Issue #63 Cover Story: An Ever-Evolving Virtual World, And Its Impact

cover_147002732By Paramita Roy B.A B.Ed M.Ed.

The virtual world is expanding at an extraordinary pace, engaging millions of users, and the number is growing each day. The current generation of learners has already immersed themselves outside school in the 2D and 3D cinematic world of communication and gaming. Educational Researchers have been working relentlessly from early this century to investigate the power of virtual world environment in learning and teaching. In examining the relevant literature, it is evident that the virtual environment has plenty to offer. Its many tools and applications can assist our children to develop a deep mastery of 21st Century performances and understandings. This article explores the existing research, and uncovers the egalitarian potential of this powerful platform; how it can transcend national boundaries, and make a difference in real world.

A Parallel New World

It is important to see how academics and researchers have defined this parallel world called the “Virtual World”. The Techopedia defines Virtual World as “a Computer-based online community environment that is designed and shared by individuals so that they can interact in a custom-built, simulated world”. Mark Bell from the Indiana University has constructed a definition, which is “[a] synchronous, persistent network of people, represented as avatars, facilitated by networked computers (Bell, 2008)”. Educational researchers from the Harvard University describe Multi-user virtual environments (MUVE) as “3-D graphical worlds used to construct simulated immersive experiences. In a MUVE, each user has a virtual representation, called an avatar, and moves this graphical avatar through the 3-D virtual world. These simulated contexts provide rich environments in which participants interact with digital objects and tools, with each other and with computer-based agents. MUVEs are a rapidly growing platform for entertainment applications such as multi-player internet games and ‘virtual places’ (e.g. Second Life). MUVEs are also a promising platform for educational applications, in part because MUVEs can simulate environments and experiences otherwise impossible in school settings (Metcalf, Clarke, Dede, 2009).”

Today, millions of active participants, both adults and children, have their virtual identities involved in activities as diverse as simple online chatting to complex multiuser competitive games in exclusive paid areas or on platforms that are free. The virtual world in many different forms and shapes is expanding more rapidly than one can imagine. Second Life is another example of 3D virtual worlds developed by LindenLab, that has millions of active users at any time of the day. This 3D platform is used not only for games but also for teaching virtual negotiation for ‘Business’ classes, autopsy procedures for ‘Forensic Pathology’ classes, or even student activism seminars.

Phillip Rosedale, the founder of Second Life, once remarked: “We don’t see this as a game. We see it as a platform that is, in many ways, better than the real world” (Google Tech Talks, March 2006). This year, in his article “Why Virtual Reality will Compete with the Real World” published in MIT Technology Review, Rosdale writes that “Hardware like the headset made by Oculus VR will allow virtual worlds to offer person to person interactions that compete with real life…Companies like Sixense and PriorVR have amazing devices in the world that will follow the motion of the body as accurately and with as low latency as the Oculus presents images to the eyes. We won’t just be able to see these worlds – we’ll be able to touch them.” (Rosedale, 2014).

Virtual Reality competes with, or will even be an improvement on, reality. Many young people and adults strongly believe in this possibility. Is it due to the fact that participants get a second chance? That there are no long lasting consequences to one’s actions? Avatars may die brutal deaths and yet you can reboot your MUVE and begin afresh. The laws (both natural and legal) and customs that bind us in the real world can be ignored or do not apply in the virtual world. Most importantly our Avatars are replaceable but real lives are not. Therefore, users, often called residents, spend hours in this new world playing war games, in a killing spree. This experience also works as a vent for frustrations, anger, loneliness; an escape from real world issues. Nonetheless, there is also great educational potential in virtual reality.

Real Power Of This Virtual Platform

Schools do not offer any formal lessons to this generation on how to master texting skills, communication with emoticons, lexicon of the virtual world, or protocols of Social Networking Sites (SNS). Literacy begins for two year olds today on a portable device like an iPad, or a tablet and through trial and error even primary age children learn to upload graphics on the internet, and skilfully navigate around the virtual worlds. They surf the net, play multi-player internet games with their avatar identities, actively participate on a range of social media, and many are already engaged in interactive 3D games with their global friends. To interact or participate in these virtual environments requires a new set of vocabulary, new skills and competencies. Innovations today call for thumb/finger agility to operate devices like mobiles, tablets or iPads for texting or surfing. With the wearable technologies, it will soon be essential to skilfully operate the visual interface, with sight, touch, and voice commands in order to access information.

Schools without a campus, buildings or physical classrooms, are no longer just a maladjusted student’s fantasy. In many educational settings, learning is taking place beyond bricks and mortar classrooms, anywhere, and anytime. Through synchronous and asynchronous modes, students complete their tasks and assignments, and even their virtual attendance is monitored and recorded just like in real schools and classrooms. There are functioning schools that deliver K-12 education, for example the Florida Virtual School, and more institutions are currently considering this platform to meet the needs of 21st Century learners.

LanguageLab is another such example that teaches English by leveraging the capabilities of virtual worlds in a contextual environment, particularly for non-english speaking students. Multi-user virtual environments, or MUV, has been used as a pedagogical vehicle for the River City research project. This was developed by the researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to teach scientific inquiry and 21st Century skills to middle school students. Thousands of students and hundreds of teachers across the US and Canada have been involved in this project that was funded by the US National Science Foundation. “In River City, students work in teams to develop hypotheses regarding one of the three strands of illnesses in the town (water-borne, air-borne and insect-borne). These three disease strands are integrated with historical, social and geographical content, allowing students to experience the inquiry skills involved in disentangling multi-causal problems embedded within a complex environment” (Ketelhut, Dede, Clarke 2006). One of the main findings of this research work was that Multi-user virtual environments, or MUV, motivated all students including uninterested and lower ability students.

With minimum cost for infrastructure, a Virtual School can offer endless opportunities for simulation. In Biology lessons, students can dissect the human body to gain a better understanding of human physiology. In the history lessons in a virtual environment, students can live in any period in human history. In geography lessons, students can closely examine an active volcano, climb Everest, swim across the English Channel, and these experiences that are difficult to access in real life can provide immense power of engagement, enquiry and collaborative learning.

Connectivity To The Virtual World
Increasing capabilities of mobile and wireless devices are making a bigger impact on connectivity to the Virtual World than it was a few years ago, and it is expected to improve even more in the future. This will make communication and discourse (both at a personal and professional level) possible at any place and time. “However as mobile connected technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous, it is likely that growing numbers of mobile device owners will employ their devices as learning tools” (Clough, Jones, Mcandrew, Scanlon p. 111). In examining the relevant literature, it is evident that a better and easier connectivity will help future generations to use this platform for knowledge construction, collaboration and information sharing.

Role Of Educators In New Virtual Learning Environment
In the current overwhelming new surge of digital innovations, learning this new technology is not the only challenge educators have to deal with, but must continually reflect on the purpose of education, ethical aspects and how to guide students through this complex new terrain safely. More importantly, the most critical question that remains to be answered is whether these new emerging environments will have any impact on Students’ values, and will it make them more resilient and compassionate human beings.

Teachers’ pedagogies are shaped and influenced by many factors now – e.g. meeting the guidelines of the State and National Curriculum, School Policies, Parental and Students’ expectations of more expertise, to name just a few. Additionally, understanding the learners who are already immersed in the virtual 3D environment, its cognitive implications, and constantly keeping up with the new technologies that are added to this platform, can be overwhelming for 21st Century educators.

In addition to a sound understanding of the content, an educator has to be well-informed about the emerging technologies, well-conversed with the best practices, and up-to-date with the current research and development, particularly in areas of educational pedagogies. This profession has become more complex than ever before. However, through ongoing collaboration, networking and by resource sharing, educators can build their competencies, implement effective strategies, and feel empowered.

Digital Poverty, Violence And A Few Exemplary Initiatives
Many educators are sharing their exemplary practices, and 3D resources for free online. Thomas Petra, a math teacher, developed Real World Math, a free website with lessons based on the virtual world of Google Earth aimed at Year Levels 5 – 10. Jerome Burg is using the virtual world of Google earth in English. His free website Google LitTrips, helps students to go on a journey with literature’s great characters. Google Lit Trips project ‘3-dimensionalise’ the reading experience and it is Burg’s “philanthropic gift to the profession”.

We are entering a time, when with rapid growth of population, the gap between rich and poor is ever increasing, creating an “information underclass”. In a rapid, expanding virtual world, increased negative applications of this platform are also evident, particularly as a vehicle to incite violence, and spread radicalism. Julia Largent, in her Master’s Thesis “Screen Peace: How Virtual Pacifism and Virtual Nonviolence Can Impact Peace Education” (Largent, 2013), discusses “how virtual pacifism can be utilised as a form of activism and … peace education with individuals of all ages in a society saturated with violent media”. Largent links the tragic events of the Aurora, Colorado shooting, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, with violent video games, and she invites for a discourse on “virtual nonviolence”.

Virtual Worlds show egalitarian potential, and there are innumerable examples of how it can transcend national boundaries and close the digital divide. Through virtual volunteering, one can now make a difference in the real world. For example, CCE Research Alliance is looking for volunteers to help with their epidemiological research and there are fundraising events on Virtual platforms that are making a huge difference in the real world. Born Virtuals’ Peace Fest attracted tens of thousands avatars and raised 870,000 Linden dollars from across the globe. These funds were donated to charitable organisations including UNICEF and Amnesty International.

Conclusion

In conclusion, 21st Century learners will thrive if they are allowed to use the platform they are so well conversant in. Current research indicates the power and potential of the virtual environment, and if the tools from this environment are borrowed and applied in the area of education, it shows immense power of engagement, enquiry and collaborative learning. However, further academic research is necessary to see how educators can be more proactive and incorporate this platform for teaching and learning – to network with other local and global educators for purposeful application of this environment. There are teachers who are willing to dedicate their time; this gives hope for furthering this topic, and build upon to see how the virtual world environment has the potential to make a difference in the real world.

 

Paramita Roy has been teaching in International, Private and Public Schools for the past 15 years. She holds a Master’s degree in Technology in Education from the Queensland University of Technologies. Passionate about teaching and learning, Paramita currently teaches ICT at St Dominic’s Priory College in Adelaide, South Australia. She can be contacted on proy@stdominics.sa.edu.au

 

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