These are my notes from the EDUCAUSE 2007 Annual Conference session, “Teaching and Learning Experiences in a User-Created Virtual World,” by David Antonacci (Educational Technology Liaison, University of Kansas Medical Center), Stephanie Gerald (Web Designer/Developer, University of Kansas Medical Center), Ed Lamoureux (Associate Professor, Bradley University), Dave Thomas (Lecturer, University of Colorado at Denver), Randolf Hollingsworth (Assistant Provost, University of Kentucky), and Nick Noaks (Director of the Center for Enhanced Learning and Teaching, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology) delivered on October 25th, 2007.

The panel covered a good range of applications and issues. Ed participated from the floating “Board Room” on the NMC Campus in Second Life (SL) and used the new VOIP functionality to deliver his presentation. This was moderately successful as the sound kept cutting out, probably due to bandwidth issues in the conference ballroom. There were well over 150 people in the room, all armed with multiple wireless devices. David Antonacci led off by defining three major categories of instructional SL applications:

  • Using SL in a course where the tool itself is the focus. For example, Ed described a course in which students learn methods for conducting ethnographic research in virtual worlds.
  • Using SL to support course-related communication and collaboration. Randolf described several collaborative applications, including supporting student-student interaction. She mentioned working with a group of students (Blue Satin Jackets) who will meet and greet new SL members and help orient them to the planned KU SL island.
  • Using SL to support course-related simulations. Dave Thomas described using SL in his Urban Planning and Environmental Design courses to allow students to explore course concepts. Randolf described students role-playing in SP to better understand what it means to be a scholar.

The panel addressed several interesting questions. When asked how to convince conservative, naive administrators to support SL investments, members of the panel recommended emphasizing the exploratory nature of the tool and allowing faculty and students to lead. Ed reminded the audience that SL is to some degree a microcosm of real life (RL). In other ways, SL is a more sheltered environment than RL. He argued that there is probably much more happening that should be cause for administrative concern in the typical college dorm than in SL. Also, SL may offer more intercultural and multicultural opportunities for students than RL.

Interestingly, there was very little discussion about building or scripting in SL. Most of the panel members used existing areas in SL to meet with students and stressed that SL could be used effectively without a large investment in programming and development. Dave mentioned how awkward it is to build in SL compared to other, higher-end 3D authoring environments. I left the session with a couple ideas for further consideration:

  • We have definitely turned the corner in higher education when it comes to virtual worlds. Just about everyone in the audience had an SL avatar and some even entered SL and wandered into the room where Ed’s avatar was sitting during the presentation. I (aka Hoptoad Flan) flew around the floating board room and peeked into the window. At least two people on the panel used the phrase “in world” to describe their travels in SL. The SL “novelty effect” has dissipated, terms like “avatar” are well established in our lexicon, and people are now anxious to determine exactly how tools like SL can impact learning.
  • We are starting to see the next generation of SL academic applications. While the first generation projects seemed to focus on the representation of RL physical environments (e.g., campus buildings), these new applications focus on social interaction and the simulation of concepts that would be difficult or impossible to implement in RL. I am guessing that this is where the academic action will be in the near future.
  • I was intrigued by Dave Thomas’ observation that his design students were better able to “abstract” themselves when evaluating SL versus RL environments. When asked to evaluate RL environments, Dave said that his students often fall back on simple, superficial observations (e.g., “I liked the building because it had a pretty fountain.”). In SL, their observations of the often bizarre designs found in world are more abstract. One potential benefit of virtual worlds that is often mentioned is the ability to shed the social constraints of RL. Dave’s suggestion indicates that students may also be able to shed cognitive biases and limitations and learn to see and think about the world in new ways. This is a very interesting idea.