The metaverse continues to spark conversations in the learning and development (L&D) industry and in business spheres more broadly. While it’s certainly still in its developmental stages, many companies have already begun experimenting with this immersive technology: Ericcson is using the omniverse, which has been deemed the “metaverse for engineers,” to simulate reception for 5G networks in the city of Stockholm. And Accenture first began using the technology to onboard globally dispersed employees virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 2,000 Accenture employees in Australia and New Zealand have been introduced to their colleagues in the metaverse since the onboarding program’s initial adoption, a Financial Times article reports.

As the metaverse continues to gain traction in L&D, it’s important to consider its impact on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and to explore how training can help create an inclusive experience for everyone.

But First … What Is the Metaverse?

The metaverse is a shared, virtual space where people can use 3D avatars and objects created by virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) to collaborate and interact with each other. The term “metaverse” was originally coined by science fiction author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel, “Snow Crash,” to refer to a 3D virtual world inhabited by avatars of real people.

The metaverse has been widely associated with Facebook’s decision to rebrand as Meta Platforms Inc. (“Meta”) in 2021 after announcing its focus on expanding the metaverse. However, it’s important to remember that multiple companies are working to build the metaverse.

The metaverse is accessible through VR technology and through the web, though the user experience is currently best when using a VR headset.

DEI Challenges and Opportunities to Consider

The metaverse has presented both challenges and opportunities for DEI. Let’s consider these in more detail.

Challenge: Inclusive Design and Development 

Any technology is only as inclusive as the people responsible for creating it. Because the metaverse is created by humans, it “will inherently be flawed to a degree,” says Danielle Silver, solution architect for immersive technologies at SweetRush, a custom eLearning solutions provider. After all, “We’re not perfect [and] we all come with inherent biases.”

Hannah Stegen, chief product officer and co-founder of CultureAlly, a DEI solutions provider, echoes this idea, noting that, “The metaverse has the potential to replicate or augment the real-world biases and inequities that do still exist.” If these biases aren’t intentionally addressed in the design of immersive learning spaces, then “we can expect they will show up there as well.”

Delivering unconscious bias training to the developers, designers and others working to design and build the metaverse (and any other immersive learning technology) can help root out bias from the start.

Opportunity: More Impactful DEI Training 

The metaverse allows learners to walk in someone else’s proverbial shoes. In the case of DEI training on topics like microaggressions, this is especially powerful. Silver shares that, in the metaverse users can embody being a minority in the workplace to “feel what it’s like to experience microaggressions or biases against us.” To be on the receiving end of that, Silver says, is something that’s very difficult to replicate in more traditional learning environments. As such, there’s “a lot of power” in immersive learning experiences to help deliver transformational DEI training.

One real-world example of this is immersive learning platform provider Edstutia’s visual filters, which can simulate sight differences. Using these filters, learners can experience what it’s like to be visually impaired, leading to a “productive discussion around disability, including what concrete steps team members could take to strengthen inclusion and allyship,” says Dr. Yogini Joglekar, chief operating officer and a founding faculty member at Edstutia.

Challenge: Accountability

Similar to the internet, the metaverse gives individuals a “mask,” or something they can hide behind, Stegen says. This can lead some users to behave non-inclusively: There have already been reports of sexual harassment and assault in the metaverse and of hate speech.

One solution is for companies to create clear policies around what behaviors are appropriate, and what aren’t, in the metaverse. All employees should be trained on these policies before using the metaverse in any capacity.

Challenge and Opportunity: Neurodiversity and Disability Inclusion

Immersive technologies open doors to include more people in engaging learning modalities, regardless of physical limitations in the real world, Joglekar says. “Leveraging avatars and adaptable environments in VR enables those with disabilities to do things they couldn’t normally do, whether that’s simply walking or showing up as their authentic selves without feeling the need to hide something or feel left out of some activities.”

However, the metaverse can also create barriers for people with disabilities, specifically people who rely on assistive technologies such as communication access real-time translation (CART) and screen readers. Currently, many VR headsets don’t have the capability to work with these assistive technologies, preventing a group of the population from being able to use them, Stegen says.

As a best practice, L&D leaders using the metaverse or any other immersive technology to deliver training should request captions and audio descriptions to ensure an accessible experience, says Thomas Logan, owner of Equal Entry, an accessibility consulting company. If a learner with a disability can’t access the learning experience, express your feedback to the provider, Logan recommends.

Challenge — and Opportunity: Reaching Dispersed Learners  

The metaverse is most easily accessed by learners with a secure, strong internet connection and who have the means to purchase a VR headset — the cost of which can “be exorbitant” in some places of the world, says Tiffany Vojnovski, learning evangelist and design thinking experience creator at Sweet Rush.

As the metaverse experience improves for web-based users, so will accessibility. That said, the metaverse does offer opportunities to reach geographically dispersed learners who do have access to it. As seen with Ericsson’s onboarding program, the metaverse offers a realistic, immersive environment in which geographically dispersed learners can connect and develop their skills.

In the future, we may see use cases like internships taking place in a simulated digital twin of an organization in the metaverse, giving more individuals the ability to access valuable professional development opportunities, Vojnovski says. “I’m really excited about the ways that we can use it to democratize knowledge and bulldoze some of those barriers [facing globally dispersed learners].”

Challenge — and Opportunity: Representation

Some metaverse avatar creation systems “don’t allow people to represent themselves as they truly are,” Logan says. For instance, a user may not be able to find an avatar wearing a turban or a hijab, or one that uses a wheelchair. The process of creating and selecting an avatar “can be frustrating if you don’t find yourself adequately included in the range of features that are available,” Joglekar says.

However, many immersive learning platforms on the market do offer highly customizable avatars, which is a win for representation. L&D leaders should do their due diligence when selecting an immersive learning platform to ensure a diverse range of avatar options for learners.

From Science Fiction to (Virtual) Reality

In 2023, what used to be science fiction is now a reality, as the metaverse and other immersive technologies are transforming how we work and learn. And as with any transformative shift, L&D will play a major role in ensuring that employees, and businesses, are prepared to leverage the metaverse effectively — and inclusively.

While there still are many DEI challenges to consider, there’s also “so much potential in the metaverse,” Vojnovski says. Moving forward, L&D will play a key role in “building the metaverse that we really do want to see.”