Learning in Virtual Worlds

Since editing with Gilly Salmon the special issue (40, 3, May 2009) of BJET on 3-D multi-user virtual environments such as Second Life (SL), I’ve been reviewing other articles in this field that have been submitted to BJET for publication. Although I can’t reveal the titles because the reviews are confidential to the editor, reviewers and authors, I’d like to reflect briefly on these articles in the light of that special issue.

The range of disciplines being learned in such environments continues to expand, and not always in ways we might expect. The special issue contained examples from computer science (Heriot-Watt University), human resource development (Open University), film and TV production (Birmingham City University), archaeology (Leicester University), and education (The Open University). For all of these the rationale was clear. Building higher order inquiry skills in science through using an environment built in SL seems reasonable enough, too: the avatars of students (and their teachers) can help each other as they learn to solve scientific problems with the aid of simulations. But I wonder whether computer programming lends itself to discussion via text between avatars on an island in SL? Perhaps it’s easier if the programming is of objects actually in SL.

There’s interest in identifying what environments like SL uniquely offer to learners. That’s a tough issue to resolve. John Seeley Brown suggested that immersive experience was an excellent way to learn, and he gave mother-tongue learning as a fine example. But does SL offer a true immersive experience when learners’ and teachers’ avatars meet? It seems to me more like an observed experience, though one in which I am a participant observer, through my avatar.

A comparison of 3-D and 2-D learning environments might provide evidence of the superiority and unique benefits of the former. Nobody has attempted that. Nor has anyone, so far as I know, attempted to show that learners’ performance on scholastic or academic tests is greater after learning in a 3-D multi-user virtual environment like SL than it is after learning in a conventional setting such as a classroom or at university. Controlling variables in such a trial would be difficult, of course. In fact, I can’t visualise a good experimental design for one. In SL, learners don’t simulate what happens conventionally: they have a different experience. The content wouldn’t be identical, would it? The tests would favour one group more than the other, I think. But soon I expect to see articles being submitted that attempt to provide the evidence that politicians (and maybe the general public too) want before they will consider learning in SL to be time and money well spent.

Probably the evidence, when it does appear, will be of benefits reaped in SL by learners (according to them) that they haven’t seen elsewhere. They may vote with their avatars’ feet, flitting away onto SL islands to learn instead of attending lectures or lab sessions. If our undergraduates still qualify in this way, from afar, who are we to gainsay them their SL experience?


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