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‘I know kung fu’: Rethinking education in the metaverse

Patrick Alexander, Professor of Education at Oxford Brookes University

If you know kung fu, how do you know it? In the 1999 film The Matrix, the protagonist Neo has martial arts instantly uploaded into his brain. ‘I know kung fu’, he states, definitively, before fighting malign algorithms in the virtual reality of the Matrix. As I develop a new project exploring the educational potential of the Metaverse, I’m reminded of this scene. This blog post focuses on the educational potential and pitfalls of the Metaverse – that is, the persistent, decentralised, shared virtual spaces where users have a sense of presence, often using VR or AR technologies. The traditional discourse invites you to imagine students visiting Machu Picchu or Mars, or handling a virtual model heart, interacting viscerally with these environments. The chance to transcend physical and temporal constraints is undeniably compelling.

The Metaverse holds exciting potential for education, but this domain remains largely underexplored as a field of educational research. Could new immersive technologies lead to new educational realities where we can ‘know kung fu’ instantaneously? Or might the educational promise lie elsewhere? Alternatively, might new technologies simply help reproduce the same old enduring educational models of schooling and university? What are the implications for children and young people? My project, Virtual Ecologies of Learning, maps existing research on, and examples of, youth-led educational practice in Metaverse contexts. This mapping will lead to a pilot of a youth-led educational encounter in a Metaverse space. The whole process is being captured ethnographically.

Image generated using Stable Diffusion XL

However, my early explorations of existing educational spaces in the Metaverse have left me conflicted. Rather than embracing new possibilities for more democratic approaches to education, framed by an infinite range of contexts (think, for example, of an education ‘commons’ where learners can explore whatever subjects or competencies they like, when they like, situated, for instance, on a virtual beach), most examples simply recreate old educational architectures – the Victorian classroom, the 1950s American high school, the traditional university campus or lecture hall. Even when the scenery changes, the underlying pedagogical structures stay the same. A recent Meta advertisement shows a grandmother and granddaughter learning astronomy on an alien planet, only for the grandmother to ask if this helps with writing a paper for her teacher. A traditional assessment endures as the sum of this cosmically enriched experience. Rather than reimagining learning, some visions of the Metaverse promise only a high-tech means of reproducing the status quo.

‘Rather than reimagining learning, some visions of the Metaverse promise only a high-tech means of reproducing the status quo.’

Why is it so difficult to move past traditional tropes? The looming shadow of the modern school makes it hard to envision other forms of educational experience. Most Metaverse developers either conform learning to existing schooling models (the assumption that teaching and learning should follow the typical approach to mass education through schooling) or bend new worlds to fit familiar educational systems and power structures (even if you’re learning about stars by floating around Mars, you’ll still need to come back to earth and articulate this knowledge in an exam paper to be marked by your teacher). This reflects the dominance of the modern paradigm of schooling in how we conceive of education. The tendency is to equate education with schooling, rather than recognising schooling as one particular historical manifestation of education. Essentialised notions of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment also constrain our thinking. From a Foucauldian perspective, this entrenches the governmentality of schooling – its ability to shape docile, compliant subjects who accept the given structures. It also enhances surveillance and social control, with comprehensive data trails even in virtual worlds. Rather than empowering students, their agency is constrained by conformity to existing norms (Collet-Sabé & Ball 2023).

Some youth-driven spaces like Minecraft and Roblox offer more playful possibilities, but even student creations often conform to traditional tropes. So how can we re-engage the Metaverse for more enlightening, liberating educational futures? There are fledgling examples that provide glimmers of hope. Some projects use the Metaverse to revitalise indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing. Biskaabiiyaang, a Native American [Anishinaabe] Metaverse, for example, emphasises storytelling, language and nature without any classrooms or formal assessments. While still framed by gamification and cinematic tropes, this initiative infers a reparative approach to history, asking ‘what if?’ questions about what might have flourished without colonialism and imagining those worlds. This anticipatory work helps young people shape the future by seeing alternatives (Facer 2021). Other possibilities for transformative education undoubtedly exist, if we move past reproducing our educational past.

The true potential of the Metaverse lies not in accelerated efficiency of knowledge transfer – of knowing kung fu – but in revitalising what education can be. The Metaverse offers a space where prevailing constraints need not apply, if we can loosen the grip of ingrained assumptions. This will require youth and educators to work collaboratively, recognising the constructed nature of educational norms and daring to enact new possibilities. Our educational horizons are only as limited as our imaginations. The Metaverse can be a space for collective world-building, expanding what we conceive as possible. This begins by questioning what we take for granted about education, its purposes and its forms.

The Metaverse can simply reinforce how education already operates, faster and more immersively. But it also holds potential for reclaiming education from enclosure by dominant paradigms. As the Virtual Ecologies of Learning project develops, I hope we gather more evidence of this, seeking glimmers of radical imagination that might flourish in this emerging dimension of reality.

Patrick Alexander was awarded the 2023 BJET Fellowship for his research proposal: ‘Virtual Ecologies of Learning: Young People Re-dreaming Education in the Metaverse’.


Collet-Sabé, J., & Ball, S. (2023). Beyond school. The challenge of co-producing and commoning a different episteme for education. Journal of Education Policy, 38(6), 895–910,  

Facer, K. (2021). Futures in education: Towards an ethical practice. Paper commissioned for the UNESCO Futures of Education report.