Former Twitter India head Manish Maheshwari says his start-up Invact Metaversity falls on the intersection of education and metaverse. He talks about the current hardware challenges and why offline institutions are Invact’s direct competition. Edited excerpts:
You left Twitter announcing that you want to start an edtech firm. Why metaverse?
During Covid-19, education moved online but the move was out of compulsion. The tools that were used for teaching were either Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Meet—platforms that are not made for classroom teaching. These platforms were made for office meetings but students and teachers were forced to use them due to lack of alternatives. The other thing was that you could not conduct classes in a synchronised fashion.
We realised there is a space where we can think about simulating the physical classroom in a virtual format—enable all the microinteractions like in a classroom, build engagement, have precreated spaces like cafeteria and enable peer-to-peer learning. That is how the idea of a metaversity came about.
We started off by building only for VR headsets, but soon realised that not everyone has that kind of a headset. And, even if they did, it was not ergonomically comfortable for most people to wear it all the time. So, we built an experience for the laptop which helps you be in metaversity on the web browser—like a 3D game that you are playing on a flat screen. Our tagline is “Campus from your Couch”—if you can watch an OTT show or place an order on an ecommerce site from your bedroom, why can’t you get the best education from the comfort of your bedroom?
How has your Twitter experience helped shape Invact?
It helped me in three ways. One, being in touch with things that were trending. As Twitter India head, I saw tremendous pain among students when classes were dismissed which made me believe that there was a big pain point in education that needed to be solved. The second area was an understanding of the technology and the platform—what technologies are out there and how they can be leveraged. Third is the network which helped in terms of hiring talent and fundraising.
Metaverse is a nascent idea. How difficult was it to convince investors and raise funds?
Education is a vast field, but, even today, we cannot say that everyone who deserves good education is getting it. Everyone cannot go to an Ivy League college, the IIMs or the IITs. So, you have to bring these institutions to them.
Most people we presented the idea to got excited about the fact that someone is trying to solve the problem of accessibility of good education by using technology. So, fundraising was not difficult for us because of the sheer idea that we were presenting.
How are you getting the right kind of talent? What are your criteria for hiring teachers and what kind of aptitude do you look for in them?
We are doing a lot of research around what the students want, what would keep them engaged, etc.
As far as teachers are concerned, people who are going to teach here will be industry practitioners aligned to the industry needs—some on payroll and some on contract. So, a lot of them would be like mid-level professionals in companies. What we are looking for are people who have insight about what is needed to be successful in a job and people who have a passion for teaching and sharing knowledge. Our philosophy is to have an industry-driven curriculum driven by industry practitioners.
Metaverse is an immersive experience which requires expensive hardware. How can a student from a Tier II or Tier III city afford such a programme?
Building something of this kind is not without its challenges. Hardware, ecosystem, adoption, and consumer experience are all challenges. Like any new technology, it has a certain adoption curve. Initially, it will be difficult to get people to adopt it. Perhaps, over the next year or so, the ecosystem will mature, hardware will become more capable, costs will come down and people will start understanding things better.
What is your vision for Invact?
Quality education accessible to all. It is not only about great content and curriculum but also about great community and experience. There are three Cs to the vision—curriculum, community and credential. We are also rethinking how credentialing can happen—how can you have a metafolio kind of concept where your proof of work becomes part of your portfolio which is how your potential employer will recruit you. That would be a great equaliser because even today, education is very elitist. People from the most prosperous families get the best education. Our vision is quality education that leads to employment accessible to everyone, everywhere.
Will edtech in its current form continue to exist?
Educational technology companies operating right now are primarily content companies. They are sales companies selling dreams to people. They are not essentially edtech, because they are delivering content through operation and sales-driven techniques, not through technology.
Our competition is with offline schools, not online edtech start-ups. When ecommerce came, it took away business from offline retailers. The same is going to happen in education which has not been disrupted for 100 years. When people become more comfortable with virtual classrooms and metaversity, they would not have to settle for Tier II and Tier III colleges and spend a lot of money when they can have a much better experience in metaversity. The Tier I cities will survive but Tier II and Tier III towns will not be able to sustain this onslaught—just like Tier III brands completely got decimated as people had a much better choice in Amazon or Flipkart.
What will the learning for metaverse be from Web 2.0 and educational apps?
Historically, we have thought that physical location was coupled with a sense of presence—you can only be present where you are physically located. Metaverse decouples your physical location from your sense of presence.
You can even apply it to education, where you want to share presence in a 60-people classroom with a teacher as it drives a lot more engagement, creates a sense of camaraderie and a peer-to-peer learning environment. That is what a metaversity can do.
It also improves learning as some concepts can be taught much better in a 3D space pedagogy. You are able to process more information, have awareness and do many things which are not possible in a flat 2D screen. Plus, you have lower fatigue because when you are watching something on a flat screen, the information is condensed. In a 3D space, you can walk around and consumption becomes better.
How is your MBA different from the other offline courses?
Our programme is based on proof of work. As per the industry, we map the required skills and design, what is the kind of work you will have to do and so on. You do actual project work and assignments. The entire programme is taught by industry practitioners and the curriculum is based on industry needs. Right now, we are building the platform and a waitlist of interested people.