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ELI Web Seminar

Powerful But Not a Panacea:

Virtual Worlds as a Tool for Situational Learning

February 19, 2008


  • Aaron Delwiche
  • Assistant Professor, Department of Communication
  • Trinity University, San Antonio, TX


Discussion Questions:

  • In what ways do virtual worlds exhibit the potential to enhance teaching and learning?
    • How has that potential been demonstrated to this point?
  • Does the use of virtual worlds to support teaching and learning pose particularly challenges?
    • What potential pitfalls do we need to consider?
  • What ideas from this seminar best apply to your institution?
    • What changes might you consider as a result?



  • prior experience in the group, teaching in virtual worlds?
    • some (none in our group)
  • familiarity with virtual worlds?
    • a number of various experience with various virtual worlds (looks like primarily gaming and social chat)


Background About Trinity University

  • about 2,000 students
  • robust library system
    • great support and technological environment made these activities possible


Virtual Worlds Emergence Class

  • slide shows students at computers in a classroom
    • computer lab
    • students are physically present together, but they are actually all interacting in different virtual spaces; all the interaction/dialog is happening online
    • the class: theories of online marketing, online persuasion
    • students read widely about marketing theory, as well as about current virtual worlds
    • class group projects: set up a dating service within Second Life (SL) and marketed it
    • http://www.elasticcollision.com


Understanding Virtual Worlds

  • helpful to have a more specific definition


Characteristics of Virtual Worlds

  • simulated environments
    • increasing sense/look of realism
    • give users the sense of being present "somewhere else"
    • immersive, compelling environments-- can sometimes be too compelling
  • users represented as avatars
    • your character, or a representation of yourself
    • can be either very similar or dissimilar from the user (both physically and emotionally/mentally)
    • the avatars can be long-standing; users spend large amounts of time and energy creating and using them
    • "Alter Ego"
      • representations of avatars and their creators
      • Robbie Cooper
  • multiple users co-present at the same time
    • "meta-verse" (Neal Stephenson)
    • collaboration takes place in these spaces -- not just traditional game objectives and narratives
      • WOW guilds gathering for events
      • various social formations/events
  • persistence (users can make persistent changes to the world)
    • the world registers the changes that people make (changes remain stable and affective)
    • able to create and decorate their own spaces


Social Virtual Worlds vs. Game Worlds

  • Everquest, WOW traditionally conceived as game worlds
  • Second Life a social world
    • social VW's are defined/built/designed primarily by the users
    • social VW's have more potential in the classroom because they present a blank slate
    • but they aren't the only way to go; there are effective classroom uses for game worlds
    • most SL users are over 25; a significant number are also over 35
    • these aren't automatically or only avenues for youth
  • real activities taking place inside VW's
    • virtual personalities becoming actual millionaires
    • "AvaStar" tabloid
    • VW book-signing
  • publishers of various types are considering this avenue of interaction with audiences (book fans)


Theoretical Context

  • is this just a bunch of hype, a fad that will pass?
  • a lot of faculty are still frustrated about having Blackboard or Powerpoint "shoved down their throat"
  • in many or even most situations, these VW's probably aren't appropriate
    • but there are situations that are perfect for it
  • so why/when use VW's?
  • these virtual spaces can be highly engaging
    • "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
    • can help learning
    • avatar role-playing can foster understanding
      • RP is a powerful tool for getting people to identify with other perspectives, to think outside themselves
      • VW's have the potential to liberate student imaginations and particularly help shy students
    • promotes collaborative problem-solving
    • overcomes distance limitations
      • screenshot of class being virtually held online, with students in Texas and instructor in the UK
    • mirrors 21st-century workplace
      • the world that students will be working in, in the future
      • virtual conference rooms look like real ones
      • slide showing a lot of technology company logos
        • poster for the silicon valley of Bangalor, India
      • "The World is Flat," Thomas Friedman
      • a global workplace
  • situated learning
    • re-conceptualizing knowledge
      • knowledge is socially constructive
      • students aren't just repositories for knowledge, but encouraged to react and influence body of knowledge
    • communities of practice


Tips for Teaching with Virtual Worlds

  • be prepared to make a deep commitment to the VW component of your course
    • you must be immersed in the community
    • be hesitant to pull SL into a curriculum unless you're determined to work with all the various hurdles
  • plan for a steep learning curve
  • access hardware access issues up front
    • very demanding on system hardware, particularly graphics hards
    • important to be sure that students have access to computers that will run this software (their own and/or computer labs)
    • important to have very supportive IT dept.
  • tap into extensive community resources
    • in-world communities
      • SLED (second life educators)
    • out-of-world communities
  • walk a fine line between freedom and control
    • situated learning, lean more toward freedom, but need traditional types of debriefing to be sure that students can translate this knowledge into the real world
  • anticipate blurred boundaries
    • be prepared for a certain kind of intimacy or permissive environment
    • the authority of the classroom and instructor isn't quite there
    • you don't want to alienate students, but go into it knowing what your boundaries are



Q: about using Second Life

  • SL is not the easiest learning curve, but it's possible if you're patient
  • if you want to teach in SL, spend the semester beforehand using it and preparing
  • there are a lot of great content creators in SL that would be happy to help design a class


Q: what kind of support do you provide faculty to use SL in their classes?

  • Trinity has a robust technology team and library structure
  • Aaron's done all the SL work himself, because he's excited about it
  • there's not an institutional commitment at the moment to using SL, but there is interest


Q: how do you bring students up to speed in a SL class? (takes about 4 - 6 hours to adjust to SL)

  • it's a problem/hurdle
  • technically-gifted students may intimidate others
  • give additional class time for adjustment, like a weekly viewing in a film class (a lab section)
  • Joe Sanchez, UT Austin faculty member writing a lot about teaching in SL
    • also blogs about this


Q: Accessibility issues?

  • SL works in limited ways with visually-impaired students
  • adaptive technology
  • but at its heart, it is a visual medium
  • users in SL with disabilities organize and discuss these issues
  • we need to see accessibility increasing in VW's


Q: examples of research collaborations in SL?

  • Karen Nova's blog on virtual worlds and collaborative projects
  • an enormous amount out there


Q: is there room for interoperability for avatars between worlds?

  • hot topic right now; how portable will our avatars be?
  • blog, Virtual World News: industry discussions about interoperability
  • blog, World Immersion Blog, also discusses these issues


Q: what is an appropriate class size for an SL class?

  • smaller is better (15 or so)
  • some have been successful with larger classes, but over 30 would be difficult


Q: using SL for advising services?

  • works well for an informal advising session
  • looking into incorporating it at an institutional level
  • boundaries become blurred in VW's become teacher, advisor, student


Q: when and where will the white paper be available?

  • the Elastic Collision site, next week

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