“Immediately, I get on the phone with the [DISD] chief technology officer and I said ‘What do you all need? How can I help you?’” Taylor Shead, CEO of STEMuli Technology, said.
What DISD needed Shead and her company to do is create a virtual platform for students and teachers that could sustain remote learning for the foreseeable future. That platform evolved into what STEMuli is calling an “educational metaverse,” a virtual world where students can plan, learn and maybe one day create wealth.
Web 3, NFTs and metaverses have all been hot tech topics in recent months, especially after Facebook announced it was changing its name to Meta and shifting its focus to virtual reality. All of these concepts come together in DISD’s education metaverse. The virtual world is being tested at Dallas Hybrid Prep, the state’s first permanently hybrid school blending online and in-person teaching.
The students’ devices, mostly laptops, tablets and smartphones, already have the platform installed, so all they have to do is log in and enter STEMuli’s virtual world, but they aren’t just dropped into a classroom. They’re in a virtual world where they can see all their classmates’ avatars, and that’s just the beginning of what STEMuli envisions.
The world is based on Dallas, so students would see the American Airlines Center and different pieces of the Dallas skyline. While they wait for class to start, the students can drive cars through the world or play games.
Then, the teacher starts class on their side of the platform, which immediately transports the students into a virtual classroom for instruction.
“It kind of looks like a movie theater,” Shead said. The teacher is on a screen in the front of the class. When they ask the class a question, students can raise their avatar’s hand to answer and earn game points for participating in class.
On the STEMuli platform, students are rewarded with game points for doing things like attending class on time and completing assignments.
Right now, these game points can be used to upgrade their avatars, but the plan is to allow students to convert those points into a digital currency that students could earn through participating in school.
The company’s ambitions get even bigger, but they started small.
Shead has always been interested in seeing the remote learning experience become easier for students.
She grew up in Plano and is the youngest of seven in her family to play Division 1 sports, earning a scholarship to play basketball at Loyola Marymount University. She initially wanted to be a reconstructive plastic surgeon, but said her math skills weren’t good enough to finish pre-med. Bringing all her school supplies when she traveled to play basketball was stressful, Shead recalled.
“It just frustrated me that I wasn’t able to access everything I needed to to keep up with class,” she said. “I’m an Africa-American 32-year-old. What that means to me is education was really the only thing that allowed my parents to break out of poverty and give my brothers and I all the opportunities they gave us.
“It just frustrated me that I wasn’t able to access everything I needed to to keep up with class." – Taylor Shead, STEMuli
“When I look at education today, the school systems and education just is not in a place where it will continue to allow people to mobilize themselves out of poverty. That is terrifying for me.”
Shead said this is at the center of everything the company does.
“Those schools have not had the best teachers,” Shead said. “They haven’t had the best resources or these innovative programs and practices that allow the minority low-income students in those districts to be exposed to all the great things in the world and ultimately get inspired and educated to really succeed at the same level of wealthier school districts.”
DISD is an anomaly in that it's been able to provide some of these programs to students with the highest need. “But, they shouldn’t be an anomaly,” she said.
Shead said they’re taking consumer technology and bringing it into the classroom. “That’s something we feel education has failed at doing for years,” she said. They’re also trying to bring “workplace learning” into core subjects.
STEMuli started by building a platform to connect corporate mentors to high school students in public schools. DISD has a program called PTECH, pathways to technology, early college high school, that teams high schools with industry partners from companies like American Airlines, Southwest, IBM and others.
“But one thing we recognized early is that it was very difficult for employees at Microsoft, just as an example, to leave work and get into the classroom,” Shead said. “So, our first mission was, well before the pandemic, starting in 2016, we wanted to develop a platform that could connect these high school students to these virtual mentors and internships in order to get them better prepared for life after high school.”
Students on the platform went on to earn $1.7 million from summer internships, Shead said. The program also saw increases in the number of DISD graduates who completed post-secondary degrees six years after graduation.
DISD was STEMuli’s first major contract in 2016. Since then, the company has started working with Garland ISD, Fort Worth ISD, San Antonio school districts and some school districts on the East Coast.
Then the pandemic hit.
Before this, Shead had worked with the chief technology officer in DISD to create the district’s “Future of Learning Plan.”
“That learning plan was essentially supposed to say, ‘If we want students to have these learning outcomes, then here’s the technology they need, and here’s what the infrastructure of our buildings need to look like,’” Shead said.
A three-year plan was created to provide every DISD elementary, middle and high school student “one-to-one devices.”
One thing Shead was tasked with was community engagement for the plan. “I told them, ‘Look, you all may not know this, but there are many people in our Dallas community who do not have Wi-Fi at home,’” she said.
Shead suggested the district poll DISD families to see who needs internet access.
“But the question that we all asked ourselves was, what happens after you get them connected online?” Shead recalled.
Between March 18 and June 1, 2020, the STEMuli team built a virtual platform on top of the PTECH program and launched it for all DISD summer programs.
“Sometimes for these families, it was the first time a computer or Wi-Fi had ever been in their home." – Taylor Shead, STEMuli
“So, any student who either was entering into some of these new high schools or was taking any dual credit courses over that summer utilized our platform,” Shead said.
They learned that educators were using some 20 different applications to do simple tasks like grading, taking attendance and receiving feedback. So, they created an operating environment where all these things could be done in the same place.
Eventually, they had all those educator tasks in one system. They had all the students in the same “virtual classroom,” which was more like a Zoom meeting. But, they weren’t seeing the student engagement they needed. “Just because students are connected all in one place does not mean they’re engaged in the classroom,” Shead said. “It’s actually just the opposite.”
Mike Morath, Texas’ education commissioner, has said the biggest problem facing Texas is learning loss caused by the pandemic.
“He quantifies that by saying students who are in education systems today in Texas have lost over a trillion dollars worth of lifetime earning potential because of the learning loss suffered from the pandemic,” Shead said.
Educators needed to change that and boost engagement as much as possible.
“That was our green light,” Shead said.
In the beginning of the pandemic, schools had to set up distribution centers for students to pick up laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots. DISD was also providing food at home for students.
“Sometimes for these families, it was the first time a computer or Wi-Fi had ever been in their home,” Shead said. “All of a sudden, you’re having parents who may or may not speak English, who may or may not have used a computer before, having to figure out how to support their learners getting online.”
She said the process was especially difficult for students who couldn’t read yet.
“In a positive note, the entire educator workforce was upskilled in a matter of months, having to learn how to implement technology and use it to instruct classrooms,” she said.
The instruction wasn’t always the most interactive. “Oftentimes what you would have happen is you would have kids who completely checked out of school, who hadn’t been online all week, or all month,” she said. “Complete lack of engagement, and really, accountability.”
They thought making the learning experience more like a video game could change this. What they’ve seen so far from their platform is more engagement from the students, Shead said.
They researched games to figure out what they wanted their metaverse to look like. They first looked at Minecraft, Fortnite and The Sims. “What we started to study was the longevity that these games had in the marketplace and the engagement that occurred in the marketplace because of these games,” Shead said.
For example, Minecraft has been one of the games with the most longevity and engagement across many demographics. The game, first made public in 2009, uses blocky, LEGO-like graphics that are crude by today’s videogame standards, but it allows users wide freedom to essentially create their own virtual lives by building, socializing and, if they like, fighting.
Fortnite, a game that started as a “battle royale” format in which players fight one another for survival, has evolved into a massive and more sociable world, one with tremendous engagement, but users needed a better internet connection because it’s more visually complex than Minecraft.
Minecraft graphics are easier for students to access because they don’t demand as much internet speed or computing power.
Another thing Minecraft taught them, Shead said, “is that people love being able to build and destroy things in these worlds.”
So, they built a world where students could do just that.
They also looked into a company called RaiseMe, whose platform lets users to earn “microscholarships.” This allows students to earn money toward college tuition through their academic achievements.
Shead’s company wanted to understand “engagement loop,” “applied game mechanics” and how they can apply it to education.
They asked themselves: “What are the behaviors that lead to higher retention of learning? What are the behaviors, character traits and values that if a student has will carry them through the rest of their lives? And we wanted to incentivize students to do those things.”
They also studied Roblox, a virtual world that allows elementary, middle and high school students to work together and build games that they can then sell to other kids. “There are kids on Roblox that are making like tens of thousands of dollars a year,” Shead said. “Instead of just building this one world for us in Dallas or for all the school districts we want to serve, why don’t we create a way where students, teachers, textbook publishers, corporate partners, anyone, can build their own world within our world?”
Then, they can share those worlds and learning experiences with others.
“With some applications, they’re like, ‘We’re going to make all this game-based content,’” Shead said. “But if you were to try and do that for all of K-12 or all of education, you’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars. We’re investing $15 million into building this world-building tool, and we’re going to open it up so students are now building learning experiences for other students. We’re just going to invite as many people into our world as possible to build their own metaverse of learning within ours.”
Of course, these different video games and online communities STEMuli looked into aren't perfect. The BBC recently published a story called "Roblox: The children's game with a sex problem," which detailed how children and adults were interacting with each other in some of the user-generated experiences. When the BBC reporters hopped into Roblox, they saw some disturbing things, like a virtual crowd gathered around a couple openly having sex. "Who wanna sex," one Roblox player said in the chat.
The game manufacturers told Bloomberg in 2020 that two-thirds of U.S. children between 9 and 12 years old play Roblox.
They launched the platform at Dallas Hybrid Prep. The students are in grades four through six. Next year, the academy will grow to grades three through eight. Students at Dallas Hybrid Prep get a MacBook Air, an iPad, a high-speed hotspot and an Apple pen.
“This school year has proven to be successful,” DISD spokesperson Robyn Harris said. “We plan to expand our program to serve students from third to eighth grade to continue this work and prepare our students for high school success. A blended learning model is sustainable beyond our current environment. With strong academics, designed and engaging online learning, this can also be replicated.”
Shead said their platform works a lot like Roblox. “As the students do these great things that contribute to them growing and learning, they earn internal game points,” Shead said. “What our system will do is, we’ll then convert those game points to crypto currency.”
Along these lines, they looked at an online game called Axie Infinitey, a game with its own economy centered on Ethereum-based cryptocurrencies. This model is called “play-to-earn.” In STEMuli’s educational metaverse, it would be “learn-to-earn.”
These tokens could even be changed into real world money to pay bills.
“If a family needed to be able to pay a water bill, they could go to STEMuli, do these things, earn some money and cash that out to be able to pay a water bill,” Shead said. “That’s really what we aspire to do with that reward system.”
The company could also integrate corporate partners into the reward system. “Imagine as a student, if you get a streak of going to school for two weeks straight or 30 days straight, you could go to your local McDonalds and cash out an ice cream cone,” Shead said. “We dream of not only digital rewards and crypto currency, but everything in between and how we can really get students motivated to learn through fun things they can do in their community.”
Shead also said students could one day have the chance to make investments with their STEMuli money.
“I’ve gained $10,000 this year of STEMuli game points. I think I want to buy land in STEMuli and I think I want to monetize that land by either building a retail shop or building a house that people are renting out,” Shead explained. “In this world, we can help students build businesses and take them public within this metaverse. So, as far as what’s to come, all of that’s to come. We’re teaching kids education can help you grow your wealth, and once you grow your wealth, here’s how you can invest that so you can continue to grow your wealth and contribute to society.”
As the platform grows, it will be rolled out to even more students in the district.
To protect students on their platform, Shead said, they use a system that limits access to users approved by the school district. She said when they open up the platform to the general public, creators will have to go through a certification process before they can make and publish content in the STEMuli metaverse. This content will be moderated by a team of educators.
During school hours, Shead said teachers are still the ones watching the students in the digital classroom, but students will have access to the STEMuli metaverse after school hours as well. During this time (or whenever teachers aren’t around), Shead said they use a content moderation system built by Microsoft that flags inappropriate content and behavior.
“The bad behavior is then reported to our system and teachers and students are automatically blocked from continuing communication until an admin approves them to resume normal play,” Shead explained.
While the metaverse is largely billed as a virtual reality experience, DISD is more focused on getting the platform on all students' devices than they are trying to provide students with VR headsets like Meta’s Oculus Quest, high-tech, motion-tracking goggles that lets wearers move about interactive, 3-dimensional virtual worlds rather than simply displaying scenes on 2D screens.
“Since we do serve large public schools, the idea that they are going to go purchase $300 headsets for students when a Chromebook might cost them $300. It’s just not where they’re at yet,” Shead said.
VR will be incorporated eventually, but Shead said she’s worried about equity in these new digital spaces.
“My fear in this world is that crypto currency and metaverses and all these new technologies come out, but if there’s not an organization like STEMuli standing in the gap saying we’re going to bring up everybody with us, then I’m afraid we’re recreating what we’ve already done in our history by leaving a lot of people out, and therefore creating and exacerbating all the gaps we’ve all seen in the world.”
Shead said she grew up hearing the haves have computers and Wi-Fi and the have-nots don’t. In Dallas, a city struggling to close a digital divide among its residents, this is largely still true.
Dallas Chief Information Officer Bill Zielinski said during a recent webinar that before the pandemic, many residents in the city used free Wi-Fi at places like local libraries and community centers. When those facilities closed, these residents didn’t have access to the internet or other computer services. The city has been working to close this gap.
“One of the things that we’re really super focused on right now is the issues in and around the digital divide," Zielinski said. "Not every portion of the city, not every resident in the city, has the same kind of access to digital services that other residents of the city do.”
One of the bigger challenges, Zielinski said, is updating Dallas’ broadband infrastructure. Broadband infrastructure in northern Dallas is newer than it is in the southern part of the city.
He said he hopes to use federal dollars to bridge this divide.
Shead said they built the platform from the ground up, side-by-side, with the community and she thinks this will help ensure they’re services are equitable. She also said DISD has worked hard to connect students through a local, state and federal program called Operation Connectivity.
However, the pandemic has shown schools aren’t just learning facilities for children. They provide counseling services, child healthcare and meals for students. They also provide free childcare for working parents who can’t be home during the day.
“I do imagine the in-person learning experience will persist because it does a lot for our system, like childcare just as an example,” Shead said. “But what I do see in the future, is STEMuli almost being this universal school where, no matter where you are in the world or what language you speak, you can go to this application and assess what you know and it can start to give you games and different things to improve your learning.”
The physical education system also employs a lot of people, from school nurses to bus drivers. Shead said she doesn’t think their platform will replace teachers or phase out some of these other jobs.
“STEMuli will one day replace textbooks,” Shead said. “If you look at it from that lens, STEMuli will not replace teachers, or the jobs public education provides.” Instead, the platform will “provide right on time support to the students, families, and district staff in a more efficient manner than the current system provides.”
Shead was once asked if she thinks the metaverse will ever become more important than the physical world.
“When we look at the metaverse at STEMuli and we look at the physical world, I see a physical world that has so many barriers to people succeeding,” Shead said.
“The way I look at our digital twin and our metaverse is that we’re creating a world that is removing all the barriers to opportunity for people. Whether you’re actually physically or mentally disabled, whether you’ve experienced different biases based upon your sex, your gender, your age, we want to remove all of those barriers. … If we remove all of those things, then what impact can you have on our physical world? … As they say, as the tide rises, all ships will rise.”