There has been a worldwide increase in the use of virtual worlds from 136 million in 2009 to 28.8 billion in 2014. Despite this increased usage, the successful use of virtual worlds in education is still rare.
A virtual world is an online electronic presence that imitates real life in the form of a personal presence through someone’s avatar (a graphical representation of themself in the virtual world). A virtual world that many children play in today is Minecraft.
Educators face many hurdles in their attempts to use virtual worlds in their classrooms. These include technical issues (such as low Internet bandwidth, computer hardware difficulties, computer operating systems not being of the right standard, age of computers), distractions (when students are distracted by the virtual world and not engaging with the educational benefit required at the time), time (this goes in hand with distractions – students thoroughly engage with the virtual world and therefore spending too much time in-world), monetary (occasionally the virtual world can be costly) and the training of other educators (to share the load).
However, there are great benefits to using virtual worlds in classrooms.
While the initial funding might be a problem, once virtual worlds are up and running they can be very cost efficient. Instead of creating a “bricks and mortar” building which can amount to millions of dollars, a virtual world can be set up and in use for as little as a few thousand dollars, and on many occasions much less than this (and even free).
For example, Second Life could be used where educators enable others to use their space without cost to anyone. Setting up one’s own avatar is also free.
Students can go on excursions or field trips relatively inexpensively, from their own home, through the use of a virtual world. Through the use of their avatar, a student can sit on their lounge and go visit places around the world that appear real and have other people there to talk to. For example, students often visit the Sistine Chapel where they can immerse themselves in Michael Angelo’s artwork or NASA where they can go in a rocket and explore space.
Virtual worlds are also excellent for distant education when students are unable to be in the same space as the educator. These can be for various reasons such as distance, cost, disability, or time factors.
Virtual worlds provide a space for students to work together on projects. This collaborative use provides engagement and for students to work with other students when it may not have been possible by other educational means. They provide excellent spaces for communication, via text or through audio. Virtual worlds are visually engaging for students and are also of benefit to those who are kinaesthetic learners (i.e. those who fully engage in their learning through touching and interacting with things, because they are doing things with their hands to engage in their learning).
Through the building and scripting of virtual worlds, students can increase their skills and thus provide opportunities for interacting with the online tools instead of viewing static pages, again of benefit to kinaesthetic learners.
One great benefit of virtual worlds is giving students the opportunity to undertake role-play in an authentic learning scenario. Historical re-enactments and other recreations are also another way in which to engage students. Virtual worlds can also provide simulations for students in which to learn.
Even students who can’t personally visit the virtual world can benefit. An educator can create machinima (in-world video) so that students can view the virtual world session in their own time. When an educator isn’t able to be present synchronously with the students, they are able to engage the students through treasure hunts and web-quests that they can do in their own time.
Virtual worlds have been compared to face-to-face learning, challenging our basic ideas of how schooling works. Through much research we know that virtual worlds are an authentic tool for educators and can be of great benefit to students.
Research continues as to how extensive the use and benefits could be. The immediate challenge is for schools and institutions as to how they might support and encourage educators to embrace the use of virtual worlds.
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Dr Sue Gregory is a long term adult educator, Chair of Research in the School of Education and member of the ICT team at the University of New England, Armidale, Australia. She teaches pre service and post graduate education students how to incorporate technology into their teaching. Sue, through her avatar Jass Easterman, has been using Second Life by applying her virtual world knowledge to expose her students, both on and off campus, to the learning opportunities in virtual worlds since 2007. She has been involved with many national and university projects on creating and using learning spaces in virtual worlds. Sue was the lead for an OLT project “VirtualPREX: Innovative assessment using a 3D virtual world with pre-service teachers”, a team member on three other OLT projects and received an OLT citation in 2012. Since 2009, Sue has been Chair of the Australian and New Zealand Virtual Worlds Working Group. Sue has over 80 publications on teaching and learning in virtual worlds and completed her PhD on this topic.