What Could the Metaverse Mean for Business Education?
- The metaverse promises to enhance activities related to three key pillars of education: learning to do, learning to learn, and learning to be.
- Virtual worlds could enable schools to create low-cost “virtual innovation labs,” where students can be immersed in real-life business environments.
- One of the biggest advantages of the metaverse is its capacity to help people cultivate a lifelong passion for investigating new topics.
The word “metaverse” first originated in 1992 in the sci-fi novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Ever since then, many of the world’s best minds have been working on creating immersive online environments, whether in the virtual world Second Life or the multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft. But the year 2021 might be the first time the term entered into common usage, when Meta (formerly Facebook) announced its creation of an online virtual environment where it envisions people everywhere meeting to work and play.
The initial reception of Meta’s vision has been mixed, to say the least. The main criticism is that a metaverse is not something that can be launched or owned by one company. Rather, it is a decentralized ecosystem built by many—in fact, it is being built as we speak by many companies. We have not yet fully realized its potential.
Even so, for insightful leaders, the metaverse is both ripe with opportunity and fraught with risk. It also raises a host of questions: Do we fully understand its possibilities? Are we witnessing an innovation akin to the construction of the first railroads or even the invention of automobiles? Is it worth the hype?
We already see business schools worldwide wrestling with these questions as they explore the implications that virtual reality and augmented reality (VR/AR) have for their programs. For example, ESSEC in France introduced VR classes to reduce travel and reduce its global footprint. NEOMA in France has created a fourth virtual campus, while the College of Business Administration at Loyola Marymount University in the U.S. is using VR/AR to connect its students with indigenous leaders.
These examples are just the start of what I believe will be a period of great experimentation for business schools. Over the next few years, we will be discovering what opportunities the digital ecosphere offers to higher education.
Educators can view these opportunities through many lenses. But I think it is most useful to consider how the emerging metaverse might support three key pillars of education. These concepts, which are similar to the four pillars highlighted in a 1996 report for UNESCO, include learning to do, learning to learn, and learning to be.
Learning to Do—Real-World Innovation
“Learning to do” involves the application of skills—and in the metaverse, this process could be far different from what students have experienced in traditional classrooms. Learning in the metaverse offers several advantages that are especially practical and relevant for the business curriculum:
No-risk decision making. Yes, educational business simulations already exist, but the metaverse would take these games up a notch. Just as simulations train surgeons to perform surgery without putting human lives at risk, the metaverse could integrate virtual reality and augmented reality with real-life situations to allow future business leaders to practice their skills without real-world consequences. Imagine, for example, MBA students honing their negotiation skills with virtual beings based on artificial intelligence or making critical decisions in a dynamic, live environment with other players. Putting a hypothetical company’s future at risk has never been more fun.
Real-life integration. The ability to integrate VR/AR into real-life situations marks another difference between metaverse and traditional business simulations. For example, I have fond memories of the bank strategy simulation I completed in my Strategy 101 course, but playing that simulation game was not the same as being present in a synchronous meeting with key decision makers. The metaverse could give students access to real-life business situations anywhere in the world. Schools could ingrain global projects more deeply into students’ everyday learning in ways that are integrated with real-world experience, not distinct from it.
Low-cost innovation. The metaverse offers far more than gamified environments for decision making. It affords schools a lower-cost option to create virtual innovation labs, where students could immerse themselves in real-life business environments without having to be physically present on-site at a company. When students think of a new idea during a brainstorming session in the metaverse, they will be able to easily and quickly sketch out and test that idea, bringing it to life at that very moment.
Similarly, platforms such as MS Mesh make it possible for students to be virtually standing on a real factory floor. In that space, they can experiment with production methods and ultimately produce virtual merchandise. They can engage in testing, prototyping, and product launching. These possibilities could make innovation a less risky and less costly endeavor, at least for now. It remains to be seen if digital production costs will remain lower than physical ones, as the technology becomes more sophisticated.
When students think of a new idea in the metaverse, they will be able to easily and quickly test that idea, bringing it to life at that very moment.
No-barrier student consulting. Because the metaverse does not require geographic proximity among users, companies will find it easier to work with students worldwide on short-term projects or long-term collaborations. The more companies approach business schools to work with students as consultants, the more we will see the barriers gradually erode between academia and business.
Simultaneous startups. Many individuals currently believe they must choose between going to business school and getting involved with a startup—but why make students choose? The metaverse offers schools the opportunity to design integrated curricula where students can more easily test their ideas and incubate startups, all while applying the skills they are learning in their degree programs.
To be clear, business schools already offer some form of these activities, but they still must overcome logistical challenges. For instance, schools must provide students with resources to prototype their ideas, and many projects require students to be in physical proximity with companies and business leaders. These are problems that the metaverse is aiming to solve.
Learning to Learn—Continuous Education
Next, we can examine the potential of the metaverse to provide a rich educational environment for lifelong learners. Just as internet users can click on hypertext links in an article to go deeper into a topic, the metaverse might enable students to “double click” on concepts they encounter and want to explore in more detail. In such a rich-text environment, students can explore examples, learn applications, and ask follow-up questions in ways that encourage deep learning and lead to a fundamental understanding of complicated concepts.
Similarly, the metaverse could enable business schools to embed this level of exploration and deeper learning into case studies or problems that students already are working on. It could help schools make the shift from “just-in-case” learning that is dissociated from students’ daily lives to “just-in-time” knowledge that students can access as they need it for real-life application. Learners will be able to pursue continued education far more efficiently, without the need to take a hiatus from their business careers.
In fact, I think that one of the biggest advantages of the metaverse is its capacity to make learning a part of each person’s everyday life and experience, not just an activity that occurs at specific places during designated periods of time. The metaverse will encourage individuals to cultivate, early in their lives, a passion for pursuing new lines of questioning, considering new problems, and investigating new topics.
Learning to Be—Engagement and Diversity
When it comes to the third pillar, “learning to be,” the metaverse creates opportunities for training, motivation, and engagement on levels that we have not experienced before. For instance, business schools could use the digital universe in leadership courses to put students in real-life decision-making situations, where they are forced to think about ethical dilemmas and shape their own styles of leadership in compelling and immediate ways.
The technology offers an expanded capacity to enhance students’ self-knowledge and global mindsets, says Sarah Hammer, managing director of the Cypher Accelerator at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The Wharton School launched this initiative at its Stevens Center of Innovation in Finance to support entrepreneurs building businesses related to blockchain, advance the blockchain ecosystem, and build a decentralized future.
The metaverse will make learning a part of our everyday lives, not just an activity that occurs in specific places during designated periods of time.
“There’s a real opportunity to leverage the metaverse to enhance diversity and global perspective in the classroom,” Hammer says. “During the pandemic, we saw schools pivot to virtual classrooms, and in doing so, they could more easily bring in guest lecturers or faculty from around the world. The metaverse will continue to enhance this opportunity, giving students a broader and more diverse perspective. For example, a class studying the development of mobile payments technology in Asia could be immersed in a rich conversation with entrepreneurs on the ground in Singapore.”
Furthermore, the metaverse ecosystem supports 360-degree learning, in which students can interact with and receive feedback from a wider range of peers and faculty. It also can connect them more readily to real-life experts working on problems the students are studying.
The metaverse can provide a playground where students can exercise and sharpen their creativity, entrepreneurial skills, collaboration skills, ability to influence others, and ability to generate a following, at a time when these skills are becoming fundamental to effective leadership. There are nearly infinite possibilities for experiential learning that supports students’ self-development, reflection, creativity, and growth.
Advantages of Learning in the Metaverse
The highly interactive nature of the metaverse supports the formation of what my colleague and branding expert Erich Joachimsthaler calls interaction fields, where value for all stakeholders is created from interactions among various players in a particular environment.
How, then, can business schools gain a strategic advantage from interactive technology? First, they can use it to provide their corporate partners with greater access to students’ fresh perspectives and creative solutions. Second, schools can leverage the metaverse to attract and retain the next generation of students, who will be highly motivated to explore the possibilities of VR/AR for innovation and decision making.
The bottom line is that the metaverse offers a wealth of possibilities for business schools to help students learn, innovate, and see their projects come to life. It also will open the door to collaborations with a host of new partners who can help students hone their skills.
I predict that we will soon see schools shift their approach, from delivering learning “just in case” to “just in time”—from “once in a while” to continuous and lifelong. As business schools prepare students for emerging fields such as blockchain and artificial intelligence, and as schools work to stay relevant to a new breed of learners and employers, I believe they must consider the potential advantages that the metaverse has to offer.