What are Virtual Worlds?

The capability of virtual worlds has expanded considerably in the past few years, with enormous development in building tools, climate simulators, physics engines, and the overall capability of these platforms to simulate reality. Gartner Research, Inc. has estimated that by 2011, 80% of Internet users will have an avatar in a virtual world, and hundreds of platforms to allow those avatars places to interact are already available or in development. Virtually every higher education institution has some sort of work going in around virtual spaces, and in just one platform alone, Linden Lab’s Second Life®, thousands of educational projects and experiments are actively underway. Early projects that drew heavily on real-world forms and practices gradually have given way to more experimental ventures that take advantage of the unique opportunities afforded by virtual worlds and other immersive digital environments. Now we are seeing increased use of these spaces for truly immersive forms of learning and for a level of collaboration that is erasing traditional boundaries and borders rapidly. The technology that supports virtual worlds is advancing at a rapid rate, paving the way for more realistic environments, connections between different platforms, and new ways to enter and use virtual spaces. As participation and development both continue to increase, these environments are becoming ever more interesting spaces with obvious potential for teaching, learning, and creative expression.

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

  • Virtual worlds are being used to allow learners to practice soft skills in role play settings. Advantages of virtual worlds over traditional classroom approaches are the virtual world settings are more immersive and 'real', that all learners can be involved in a role play at the same time through use of headsets in a computer lab and that it is easy to make the role play more authentic by bringing in external people to participate in the role play, including those with specialist expertise.
  • Opportunities that are denied off campus students or are too dangerous or costly to undertake in the physical world can be conducted in the virtual world cheaply and safely. e.g. safety training, large scale modelling, role play, performance to international audiences, virtual guests, study groups. - shirley.reushle shirley.reushle Aug 28, 2010 I agree that the immersive possibilities of virtual worlds and the potential for creating so many different learner scenarios, environments and opportunities offer both potential and relevancy to the higher ed sector. In particular, virtual worlds can simulate real world professional conditions and environments where skills, knowledge and expertise can be gained, practice and applied without the costs of travel, time, access to resources, people and scenarios. [[user:caroline.steel|1283405726]> In the biomedical area there are many many opportunities for virtual worlds to simulate in a very realistic manner scenarios that students can explore with many real life variables. This is an intersection with the gaming context. Such simulations are used by many in the biomedical areas but most are at very early stages. - philip.poronnik philip.poronnik Sep 2, 2010

(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

  • The initial learning curve for both tutors and learners to be immersed in a virtual world and so gain the full learning benefits is the same whether the virtual world is used for 10 minutes or the full course. A course, therefore, needs to use the virtual space enough through the course to warrant this investment. The SLENZ project found that it was relatively simple to prepare learners to use a virtual world for learning in a face-to-face computer lab, and to maintain motivation in the face-to-face setting but difficult to motivate learners to be involved by distance. Again, this motivation would be increased if the virtual world was integral to a significant percentage of the learning/assessment.- terry.neal terry.neal Aug 28, 2010
  • As with gaming, I also believe we need different business models to be able to benefit from others' developments in virtual worlds. Particularly for the smaller vocational education institutions which lack researchers, a thought through learning experience with supporting activities requires a greater up front investment than institutions can justify in the present political environment. As with open source software development, government investment and creative commons licensing can help. Second Life has some builds that are freely available for others to copy, use and modify, rather than have to develop from scratch. However, the search facility in Second Life is not yet at the point where it is easy to find what others have created. - terry.neal terry.neal Aug 28, 2010
  • There is tension between the educational potential of popular virtual worlds such as Second Life and their use for social interactions. Second Life's separation of adult content in 2009 has dealt with some concerns but it is still an environment in which anyone can appear from anywhere - a risk and an opportunity. OpenSim and its potential for closed spaces can mitigate the risks, but also the opportunities. Hopefully, we can move to interoperability between different virtual worlds so that we create a large virtual world in which learners can move easily to gain maximum learning benefits, and so that we can transfer builds from different worlds into our closed spaces when that makes sense, but the political and economic models are still evolving. - terry.neal terry.neal Aug 28, 2010
  • Virtual worlds require some significant thinking and imagination, as well as skills, to enable the kinds of teaching and learning practices that some of us can imagine. Most uses of virtual worlds in education still replicate face-to-face learning and even the lecture-tutorial mode in higher ed. Designing for learning experiences and learning environments that can harness to potential of VW's takes considerable talent. - caroline.steel caroline.steel Sep 1, 2010
  • Although many virtual worlds exist, the technology is still relatively immature and primarily constructed for marketing and entrepreneurial activities rather than for education. Therefore it needs more flexibility to be adapted to different educational applications in different disciplines with different teachers and learners. - caroline.steel caroline.steel Sep 1, 2010
  • The challenge is to match the role play with real world ethics and contexts as well as matching to the other curricular elements. This will be a substantial challenge for the academics. - philip.poronnik philip.poronnik Sep 2, 2010

(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on teaching, learning, or creative expression?

  • As with all relatively new online initiatives, virtual worlds tried to replicate the real world. Now we are seeing more projects that move beyond replication and into genuine creation. I think the next development in virtual worlds will be to connect virtual worlds to the other online tools that we use so that strudents will have access to all their exiting tools within the virtual world. One of the biggest impediments to teachers using virtual worlds is that they are required to learn how to script in order to develop learning and assessment activities within the virtual world. Being able to "buy" elaborate prims does not help learning if you cannot have scaffolded learning and assessment activities associated woith the prim. So, there are a few people trying to develop connections between virtual worlds and other Web 2 tools, as well as connecting virtual worlds with learning management systems. Teachers will quickly become overwhelmed with the options unless all the optiona re connected and easy yo use. - geoffrey.crisp geoffrey.crisp Aug 26, 2010
  • The current and potential impact are quite different. once the technologies mature and offer more flexibility in the kinds of ways that Geoff suggested as well as more capabilities like the capacity for more tactile interaction and haptic feedback then the potential will be truly great - caroline.steel caroline.steel Sep 1, 2010

(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?

de Freitas, S. (2008). Serious Virtual Worlds. A scoping study. from http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/publications/seriousvirtualworldsv1.pdf
Kemp, J., Livingstone, D. & Bloomfield, P. (2009). SLOODLE: Connecting VLE tools with Emergent Teaching Practice in Second Life. British Journal of Educational Technology,
(3), 551-555.
Hew, K. F. & Cheung, W. S. (2010). Use of three-dimensional (3-D) immersive virtual worlds in K-12 and higher education settings: A review of the research. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(1), 33–55 - geoffrey.crisp geoffrey.crisp Aug 26, 2010
SLENZ - http://slenz.wordpress.com/ Project now complete, evaluation report available, VLENZ Charitable Trust being established to seek to maintain momentum from the project - terry.neal terry.neal Aug 28, 2010
As well as using virtual worlds to learn, students need to learn how to work in virtual worlds. http://anm624.wordpress.com/ describes a new course focused on learning how to work in 3D environments, based in Second Life - terry.neal terry.neal Aug 28, 2010
ONGENS Virtual World Grid http://www.gni.otago.ac.nz/index.php/ongens-virtual-world-grid - terry.neal terry.neal Aug 28, 2010The DE Hub (Distance Education Hub) Virtual Worlds Working Group (VWWG) have shared the bibliography for their study at http://virtualworldsworkinggroup.wikispaces.com/Member+Pubs DEHub was established in 2009 as a research consortium between the University of New England (UNE), Charles Sturt University (CSU), Central Queensland University (CQUniversity), the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), and Massey University. - shirley.reushle shirley.reushle Aug 28, 2010 An Australian university has been inspired to develop its virtual world services, by unknown digital 'avatars' operated by computer users outside its walls. The University of Western Australia calls these helpers 'angels' and they have assisted it to develop a presence on virtual world Second Life - see http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20100827225921886 - shirley.reushle shirley.reushle Aug 29, 2010.Farley, H., & Steel, C. H. (in submission). Multiple Sensorial Media and Presence in 3D environments. In G. Ghinea, F. Andres & S. Gulliver (Eds.), Multiple Sensorial Media Advances and Applications: New Developments in MulSeMedia IGI Global. - caroline.steel caroline.steel Sep 1, 2010
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