Just twenty years ago, most of our students (if they were lucky) had access to a computer lab with a handful of Apple IIe's and no internet connection. They were using games like Number Crunchers and Oregon Trail to learn about math and the dangers of dysentery. How far have we come? ...and more importantly: how far can we go? Today’s students are using 3D digital worlds (such as the open-source OpenSim) to solve complex problems across multiple disciplines and even to gather (completely virtually) in a classroom-type setting. It’s undeniable: we’re moving toward the adoption of these types of virtual learning environments, and in the midst of a wide variety of new education initiatives. (We’ve blogged about badge-based learning as a new method of measuring achievement, for example.)
Second (Grade) Life
If you haven’t heard of Second Life or Minecraft, these 3D virtual worlds we’re talking about are essentially the same thing—but built in an educational capacity. Put simply: it’s a fully interactive 3D world complete with movable and customizable characters (avatars) placed in 3D environments and situations in which to learn and interact with others.
Students as young as elementary school could potentially create their own avatars and work through built scenarios or even be left free to explore these (G-rated) world environments. Currently, these virtual worlds are typically used to teach older students, particularly high-schoolers. Students can simulate role-playing activities, analyze alternatives based on a set of programmed conditions, use teamwork to design practical virtual objects that translate to real life usage, solve complex interdisciplinary problems to evaluate socioeconomic trends, and so much more.
The potential is truly limitless. You can read a lot more on this topic here: The Power of Virtual Worlds in Education: A Second Life Primer and Resource for Exploring the Potential of Virtual Worlds to Impact Teaching and Learning (PDF).
There’s a T-Rex in the Classroom
It was this LinkedIn group conversation that got me thinking on the topic. If you watch the video from Owen Kelly contained therein, he brings up some interesting points. It seems, to truly be effective, these virtual worlds must be truly interactive, meaning there must be more DOING and less sitting.
I tend to agree. Kelly mentions that he’s noticed teachers complaining about distracting avatar costumes in the virtual classroom, then (in fewer words) suggests they revisit their teaching style if that’s perceived to be an actual problem. Traditional distance learning (where a student listens to a lecture online and perhaps asks a few questions) can be accomplished using tools like Skype, whereas virtual worlds have far greater potential for teaching students social-based problem-solving through extremely interactive environments.
So perhaps we let the dinosaurs be dinosaurs and stop thinking about virtual classrooms like they’re real-life rooms..?
Beyond the Virtual Classroom
Implementing these virtual educational environments definitely invites several interesting questions. How far could we go? High School? College? Post-graduate work? Could we use virtual worlds to educate a more challenging population, such as ex-offenders? What about accessibility issues?
And how about soft skills? “Soft Skills” is a huge buzz-phrase nowadays, and for good reason. Soft skills refers to our learned abilities that result in successful social interactions. These are skills we all need to be able to function in a workplace with other people: being polite and kind, taking criticism, showing up, completing work, and more. Are we gaining or losing momentum in that arena by moving toward more frequently simulated interactions in virtual environments?
What does our world look like when our learning is completely virtual? Tell us your thoughts. Leave a comment below!