Top 20 uses of Virtual Worlds in Education

September 19th, 2012 No Comments Features

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Editor’s Note: This is part two of Using Virtual Worlds to educate. You can find part 1 here.

You probably never thought you could attend a virtual lecture, discussion, exam, or lab in 3D.  In fact, this is already possible.  Virtual worlds have clear advantages over traditional classroom settings.

I once had to teach high school students the importance of safety precautions for a welding class.  I presented several powerpoint presentations, a safety exam, and then allowed those who passed the exam to begin welding.  I trembled.  Despite knowing I had prepared them well, I would have much preferred for students to interact in a virtual world first.  As a teacher, I can see the many advantages virtual worlds provide.

I delved a bit further into the uses of virtual worlds and even created an avatar of my own (PiJustice) to see the current applications of virtual worlds in education.

Here is what I found:

Virtual worlds are emerging as a meeting place for the most prestigious universities, non-profits, and academic institutions in the world. 

Their uses are varied and can adapt to different needs.

  1. Communications scenarios.  It is clear virtual worlds are being used to teach field specific communications.  For example, an MBA negotiations class may meet virtually with different company leaders to negotiate the terms of an agreement.
  2. Developing Tools.  Some scientific fields are integrating lectures with 3D models for teaching purposes.  For instance, in the field of forensic pathology, Second Life is being used to teach autopsy procedures.
  3. Staging an Exhibition.  Students at the London College of Fashion held a virtual degree show and created a Second Life building to display their final projects.
  4. Virtual campuses.  These are becoming quite common.  Many universities are building a virtual presence to focus on learning resources, student centers, and marketing efforts.
  5. Virtual Classrooms-Some professors are using the platform as a meeting space for students to attend lecture with embedded videos, illustrations, ebooks, or 3D models.
  6. Virtual Centers.  Several prestigious research labs and centers, such as the POC Center for Emerging Neurotechnology are creating virtual offices to discuss ideas, meet colleagues, share methodologies, or compare research.
  7. Conferences Facilities.  The MAYO clinic in Second Life hosts virtual events on diseases for residents and even includes a bookstore.
  8. Technical Training.  A virtual scenario might prepare hair stylists to practice the steps of the coloring process.  Practice can not only build confidence, but emphasize important techniques.
  9. Virtual Field trip.  This option is great if you only want to use the technology for a trial basis or as a final project.   Engineers might visit a chemical plant and see how they would address problems.
  10. Simulated Experiences.  To experience a simulated world.  For instance, The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) created a world to simulate a tsunami or hurricane.
  11. Safety-focused Lessons.  This can be especially useful to see if students are ready to perform dangerous activities that can be life-threatening, such as trauma, terrorist, or evacuation trainings.
  12. Virtual World economies.  Virtual worlds have their own currency and economies.  The Second Life currency is the Linden, which can be used to buy objects, land, or personalize your virtual appearance. Students might explore the economy of a virtual world. USC Marshall School of Business uses the platform to allow students to run their own businesses and manage rental properties.
  13. Archaeological and historical sites.  Some countries are exploring replicating archeological sites for public viewing and research studies.
  14. Libraries and Museums: Some academics from the ALA (American Library Association) are predicting that “cloud” technology coupled with virtual platforms may make traditional libraries obsolete.  Stanford University already has a virtual university library in Second Life.
  15. Student Activism.  Anti-violence campuses on Second Llife integrate seminars, workshops, exhibitions and films related to anti-bullying, violence and discrimination.
  16. Language Learning.  Second life is especially popular for practicing language skills.  Text and audio forms of language can be integrated in meaningful ways to support learning.
  17. Cultural Immersion.  Some courses are using virtual worlds to recreate interactive exhibits, such as exploring the heritage of Native peoples.
  18. Instructors design a world with specific parameters.  This is especially useful if you want students to practice exploring a scientific site, such as a virtual mine before visiting the real thing.
  19. Research Studies.  Since the field is still relatively new, virtual worlds themselves are the subject of much academic research.  Cornell University’s Weill Medical College is currently exploring if Virtual Technology can be used to help individuals cope with PTSD related to the World Trade Center bombings.
  20. Collaboration.  The process of creating a world provides a learning experience in itself.  Students must learn what parameters and aspects should be included to have it simulate a real situation or environment.  For example, an urban planning course, might create a world that follows the principles of an ideal urban plan or architecture students might design buildings for a city.

But not all virtual worlds are created equal.

virtual class

Students in COM 563:Virtual Environments class created a 3D tour of the iMedia floor at Elon University.

The HITLAB (Human Interface Technology Lab) of the University of Washington has explored recent applications of virtual worlds.   Some educational applications of virtual worlds are better than others.  HITLAB refers to best practices in Christine Youngblut’s research paper for the Institute of Defense Analysis, on the Educational uses of Virtual Reality Technology.

She explains that virtual spaces can be best applied to visualize abstract concepts.

What is the best application of virtual technology in the classroom?

Youngblut’s research has found some crucial characteristics for the successful integration of virtual worlds.

  • Effective virtual worlds allow the learner to visualize or enact learning scenarios through active engagement.
  • The key to efficacy of virtual worlds is interactivity, rather than immersion.  This simply means that students learn by doing in this environment.
  • Virtual worlds can be applied to create spaces that transcend safety or distance parameters.
  • Ease of navigation through the world seems to make the user experience better and improve learning motivation.
  • Teachers best serve as facilitators in the discovery process, rather than problem solvers.
  • Desktop Virtual worlds are the preferred method as they more cost effective and less cumbersome than immersive VR.
  • Worlds must build learning through interaction and construction, rather than by assimilation as with traditional instruction.

In addition, virtual worlds can be used to effectively integrate media, such as:

  • e-Books
  • Hyperlinked articles
  • Objects to manipulate, such as artifacts
  • Interactive calendars or blackboards
  • Surveys, where feedback is sent via email

What is the Current Trend?

Virtual World Watch has monitored the use of virtual worlds by UK academics and made reports and presentations on the uses of Second Life in education.

According to the survey observations of one academic, “We seem to be moving into a phase where virtual worlds are taken very seriously as potential environments for learning which means, as an institution, we don’t waste time trying to repeatedly convince ourselves any more.” 

For some universities, cost seems to be a looming issue, due to recent cutbacks in educational funding.  In response to this, some educators are exploring free, open-source platforms for virtual worlds besides Second Life, such as Open Sim and Open Wonderland.  OpenSim is emerging as the most popular open source platform for academics.

Image by John Lester


Miriam Clifford holds a Masters in Teaching from City University and a Bachelor in Science from Cornell. She loves research and is passionate about education. She is a foodie and on her time off enjoys cooking and gardening. You can find her @miriamoclifford or Google+.

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