Consider Your Life in the Metaverse and Multiverse

universes
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I have already written several essays about the metaverse and multiverse here. This past weekend, I wrote about those two ideas on another blog that is broader in scope than the technology and education here. Here is another take on those things for a broader audience.

Much of the talk (and hype) about the metaverse has been around Mark Zuckerberg's ideas, especially when he changed the name of Facebook's parent company to Meta because the metaverse is where he expects Facebook and a lot more to be going to in the future. Who will build the metaverse? Certainly, Meta wants to be a big player, but it would have been like asking in the 1980s "Who will build the Internet?" The answer is that it will be many people and companies.

But some people have suggested that rather than the metaverse - an alternate space entered via technology - we should be thinking about the multiverse. Metaverse and multiverse sound similar and the definitions may seem to overlap at times but they are not the same things.

If all of this sounds rather tech-nerdy, consider that most of us through of the Internet in that way in its earliest days, but now even a child knows what it is and how to navigate it. The business magazine Forbes is writing about the multiverse and about the metaverse because - like the Internet - it knows it will be a place of commerce.

I particularly like the more radical ideas that the metaverse might be viewed as a moment in time. What about considering that we may be already living in a multiverse? I have wondered about when education would enter the metaverse.

To add to whatever confusion exists about meta- versus multi-, there is an increasing list of other realties that technology is offering with abbreviations like AR, VR, XR and MR.

I am not a fanatic about the Marvel Comics Universe and its many films, but I am a fan of the character Doctor Strange (played by Benedict Cumbernatch). The new film Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness takes him and some "mystical allies into the mind-bending and dangerous alternate realities of the Multiverse to confront a mysterious new adversary."

There are people in our real world who find the idea of multiverses terrifying, so madness and nightmare might be good words to attach to it. The Marvel version of the Multiverse is defined as "the collection of alternate universes which share a universal hierarchy; it is a subsection of the larger Omniverse, the collection of all alternate universes. A large variety of these universes were originated as forms of divergence from other realities, where an event with different possible outcomes gives rise to different universes, one for each outcome. Some can seem to be taking place in the past or future due to differences in how time passes in each universe."

The film may not be science-based but theoretical scientists have been theorizing about multiple universes, alternate universes, and alternative timelines for almost as long as science-fiction writers have been creating them. Probably everyone reading this (and definitely the person writing this) has thought about the idea of how changing some events might create different outcomes. the "writers and filmmakers may think about trying to stop JFK's assassination or what if the Nazis had won WWII, but you and I think more personally. WHAT IF I hadn't gone to that college, taken that job, married someone else, or not married at all? For now, multiverses exist in our minds, but someday, perhaps, they will be real. Or whatever "real" means at that point in time.

The Disconnected 2022 Edition

brain connectIt's 2022 and I am reading an article in The Chronicle by Beth McMurtrie about how the pandemic forced disconnections in early 2020. On the other hand, we also became more connected to friends, offices, campuses, and stores through technology and media.

The article took me back to a keynote presentation I did back in January 2016. I titled that talk "The Disconnected." The talk grew out of the many references I had been seeing to people who seemed disconnected from many aspects of society.

There was the observation that there was a re-emergence of people who wanted to learn on their own rather than in schools. These autodidacts were a new group of learners that I felt might be reshaping school, especially in higher education which is a choice rather than a requirement.

In 2015, the sharing economy, the maker movement, the DIY do-it-yourself movement, and open-source coding were all topics of interest.

These trends were not limited to young people or students. Many people were “cord cutting” from traditional media. But the trend was especially evident in young adults. Even broader was a “rent rather than buy” mindset that was affecting purchases of media (music, movies, books, magazines), cars (lease or use a car service rather than own a car), rent an apartment or home and avoid the self-maintenance, mortgage and taxes.

In 2015, the “disconnected” comprised about 25 percent of Americans, according to Forrester Research. They estimated that number would double by 2025. Has it?

That new article is about students who seem to have disconnected during the pandemic and are not reconnecting now. Maybe they will never reconnect. 

According to McMurtie's article, fewer students are going to classes. Her interviews with faculty show that those who do attend avoid speaking if possible. They are disconnected from the professor and their classmates. They don't do the assigned reading or homework and so they have trouble with tests. They are disconnected from the course content.

The Chronicle had more than 100 people tell them about their disconnected students. Some called them “exhausted,” “defeated,” or “overwhelmed.” This came from faculty at a range of institutions.

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Why are they disconnected?

Reasons given by professors include pandemic-related items. Many students lost their connection with their college or their purpose in attending. Hours of online learning that they had not chosen and which may have been sub-par added to those things.

The students who seemed to have the most trouble with learning were the freshmen who seemed unprepared. But the observations that these new students seemed underprepared, both academically and in their sense of responsibility. One example was that students don’t fully grasp the consequence of missing classes. I was teaching long before the pandemic and all of those things were true of students back then too. 

So my question is whether or not those disconnected students of 2015 have become even more disconnected in the subsequent seven years, and if they have is it because of the pandemic or just a trend that started well before the pandemic.

McMurtrie also gives some things from the perspective of students. One student said that when she returned to the classroom after virtual learning many professors relied more on technology than they had before the pandemic. Ironically, that was something that many schools had hoped would happen; that faculty would be greater tech users when they returned to their in-person classes. Professors who never used virtual conferencing or flipped the classroom using a learning management system. That student may have seen her college experience as "fake" but the professors (and possibly their department chairs and deans) saw the experience as "enhanced."

I don't explain the disconnecting as only the result of social anxiety and stress or what psychologists describe as “allostatic load.”  I don't think this problem is temporary. I agree with some of the faculty whose responses are in the article who think the entire structure of college needs to change and that this is not a new problem.

None of us know what the solution might be.

Emergency Remote Teaching May Not Be Online Learning

online student
  Image: Marc Thele

Though they get lumped together, there is a difference between emergency remote teaching (ERT) and online learning. Prior to the COVID pandemic, I knew of some isolated examples of emergency remote learning (ERL). It might have happened because of a natural disaster, such as when Hurricane Katrina hit the New Orleans area in 2005. Tulane University was forced to send students to other schools. Going online wasn't an option. In 2009, the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic hit and few schools used online learning as one way to compensate. In that pandemic, schools often kept students isolated on campus and used more traditional learning options. It was the rare school that was able to go online for all or a large percentage of classes. 

I co-wrote two journal articles in 2021 (AJES, 80:1) about the COVID pandemic and higher education. The first article, "Online Education in a Pandemic: Stress Test or Fortuitous Disruption?" examined some of that history. One observation is that there were few lessons learned between the prior event and the COVID pandemic despite gains in using online learning in normal situations. The COVID-19  pandemic brought on more emergency remote learning than a switch to online learning. Switching from face-to-face (F2F) education to a virtual environment was forced and unplanned in the vast majority of cases. The second article, "Choosing Transformation Over Tradition" considers how advancements in online education did not have the effect of preparing all teachers and all courses to move online easily and asked whether lessons learned in 2020 and 2021 would be temporary or transformative. At that time, there were teachers, students and courses that were online - and there were those that were not. (both articles are available via academia.com).

Well-planned online learning experiences are significantly different from courses offered online in response to a crisis or disaster. I believe that most of the criticisms of K-12 and high education schools trying to maintain instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic stem from emergency remote teaching. Unfortunately, in the public perception and for some in academia, the experience of ERL is their perception of online learning overall.

Emergency remote teaching is defined as "a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode due to crisis circumstances." Though the teaching solutions used will certainly overlap those used for online instruction, ERT or ERL should not be considered the same as what we know to be planned and designed "online learning." 

An EDUCAUSE article considers how we might cautiously evaluate emergency online learning and though some criteria for evaluating online learning would certainly be in that rubric, it would be invalid to use the same criteria.

It reminds me of my earliest experiences teaching online 20 years ago. Not only did I need to change how I designed lessons and how I presented them pedagogically, but I also needed to reevaluate how I would evaluate student work. For example, could I use the same rubric for a student who did a presentation or demonstration in my physical classroom as I did for a student submitting a slide presentation with audio that had been carefully designed, revised and edited?

When I ran a university department that was the campus support of online courses, we worked with a small percentage of faculty and courses that were fully online. In emergency situations when all classes needed to be online and faculty and students needed support, my department and I believe most school's support teams will not be able to offer the same level of support to all faculty who need it.

If you are in a teaching position, are you, your students, and your institution in a better place now to move quickly online than you were in January of 2020?

In writing that second journal article, I and my co-author were somewhat pessimistic about where we would be in 2022 based on the lesson not learned in past instances of emergency shifts to online. However, since those articles were published in early 2021, we feel some optimism. We have seen positive changes in preparedness. Anecdotally, I know of K-12 schools that have smoothly moved to online modes because of snowstorms or other short-term situations because of what they experienced in 2020-21. I know higher education faculty who are now more comfortable taking on an online course section (though they still prefer to teach in a physical classroom). At all levels, there is more use of online delivery platforms and more hybrid teaching than before. 

Like other emergency situations, we often hear that it is not if we will ever have to go fully online again; it is when we will have to do it.