Originally published in EducationWeek – November 29, 2021
Corrected: This article originally included an incorrect title for Vince Bertram, of Project Lead the Way. He is president and CEO.
Hoping to expand its presence in K-12 schools, gaming company Roblox announced this month a new $10 million fund to support the creation of online learning experiences that take advantage of its platform’s unique way of letting users play, explore, and socialize in an endlessly evolving virtual world.
“We’re ready to find and reward developers and organizations who can figure out how to really lean into our great physics, strong immersive 3-D capabilities, and multiplayer experiences to teach in a deeper way,” Rebecca Kantar, the company’s head of education and the director of its new Roblox Community Fund, said in an interview.
Founded in 2004, Roblox is now worth an estimated $70 billion or more. That mammoth valuation is based on soaring adoption numbers, especially among children. The company currently counts more than 47 million daily active users, nearly half of whom are under the age of 13.
What is Roblox? And why is it so popular?
Roblox itself is not a game per se, but a virtual environment in which players connect and interact online as they explore millions of “experiences” that range from caring for virtual pets to taking part in online fashion shows. Such experiences are created not by Roblox employees, but by a network of independent developers who earn money based on players’ engagement and in-game purchases.
The company’s popularity derives in large measure from the way it allows users to create customized digital avatars of themselves that remain consistent throughout the Roblox universe, allowing their online alter-egos to traverse a wide variety of shared virtual spaces. That functionality makes the company an early leader in the creation of the so-called “metaverse,” the still-hypothetical immersive online world touted by Silicon Valley leaders such as Mark Zuckerberg—who recently rebranded Facebook as Meta Platforms Inc. —as the future of the internet.
Roblox aims to play a major role in the emerging metaverse. Expanding into classroom education is a key vehicle for making that happen, Kantar told investors at a November conference. The company’s stated goal is to reach 100 million students worldwide by the end of the decade.
Making such inroads with K-12 schools, however, is no sure bet. Previous online worlds that were popular with consumers—including Second Life, which peaked with 1.1 million monthly active users in 2007—mostly fell flat with educators. The same is true of much-hyped virtual reality gear such as the Oculus Rift, whose parent company was acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion amid promises of shared immersive virtual experiences for students that have mostly yet to materialize.
Still, at least some longtime observers of the K-12 market are bullish in their belief that Roblox can help catalyze the kind of investment needed to make education in the metaverse a reality.
“I think it’s a fantastic display of leadership and the tip of the spear for a lot more capital to come,” said Chris Curran, the founder of investment banking and strategy consulting firm Tyton Partners, which advises numerous education companies working in fields such as robotics and virtual reality. (Curran formerly chaired the board of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit that manages Education Week.)
Roblox looks to expand its education footprint through partners
To date, Roblox has a limited footprint in public education.
About 7 million users each month participate in one of Roblox’s “learn and explore” experiences, which often include educational content but are rarely tied to academic standards or used by schools. A handful of mostly out-of-school computer science education programs also use the company’s development environment, known as Roblox Studio, to teach children how to code their own video games. And a smattering of teachers like Ashlee Vice, of the Cyber Academy of South Carolina, a full-time statewide online public school operated by Stride Inc., have also incorporated Roblox into class projects.
“It’s absolutely incredible,” said Vice, who last spring allowed some of her 4th graders to use the platform to build virtual theme parks in order to demonstrate their knowledge of angles and other math concepts.
It’s that kind of experimentation that excites Kantar, the head of the new Roblox Community Fund.
“There’s huge opportunity to leverage the engagement and motivation that students already have for interacting with Roblox,” she said.
Someday, Kantar said, that could lead to virtual classrooms that take place on Roblox instead of Zoom, or entirely new ways of teaching students how to read, or experiences that allow children in different countries to collaborate in real-time on virtual science experiments.
The company’s short-term goals, however, are more modest. For now, Kantar said, Roblox hopes to expand the use of Roblox Studio as a computer-science-education tool while also encouraging the development of new curricular materials for topics that are well suited to being taught in immersive, interactive, and 3-D environments.
To that end, the company’s initial grants will go to established education nonprofits that already have deep connections within the K-12 market, as well as plenty of experience designing learning materials aligned with existing educational standards. The focus is on the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. One of the fund’s first awards, for example, is to Project Lead the Way (PLTW), an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that already provides curricula and training for hands-on STEM education to more than 12,000 U.S. schools.
With the new funds, PLTW will expand its existing online module for teaching game design and development in Roblox Studio. The organization will also work with Roblox developers Funomena to create a new “in-Roblox” world where users can explore careers in computer science, engineering, and biomedical science.
“Students no longer need to be tethered to a physical classroom to learn and engage,” said Vince Bertram, Project Lead the Way’s president and CEO. “By connecting their platform with leading experts in pre-K-12 education, we believe Roblox and PLTW are on course to transform the way students can learn in the metaverse.”
Also included in Roblox’s first round of grantees are videogame-maker Filament Games and the nonprofit organization FIRST Robotics, who together will develop a new experience to help teach robotics online and run virtual competitions. The Museum of Science in Boston will also receive funding to create a Roblox experience that allows students to virtually plan a mission to Mars.
Curran of Tyton Partners said that partnership model will likely be key to the success of not just Roblox’s efforts, but the larger dream of immersive virtual STEM learning. Over the past several years, companies like Facebook/Meta, Microsoft, and Intel have poured billions of dollars into development of the hardware and software needed to make the metaverse possible, while the push for high-quality learning content has lagged.
“The piece that’s nowhere near where it needs to be for any of this to be a reality is curriculum,” he said.
Scammers, predators, and commercialization all concerns on the Roblox platform
There are plenty of reasons to question whether Roblox can help solve that problem. To date, the platform has achieved its extraordinary reach by allowing independent developers to compete for users’ attention in an open marketplace, but it seems unlikely that approach will organically deliver rigorous learning experiences for students.
Roblox’s underlying business model, meanwhile, is based on getting users to spend money (in the form of an in-game currency called Robux) to upgrade their avatars and unlock additional experiences and virtual goods—a poor fit for public schools subject to a web of federal and state laws aimed at protecting children’s data privacy and limiting commercial appeals in the classroom.
And other problems abound. The company has long faced criticism for allowing adult users, including some sexual predators, to make online contact with children. Robux scammers are pervasive. Complaints about Roblox’s cybersecurity and data-privacy practices have also occasionally surfaced.
Company officials said they are taking measures to address those problems through internet filtering and monitoring, the teaching of digital citizenship, and other approaches.
Astronomical growth often begets such challenges. But even as the company tries to patch its vulnerabilities, it’s looking to grow even larger.
Among the imminent changes that could impact schools: New audio technology that could enable better online collaboration by making virtual conversations within Roblox feel more life-like, and a new “Classroom Mode" that aims to help teachers manage students engaged in specific learning experiences.
In another world, such advances might suggest an openness to incremental growth and ensuring that schools’ needs are actually getting met before a product or service becomes too large. But with the competition for control of the metaverse starting to heat up, the allure of a much grander vision may prove difficult for the company to resist.
“Roblox Education will be a self-sustaining ecosystem, where education organizations are constantly building and releasing new content on Roblox,” Kantar told the company’s investors in November. “Increasingly, we expect this to be organic growth, where everyone is teaching and learning in the metaverse.”
To learn more about Cyber Academy of South Carolina, visit casc.k12.com