoped they would.
In fact, they had the opposite effect, especially for students of color. (5) With the social engagement of the live in-person classroom removed, students were now showing signs of increased depression and detachment from their learning. So now we had really screwed up. It’s one thing to not achieve high levels of engagement and meaning while students are still physically proximate to each other, it’s a whole other thing to do that when they are forced into the isolation of their own homes.
Everybody Get Together, Try to Love One Another Right Now
Back to the metaverse. At the start of this article, I mentioned the three most engaging, playful, and collaborative tools being used by students right now: Roblox, Fortnite, and Minecraft. If we were to use the four pillars of learning along with the two amendments, we would find that these games hit all of these. That they are active, engaging, meaningful, socially interactive, iterative, and joyful. (I would like to say that more work can be done in the meaningful part.)
This is what draws the through-line back to what Reich says about educational change, that it will come from “communities of educators, researchers, and designers.”
If we were to take the current research by groups such as the Brookings Institution, leading child psychologists, and design groups like the LEGO Foundation we can evolve the next generation of technology tools.
The question is then, what do these next-generation tools look like?
The Missing Piece
As I’ve outlined in this series of articles, the technology available in blockchain, decentralization, and the metaverse will play an important role in the evolution of learning. I can point to an article published by the Brookings Institution titled “A whole new world: Education meets the metaverse”(6) which provides a concrete example of how this technology can be implemented in a classroom.
I’d recommend reading the entire article closely as it makes clear connections between the most recent research on how students learn, emerging metaverse technology, and where technology companies have gone wrong. This quote summarizes the main point of the article: “Educational spaces within the metaverse can align with the science of how children learn. Now is the time to design educational spaces with children at the center.”
This does not mean that the metaverse will solve all of our educational ills. It is faulty logic to think this way. It means that it is an open space to bring together educators, researchers, and designers together, just as Reich recommended! It is a missing piece that needs to be brought into the conversation. Another quote from the article emphasizes this point:
It is clear that games or activities in the metaverse hold the promise of being active rather than passive. Children can explore in this space “physically” and mentally. Whether the activity is engaging or not will be in the hands of the developer. As with apps, there are many products that capture the attention of children, but that interrupt the experience in ways that thwart engagement. Children do not learn when we interrupt a narrative or give too many choices. Thus, designers must be purposeful in creating a story board and having a flow through that board that does not divert a child’s attention to a new and irrelevant task or place.
I have concerns, and you should too, that bringing learning experiences into the metaverse will remove students from the social interactions the research identifies as being important to facilitate learning. This is the exact reason we need these partnerships between researchers, educators, and designers in creating this next iteration of our learning spaces. If we leave the implementation of this technology to the designers we will be repeating the problems that were created in the app-based learning models of the 2010s.
An additional quote from the Brookings Institution addresses this point, “social interaction could be preserved if the virtual environment served as a prompt for interactions between real people in either the real or virtual setting rather than as a substitute for interaction.”
These are key insights that tell me that the metaverse isn’t THE answer, but part of it. To simply ignore it because we are leaning on biases that say it is simply a “gamification” of learning is short-sighted and naive. As they mention in the article “the metaverse offers a hybrid world of enormous potential if it is done right.” (emphasis theirs)
My argument here is not “This is so simple, just plug every student into the metaverse, and voila, problem solved!” In fact, it is much much more complicated than that. I would argue that access to equitable and effective learning is the single most pressing human rights issue in our country right now. I ask myself, how do we effectively educate our students in a system that is built upon inequity and pedagogical fallacies?
There are many challenges to overcoming issues of equity of access. It is painfully obvious that any level of implementation of metaverse technology will require expensive hardware and software. Cloud computing, 5G, AR/VR hardware, high-powered GPUs, photorealistic 3D engines, and artificial intelligence will all be required to operate this architecture.
I don’t think there is an easy answer to this other than we need to figure this out. My hope is that both a rapid exponential change in the reduction of cost of these technologies along with an emerging awareness of the consequences of our past failings to design for equity will push us over this hurdle. This may be wishful thinking, but I am hopeful that because this is being placed at the center of these discussions we can enact changes in how we design this next generation of learning.
Then the pedagogical challenges. It is time for us to put into action the research-based models of teaching and learning based on the six pillars of learning. We need learning experiences that are active, engaging, meaningful, socially interactive, iterative, and joyful. It is time that we bring in the leading researchers on child learning theory into our school designs. In order to break down silos in our schools, this is one bridge that must be built.
We must apply changes based on the valuable insights we gained from the great distance learning experiment of 2020-21. In my view, these align with the suggestions by the Brookings Institute on how to best implement virtual worlds into our teaching and learning. I’ll close by briefly walking through each one.
Avoid distractions: Students can’t learn when there are too many things going on around them. Whether learning from home or in school, students are distracted by things that subtract from their focus on learning. This is impacted by each individual’s social, economic, and family status. While school should be the grand equalizer, distractions remain. We as educators are not focusing enough on reducing them. A similar mindset needs to be applied as we look to build virtual worlds for our students to learn in.
Ensure real agency: Over the past few years of educational design, the parameters of how to create an effective student-centered classroom have been shaped by the smokescreen of non-research-based information sharing on social media by edu-fluencers. We need to apply the research that outlines the most effective way to ensure student agency. No more searching in the dark about how to actually implement this in practice. Studies like the one conducted by the American Institute for Research are a good place to start. (7)
Be culturally diverse and culturally inclusive: This is the most dangerous part of a potential metaverse-associated learning space. Researcher Breigha Adeyemo who focuses on the intersections of race, technology, and democracy speaks to this in her Fast Company article titled “The metaverse is shaping up to be a racist hellscape. It doesn’t have to be that way.”(8) We have the opportunity to design these systems so they are more culturally diverse and inclusive, let’s do it.
These last three articles that I have published have been a challenge to write. They have pushed my biases and understandings of what teaching and learning can look like to the edges. There were a number of times when I thought to myself, “I’m taking this too far, step away from the ledge.”
Rather than recoil in fear, I’ve leaned into these challenging questions. No one wants to design a future in which our children will be strapped into virtual reality headsets jetting through the metaverse from their desks a la Ready Player One. That couldn’t be further away from the reality I would like to see in our learning spaces.
But to say that these technologies won’t or can’t exist in some form in our classrooms is just being blind to the inevitable evolution of how humans interact with technology. In fact, as I mentioned at the top of this article, it is already here in the form of Roblox, Fortnite, and Minecraft.
Let’s not bury our heads because the metaverse and the blockchain are things that seem weird and difficult to understand. A similar thing happened in the 1990s as the internet transitioned from the backrooms of niche computer programmers to the broader population. Look where that got us–systems built upon exploiting the users for financial gain.
We have an opportunity to embrace this technology and work together to build a system that can offer transformative learning opportunities for students. I am raising my hand and joining the rooms where these discussions are happening. I hope that you are open to peeking your head in and taking a listen to what is being discussed.
I am open to any and all feedback, ideas, or suggestions. The best place to do that is on my Twitter account at @DaganBernstein.
You are also welcome to join other educators interested in ed3 by checking out the DAO for educators, by educators at @Ed3DAO, or check out a project of generative NFTs celebrating the MAGIC of educators at Ed3 Educators.