Saturday, November 14, 2009

BP16_2009113_Virtual Worlds in Education

Like others who have already posted, I am not a fan of virtual worlds. I first explored Second Life as a part of MLR and then again in MLT. While I have learned how to get around albeit poorly, I have never enjoyed life in a virtual world and I doubt I ever will. This should not be a surprise. I am in my mid-40s and so while I’m a relatively advanced “techno-mom” according to my daughter and friends, comfort in the virtual world is just not part of my generation’s DNA.

The other night, my daughter was playing Cafe World, which is the #1 rated game on Facebook as of October 26, 2009 (Eldon, 2009). She also loves playing Farmville and Restaurant City (rated #2 and #5 respectively). I asked her if she thought playing these games was educational. She laughed. Pause. Then she said, “you know they kind of are” then went on to tell me that she has to be responsible in Café World (and others) because the food needs to be cooked, you have to plan the menu and take care of the customers. Despite my worries about her being a slave to a virtual café, I had to admit she was learning how to run a business that was fun and collaborative since her best friend also has a Café (and restaurant and farm). This is a world that I will never live in.

Her introduction to the virtual world came a few years ago when she received a Webkinz as gift and quickly fell in love with the virtual world of the toy more than the cute little stuffed animal. While I admire her enjoyment in the virtual world, I am concerned at her obsession with taking care of virtual customers. We still live in the real world with people. What I see in my children is a growing attachment to the virtual world, but how real is that world? What are the long-term implications?

This morning, I went to a memorial service for one of my best friend’s father. He was a very popular doctor in our town for years. The room was filled with friends and family who were touched by him. In that very physical room, the love felt by my girlfriend toward her father was deep and real. Can you ever get that in a virtual world?

I applaud Megan and Shelly for their commitment to finding a way to blend the virtual environment and the literary world to help facilitate understanding for their students. This is one of the most positive and interesting applications of the virtual world I have encountered so far. The worlds of Homer’s Odyssey or other classic literary works are impossible to visit in reality making it a perfect solution for visiting in a virtual reality. I can imagine that there are applications using the virtual world that would make sense in history and science as long as there are teachers with the intelligence and creativity such as Megan and Shelly are ready with the knowledge to find the right balance of educational classroom learning with the virtual environment.

As my daughter shows, immersion in the virtual world begins very early. Despite the enjoyment though and self-proclaimed learning, I think the virtual world remains primarily a place for leisure for most school-age children. It is the challenge of educators to find how to integrate this into the learning environment. The only detriment to that process will be if we ignore the virtual world because that attraction by the generation who feel at home in this environment can be used for positive educational effects when applied with intelligence and restraint.

Eldon, Eric. (2009, October 26). Our top 20 growing games list: The first results after Facebook’s big redesign. Message posted to Inside Social Games:

Comments posted to others regarding this topic:

@Brian and Cathy
I have been fortunate to travel throughout the United States, Europe and Israel over my lifetime. Second Life, the only virtual world I know, is no substitute for the real thing because part of what makes it special are the people and the personal feelings standing in the space no matter what the venue. Cathy, you are right at describing the lack of perspective and placement in the world associated with sites such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I have visited and walked through the Vietnam Memorial many times – it is an emotional experience that can’t be replicated in a virtual environment no matter how well it is reproduced. Brian, I love your ideal scenario of combining Google maps with a virtual being. If that existed, maybe the virtual world could add the color and texture of the real world. Until then, I will remain skeptical.

@Toni and Toni
I agree that the security of the virtual world, especially Second Life, would be of concern if used in the classroom for K-12 unless there were specific places to visit. I also agree that it would be more difficult to control the discussion and attention unless students were committed to the experience, which would likely happen in the older grades. I think it remains to be seen how these challenges will be worked out. Given that YouTube is blocked by most school districts, I am doubtful that virtual worlds, especially those like Second Life, would be accessible within a school district any time in the near future. And without that access, it is unlikely that it can be used as part of the curriculum.

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