“… five (virtual world) characteristics; immersion, customization, programmability, real-time interactivity and accessibility, combine to create an environment in which it is possible for anyone with the relevant skills to construct highly engaging activities that can enhance learning on many levels. It also lends itself to the construction of experiences that are a useful substitute for face to face encounters and which can be used in various educational settings, particularly for bringing together geographically distant students and staff.”
– Dr Clare Atkins, NMIT, joint co-ordinator the SLENZ project*, in a paper ICCMNS 2008 conference.
“The superiority of e-learning can be neither proved, nor disproved, with content and delivery, rather than the medium, the decisive factor. It all depends on how the costs are calculated for the various media and benefits measured.”
– Dr Ben Salt, SLENZ project team member, specialist in international comparative adult education.
Education could be key to VW success
by John Waugh/Johnnie Wendt
Training is the biggest potential success area in Second Life, because it can be measured and controlled, according to Steve Prentice, a vice president and a leading analyst with the Gartner Group.
His keynote address to a sold-out vBusiness Expo conference in July, although described as “not sexy” by some commentators, should have given heart to virtual world educators who are currently busily debating and researching the best ways to deliver education in virtual worlds.
As reported by Joey Seiler, of Virtual Words News (http://tinyurl.com/5gnntq) Prentice’s theme was: Virtual Worlds are not about technology or allowing people to create content or anything else, no matter how much the techies would prefer it otherwise; they’re about people.,
It was the failure to understand the demographics that were behind the failures of many forays into SL, Prentice was reported as saying. Virtual worlds were clearly dominated by youth, he said, but the older users usually dominated them in activity and engagement.
“‘Build a great environment and they will come’ has been the attitude of technologists, who think everything runs on physics,” Prentice said. Instead brands and developers – and he might have said educators – should think, “Build a great community and they will come.”
Looking at the worlds that had been successful, it was not the worlds that offered incredibly rich and flexible content creation tools that were most successful; it was those that were aimed at specific targets and groups.
For organisations looking for business-like use, the biggest application is training, Seiler quoted Prentice as saying.
“It’s the controlled nature of deployment and the ability to measure the outcome that enables a realistic project,” Prentice said. “Yeah it’s boring and not exciting, but these are essential requirements in today’s organisational environment.”
As an aside, Prentice’s thought that VWs would become the “product” and TV would become the advertisement for them, reflecting something of a sea change that appears to be taking place around the world: from being television-drugged couch potatoes, people are switching to using what was TV couch potato time productively (http://tinyurl.com/5zyhqd).
This is a change which should have major benefits for those involved in virtual education if educators can create learning environments in VWs that students will flock to join, on an on-going basis rather than faddishly, and which will provide educational and/or training products and benefits more easily, more economically and/or more green-sustainably than “Real Life”.
There are many educators around the world who already believe they are on the right VW track – often necessarily led by the techie side of education – and many who disagree, as has been shown in the sometimes vigorous debate which has been generated recently by educators on the busy SL educators group’s SLED list (email@example.com)
Although much of the debate has been directed at school education, the SLED discussion has also referred to tertiary and ongoing adult education. This is mirrored by the debate on the issues in New Zealand where besides the SLENZ project which operates Koru in SL, Auckland University has set up its own SL project, and Dunedin Otago and Canterbury Universities, with the support of Telecom NZ, have set up an experimental Virtual World grid using the OpenSim platform which they want to become an NZ National Virtual World Grid. (www.gni.otago.ac.nz)
The latest SLED debate began with Marlyn Tadros noting that she could not get her students interested in SL and VWs. “They all think I am crazy, don’t want to take the class, or if they do, they just roll their eyes,” she said.
Since, it has covered rationalisations for lack of student interest ranging from the limitations of the technology, especially compared to “gaming” technology such as WoW, or Xbox and Playstation products, difficulty of the user interface, laziness, and lack of creativity, the so-called “yesteryear” nature of SL in the eyes of youngsters and the “adult” nature – business, building etc rather than sex – of much of social activity in VWs
In one missive Californian educator Stan Trevena argued that after a year and a half of working with a variety of students in SL he was absolutely certain that students did not see SL as a blank canvas to paint on.
“Very few students become content creators,” he said. “These kids have grown up grinding quests and gaining achievements on the Xbox. The Xbox solidified the achievement aspect of gaming, so much so that Blizzard is now adding them to World of Warcraft … you would be hard pressed to find many students that have not played Halo, or some of the other first person games.
“So when a student asks you “What’s the point” when you enthusiastically introduce them to SL, this is what they are talking about. These students for the most part are not creative, they don’t write, most don’t read for pleasure, and they are not going to take the time to learn how to build or script in SL unless there is a grade attached.
“We have to get away from thinking of SL as another place for people to live, and shift instead to thinking of it as a staging area for finite and well defined activities with our students,” he said.
Paul Penfold (aka Paul Allandale, SL) provided one possible answer which should appeal to educators involved in tertiary and adult education when he said, “maybe the answer is separate but equal.”
“Why shouldn’t SL mirror RL?” he asked. “Most people in RL aren’t creative, don’t want to be creative or are scared or not practiced at being creative. Why should anyone expect them to enter SL and be any different?
“But RL is a very creative place to be if you’re that way inclined. Those that create, produce things that those who are less creative consume. We don’t need separate RL worlds for that so why have separate SL worlds?
“It seems to me that SL is highly populated with creative types, who are like the frontiers people laying the foundations of order for the secure consumption of those who prefer a bit of order, structure and certainty.
“There does seem to be a thread in this thread where success with students is found when structure, purpose and meaning is provided – that needs creative types, and just like RL, creatives and consumers can provide each other with their needs.
“I don’t imagine the (majority of) fans of WoW etc would be so enamoured with the fancy graphics etc it they had to build the world and missions themselves either,” Penfold concluded.
* The SLENZ project, a collaboration between Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology, Otago Polytechnic, Wellington Institute of Technology and the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, has received funding from the New Zealand Government’s Encouraging and Supporting Innovation Fund
Graduate VW researchers
Jenny Marshall of Auckland University <firstname.lastname@example.org> has recently set up a Google group for graduate researchers of online virtual environments (GROOVE) to share information, sources and experiences, and to generally get to know each other and network. http://groups.google.com/group/groovegroup (membership is free).