2. Learning in a Multi-User Virtual Environment
2. Learning in a Multi-User Virtual Environment
As you have found from your initial explorations of Second Life, virtual worlds such as SL enable learners to move about and to interact with and to learn from others. SL has been used in a variety of ways to support learning in universities and other settings. For example, students in architecture classes use SL to construct virtual buildings incorporating architectural principles, artists have displayed their work in this environment, and rhetoric classes have used SL to support collaborative writing processes. Virtual worlds are also used for educator professional development and professional associations. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), has created islands in SL to allow educators to meet and share knowledge.
Educational multi-user virtual environments are not new. The earliest form was called a MOO (Multi-User Object Oriented environment). A MOO is a text-based virtual reality environment that allows users to go online to the same place at the same time to communicate with one another and manipulate and interact with cyber-objects. Educational MOOs emerged in the early 90s to provide a virtual environment to support learning. They ranged from MOOs to support the learning of a second language (e.g., MundoHispano) to those focused on building online communities of practice (e.g., Tapped In). Tapped In, for example, is an example of a MOO for teacher professional development:
Tapped In: An online teacher community: http://tappedin.org/tappedin/
More immersive three-dimensional virtual environments called MUVEs (Multi-User Virtual Environments) or virtual worlds have emerged in recent years and are of increasing interest to education. Virtual worlds, such as Second Life, do not have fixed rules and goals, and hence are distinguishable from games (New Media Consortium and EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, 2007). That is, virtual worlds provide flexible and unstructured environment that may stimulate user creativity, and there is no limit on how to use the space. For educational use, this means that one can create virtually any learning activity in any discipline depending on his/her instructional design capability and skill level with the virtual world tools.
Potential Educational Benefits of Virtual Worlds.While virtual worlds are different from games, some of the positive instructional effects of games still apply to virtual worlds such as accommodating learning preferences of Net Generation students, enhancing student motivation and engagement, facilitating collaboration, and providing immersive, experiential learning opportunities unavailable in traditional learning environments (Gee 2003; Kirriemuir & McFarlane, 2003; Dede, Clarke, Ketelhut, Nelson, & Bowman, 2005; Prensky 2006).
Social Interactions. Additionally, there are positive effects that have been suggested (but not necessarily empirically validated) for virtual worlds such as the abundant opportunities for social interactions, increased sense of shared presence and experience, dissolution of social boundaries, co-existence of educational groups with commercial, governmental, and private groups and individuals, affordances for free exploration and discoveries and capacity for user creation, appropriation, and redistribution of the environment, data and media content (Craig 2007; Jenkins 2007 cited in Craig 2007; FitzGerald 2007; Lamb 2006; New Media Consortium and EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative 2007).
Studies of Effectiveness of Educational Virtual Worlds. Some studies have begun exploring the educational effectiveness of virtual worlds. Barab and her fellow researchers (Barab, Hay, Barnett, & Keating, 2000; Barab, Hay, Barnett, & Squire, 2001) report that the use of 3-dimensional modeling software to develop virtual worlds helped learners to become “knowledgeably skillful (gain conceptual understanding and practical skills together)” by affording them opportunities to experience learning content directly. They describe how conceptual and practical knowledge and skills evolved in a multigenerational process with the software in a subject matter that cannot be directly experienced without such software (such as astronomy).
Virtual worlds have also been effective in learning scientific concepts and processes. For example, in River City, students use technology to keep track of clues that hint at the causes of illnesses, form and test hypotheses, develop controlled experiments to test their hypotheses, and make recommendations based on the data they collect, all in an online environment. Studies by Dede, Ketelhut, & Reusss (2003) found that while the River City MUVE facilitated learning in low-achieving students, it did not demonstrate statistically significant improvements in the content test scores for student participants as a whole. Other examples of the use of MUVEs to support the learning of science include an aquatic habitat simulation called Quest Atlantis that was designed to help students to become actively engaged in the process of scientific inquiry (Barab, Sadler Heiselt, Hickey & Zuiker, 2007). A simulation of the outbreak and spread of a virtual epidemic among students’ avatars, using Whyville also helped students to better understand the nature of infectious disease (Neulight, Kafai, Kao, Foley, & Galas, 2007).
MUVEs may also be used to support project-based learning For example, Soukup (2004), in an ethnographic study of his own use of a virtual space called Palace, which is much like Second Life, discovered that the ability to collectively construct the environment enhanced participants’ sense of social community. This sense of community triggered by virtual spaces suggests strong advantages to use virtual worlds for collaborative learning activities. While these studies have begun building empirically based principles to help educators design effective instructional environments in virtual worlds, more of such studies are obviously needed to address various instructional contexts and needs.
Instructional Design of Virtual World Learning Activities. The fact that MUVEs are not pre-defined and entirely open to user creations, at the same time, means that creating effective learning environments in virtual worlds can be demanding in terms of instructional design skills. A few studies provide some preliminary guidelines and considerations for designing learning activities in these environments. Delwiche (2006), in two online virtual world-based courses, each using Everquest or Second Life, found that virtual environments should be selected on the basis of genre, accessibility, and extensibility. Genre refers to selection of games with themes that are relevant to the instructional context. Accessibility is making sure that the technology is usable by the students, and extensibility is having the power to create new scenarios and extend the real world into the virtual world. Delwiche also stated that for a virtual world-themed class to be effective, learning objectives should be identified at the outset and serious consideration must be taken so that the use of a virtual world fits appropriately for the instruction.
Others concur with Delwiche’s findings that the activity should be anchored in the educational context (Becta, 2001; Kelly & O’Kelly, 1994; Van Eck, 2006). For example, Mayrath, Sanchez, Traphagan, Heikes, and Trivedi (2007) proposed the following principles for designing activities for virtual worlds, based on a study using Second Life: