If We Want Children to Thrive in the Future, It's Time to Bring VR to Schools | Opinion

Every technological revolution presents a dilemma: How far can we leap ahead without leaving anyone behind? Today, 15 years after the advent of smartphones and 25 years after the internet became part of the fabric of our lives, this is an open and pressing question.

That's because the world is on the cusp of the next great technological shift. We are taking our first steps into the metaverse, an industry that's predicted to be worth trillions of dollars in the coming years and bring tremendous potential to transform the ways many of us work, learn, and interact.

But "many of us" does not necessarily mean "all of us." This historic opportunity in virtual reality will naturally flow to people of means—people who have the money and time to buy headsets, who attend schools and come from families with the resources to introduce them to the latest in technology. It is those people who will learn to navigate and program the virtual world, and in time, claim its greatest rewards.

We know this because the same pattern has played out with the internet. The World Bank found that the advent of the internet actually increased inequality, even within advanced economies. Consider that more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are generated every day on the web, but 42 million Americans still lack a broadband connection.

This digital divide is also costly. In the United States, according to Deloitte, the gap in broadband access prevents the annual creation of 175,000 jobs and $37 billion in economic output. For individuals, the costs are immeasurable. What is the value of a lost opportunity?

Because the VR industry is still young, we have a chance to apply the lessons of the past and ensure that when the future arrives, the benefits of the metaverse are actually shared across the socioeconomic spectrum.

That requires starting our work upstream, in the classroom. Here, during the most pivotal years of a person's life, access to VR can kickstart economic mobility, while a lack of access can leave behind an entire generation.

The opportunity for learning, and later, for earning is massive. VR can enable students in under-resourced schools to travel to incredible, virtual learning environments. They can learn about marine biology from the bottom of the ocean, or art history while inside a virtual Louvre.

A student tries a virtual reality headset
A student tries a virtual reality headset. NOAH SEELAM/AFP via Getty Images

And by engaging with this technology, students undertake a form of vocational training, acquiring the skills necessary not just to navigate the metaverse, but to someday build and benefit from it.

But this won't happen automatically. Access to VR, just like access to computers in the 1980s or high-speed internet in the 2000s, will more likely flow to affluent schools than to those that need it most. Two-thirds of schools in Kansas and Louisiana still don't offer basic computer science classes, and a similarly devastating gap will open in VR education unless we work to prevent it.

The time for that push is now. If we wait until VR becomes as widespread as laptops or smartphones, we'll be playing catch-up—and limiting opportunities for the 30 million students attending under-resourced schools in the United States.

Fortunately, we can look to examples already set by a number of countries. In Singapore, early adoption has made VR a staple of the classroom. The Singaporean government launched a VR pilot program in five schools back in 2017, before many people had even heard of the technology. The pilot proved successful in increasing students' engagement with VR and has spurred follow-up programs.

Here in the United States, businesses, nonprofits, and the government are starting to apply their collective energy and expertise to the issue. Mesmerise, the company I lead, has begun a partnership with a nonprofit named Exponential Destiny, which works to connect low-income school districts with VR companies to train students in emerging tech.

For students, our program culminates in building virtual environments based on a theme of their choosing. At one high school in Chicago, students have decided to focus on urban trauma because one of their classmates was murdered in an act of gun violence. Using VR tools, they are putting together virtual memorials, building mourning spaces, and finding new forms of personal expression.

What might sound like hype today will be obvious soon. Virtual reality is a life-changing, world-changing opportunity, which will likely grow to a scale that will make $1 trillion look small. If we prioritize equal access to that future, we can turn it into a better reality for everyone.

Andrew Hawken is the cofounder and CEO of Mesmerise.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.