What are Virtual Worlds?

Virtual worlds garnered a tremendous amount of attention in 2006-2009, when millions of individuals created online avatars and institutions were developing building after building on designated plots of virtual land. In Linden Lab’s Second Life®, world-class universities hosted thousands of educational projects and experiments, from recreating historical spaces to replicating renowned museums and works of art. A lot of energy was devoted to building tools, climate simulators, physics engines, and facilitating the overall capability of these platforms to simulate reality. The idea was that these environments could foster unique and immersive learning opportunities, doing so in a way that uniquely made people feel like that were together in the same place. While the hype around virtual worlds has waned in recent years, there are still compelling developments, mainly in the form of WebGL, a new way of rendering 3D objects in via a web browser, which has been applied in virtual worlds. CloudParty, a Facebook application, is a good example of the capability of WebGL, though it is more of a hangout space and does not have as strong a tie to learning as do other purpose-built spaces. Google is a leading player in academic WebGL technology, and its vast collection of user contributed “Chrome Experiments” range from an interactive timeline of satellite launches to a visualization of connected cells that enable people to create biologically-inspired patterns.

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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the educational sector you know best?

  • Virtual world that seek to mimic real-worlds seem to me a collossal waste of resources. Flying around a virtual version of the Eiffel Tower has about 30 seconds of appeal before it gets boring. Nor does the 3D or 'reality' of setting add anything to a perfectly well designed flash-based lab simulation such as a virtual microscope or tsunami simulator. For syncronous chatting to friends, seeing a cartoon version of them has (again) 30 seconds of appeal before we reconsider Skpe. However, I consider that Virtual worlds may be useful as a support/platform to deliver learning designs that use role-based learning at their core. Role-based learning works really well in situations that are morally or ethically difficult, or where numerous competing perspectives need to be understood as part of developing problem-solving skills in unstructured, complex situations. For example, training engineers involved in river/dam management to negotiate water use in contested territories eg Gaza, Mekong delta. Training would-be school principlals in resource prioritisation involving complex stakeholder requests. In these role-plays, it is really useful if the student can take on the role of another person - to step inside their shoes and see what it is really like. It is also a safe learning environment to tackle difficult, high-risk tasks. For example, in a role-play set in a high school, if they are playing the role of "principal" and they don't do a good job of an interaction with a "parent of an aggressive student" - they can learn from it without having to worry about their personal safety. In such situations, putting a role play into a virtual world will create the anonymity required for students to really try lots of different approaches. In conclusion, while we consider virtual worlds as something unto themselves we are in trouble. When we think of them as supports to appropriate learning designs, we may find a perfect match that creates a great learning environment for a particular cohort of students. - slambert slambert Feb 20, 2013
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(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

  • As indicated from the lengthy response above, i think it would be good to note what Virtual worlds are not good for (see above), and what they are useful for. - slambert slambert Feb 20, 2013
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(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on teaching, learning, or creative inquiry?

  • Can be very effective in niche situations: roleplays of complex situations, and/or with ethical or moral dimensions and/or with multiple stakeholders with conflicting views. - slambert slambert Feb 20, 2013 For similar reasons, they are useful also for law students practicing legal advocacy, virtual "moots". - slambert slambert Feb 20, 2013
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(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?

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