Walk around any residential neighbourhood at certain times of the day and you’ll hear the joyful — and loud — sounds of children in the schoolyard.
Laughing, playing, swing sets swinging and basketballs bouncing.
But what if children didn’t even have to physically go to school to learn, or even play?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools around the world were shuttered in lockdowns. Students spent hours learning hunched over a computer screen at home, schooling remotely.
Imagine that as a precursor to a future where education happens in the metaverse. Where children are in class together, but as realistic avatars that could interact in a meaningful way.
Suppose school trips actually went to, say, a virtual Paris rather than reading about it in a book. A virtual Paris so realistic, it was essentially indistinguishable from the real thing.
Would that be good? Or would it further our descent into the world of Disney’s Wall-E, where our legs become redundant?
Beyond school, what might childcare be like in the future? If schools are obsolete, how will parents and guardians look after their children when they themselves need to work?
“We draw an artificial distinction between formal education and the education that is happening, minute to minute, day to day in kids’ lives,” said Michael Rich, a pediatrician and the founding director of the digital wellness lab at Boston Children’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School.
“When you think of it, they are immersed in a digital ecosystem, all their waking hours for all intents and purposes, and for some of them even during their sleeping hours. And so I think we have to take a step back and really understand that, first of all, for a child, every moment is a teachable moment,” he told Spark host Nora Young.
“It’s not helpful to say, well, this is diversion: ‘This is entertainment, and this is education.’ I think both entertainment and education suffer when you do that. I think we have to understand that kids are learning as much from Grand Theft Auto, as they are learning from public radio or Sesame Street.”
David Kleeman, the Senior Vice President of Global Trends for Dubit, a British-based research and strategy consultancy and metaverse studio, added that kids showed some remarkable skills during the COVID-19 pandemic that suggests they can succeed, even ensconced in a virtual environment.
“We’ve seen what young people are capable of when they’re given the tools to be creators themselves. And the emerging metaverse is absolutely going to be a creators’ platform. It’s not just for consumption of media, it’s really designed to create it,” he said.
“One of my favourite examples is already on [the interactive game and creative platform] Roblox. There are 2,000 Lego games, none of them created by Lego. They were all made by young people, kids and teens, and probably some young adults who just love Lego and wanted to express how they wanted to play with it.”
He said the schools will have to adapt in the future to allow children to learn by being guided creatively rather than taught.
“Will schools be ready to accommodate that? Will we go from the ‘sage-on-the-stage’ model of kids sitting in nice little rows and being talked to by a teacher, to more project based learning, more team based learning, and more individual pursuit of things that they’re passionate about?”
He added that teachers will become more of a “guide-on-the-side” as they let children’s passion and curiosity drive their learning.
But if children spend more time learning online or in the metaverse, how will working parents manage? The pandemic also exposed the weaknesses in childcare and preschool access.
Sophie Mathieu, a senior program director at Ottawa’s Vanier Institute for the Family, says it’s time we started treating daycare and early childhood education in the same way we treat elementary and secondary school: as a public responsibility where all children have equitable access.
Mathieu is based in Quebec, which has had universal, inexpensive daycare access since the turn of the century. But even this childcare design isn’t perfect, she said.
“Of course, we need every child to have access to a childcare space. But we need to ensure that that space will meet the needs of families, and that disabled children will have access to a space that fits their needs.
“We need facilities that are open at different times during the weekend to make sure that parents who work with jobs where they don’t work nine to five from Monday to Friday can still rely on childcare. We need to see childcare as being an infrastructure.”
Mathieu said that she hopes by 2050 that we look at childcare and even education in a more progressive way.
“What I’m hoping for children, is being able to wake up when they want to wake up, and not being on a tight schedule and then go to childcare being welcomed by a trained childcare worker who knows how to help children develop to their full potential, and then have playtime with friends.”
Kleeman said that the way children learn or behave isn’t likely to change, but the context certainly will. But that doesn’t mean we abandon traditional notions of play. “A lot of that will have nothing to do with technology. I sure hope that Lego bricks are still around in 2050!”
Rich agreed, noting that balance will remain essential.
“It’s happening already. There are many people who are drawn to outdoor schools, nature-based schools, there are people who are seeking to live more simply and more directly. I’m not saying that we should all unplug and go to the woods so much as we should, again, be balanced, we should again be focused on what we gain from these powerful tools.”
Written and produced by Adam Killick.