by Matthew Worwood

A virtual world, is a multi-user, 3D computer-generated environment where participants interact with each other using graphical representations of themselves, called avatars. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of this new technology is how it can be incorporated in a 21st Century classroom.

Virtual Worlds engage students in many unique ways, perhaps because of their similarity to video games. From experience, our best success has come when students use the technology to produce their own creations and have access to their own land. At the Center for 21st Century Skills at EDUCATION CONNECTION, we’ve come to appreciate how this technology can be used as an online environment where students from multiple schools can interact in real time and share their work with peers. In 2011, we held a virtual summit for educators inside our Second Life estate and recently developed a game-based environment in our OpenSim platform. Students form colonies, and purchase land with gold coins obtained from activities such as the 10 Cube Challenge. With mechanics similar to that of Minecraft, the objective of the game is to produce a colony that is the envy of the world. A secondary objective is to obtain as much gold as possible.

My suggestion would be to avoid any in-world activities that require an avatar to sit for too long. In a world where they can fly, walk through walls, and live underwater, most traditional styles of teaching should be avoided. With applications like Scratch for Second Life, virtual worlds can become an opportunity to learn basic programming, as well as learn some of the basic principals of 3D modeling. The social aspect has potential, though it needs to be structured and monitored when working with multiple schools.
I’ve had great fun learning the technology and building a world from scratch. Despite the many hurdles that have been presented, the design process has been extremely rewarding, and I believe we have produced a variety of meaningful learning experiences that have become an integral part of our curriculum.

Below is a brief overview of some of the options available to an educator interested in using virtual worlds in their classroom.

Second Life
There are a variety of virtual worlds available to those interested in exploring how they can serve an educational environment. Perhaps the most well known is Second Life, with over 20,000,000 users, though its not clear how many of these accounts are active. Second Life has many estates that can be accessed by avatars, they include Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, European Cites, Universities, Science Labs, Museums and unfortunately a selection of inappropriate content. The latter has made it difficult for educational use in a K-12 classroom. Second Life does allow the purchase of your own island that is password protected and does not allow student accounts to venture beyond its firewall.

Second Life is a worthwhile starting point, and while the download of a viewer is required, not having to deal with hosting your own world can be advantageous, as we’ll soon find out. For those interested in establishing their own Second Life estate I’d suggest contacting the New Media Consortium.

Personally, I have a love, hate relationship with Second Life. I love the new viewer, the option of voice, and the ability to upload mesh objects (this allows students to use objects made in applications like Blender, Mayer and 3D Studio Max). However, from an educational perspective, I don’t feel comfortable with the inappropriate content and some of the role-playing aspect that takes place in-world. Once you choose to establish your own estate, it can get costly, and the subject of copyright over objects that you have purchased or had made can become problematic.

OpenSim is an open source project released by Liden Labs, the makers of Second Life. As an open source project it has many issues related to its development and can be prone to bugs that are not addressed as quickly as one would like. That being said, its available for free download, and allows users to create their very own virtual world. Server knowledge is a must, though there are many companies that will happily host for a fee. Working with another company is a good idea in the early stages, but ultimately this will cost money. There are a selection of different viewers that can be used to access the world and once set up its capabilities are not too different to that of a private estate in Second Life. While more primitive, the perks are complete control over accounts, content and no need to insert credit card information in order to upload content.

Personally, it’s been a rough road using OpenSim. On writing this many of the major issues have been addressed and it now appears to be working successfully, but it has been painful with regular crashes and disappointed teachers and students along the way. However, we are expected to reach over 200 users before the year is through and having complete control is a necessity. If you have an interest in OpenSim you may want to network with the Immersive Education community, or contact me and I’ll happily give you some advice and contacts.

Watch this space! More and more educators are using Minecraft in the classroom. It has less functionality than the likes of Second Life or OpenSim, but its simplicity is a proven success. The social aspect of the game is receiving the some attention, though you do need to purchase Minecraft EDU and have access to a server. It doesn’t suffer from as many technical issues as OpenSim, but If you’re interested in programming or modeling with more than cube objects this might not be a good fit.

We worked with ReactionGrid in our early stages with OpenSim. They are a wonderful group of individuals that worked tirelessly to support our needs. While I’m disappointed that they stopped supporting OpenSim, I would still highly recommend them to those investigating different options. Jibe is their own virtual world project produced using Unity. I can’t speak with too much knowledge about this platform, but have received an overview and have a working knowledge of Unity. I think it has a lot of potential, particularly because Unity products can be made available with mobile devices and accessed with a browser. That being said, there are a few deal breakers that currently exist, the first is that there are no build options, the second is that students can not upload content, though it might be worth investigating if this has changed. I think Jibe has many interesting prospects, particularly for the creation of an interactive learning space and/or simulation.