What are Virtual Worlds?

Virtual Worlds are computer-based simultated environments. They allow their users to create characters, often referred to as "avatars," and in then proceed to interact with other users in the simulated world. There are numerous examples of virtual days today, and all of the different types are intended to serve different purposes. Virtual worlds can be intended for gaming purposes, such as World of Warcarft or The Sims, but virtual worlds can also serve more educational purposes.

World-of-Warcraft-gold by king2009_12@yahoo.com.
World-of-Warcraft-gold by king2009_12@yahoo.com.

What Learning Theories are Most Applicable to the Use of Virtual Worlds?

The Learning Style Theory is very applicable to the use of virtual worlds. The learning style theory is based on the idea that students are able to learn material best when it is tailored to their specific learning style. In the use of virtual worlds, nearly all basic learning styles are appealed to. Students who are visual learners, auditory learners, or even tacitile learners all can benefit from the use of virtual worlds. The users clearly are engaged visually, by watching what is developing in the game, audiotorally, by listening to real-time chats or other parts of the game, and also tactorially, by use the mouse and keyboard to navigate their avatar. The use of virutal worlds clearly is clearly beneficial in terms of the Learning Style Theory because the material being learned is tailored to fit the learning styles of nearly all students.

The use of virtual worlds also relates to the basic ideas of Constructivism. In constructivism, learning is accomplished through the negotiation of meaning by the student, or in other words, the goal of learning is that the student construct their own knowledge of the subject. Constructivism places much more importance on the role of the student as opposed to the teacher, teachers main job is to scaffold with the students and provided assisstance only if really necessary. Virtual worlds closely follow these ideas in that the avatars are created and controlled soley by the student. They have complete control over what to look at, pick up, read, etc., in the world. In essence, the student assumes 100% of the responsibility of learning in virtual worlds. Another important part of some virtual worlds is the ability to communicate with others. This communication also follows the basic principles of Constructivsm, the students are working together to accomplish a certain task or understand a concept.

What are the Benefits of Using Virtual Worlds?

One of the most evident benefits of using virtual worlds is the fact that so many people are currently using one form or another of these virtual worlds. There are different estimates of the number of current virtual world registered users, however, the majority seem to estimate that the number is in the tens of millions of users, with the most popular, World of Warcraft©, having nearly 12 million monthly subscribers.
The Sims
The Sims


Another very important benefit of using virtual worlds for educational purposes is the amount of motivation that is has the potential to produce in students. Children who play video games generally have high levels of instrinsic motivation to complete the game or level to the best of their ability. If virtual worlds could produce the same high levels of motivation for students doing educational activities, then perhaps the students would become more engaged and interested in the material, thus resulting in better grades.

The ability to creative is also a strong benefit of using virtual worlds. Educators designing a virtual world around a specific lesson plan have a great deal of flexibility in terms of how the create their game. Teachers are not limited by physical resources, all of the tools they need to develop their own world is just a click of the mouse away. Similarily, virtual worlds can be applied to nearly every academic subject. A student may work on sovling a complex murder mystery by using new mathematical formulas, try to save the world by deconstructing complex literary works, or work on creating new species of frogs by using the what they learned about genetics. Whatever the situation or subject, there is a world that an educator can create to accompany it, their only limitation is their own creativity.

What are the Challenges of Using Virtual Worlds?

Virtual worlds can sometimes prove to be very complex and difficult, depending on the program. Virtual worlds developed for entertainment gaming purposes often tend to be complicated and take a good deal of time to become comfortable with the program. Also, most virtual world programs, both for entertainment and educational purposes, assume some prior experience with technology (a computer) in order to be able to use the program. This fact can prove to be a challenge when deciding to use virtual worlds in school. Depending on the situation, it may be inappropriate for a teacher to assume that all of there students have this prior technological knowledge, and it may not be feasible to try and teach these skills prior to beginning a lesson involving virtual worlds.

What Special Guidance Might Help Users of Virtual Worlds?

Virtual worlds can sometimes be very complex and challenging, depending on the specific program. When deciding whether or not to use this technology for an educational purpose or not, teachers must be able to ensure their students will understand what is expected of them and also how to use the software.

The first form of guidance should come from the teachers themselves. In order for the software to be effective in the classroom, the teacher must become an expert of all the parts of the program. If a student has a question that a teacher cannot answer, it seems highly unlikely that they will end up accomplishing the learning objectives. Another important form of guidance in virtual worlds comes from the users. In many different programs, the users are able to communicate with each other either through text or through auditory sets. Returning to an educational use of the software, students would be able to help each other with challenging problems or ideas, and this peer input could prove to be very beneficial.

What is the Current State of the Research on Virtual Worlds?

In their article "Virtual Worlds and the Leaner Hero: How Today's Video Games Can Inform Tomorrow's Digital Learning Environments," Rigby and Przybyski examine the importance of further studying the "learner hero" in virtual worlds and also the connection to educational uses. They propose a direction for future research to take concerning virtual worlds, but in this article, they also address some possible benefits of such a concept. The propose that by creating an educational virtual world that has the student work as a learner hero, in turn, the student will feel a sense of accomplishment and purpose, and take a strong interest in whatever objective they are undertaking. This idea seems very plausbile, as nearly everyone has seen a child so involved in a video game that they are moving along with their character. If this sense of connection could be established in a virtual world environment that had educational objectives, the process of learning the material could prove to be both engaging and fun.

What Lesson Ideas Might Instructors Consider in Using Virtual Worlds?

Virtual Worlds could prove to be very beneficial for lessons on the pragmatics of a foreign language. The students could create their characters, or avatars, to navigate foreign countries where the language they are studying is spoken, and then use the avitars to discover the subtleties of the pragmatic aspects of that language. A specific example of this was done by a team at the University of Minnesota in 2007. This group developed the virtual world of Croquelandia, a simulated environment developed to help Spanish students learn the pragmatics of the language. The avatar is meant to be engaged in which pragmatic knowledge is extremely important, such as after breaking a valuable object, missing an important deadline, or talking with friends. The program is meant to show how the people of Spanish speaking countries use language in situations like these, which is an important part of learning a new language.

Another possible lesson idea using virtual worlds could be a lesson on world geography. A teacher could create a virtual world, similar to the old game of "Where in the World is Carmen SanDiego?' where students have to navigate their avatar all over the globe, following clues that both leads them to winning the game and also towards understanding the learning objectives. In addition to learning basic geography, the students could also incorporate some of the cultural knowledge of the native of a particular country there are in to help them complete their mission.

The possibilites for lesson ideas are virtually endless when it comes to using virtual worlds. The challenge is to develope an environment in which the students are able to accomplish the same learning objectives that they would accomplish with more traditional instruction. As with any other form of educational technology, virtual worlds should not be incorporated into the curriculum just for the sake of being fun and different. The teacher should have clear educational objectives for their students that they understand and can accomplish in the virutal environment.

What Resources Might Instructors Consult When Using Virtual Worlds?

Below are some links that could prove useful for educators when using or learning about virtual worlds.
http://secondlife.com/
http://www.elearnmag.org/subpage.cfm?article=44-1§ion=articles

References:

http://www.kzero.co.uk/blog/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_world
http://www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Review/EDUCAUSEReviewMagazineVolume43/EducationalFrontiersLearningin/163163

Here's an interesting article for your enjoyment about treating real life mental disorders through virtual worlds!
http://www.nationalpost.com/story.html?id=2103469




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