SLENZ Update, No 154, December 06, 2009

Where is education going in Virtual Worlds?

An earlier (2008) view of a Duke University  foray into virtual worlds
– just one of  the university’s many virtual projects

With the  Obama Administration  turning to the virtual world to extoll the virtues of a science education through expansion of the STEM Education Initiative and NASA also using virtual worlds to promote engineering education to the next generation of potential NASA employees it seems certain  that educators around the world will not be able to avoid the  MUVE issue although it is  apparent many would wish to.

It  also appears certain that Governments, if they wish to keep abreast of world education trends, can no longer allow their telcos to limit bandwidth or  to  obfuscate the issue of the need for consistent, high speed Broadband  – which New Zealand telcos dont deliver outside  the major centres –  if  all are to benefit from the growing acceptance of virtuality, in all its guises. In future education poverty might be determined by one’s access to Broadband, particularly in the sense of distance education,  as we move away from on-campus learning to virtual campus learning which is available to everyone.

Following President Obama’s announcement early in his term of  initiatives to encourage American students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the White House now  appears to be moving into the Metaverse in an attempt to expand its  flagging science education initiative, according to  Max Burns (pictured left) of the Washington-based Pixels and Policy  blogs .

Quoting a  press release issued by Duke University, Durham, North Carolina,  in which  the Duke Center announced a partnership with the White House to promote the development of virtual learning worlds related to science and engineering  especially in middle and high school by linking into virtual worlds and the digital generation’s undoubted video-gaming experience, Burns said:

  • The third-annual Digital Media and Learning Competition will award $2 million in support to 21st Century learning lab designers  for learning environments and digital media-based experiences that allow young people to grapple with social challenges through STEM-based activities.
  • Digital media of any type (social networks, games, virtual worlds, mobile devices or others) may be used. Proposals are also encouraged for curricula or other experiences that link or connect to any game, especially but not limited to Sony’s LittleBigPlanet™ on PlayStation®3.

“Lifting American students from the middle to the top of the pack in STEM achievement over the next decade will not be attained by government alone,” said President Obama at the event in late November at which he announced the “Educate to Innovate” campaign. “I applaud the substantial commitments made today by the leaders of companies, universities, foundations, nonprofits and organizations representing millions of scientists, engineers and teachers from across the country.”

KZERO’s current virtual world universe – an ever-increasing population.

Moves cannot be seen in isolation

But the  White House moves cannot be seen in isolation.  The University of Texas has already  announced plans to put all its 16 campuses across the State online in the virtual world of Second Life; The prestigious Australian Film Radio and Television School, based in Sydney, has announced  a Graduate Certificate in Video Games and Virtual Worlds starting next year;  the University of California at Irvine has received a US$100,000 National Science Foundation grant to study World of Warcraft;  the creation of  an US Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds by the Information Resource Management (IRM) College of the National Defense University, to ‘ prepare leaders to direct the information component of national power by leveraging information and information technology for strategic advantage’; Glasgow’s Caledonian University has become  the first university  in the UK to offer a complete, integrated module on 3D Internet Virtual Worlds, teaching students all components involved in this relatively new branch of internet design and multi media; the Immersive Education Initiative, a 1000-plus  member, non-profit international collaboration of universities, colleges, research institutes, consortia and companies that are working together to define and develop open standards, best practices,platforms, and communities of support for virtual reality and game-based learning and training systems, is growing apace; and closer to home  the New Zealand Tertiary Education Commission’s  NZ$500 000 SLENZ Project to determine the benefits of virtual education  is nearing completion with the formal evaluation process currently taking place;  The University of  Auckland, under the aegis of lecturer Scott Diener has set up a medical centre for training purposes in Second Life; and that university has also seen lecturer Judy Cockeram, gain international recognition for  her virtual architecture study programme which is schedule to accept more than 100 students in the New Year.

But these are not alone.  They  are among  the more than 500  universities and tertiary institutions now in Second Life and other virtual worlds. The launching of both learning and research programmes into  virtual worlds is continuing apace throughout the world, despite  some skepticism  from those who have never been immersed,  who are not  members of the digital generation or not digital migrants. Unfortunately for them virtual worlds, with 690 million participants worldwide, according to the UK-based research organisation KZero, will probably leave them behind as the flotsam and jetsam of  the virtual age.

Probably one of the best recent summations of just where  virtual education in the world is and where it is going   has been given  by Robin Teigland (pictured right), Work Associate Professor in the Center for Strategy and Competitiveness, at  the Stockholm School of Economics,  Stockholm, Sweden.

Her Powerpoint presentation to the Online Education Conference in Berlin on December 2 is well worth taking the time to look at.

And the US National Defense University initiative.
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The SLENZ Update – No 20, October 30, 2008

From the top of my head!


It might be simplistic but it appears to me that Virtual Worlds, although attracting a claimed 160 million users around the world, need someone to recreate something like the virtual world equivalent of Tim Berners-Lee (Pictured -From Wikipedia) and Robert Cailliau’s 1990 WorldWideWeb browser for multi-user virtual environments to really take off.

I have an eerie sense of déjà vu when I look at Virtual Worlds today  and I think of the time when full text-database retrieval systems were taking off in the early 1980s and the dead-end pre-Web application, Videotex, was being promoted in competition with them.

There is no doubt that Videotex, developed to download data within the blanking interval on a television screen, but later used for online share trading and news services among other things, was easy to use with a box and a TV set but no one really had any idea how to make comprehensive text pages attractive and easy-to-use by everyman and woman, until the WorldWideWeb came along.

This was despite the fact that scads were spent around the world on travel, conferences, promotions and fact-finding for both online text retrieval and Videotex and other  retrieval systems.

The WorldWideWeb gave the world the information revolution it needed. It had a graphical user interface (GUI) but it could not display web pages with embedded graphics until the creation of NCSA Mosaic 2.0  by Marc Andreessen and Jamie Zawinski. NCSA Mosaic for Microsoft Windows, the Macintosh, and the Unix X Window System, enabled the average person to use the web.

I believe that MUVEs are currently in the same space that the Web was before Berners-Lee created his prototype. Today there is a need for an “universal VW browser and teleportation pad” to make sense of all the worlds and to link them all – or the majority of them – transparently, as Berners-Lee linked the pages on the web.

In education MUVEs could provide an enlightening learning environment for distance students but in countries like New Zealand this is problematic  because of  the lack of a generic  VW “browser”, bandwidth problems, inconsistent broadband line speeds that are often  little more than dial-up speeds  and spurious line speed claims and promotions by the two major ISPs -TelstraClear and Telecom – who have failed to keep up with the rest of the developed world although charging like wounded bulls for bandwidth usage (I believe because of their tardiness similar problems will face those who want to endulge in “cloud” computing in the New Zealand environment).

New Zealand’s ability to move into the 21st Century of Virtual Worlds  will probably be compromised until either the Kiwi telecommunications providers lift their game – or the Government takes over their game from them – and/or  a major part of any Virtual World content is able to  be held on the user’s desktop as it currently is on some of the more popular MMORPGs, which already provide  a better experience than most online virtual worlds.

Another solution could be provided by  the advent of Kiwi or other OpenSims and  the development of the ability to teleport with assets between virtual worlds,  the possibility of which has been demonstrated by Zha Ewry of IBM and Second Life

If trans world teleportation can be mastered one could  enter virtual world’s like Second Life or Twinity or Entropia to socialise with the world and  then via an inworld teleport point move backwards and forwards between your own inexpensive OpenSim “home” and the VW: it would be a “home” where you could do the same things one does in commercial virtual worlds and it would be home where you could invite guests at little cost.

SL not only English

Peak concurrent users of SL

Residents from non-English speaking nations make up almost 40 percent  of Second Life’s users, according to the latest metrics made available  by Linden Labs (http://secondlife.com/whatis/economy_stats.php).

The United States with almost 14 million residents or 40.13 percent, however, still makes up the bulk of residents, with Germany in second place a long way behind with 3.5 million users or 9.99 percent.

The United Kingdom has 2.3 million holds thrid place with 6.82 percent ahead of Japan, 6.1 percent, and France, 4.9 percent. Brazil, Canada, Netherlands and Italy each have well over a million users.

Australia is still in 11th place with 694,580 users or 2.01 percent.

Interestingly males have moved to the forefront of user hours, accounting for almost 60 percent of the time spent in SL.
On the age front the over 35s account for 48 percent of the usage hours and the 24-35 age group for almost 35 percent.

Total hours in SL

SL in our backyard?

Although it might not help Kiwi’s frame rates, access speeds or lag problems given  the paucity of our overseas internet pipes to Asia it appears we are about to get two Virtual World server farms almost in our backyard.

Second Life’s  Linden Lab has announced plans to locate servers in Singapore within the next six months in what might be seen as a ploy to upstage that other virtual world, the new Berlin-based  Twinity Beta,  which has also announced plans for a server farm in Singapore (http://www.straitstimes.com/Breaking%2BNews/Singapore/Story/STIStory_294972.html

Meanwhile Metaversum‘s Twinity Beta, which entered public beta a little more than one month ago appears to be moving ahead  and now already is claiming 50,000 real users.(http://www.virtualworldsnews.com/2008/10/quick-stat-over-50000-users-in-twinity-beta.html)

With a virtual Berlin, Twinity already plans to launch a virtual London and Singapore later this year. Metaversum is also working with the government of Singapore on a mirror world project, Co-Space.

NASA selects three

The US space agency NASA has selected three teams to present proposals for its learning virtual world.

The teams being considered are MindArk, presenting Entropia Universe; Saber Astronautics, Nocturnal Entertainment, and Big World; and Project Whitecard and Virtual Heroes, according to Virtual World News (http://www.virtualworldsnews.com/2008/10/nasa-selects-3-proposal-for-learning-virtual-world.html).

The teams are scheduled to give live presentations at the Goddard Space Flight Center on November 7.

The groups were selected from more than 100 which attended a workshop held in April to discuss needs and opportunities for the virtual world.

The project aims to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education in colleges and high schools. Citing the longevity and adaptability  in addition to the ability to form communities as advantages for an MMO over a simpler educational game, NASA has said the selected team will fund the project internally, working on a licensing model from NASA, which will supply personnel and expertise.

VWN quoted MindArk director of special projects, Christian Björkman,  as saying “This opportunity to build the NASA MMO is very much in line with our strategy to enhance the learning aspects of the Entropia Universe Platform. It is a perfect way for us to work in collaboration with top academics and scholars to create a stimulating, challenging and educational experience.