Posts tagged virtual worlds

Review of "Learning Online with Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds"


Learning Online with Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds: Strategies for Online Instruction is a book by Clark Aldrich, an educational game consultant, which explains the benefits of different types of games, and contains suggested models for instruction. It is intended mainly for teachers and curriculum designers, but could also function as a good introduction to educational games for any interested layperson. It focuses on the preparatory work required to successfully implement educational games in a learning environment, and how to maximize their benefits for students and teachers. The book does more than just describe educational games and argue for their usage. It shows the reader how to identify opportunities for building games, use best practices, and outlines specific steps for developing, preparing, and designing game-oriented instruction.
There are three parts to this book. Part 1 argues for the use of games in education, and posits that virtual environments are actually a natural part of human thinking. Research and studies are referenced, demonstrating the effectiveness of games in education, and showing quite clearly how and why they work.
Different types of interactive learning activities are defined, and divided into three primary categories: games, simulations, and virtual worlds. Games are simpler activities that are meant to be engaging and encourage awareness, while simulations focus more on skill-building. Educational simulations are “structured environments, abstracted from some specific real-life activity, with stated levels and goals” (p. 7). Virtual worlds are “3-D environments where participants from different locations can meet with each other at the same time” (p. 8). Virtual worlds are noted for their detailed interactive models and real-time collaborative learning environment. Visual cues can play a part in virtual world learning, whereas they may not in the other types of interactive learning activities. These different types of activities are not mutually exclusive; there may be overlap among their components. Different types of simulations are broken down into several genres, and the author does a great job classifying the different aspects of games and levels of interaction.
The real meat of the book is in Part 2, which describes how to put highly interactive content into practice. These interactive learning activities are referred to as “Highly Interactive Virtual Environments” (HIVEs). The book mentions stumbling blocks that may be encountered from both students and teachers, and how to overcome them. Detailed steps are provided on how to use HIVEs, including preparing instructional material, obtaining technical support, how to build them or recruit others (such as students) to build the content, and how to determine the best courses of action. The book has a heavy focus on Second Life, and most of the discussion of virtual worlds directly references how to plan and accomplish tasks in Second Life. A lot of the tasks described are often best suited for a higher education environment, so someone in the K-12 field will naturally have to read through the filter of their own unique student safety and appropriate use policies.
A hypothetical setup and process for engaging students in a sim is described, with information about game interfaces, how to draw everyone in, setting the tone, determining learning objectives and outcomes, how to determine appropriate coaching during use, and the value of including competition as a game element to trigger motivation. The author also discusses how to deal with disinterested and frustrated students, and emphasizes the importance of tying the sim to real life.
Of course, knowing all this information about HIVEs is meaningless if you can’t convince your stakeholders that they’re worthwhile. Part 3 contains some much-appreciated and much-needed tactics for convincing administrators, parents, and politicians of the value of HIVEs. The author points out that advocating HIVEs requires that we don’t defend them blindly, but evolve them intelligently. Many people have the misconception that games “dumb down” learning material, simplifying it to a point that entertainment comes before usefulness. We must be able to demonstrate exactly how and why simulations can enrich, rather than flatten content.
The author also spends a good deal of time discussing methods for evaluating instruction in the simulations. In fact, an entire chapter is dedicated to this topic, with references to it throughout the entire book. The psychomotor skills that are often learned through sims can’t be measured through a multiple choice post-test. This is where formative evaluation comes in handy.
The book is shorter than one might expect, but it’s packed with information, and written concisely and informatively. The author gets right to the point. The main concepts are not over-simplified, and there’s a lot of detail specifically about how to approach different types of learning in HIVEs. The author drove home a good point for me: The goal is not to just recreate the classroom in a virtual world environment, but to provide an extension of the classroom that uses the virtual world’s advantages.
After reading this, my thoughts on virtual worlds have changed. I used to think that virtual worlds were just a good way to increase student engagement. Students like games, so naturally many of them would become more involved in the learning process if games were used, right? Well, it’s a lot more than that. There are times when an educational game, simulation, or virtual world is THE best form of instruction. What this book attempts to do is equip the reader with enough tools to recognize WHEN a game, simulation, or virtual world is the best form of instruction, and I think it does a good job of this.
Aldrich, C. (2009). Learning online with games, simulations, and virtual worlds: Strategies for online instruction. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Considering Virtual Worlds


I don’t know why some teachers take exception to calling virtual worlds “games.” Every time I’ve referred to Second Life as a “game” on Twitter, I receive a flurry of replies insisting “Second Life is NOT a game” and “You really think Second Life is a game???”  I think it’s just the cultural mindset that “games are bad” yet “entertaining learning activities are great” even though physically there doesn’t have to be any difference.
I’ve only done a cursory examination of virtual world tools out there, and I hope by the end of my graduate school career, I’ll be able to write a full technology proposal for implementing this. As far as I’m concerned, Second Life is no good for a K-12 district-wide deployment, and here’s why:

  • You’re stuck with either the teen grid or the adult grid.
  • On the teen grid, parents and teachers aren’t even allowed.
  • On the adult grid, students can run into inappropriate content.
  • The teacher and district doesn’t have direct control over what students can do.
  • Students less than 13 years old aren’t even allowed to be on Second Life.

There are other commercial providers that allow you to create your own virtual worlds. Active Worlds is probably the best one, but their educational pricing is quite steep: $650/yr for a classroom of 20, and $395/yr after that. Assuming there aren’t bulk rates, for our school district that would be an initial investment of about $1 million, and $600,000 yearly after that. It’s completely unreasonable for a K-12 school system.
I found two that seem the most promising:

  • Multiverse: This is a hosted (cloud) solution, and has a completely free educational license. There is also an additional license that may be able to integrate with registered students. It appears to require a quote from Multiverse, and I haven’t followed up on this yet so I’m not sure how much it cost.
    Models can be imported from Google Sketchup and Blender, which are both free 3d modeling applications, which means that schools wouldn’t need to invest huge chunks of money to provide modeling tools to students, and students could download these at home.
  • OpenSim: This is basically THE open source Second Life. You can install OpenSim on your own servers, and have complete control over it, and you can even use the Second Life viewer to access it. It’s still in early development, but it’s already creating quite a buzz. What’s more, the SLOODLE plugin, which integrates Moodle with Second Life and lets users take quizzes in the virtual world and submit virtual objects as assignments, generally works with OpenSim (though a few bugs still need to be worked out).
    Google Sketchup models can also be imported into OpenSim, through realXtend (which itself may be a viable virtual world engine). If trying to maintain your own OpenSim server is too much of a burden, there are companies like ReactionGrid that provide hosted OpenSim solutions.

I’m excited to explore the possibilities with virtual worlds, and watch how the products mature. Hopefully we can come up with a solution that works well for everyone in our district, creates focused learning activities, and protects student safety all at the same time.

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Exploring Some Technology Trends


Reading through the 2010 Horizon Report, I learned about a few things I wasn’t too familiar with. I first heard about augmented reality a couple years ago from this article in THE Journal: The idea of encouraging students to apply what they’ve learned in a real-world simulation really struck a chord with me, but I never had a chance to explore augmented reality on my own until now.  Many of the mobile AR apps mentioned in the report were for the iPhone, and I’m a die-hard BlackBerry user, so I switched to web-based tools and loaded up Unifeye.
This is really quite slick. I think augmented reality has great potential in the classroom. What’s more, it can lead to engaging hands-on activities that go beyond the two-dimensional computer screen most of us are used to. I watched a YouTube video one of my classmates posted about AR being used to teach chemistry: It actually reminds me of all the virtual reality hype back in the 1980s, and how the future would all be immersed in virtual reality. I don’t think we’re quite there yet (the current reality’s just fine), but this opens quite a few doors, especially if the simulations are done in 3d space. Imagine, for example, being able to teach medical students how to perform surgeries on a plastic cadaver, with AR showing all the incisions and sutures.
What I would like to see is an open source framework that makes it possible for K-12 teachers to easily create their own AR scenarios. It should be compatible with any PC or smart phone, and users should be able to select from a range of templates that have different features like GPS geocaching, setting up interactions with a simple graphical scripting engine, the ability to share AR programs with others through a central repository, and anything else that might be useful for educators.
I also tried out Google Sketchup, and I’m kind of shocked that I skipped over this until now, because it has enormous potential. I’ve seen the models in the 3d warehouse and plenty of Sketchup projects made by educators. I love how easy it is to import models directly into the program, though it doesn’t integrate very well with other applications like 3d Studio Max or Maya unless you have the Pro version. Student discounts are available, though:
All this particularly interests me because our district has been exploring the possibility of setting up our own virtual world server. The first time I heard about virtual worlds was in reference to Harvard’s “River City Project” cited, again, in an article in THE Journal:–all-the-right-muves.aspx. Most teachers I find familiar with virtual worlds take exception to referring to them as “games” but I don’t think students know the difference. Right now, I see them as potential extensions of online learning systems, where teachers can interact directly with students in a secure space, but give them a lot more options. For example, drafting students could bring their blueprints to life and create architectures within the virtual world. Students could participate in virtual science fairs. What’s more, a school or district could have a public area showcasing the best work from their students.

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