The difference between participating in a cyber educational event via a webinar and one via a virtual world is dramatic. When I first started to explore the use of virtual worlds to determine potential use in education I asked, “why not just use an online meeting software package? A webinar allows voice, is in real-time, allows sharing and collaborating, includes chat and sidebar conversations as well as the benefits of not having to waste time in travel and logistics of a F-t-F event”. The use of an avatar and mechanics of having to find the right outfit for her to wear, to have her transport, walk and sit in a virtual auditorium seemed a little silly.
Having participated in both types of events I can now say that, for me, the Virtual World experience is much more connected. Even a ‘talking head’ presentation with a Powerpoint is more active in the 3D virtual world than participating in a 2D webinar. I have observed that in a 3D environment the audience seems more likely to ask questions and provide commentary which adds to the information and addresses adult learning principles. The chat texts I have saved from regular ISTE sessions are much longer and more interesting than the ones I have from Elluminate and Meeting-Place sessions I have attended. They are also less formal, more natural.
When I attend a “flat” webinar I have a tendency to multi-task, to have the webinar on in the background while I do some other work at my desk. Conversely, when sitting in an audience of avatars there is a feeling of presence. I look around and see who else is there, I may chat with someone I know, introduce myself to someone I don’t know and contribute to the conversation in local chat for everyone’s benefit or chat privately on the issues being discussed. I rarely do other work and concentrate on the topic at hand. I am more engaged.
Virtual events that incorporate instructional strategies such as grouping participants, taking “field trips”, and interacting with content in the environment are even more engaging and push participants to participate.
The use of the virtual world medium is still evolving and it seems the majority of decision makers have yet to be convinced of potential educational merits. I was not convinced until I had mastered some basic avatar communication and mobility skills and had participated several times in sessions that were of particular interest with skilled presenters. I have paid more attention to the cartoons in virtual worlds than to an unattached voice and a whiteboard on my computer desktop.