The use of virtual worlds and other interactive technologies is usually associated with the gaming world, and often conjures up negative and inaccurate stereotypes of solitary men, sitting in dark, lonely rooms, clutching their mouse or controller and forsaking often interactions with real people to instead immerse themselves in the more dramatic worlds of fantasy and adventure, where they can feel more powerful and be whatever they want to be. Yet anyone who has spent any time at all examining online communities knows that the men AND women involved offer some of the most creative thinking in evidence today and that gaming technology is often in the forefront of technological innovation. And many of these inventive thinkers believe that Virtual World Technology (VWT) can provide the solution to some of the problems that have arisen in online education.
While there is no doubt that online college courses can be a great solution to scheduling problems, working alone can be isolating and cause a feeling of disconnect among students, who may miss the interaction of a traditional classroom. In addition, the high rate of drop-outs in online college degree programs has raised red flags both in and outside of the online education community. While some studies show that students perform better online than in traditional face-to-face courses, others show that students do not learn as effectively online as they do in the traditional classroom. With the jury still out on this issue, educators and administrators have begun to look for ways to keep students enrolled and on track to complete their courses and their degrees, including the use of different kinds of online learning formats.
Virtual worlds may be the key to creating meaningful and productive interactions in online courses. The best definition of a virtual world for classroom use comes from Professor Cynthia M. Calongne of Colorado Technical University, who uses Second Life in her courses. She states that, “Virtual worlds are engaging, stimulating spaces where students can meet online for normal class activities, including lectures, discussions, case studies, projects, papers, exams, and labs. Classes are a mix of synchronous and asynchronous activity. A virtual world class differs from a traditional course management system, such as Blackboard or Moodle, due to the three-dimensional (3D) graphical setting, the use of avatars to represent the class participants, and the sense of presence that puts the learner within the scene.”
At Florida State University, the College of Communication and Information has experimented with virtual worlds to keep online students engaged and enthusiastic about their programs, because some students report feelings of disengagement and alienation, and that they are not getting the support they need throughout their studies. To remedy this, Florida State has begun to initiate new distance learning formats and pay attention to the need to build an online community that extends beyond the courses themselves. The College of Communication conducted the first “virtual graduation” using Second Life on May 1, 2010, and reported an enthusiastic student response, despite some technical glitches that shut some students out of the event.
This is in step with what some researchers suggest about the ways that new technology can increase student engagement and reduce the number of online college drop-outs. At the University of Pennsylvania, Barton K. Pursel and Keith D. Bailey, Ph.D. argue that, “With the creation of a Virtual Learning World (VLW), interactions become much more meaningful, and a learning community can thrive. Students can now log in to a persistent online environment to interact with others, explore class-related materials and environments, or simply to socialize and chat… The Virtual Learning World would be the single container for all things related to the student’s education, as well as a place for entertainment and fun. There is incentive to login and to meet new people who will play a role in furthering your knowledge, education, and training needs.”
Some of the best uses of VWT are in the creation of simulations in which students have to apply the knowledge they have developed in their studies to solve problems. This is application in such divergent fields as Criminal Justice, in which students interact in a virtual courtroom setting, and in architecture and other design fields in which students can “test out” their designs based on how virtual world figures use them. There seems to be an endless number of ways that creative instructors can utilize VWT to bring their subject matter to life, so to speak, and help students see the real-world applications of their knowledge.
This topic is so hot that Athabasca University Press is even planning a book entitled “Virtual Worlds in Online and Distance Education,” as part of its Issues in Distance Education book series and has issued a call for chapter contributors. Undoubtedly, educators interested in expanding the applications of distance technology will embrace this new form of active learning in an attempt to reduce the number of student drop-outs and enhance their learning communities. It will be interesting to watch as educators turn their creative impulses toward Virtual World Technology (VWT) and create new activities for students. While there are many challenges, such as ensuring that all students have the same access to necessary technologies such as the appropriate bandwith requirements, the ongoing process of creation and experimentation will ensure that these problems are studied and, hopefully, resolved. One of the great benefits of online technology is that problem-solving can come from any direction, not just from developers. Students, too, will be able to suggest scenarios and develop programs based on their knowledge. There is a multitude of opportunities for creative education here. What different ways can VWT be employed in courses? Post your suggestions here!