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The Value of Play

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Play connects us to others, fosters creativity, helps with social skills, motivates and increases cognitive growth, according to Vygotsky’s research on play.    We like to play and we learn from playing, so playing in a virtual setting seems to be logical enhancement … Continue reading

Virtual Visuals add to Authentic Engagement

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.

Avatars attending a building Class at NCI on SL. Snoopy was a classmate.

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.

A class getting ready to go on a field trip

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.

Visual Arts in The Virtual World

The virtual world is of course a visual art in and of itself, but there is potential to provide learning experiences in a virtual setting that would otherwise be impossible in the real world.  In my experience, the world of visual arts can be brought to students to consume in 4 ways.

First the traditional way of walking around a museum and looking at the art.  One of the most extensive museums in the virtual world that I have seen is the Dresden Museum on Second Life (Dresden Gallery 120,128,26), which houses 750 masterpieces of European art.  An avatar can walk around the museum  and see the famous art, clicking on it to get information as it is desired. This method of learning about the art mimics a strategy used in the real world.

An avatar floats down Rumsey's Map Museum tower

The second method takes the display and viewing of works to a different level, literally.  Here an avatar can view a large collection of artwork in a “museum”  that can be traversed only in a virtual setting.  A wonderful example of this is the Rumsey Map Museum on Second Life ( Rumsey Maps 2 (193,201,715)).  The avatar visiting this museum  can fly through a tower to view the extensive map collection, stopping to click on any of interest to get additional information.

The third method of  learning about art in a virtual setting involves becoming a part of the art.  Art Box (Klaw 5,21,46) on Second Life has selected pieces of artwork with human subjects.

An avatar becomes a part of a famous piece of art in Art Box.

Participants are provided an opportunity to choose a painting and then click on a poseball to become the subject in the art.  The owners offer props and costumes for some of the art work.  Laguna Beach California has a real life, annual art show reminiscent of this strategy of enjoying art.  Actors dress and pose while backdrops and lighting are used to duplicate a painting in real life.   In the virtual setting the participant gets to make the art selection and become a part of it.  Certainly more immersive than just looking at it.

Sitting in Van Gogh's room. The builder created an elongated room to ensure groups of visitors had a correct view.

Finally, an avatar can visit a location and be completely immersed in the art.  In the case of Arles (168,23,29) on Second Life.  This amazing sim allows avatars to walk around Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings as they may have been seen by the artist.  The paintings are a 3D form and allow complete interaction.  An avatar can climb one of the famous yellow haystacks, sit in a cafe and enjoy the “starry night”, or even sit in Van Gogh’s bedroom.

The many museums in the virtual environment  each have policies regarding the use of the images they display.  It is best to experience them by visiting the location.

The places described here are not available to students under 18 years of age, but the methods may be used to create art locations in the Opensim grids so that students may interact with art and thus learn about it.  Better yet, students may become the producers and create these environments with art work in the public domain or even their own art work.

Engagement and Immersion

On May 20 Iggyo wrote about Princeton’s abandoning Second Life “…replicating a campus and setting up lecture halls make little sense in a world where we can fly and where a lecture can be streamed to the flat Web. Virtual worlds are places for simulations and immersion, not recapitulation and passivity.”

It is interesting that so many universities “rebuild” their campuses on Second Life, the administration buildings, the student socializing areas and the classrooms.  When I ask, why? the response I get is something like “people need a frame of reference”.  Indeed, many of the builders I have met on SL do build structures they are familiar with or have at least visited.  The environments are true to the geography even with the flora and fauna – with an occasional fantasy figure thrown in ( a mermaid in Maine, or a Loch Ness Monster in Scotland) maybe not so true to scale, so some interpretive expression is taking place.   They take great pains to find just the right textures so the build is true to the real place.  Perhaps it is an evolutionary process – we build first what we are familiar with, we copy, replicate, duplicate, imitate.  We do what we have always done  but in a different place, in this case a virtual place.

The next step will be to do things differently and the virtual environment does encourage doing things differently.  Why talk at students about what happens when you mix certain chemicals instead of letting them do it safely and inexpensively?  Why lecture to students about a period in history instead of giving them the opportunity to experience it?  Why show pictures of an artist’s work instead of having students immerse themselves in that work?  Why describe how geometric forms fit together in building structures instead of providing opportunities for students to experiment with these structures?

Active engagement is something we say we strive for in classrooms yet we continue to tell, lecture, demonstrate, talk-at and describe.  We know that the ones doing the talking and the ones doing the doing are the ones doing the learning – perhaps the virtual environment can help to move us in that direction.  It does not make sense to gather students in a virtual room and talk at them – we have had mixed results doing it in the real world with this Talk-at-you strategy.  As Iggyo said “...Virtual worlds are places for simulations and immersion.”  Active learning produces better results in any world so perhaps taking advantage of the VW capabilities will provide what we have been unable to provide in the real world.

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Consumer and Producer

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Frequent questions regarding Virtual environments in education are “So what does a student do in a virtual world?  How/what does a student learn?”.   What students can do falls into two categories, they can consume content and they can produce content. … Continue reading