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Learning in Virtual Worlds Is The Real Deal

Learning in Virtual Worlds Is The Real Deal

Written by Prof. Liz Falconer Director of the Education Innovation Centre, University of the West of England
Posted in Technology on November 17, 2013

Being a student at a university conjures up pictures of waking up in a small room, taking a quick shower and then setting off to the university to attend classes with friends and colleagues. Those classes take place in larger rooms but still with four walls and a ceiling. An important part of the instructor’s job is to help the students to think beyond those physical restrictions.

But physical space has a profound effect on the way we think and feel. Many of us find that we react to being in the audience in a lecture hall or tutorial room by becoming passive, expecting the teacher or presenter to do the work. But what if we could enable students to learn in rich and open environments, where they can practice theoretical skills safely, make mistakes freely and learn from those mistakes? That would surely be ideal.

Well, we can. With the arrival of easily accessible, online virtual worlds (VWs), it is now possible to simulate a wide range of activities and educational experiences in any environment you can envisage. VWs is the term used to describe online 3D environments that enable users to interact with the environment and each other through avatars. Users can create objects and environments, chat by voice or text with other users and explore a wide range of rich environments.

VWs are generally defined as having six main characteristics: shared space, a graphical user interface, immediacy, interactivity, persistence and socialisation. They share many characteristics with online gaming platforms such as World of Warcraft, but they differ in that there are no preset goals to achieve. Users can create their own environments and use them as they wish.

Initially, VWs were used to provide opportunities for socialisation and interactivity amongst recreational users, but they have increasingly become environments of interest to educators at all levels. VWs are being used for a range of simulations and role-play activities in universities in topic areas such as medicine, health sciences, sociology, engineering and psychology.

The 2010 EDUCAUSE report on uses, trends and implications of simulation technologies in higher education highlighted the development of online and technology-enhanced simulations in medicine and health care. It also reported that languages, sciences, engineering and the arts are all subject areas where teaching and learning is supported by activities in VWs. The report also predicted that the use of simulations in higher education will grow and become more frequently used to assess student performance in critical thinking, communication and the application of knowledge across a wide range of subjects.

VWs are very effective environments for collaborative and social learning. They have the added benefit that students and tutors do not need to be colocated geographically to work together closely on meaningful tasks in appropriate environments. The importance of the role of socialisation and collaboration in effective learning has been recognised since the early part of the 20th century, when researchers and practitioners such as Lev Vygotsky and John Dewey observed how children learned most effectively when they worked in collaboration with an adult rather than on their own, and how learning comes about through interaction with effective environments for learning. As Bransford and colleagues stated:

“Learning through real-world contexts is not a new idea. … But these activities have seldom been at the heart of academic instruction, and they have not been easily incorporated into schools because of logistical constraints and the amount of subject material to be covered. Technology offers powerful tools for addressing these constraints, from video-based problems and computer simulations to electronic communications systems that connect classrooms with communities of practitioners.”

Although this was written in relation to school education, and does not relate only to VWs, it is an important point that communication technologies have the potential to create valuable contexts in which to learn. During the past 10 to 15 years, a significant body of literature has emerged that describes and evaluates the development of VWs as learning environments. It seems that VWs tend to be used in education in three ways: as spaces for simulation, spaces where learners can experience acting on the world around them and spaces for communicating. There are many reports of successes—and, of course, failures—in the use of VWs in education, but there does seem to be compelling evidence in the literature that experiential and situated learning can be effectively undertaken using VW technologies.

The University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol, England, is one of the larger universities in the U.K. We specialise in preparing our students for entry into the professions. These professions include law, architecture, teaching, nursing, radiography, computer sciences, environmental sciences and many more. We, therefore, strongly emphasise situated, case-based learning that enhances the students’ understanding of theory and their subsequent employability.

VWs can offer access to environments that facilitate simulations of real-world activities that students would find difficult to experience otherwise. This could be because these experiences present ethical difficulties such as working with patients; practical problems such as carrying out a complex activity over time, such as an accident investigation; or physical dangers to students who lack experience, such as handling dangerous animals.

We have been active in VWs since 2007. Students at UWE now carry out a range of simulations in VWs, including risk assessments, food-poisoning outbreak investigations, psychology counselling sessions, financial auditing simulations and practice experiments in a virtual genetics laboratory. More and more teachers and trainers began expressing an interest in using VW technologies to support their students’ learning. So we in the Education Innovation Centre (EIC) developed a master’s programme in VW education that facilitates the exploration of VWs as places for education.

The EIC is a central service at UWE that both researches and develops the innovative use of technology to enhance learning. It also supports colleagues in the university in their use of technology to enhance their own practice and the learning of their students. An important element of what we do is to lead by example, to demonstrate how new technologies and more flexible routes into education can operate at UWE. So the MA Education in Virtual Worlds fulfils two main goals: to enable teachers and developers to reflect upon and grow their practice in VWs, and to act as a testing ground and boundary pusher for the university’s systems.

To put the following discussion in context, it will be helpful to have a brief description of the programme and how it operates first. The MA programme is taught within the VW Second Life (SL) and is supported by asynchronous online technologies such as Blackboard for access to course materials, discussion forums, resources, activities and assessments. Each module on the programme has one three-hour tutorial in SL per week, for 12 weeks. Our students are mostly educators and technology developers with a keen interest in expanding their practice into VWs.

The programme offers access to learning and professional development opportunities in education technologies by immersing the students into the online environment being studied, that is, a VW. Students have the opportunity to explore the sociology, philosophy and application of teaching, learning and research theories in a virtual environment; develop potential learning activities of their own and test them with their own students; explore the use of nonplayer characters and avatar robots powered by forms of artificial intelligence; design and develop curricula specifically delivered in VW; and to research education in VWs.

The programme is modular and flexible, with students able to decide how they would like to study, from taking just one module without assessment through to the whole MA programme leading to the end award. The aspirations of students range from supporting their learners’ specific needs in VWs to researching the value of these environments for education.

The first run-through of the programme began in September 2012 with a small group of seven students for a first trial. Although we had taught students in VWs for three years previously, this was the first time we had run an entire programme there, so we were both excited and trepidatious. Five of the students were from the U.K., one from Greece and one from New Zealand. And this gave us our first wake-up call—time zones.

As the weekly VW tutorials form the kernel of the learning experiences, organising them to enable students to attend the tutorials in the VW posed a significant challenge. We overcame it, with some late nights put in by our New Zealand student, and learned a lot. Which is just as well. At the time of writing this article, we have applications for the 2013 run of the programme from the U.K., Argentina, Canada, United States, Germany, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, Australia and Bangladesh.

Even though the international flavour of the programme poses logistical challenges, it also provides a wonderfully rich mix of educational cultures. Two aspects of the programme have made a particular impression on us so far.

Firstly, the speed with which the cohort of students has bonded socially, despite their geographical separation. During the VW tutorials, we travel around the VW together to experience a wide range of environments, far too many to describe here. Examples of these include re-creations of Renaissance England, the Western Front in WWI, Paris in the 1800s, the Great Pyramid at Giza, Akhenaten’s temple at Armana and Arkansas in the 1930s. All of these environments have been created by residents of SL and are openly available to visit.

We have also sampled role playing together in environments such as a women’s prison. We have built things together, danced together, made music together and laughed a lot. All of these social experiences have formed a strong bond in the cohort, and, as tutors, we have become a part of that.

But the most noticeable effect is on learning. VWs really are places where educational theories of social constructivism can actually be seen to be working. This has become apparent to us in the second particular impression: the creativity and imagination displayed by the students. Their approach to their own teaching practices has been altered by the experiences they have had and the possibilities they can see for their own practice. Even if their future practice doesn’t take place in a VW, the social learning they have experienced during the programme has caused them to reflect on the constraints of the linear process of lecturing, as opposed to the synthesising nature of social experiences in many different and engaging environments.

Despite the many benefits of VWs, there are also noteworthy challenges in their use. Simply taking advantage of the opportunities that VWs offer is not always as easy as continuing to use traditional forms of education such as lecture and tutorial. VWs are relatively new technologies that can pose technological challenges to IT infrastructures on and off campus.

Also, students and tutors have to become familiar with the VW environment to get the most from it, and this takes time. Time is often at a premium in university courses, and finding space for VW induction can be problematic. It is also challenging to rethink the learning design of courses to enable a move away from learning by listening, long recognised as having limited effect, to learning by doing.

However, the limitations and challenges can be well worth it. I have left the last words to two of our students, to sum up their reactions to learning in and about VWs:

“I have found the course enthralling and challenging, but it is rewarding beyond belief. I hope that on completing the course I will be able to help others within my department incorporate these aspects of learning into their own courses as well as continuing to use them to teach my own students.”

“I’ve become used to being immersed in an environment that is not your average classroom. Those sorts of affordances that allow you to (in-a-click-of-a-button) be in the middle of the desert; and then be up the top of a skyscraper; and then you can be in a labyrinth. … Having those sorts of environments around you to use as a classroom makes comparison (with education in physical classrooms) almost impossible from where I’m sitting.”

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