17 November, 2008

Using Virtual Worlds in Higher Education

As I'm focussing my SOLSTICE Fellowship project on using Virtual Worlds in Higher Education, I decided to put together an overview of the possibilities and challenges relating to using them.

For my purposes, 'Virtual Worlds' includes 3D social spaces like Second Life, simulation environments (like Google Earth might be used as part of) and gaming environments like World of Warcraft. Metaverse Roadmap's overview especially their diagram of where Virtual Worlds, Mirror Worlds, Lifelogging and Augmented Reality fit together, looks like a useful tool to help me keep a focus.

Much research has already been done and made publically available. For a visual overview of virtual worlds in general Kzero have produced diagrams which do a great job of helping us to visualise the overwhelming variety and number of non-gaming virtual worlds that are being developed. For the 3rd Quarter of 2008 they have a diagram that shows the age group that use the environments, the number of subscribers and when each was released. They also have one that shows the type of the environment, and the age group that use it.

Other interesting starting points include JISC's new scoping study, Serious Virtual Worlds which links to relevant research. The Second Life in Education wiki is a extensive collection of links to the ways that educators are using that particular environment.

After looking at some of the research and activities going on, there are several general areas and questions that I think might be worth looking at.

1. Online Synchronous Discussion.

The Openhabitat project included a cohort of Philosophy students using Second Life for group discussion and David White's excellent presentation about Openhabitat includes information about this. Listening to this presentation got me thinking about how online interaction differs in a Virtual World, compared to the basic Chat tools that we use now. Is anything useful added to the experience by using Virtual Worlds? As the technology develops how will these experiences and the value of using the environments for online discussion change?

2. Learning to Navigate and Create.

Some Virtual Worlds allow you to build complex environments and simulations. Pretty much any project going on in Second Life will require some building, and projects like the PREVIEW project will require more complex scripting. If we are going to create environments for Edge Hill courses, it would be useful to the planning process to know what skills, processes and time are required to build environments, of various levels of complexity, in different Virtual Worlds. Also what time and skills would the student require to use each environment?

3. The Future.

a. It seems like the initial rush by businesses to set up in Second Life has slowed down. What are businesses in general likely to be doing next in the area of Virtual Worlds? Can we help prepare students for any uses of Virtual Worlds that they may come across in their working lives or future lives outside of work?

b. Currently, according to Kzero's data, the most subscribed to Virtual Worlds are aimed at children. This suggests that, over the next 5 to 10 years we might be expecting people who have grown up using virtual worlds. What might virtual worlds look like then, and how can we best prepare for their possible mainstream use?

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