What are Virtual Worlds?

Virtual worlds are richly immersive and highly scalable 2- or 3-D environments. Most, but not all virtual worlds are multi-user spaces, meaning that many people can be in the same virtual space and interact with one another in real time, generally through a representation of themselves as an avatar. While many popular games take place in virtual worlds, virtual worlds are not themselves games. They are social environments over which a physical context can be laid. The most successful in an educational context are flexible spaces, and as such, it is quite common to find professional development activities like conferences and meetings taking place in settings such as Second Life®, OpenSim, Qwak, Active Worlds, and other immersive environments.

The capability of virtual worlds has expanded considerably in the past few years, with enormous development in building tools, climate simulators, physics engines, and the overall capability of these platforms to simulate reality. Virtually every higher education institution has some sort of work going in around virtual spaces, and in just one platform alone, Linden Lab’s Second Life®, thousands of educational projects and experiments are actively underway, with over 20 million avatars.

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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the educational sector you know best?

  • innovative but not something students seem to particularly engage with - best uses are where anonymity, physical neutrality or a different perspective is necessary e.g. advice on sexual health, support for disabled students or scenario role playing.- chris.cobb chris.cobb May 17, 2011
  • I think it will be a long time before this technology becomes relevant to mainstream education. A recent online conference had to abandon a session on using second life because so few of the participants were able to get into the environment. There has to be a huge added value in being in a virtual world in order to compensate for they large amounts of dead time required to simply navigate around. Having been into a number of simulations I have found very few where the cost benefit analysis was favourable! - alistair.mcnaught alistair.mcnaught May 18, 2011

(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

  • In the UK, uptake of virtual worlds has been very slow (in education at least). At the same time, the technology does not appear to have evolved significantly over the last few years. My suspicion is that we need a significant step change in something (processing power and.or bandwidth) before we see another significant rise in interest. - andy.powell andy.powell May 18, 2011
  • The cost implications of using Second Life by educators seems to have engendered a shift towards interest in open source solutions (particularly OpenSim) by those people who have an interest in this technology. - andy.powell andy.powell May 18, 2011
  • These systems are still very complex both to author and to move around in. Until they become simpler they have little traction in the highly pressured world of education. - alistair.mcnaught alistair.mcnaught May 18, 2011

(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on teaching, learning, research or information management within the next five years?

  • There are certain applications such as flight simulation, emergency planning scenarios, virtual anatomy, virtual autopsy, virtual dissection, social science and psychology experiments etc were virtual world would offer opportunities (or freedom from constraints) which would be a genuine educational value. I see a real role for collaborative ventures to create open educational resources such as a virtual circulatory system that could be used in training thousands of nurses and doctors across dozens of institutions. The high upfront investment would be worth it for high quality resources with a high level of persistence. It is not however a mainstream tool. It also evokes very different (usually bipolar) responses from people. Anecdotally I would suggest that people who are into computer games are more likely to perceive virtual worlds as having value whereas people who don't like computer games tend to have an equally poor view of second life and its related cousins. - alistair.mcnaught alistair.mcnaught May 18, 2011

(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?

At eXact learning solutions we experimented the blending of Virtual and Real learning worlds in IRMOS project (www.irmosproject.eu) where we synched avatar learners in Virtual Worlds with real learners in real world using mobile devices .
Read more at http://irmosproject.eu/Files/Ticemed_Mazzetti_VirtualCitiesOfArtImmersiveExperience_v3.pdf
- fabrizio.cardinali fabrizio.cardinali May 17, 2011

JISC has done a lot of work in this area - see for example http://www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/generalpublications/2009/gettingstartedsecondlife.aspx s a taster. - alistair.mcnaught alistair.mcnaught May 18, 2011

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