Can the Metaverse Replace Classrooms?

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Scholar analyzes the regulatory implications of metaverse-based education.

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At Dallas Hybrid Preparatory School, students attend in-person classes only two days a week.  The rest of the week they go to school in the metaverse.

Experts predict that, as the metaverse’s popularity continues to grow, more schools may start teaching in the digital world. But one law professor argues in a recent article that, just like with real-world classrooms, metaverse classrooms must comply with federal regulations.

The metaverse is an immersive, 3D digital world that can be accessed using devices such as computers or virtual reality headsets. In the metaverse, people can navigate the digital environment using online avatars to interact with others and virtually experience real-world activities.

In his article, law professor Jon M. Garon proposes different ways the metaverse could be used to supplement or replace the traditional classroom. He suggests, for example, that educators could teach in-person lessons but then assign specific tasks for students to complete in the metaverse.

Alternatively, educators may teach in the metaverse through their avatars and provide their students with technology to access the metaverse from home, which could eliminate the need for in-person instruction.

Either of these options, Garon argues, can implicate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

FERPA protects a student’s “personally identifiable information in education records.” When the student is a minor, FERPA requires consent from the student’s parents before the school may release this information.

COPPA affords additional privacy protections by requiring commercial website operators to obtain parental consent before collecting personal information from children under 13 years old.

COPPA may apply to schools if students are required to use online programs. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has provided guidance for schools using online resources to ensure compliance with COPPA. If a school contracts with website operators, the FTC has indicated that the school may provide the required consent under COPPA on behalf of its students’ parents.

Garon warns that teachers should be especially cautious of privacy considerations before assigning their students tasks to complete in the metaverse—especially when their students are under 13 years of age.

To ensure compliance with FERPA and COPPA, Garon cautions that schools should require online service providers to restrict communications including advertisements and purchasing options to an “opt-in basis” so that students do not get such pop-ups while in the metaverse.  In addition, Garon argues that online providers should be required to delete students’ data after their contracts with schools end.

Furthermore, teachers may not be aware of the specific FERPA and COPPA requirements, so Garon suggests that the school administrators rather than teachers should choose which metaverse providers to contract with. Garon explains that this practice would be in line with the FTC’s recommendation regarding consent.

Garon argues that metaverse-based education must also comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The metaverse’s use of virtual reality devices—which often depends on physical movement—could create accessibility issues for students with physical disabilities, Garon explains.

Under IDEA, schools must offer students with disabilities an individualized education program that provides them with appropriate accommodations. Garon suggests that the metaverse could be an educational tool that gives some students the modifications they need. If teaching is solely done in the metaverse, however, Garon cautions that students with visual, hearing, or motor disabilities may be at a disadvantage. Garon recommends that in these scenarios, teachers may have to provide alternative accommodations.

In addition, Garon describes that the metaverse’s reliance on avatars could create inclusivity issues if the avatars are not customized to fit a diverse range of skin tones.

Promoting inclusivity in technological design, however, “occurs most successfully when the design team is itself inclusive,” Garon contends. In addition to having a representative design team, Garon argues that the team must test the technology against implicit biases. He emphasizes that principles of equity and inclusion should be at the forefront of the technology design process.

Garon recommends that the FTC and U.S. Department of Education work together to provide standards for metaverse developers to ensure that their platforms are compliant with educational regulations. He concludes by emphasizing that the educational digital environment must meet its regulatory obligations and focus on promoting diversity and inclusion.