Virtual Worlds: Past the Hype

Every few months it seems as if there is some call to talk about virtual worlds and how they may or may not be appropriate spaces for education. This post accompanies a talk, presented 12 April in RASM 340 on the UAF campus, for faculty to discuss what is currently happening in virtual worlds, particularly with respect to learning. I’ll edit this post after the talk to reflect the direction of discussion and address questions.

Back around 2008- 2009 there was a lot of excitement around virtual worlds, particularly Second Life. Second Life, at the time, was one of the most developed and feature-filled platforms. Everyone was trying it, individuals, small businesses, large corporations, universities, news companies – all trying to figure out what the attraction was and how they could benefit from it. Fast forward a couple of years down the road and the population of Second Life has changed significantly. There are still people, businesses, and universities there, but some have left. Many that stayed were those who figured out how Second Life could provide a unique experience that would be difficult to replicate in another online space.

Military investment in Second Life

You can see for yourself how these companies are using SL.

Bristol Bay CampusNot surprisingly, you can also find universities continuing to not only explore this space, but also using it as a space to connect with students and host course-related material. Harvard, Penn State, Northwest Michigan University, and The University of Alaska are just a handful of the many institutions that still maintain a presence in SL. You will even find commercial learning institutions like Language Lab, which uses the presence features of SL such as the voice channel and chat to meet synchronously with their students in a number of immersive spaces. Those spaces – office settings, markets, airports – all contextually support opportunities for practicing a variety of conversations without scheduling field trips, coordinating transportation, or adding the cost of travel. Language Lab, a UK school that uses Second Life as a platform for teaching English, just received $1 million in investment from Avonmore Developments, Stephen Bullock, and Huda Associates to continue developing English City, described as “a virtual world you can access through your computer where you can talk to native English speakers anytime. More about this can be found at: http://www.languagelab.com/about/english_city/

Presentation SpaceAlthough it is still common to see lecture-style presentation areas on virtual campuses, there is a range of intriguing spaces where students can visit a virtual Alaskan-style village, explore ecosystems from around the world, or interact with objects they would only get to view under a microscope in a traditional classroom. Across the board, the most successful spaces in SL are not replicating activities that might normally take place in discussion board, over the phone, or even face to face. They are the spaces that provide solutions that simply couldn’t exist anywhere else or that would be too expensive to implement any other way.

Life in a drop of pond water

As Second Life has become more of a stable platform over the years, working out technical and community challenges, other virtual worlds took a lesson and starting popping up and becoming competition for Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life. Worlds like Second Life, Open Sim, Teleplace (Quaq), Unity 3D, and Blue Mars are some of the more popular alternatives.

A lab activity in SL

If you’ve never experienced a massively online virtual world, but are interested in exploring the possibilities, the best way to start is to connect with groups of educators already working on the platforms. The New Medial Consortium (NMC) and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) both support wonderful communities of educators by hosting in-world discussions and inviting guest speakers to talk. The Journal of Virtual Worlds Research is another resource for following the latest in education in virtual worlds.

ISTE in SL

Explore the learning spaces mentioned above, at these links:

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