Are Virtual Worlds the future of classrooms?

Posted: March 20, 2011 in Com 125 (b) Intro to internet

Virtual Worlds, Enhanced Learning

Diffusion of Multimedia in Education…

Virtual worlds represent a powerful new media for instruction and education that are engaging, stimulating spaces where students can meet online for normal class activities, including lectures, discussions, case studies, projects, papers, exams, and labs. Classes are a mix of synchronous and asynchronous activity. It allows users to be able to carry out tasks that could be difficult in the real world due to constraints and restrictions, such as cost, scheduling or location.  A virtual world class differs from a traditional course management system, such as Blackboard or Moodle, due to the three-dimensional (3D) graphical setting, the use of avatars to represent the class participants, and the sense of presence that puts the learner within the scene.


In April 1999, Numedeon Incorporated launched Whyville as the first virtual world explicitly designed to engage young students in a wide range of educational activities.

Children in Whyville earn “clams” through activities and games, and use that virtual money to buy face decorations for their otherwise plain avatars. Then, they typically socialize with peers via chat, bulletin boards and the city’s mail system.

“When Whypox first hits, they start saying ‘Achoo,’ and it interferes with their chat, which is obviously very important. So they are interested in finding out what it is and what they can do about it,” in Whyville’s Center for Disease Control, said Cathleen Galas, a teacher who helped a class of sixth graders through a bout of the pox last year by instructing them about epidemiology, the study of infectious diseases.

In educational circles, Whyville’s private universe is known as a multiuser virtual environment, or MUVE, a genre of software games created to inspire children to learn about math and science, among other subjects. Unlike most game software and social networks, which elicit negative associations for some parents and teachers, MUVEs are structured environments with rules for behavior, yet no pat formula for action. Designed to provide problems to solve that don’t involve slaying monsters, MUVEs compel kids to figure out the issues to succeed in the environments or have time to socialize.

The Shifting of roles…

In virtual worlds, the instructor’s role shifts from being the “sage on the stage” to being the domain expert—the authority who stimulates and supervises exploration while providing structure, guidance, feedback, and assessment.  For virtual worlds to be accepted, then it is vital that teachers and students alike adapt to new ideas and technologies and use them to their full potential and become a useful tool in education.

Great virtual world learning experiences blend the following features in a mix that is appropriate for the course content and for the achievement of the desired course competencies. Not all classes include projects or creation of 3D content, and this list favors activity-based learning and social networks:

  • Self: Customizing the avatar
  • Exploration: Moving around the world
  • Communication: Sharing information with others
  • Navigation: Looking at 3D content
  • Interaction: Using 3D objects
  • Creation: Designing a class project
  • Delivery: Giving the projects to the instructor
  • Assessment: Evaluating Second Life projects
  • Feedback: Compiling progress and performance reports

Wider adoption of MUVEs raises the question: Are virtual worlds the future of learning for the wired generation?

Research has shown that kids engage deeply in virtual environments, gaining a conceptual and ethical understanding of school subjects, according to education experts. And many kids are already comfortable socializing online, so educationally oriented virtual worlds can offer that same sort of stimulus and use that potential to aid learning. There’s one big caveat, however: Virtual worlds must have knowledgeable and motivated teachers driving the train.

With respect to older students, a growing number of universities and other educational institutions are exploring existing general purpose virtual world platforms as a means to extend and enhance their offerings to students. Typically, educators create an online presence where students can interact, using their avatars to learn about new assignments or create projects that are viewable within the virtual world. For example, students taking a computer manufacturing class can log into a virtual world in which they are the inhabitants of a burgeoning village that needs their expertise for the construction of houses, furniture, machines, and other goods.

Virtual worlds support these different learning styles and give students opportunities to explore, discover, and express their understanding of the subject. Naturally, the tool’s capabilities do not guarantee a great learning experience. The success of a course depends on effective course design, delivery, and assessment. Course designers, instructors, and IT professionals are challenged to create stimulating content, deliver it reliably, and ensure a stable virtual world learning environment.

Downside of Virtual Worlds…

Although virtual worlds are a good way of communicating and interacting between students and teachers, this is not a substitute for actual face-to-face meetings. When using virtual worlds, there are the downsides in that you lose the body language and other more personal aspects.

Campus-based classes offer rich interaction, expression, and other forms of communication and real-world experiences that are not possible given today’s virtual world technology. For classes that center on formal papers and research reports, campus-based and online classes excel. Even though slides and text-based information can be used in the virtual world, its strengths center on 3D visualization and sensory experiences that are harder to simulate in the campus-based and online classrooms.

The use of virtual worlds expands on the campus-based and online classrooms, enhancing learning experiences. Classes in virtual worlds offer opportunities for visualization, simulation, enhanced social networks, and shared learning experiences. Some people learn best by listening to the course content, others by seeing and visualizing the content in context, and the rest by using a hands-on approach to demonstrate course competencies. In virtual worlds, we can leverage a mix of content and activity to support all learners: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic.

The best idea for a more complete and wider variety in learning techniques is to integrate both paper based and technology based methods.

Parents concerns…

Still, proponents have an uphill battle when it comes to dispelling negative preconceptions of video games and socially oriented computing environments. They say many people automatically fear that games can’t teach kids anything valuable, or worse, that they’re a waste of time. With the rise of MySpace, many parents are also worried that kids aren’t safe against predators in digital communities.


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