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Tapping virtual worlds for education: Futuristic paths or realistic directions?

Virtual worlds allow students to create, to act out, to simulate, and to communicate with other avatars in an authentic setting.

Virtual worlds allow students to create, to act out, to simulate, and to communicate with other avatars in an authentic setting.

Between October 2012 and January 2013, students enrolled for the Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) at the Faculty of Education, University of Malta, had the opportunity to participate in a study-unit held entirely inside a virtual world. This modality of learning is innovative in itself not so much because the students are able to log in to the world to access their course materials but also because every student has his/her unique avatar that can be controlled and used to communicate with.

But what does learning inside virtual worlds mean and what are the challenges associated to it? When the students found out that one of their study units was being held completely inside the 3D immersive space, their first reaction was, “What will happen? How will we learn? This is so weird!”

A virtual world is most often defined as a 3D virtual space in which people, represented digitally as avatars, can communicate in a way that is different from instant messaging or video calls. There are people who play games in virtual worlds and people who use virtual worlds to socialise. Two very popular virtual worlds that a number of people seem to have experienced are World of Warcraft and Second Life.

So how do we push the boundaries of what can and what cannot be done inside virtual worlds, and how can we design a virtual environment that is conducive to learning which is critical and analytic, and which stimulates initiative and motivation? This is an important question, which needs to be addressed if we want to look at the future of learning. In this sense, we talk about immersion or rather the sense of being there – where experience takes on an entirely new meaning.

The flexibility of using virtual worlds

The advantages for learning by using this modality are of course plenty, especially when we note how the physical is at times not only limited but also limiting in what it can achieve for students. Most often in virtual worlds limits are only dependent on the designers’ own creativity, and on the needs of particular audiences.

Virtual worlds also offer a degree of flexibility in learning, where students can actually log into a 3D world which is functioning 24/7 and which offers a dynamic environment for learning. Students can download and read through course materials as for any other e-learning platform, but virtual worlds also allow students to create, to act out, to simulate, and to communicate with other avatars in an authentic setting.

In 2004, Second Life launched the ‘Campus: Second Life Program’, a tool for educational institutions to create courses in the virtual world. Soon after, a number of US-based universities started building and establishing their own campuses in Second Life, followed especially by the UK and the Nordic countries, and Australia.

But Second Life is not the only virtual world that has been exploited as an alternate modality for education. Many virtual worlds have been designed and created to be able to enhance the learners’ experiences in various fields of study.

The chosen 3D platform for students following the PGCE study-unit was AvayaLive Engage. One of the added advantages of this platform was that it offered privacy, and was purposely designed in as user-friendly a way as possible for the study-unit they were enrolled in.

However, not all is rosy for a resident inside virtual worlds. There are a number of challenges that learners face and which need to be addressed before making the leap into the 3D immersive environment. The technology challenges seem to have had quite an impact on our students. Poor internet bandwidth and hardware requirements were some of the issues that students from the PGCE course had to contend with.

The issue of connectivity and access to the different platforms has in fact been identified as one of the factors that residents in virtual worlds – especially student residents – most often complain about.

Another challenge is that of support, training and development. As for any other e-learning course design, support is an important issue both from the educators’ and the learners’ perspective. Support for virtual worlds is not just about overcoming technical barriers, but it also means getting together the right resources for the 3D design and modelling of the world itself.

There are many existent and current studies that refer to a virtual world design that can be more conducive to an optimal 3D environment for student avatars.

The pedagogy underlying virtual worlds is another important factor that not only cannot be underestimated but which must be given priority. We do not want to recreate the classroom in a 3D virtual world. It is not the scope.

Failures of these worlds have often been attributed to the fact that many people seem to want to reproduce their face-to-face classroom inside a 3D environment.

But the functions of a 3D world can be so varied and wide that they can sustain activities that wouldn’t otherwise be sustained in any physical classroom, such as immersive role-playing, simul-ations, modelling, serious games and the accessibility of the different resources in one platform.

The design and effort involved in virtual worlds cannot be the product of a sole individual but must be the constant endeavour of an inter-disciplinary team of specialists made up of educators, designers, developers and content experts.

Virtual worlds cannot be seen just as a cost-effective way towards education that is futuristic, but should be seen as an enriching learning experience which is realistic and can, if properly designed, lead to learning that is deep, meaningful and authentic.

Vanessa Camilleri is an assistant lecturer at the Faculty of Education, University of Malta. She is currently reading for a PhD in Virtual Worlds and Education under the supervision of Prof. Sara de Freitas from the Serious Games Institute, University of Coventry.

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