Managing a Virtual Environment Classroom

The traditional physical classroom has not changed much in the past hundred years.  It contains desks and chairs for students, a teacher desk and chair, a board on which to write or project and wall space which is often decorated with appropriate curricular materials. The most important instructional resource in the classroom is the teacher. A skilled teacher manages the space, materials, furnishings, and students to ensure that students are engaged and learning.  A virtual learning space has less boundaries and limitations and a skilled teacher is again the most important resource.  The teacher must  manage the three-dimensional virtual space, guide students to navigate and interact with the environment and provide experiences to ensure that learning takes place.

Often virtual learning spaces are a replica of the traditional, providing a frame of reference for participants and taking advantage of the potential available in a virtual setting with ‘backchannel’ chat and follow-up assignments.  Teachers and students understand the traditional role of  “sage on the stage” and play the respective roles in the virtual setting, with the added benefits of a virtual setting.  Students can be physically in the same room using computers (a lab setting) requiring both real world and a virtual world classroom management strategies or in remote locations which would require more intensive virtual strategies to ensure engagement of students.  The teacher must :

  • Plan
  1. Design experiences which are interesting, relevant and aligned to curriculum objectives
  2. Plan appropriate amount of time for completing of tasks
  3. Provide direction and guidance so that students know expctations
  • Deliver and Guide
  1. Give clear directions
  2. Encourage questions and answer according to the protocol established
  3. Circulate (virtually and/or physically) among students to provide individual support and ensure engagement
  4. Institute a “buddy” policy for peer support
  5. Intervene when necessary

Norma Underwood uses both real-life and virtual world classroom management strategies to ensure learning for 5th - 8th grade art students on her sim in Reaction Grid.

Virtual Literature Circles

Facilitating a literature circle takes skill and even the most practiced practitioners sometimes have challenges in encouraging the reticent to speak up.  In her article “The Virtual Circle” Stacy Kitsis describes how she used blogging to support student participation and thoughtful reflection. This English teacher describes a number of positive observations including increases in engagement and interaction, completion of homework, and active reading.  Ms. Kitsis described how the more reticent students chose to use pseudonyms for their blogs and were ‘not shy’ with their entries.

The success described could be taken a step further by conducting the literature circles in an immersive environment.  Positive aspects achieved in blogging could be even more enhanced as students use their avatars to reflect and discuss the selected literature.  The discussions could take place in voice or in text, the latter offers an archival benefit.

Evidence vs Adult Intervention

Remember the clubhouse in the woods you built with your friends.  It was your clubhouse.  You and your friends thought of it, planned it, gathered materials, constructed it, fought about it, fought in it, plotted in it, pretended to be super-heros or knights in it, and then probably tore it down because it seemed like a good idea and it was yours to tear down.  Remember the playhouse that the little girl down the street had.  Her father built it for her.  It was a beauty; A door with hinges and a door knob, heart-shaped shutters, flower-boxes, shingles, matching curtains and furnishings.  She had a birthday party and everyone got to go into it but you couldn’t “mess it up”. Nobody really played there much, it collected spiderwebs.  It sat forever – a monument to adult intervention.

As I listened to the ISTE Speaker Series on SL Tuesday night, Knowclue’s message was most profound.  She said she is a stickler on students building and making their own environment in SL Teen Grid and now on Reaction Grid where she provides instruction.  I sat in the audience and asked “what evidence do you have of student achievement?”  My thoughts were focused on what so many educators are thinking about:  test scores, numbers, Adequate Yearly Progress, achievement data, standards.  Of course these are important quantifiable data points and so is the remarkable build that her students created.

A student build in a virtual world - minimal adult intervention.

The evidence is that children built a community based on a unit of study.  The student Build required the use of communication, collaboration and problem solving (those 21st Century Skills).  It required the use of mathematics and integration of an artistic sensibility.  The students had to read/research and take notes, write, and compute.  Knowclue has a clue and she also has evidence.  The student product is the evidence.  The students will be tested in the standards at the end of the year and those scores too will be reviewed – together they form the picture of evidence.  My hunch is the students who build will demonstrate more learning gains than the students who have it built for them,  look to the evidence.

Social Learning in Immersive Environments

Much is discussed on the topic of Social Networking and the potential use of this technology in education.   Research indicates that individuals benefit from a social approach to learning.  L. Rendell et al. states that “Social learning (learning through observation or interactionwith other individuals) is widespread in nature and is centralto the remarkable success of humanity…” .  Immersive environments have gained acceptance in post-secondary education for the past several  years. VLearning: Is The Future Of Online Education A 3D Virtual Classroom? describes several studies that determined a positive correlation between the increased interaction among classmates and instructors in virtual classrooms and involvement in the course work and comprehension of material.  It states, “… this to be particularly true for students who have a difficult time engaging in face-to-face discussions, but who will ask questions freely and contribute to live debates in a virtual classroom.”

In their book The New Social Learning Bingham and Connor devote a chapter to the topic of social learning in immersive environments, describing the successful uses in multiple corporate training programs.  Social learning involves interaction, engagement and mutual exchange and benefit to participants.

The research on the  successful use of immersive environments in professional development and post-secondary education are certainly reason to consider exploring these strategies in the K-12 sector.

Architecture for the Virtual Environment

When people build in the virtual environment they create structures that resemble ones in the real world.  Buildings, offices, houses, castles and classrooms have standard walls, doors, windows, and furnishings that replicate the real world.  Perhaps it is because building what we are familiar with provides a frame of reference and feeling of comfort. In her blog,  Avril Korman refers to Virtual World architecture as virtuatecture and discusses this desire for a home that looks familiar.

Virtual world “physics”, almost limitless creative possibilities, and avatar abilities suggest a more innovative architectural approach.  Accommodating avatars who transport or fly in for a meeting requires a space that can be easily accessed with wide doorways, minimal walls or open rooftops.  You can still have the familiarity of RL spaces with the added benefit of virtuatecture to accommodate the unique qualities and possibilities of the virtual setting.

The rooftops at CLIVE in Second Life allow for easy access.

The buildings at CLIVE (Center for Learning in Virtual Environments) are generally standard looking buildings, with the exception of large openings in the rooftops for avatars to be able to fly in and exit easily.

The iSchool classroom on Mellanium in Reaction Grid

The iSchool classroom on Reaction Grid is an open air classroom, easy to access via either a teleport or flying in, yet the space is somewhat traditional with the students desks in rows facing the instructor station and presentation area.

These two spaces illustrate the best of both worlds.

A wide ramp helps avatars to make their way into Gridizens market on Reaction Grid.

Rails keep an avatar from falling off a steep ramp.

Another feature to keep in mind is the ground  (stairs/ramp) access to a facility.  In real life we typically have stairs with a narrow ramp for wheelchair use.  In a virtual setting avatars generally do better with wide ramps or rails with narrower ramps so they don’t fall off.

XSS Bucky Fuller on Mellanium in Reaction Grid and Museum of the Globe are two builds that take full advantage of the attributes of virtual environments.  This virtuatecture looks unlike what we would encounter in the real world yet it works effectively in the virtual setting with large attractive spaces that can be reached via teleport and used in a variety of ways.

XSS Bucky Fuller in Reaction Grid

Museum of the Globe on Second Life

Teen Grid Gone. What’s next in Virtual Worlds for Teen Students?

The recent announcement of the discontinuing of the Teen Grid on Second Life and allowing 16 and 17 year olds to register on the Second Life Main grid has sparked much conversation regarding digital responsibility and safety on the Internet and Virtual Worlds.  In conversations with colleagues, educators using the Teen Grid, Second Life residents and students I have some thoughts about what could and maybe should happen.

Operating a secure closed grid was a complicated venture and educational organizations were not exactly flocking to take advantage, for several reasons.  Costly fingerprinting and background checks for people who already have fingerprints and background checks, a reputation for adult content (despite the security and separate grid), and a general lack of knowledge and understanding of VW among educators were all barriers to taking advantage of the the Teen Grid.

One possibility now is for companies who are developing on Opensim or who have already developed Virtual Worlds with a more educational/student focus could fill the void.  Reaction Grid and Kaneva are both viable possibilities.  A safe environment designed for students under the age of 18 where student participation is monitored.  Supervision is key, one educator told me that even on the Teen Grid students figured out how to smuggle in or create inappropriate content (just as they do in the real world).

The second possibility is to use the Main grid on second Life, not a possibility for my district.  Certainly individuals under the age of 18 will now be allowed to register but a school district will not likely be convinced that the SL main grid environment is safe for students and there would be no liability issues.  Students I have talked to about this tell me that “it is boring” and they would rather play World of Warcraft with a pre-defined objective, points and great graphics and action.  Sims devoted to this type of activity may indeed draw some gamer youth, but not for educational purposes.

An electronic border is used to prevent an avatar from entering a restricted area.

If an educational institution does decide to go this route they could develop filters and restrictions to keep students in appropriate locations and to keep intruders out.  Filters would need to be in place to prevent particular activity and content, possible but complicated.

It is a complex issue,  one widely publicized, inappropriate event involving an underage person could set the entire focus of using these environments for purposes of education into a tailspin, not to mention what it could do to the student.  Educators who are interested in and involved with using the virtual environment for education are clearly innovators and are working for the benefit of children.  In their enthusiasm they must not forget safety and security of the students they teach and should ensure the teaching of digital responsibility to their students.


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

What’s the distinction between Protection from and Prevention of the Net?

The topic of safety on the Internet and protecting children from the perils of the Internet, as well as protecting organizations from possible lawsuits, have been coming up more and more frequently. A few years ago I would encounter the “ACCESS DENIED” screen not more than once every couple of months.  I would even have participants in a training purposely type in a URL that would produce that same screen, to demonstrate the effectiveness of the system keeping children secure and I would also report a site for needed blocking, if I stumbled upon something that was clearly inappropriate.   When encountering ‘the screen‘, I would continue with my work  and possibly check the source I was looking for after hours from my home computer.

Today I encounter the “ACCESS DENIED” screen several times a day and my colleagues report a similar experience.  The firewall is becoming a barrier to research, learning, collaboration and  innovation.  Now I contact the appropriate department requesting adjustment of the site I am trying to get to and  inevitably get the answer that “there is nothing that we can do – the School Board will not allow this site as it is classified as______”.  Are there more inappropriate sites than there used to be?  Are we blocking more than we used to?  Are we screening effectively?  Are we effectively teaching the appropriate use of the Internet?  Has the firewall become a replacement for teacher monitoring and supervision?  Is there a difference between social networking and professional networking?  How are social networking and social bookmarking the same/different?

The advent of social networking and virtual worlds used by the working world have caused me to ponder these questions and push back a little at our well-meaning and disciplined “Internet Police”.  I wonder if the fear of what students MAY encounter has caused us to prevent encounters that could be useful and educational.  Can social networking sites and working in virtual worlds positively impact collaboration and learning?
A government site,, provides information for parents to know what to look for and to discuss with children regarding safety on the Internet, including social networking and virtual worlds.  Could this be curriculum material for educators to use?   In an ISTE 2010 address Mario Armstrong referred  to school districts blocking of the Internet as the  Locked Net Monster.  Check out the learning today blog for some ideas on teaching digital safety in a k-12 school setting.

I am not suggesting we unlock the firewall to all that is available, just a more thoughtful approach to what could be useful.  An approach that includes academic review, intellectual curiosity and alignment with 21st century skills.  The approach would require diligent supervision by teachers and appropriate preparation for use of the tool that has become ubiquitous, except in the classroom.  In the meantime I’ll do like the kids – use my smartphone, call a friend or wait until I get home to look it up.


Safety In the Virtual World

Keeping students safe is of primary importance.  How to do this effectively and still provide opportunities and experiences that will enrich, motivate and instruct is a challenge that requires planning, development of content and activities and vigilant supervision.  It is easiest to simply block anything that may possibly have some content that is not appropriate, with a firewall.  This protects all students from anything potentially harmful and of course also protects a school system from potential legal action.  The downside to this type of blocking is that A) sites may be erroneously judged B) blocking for an elementary school child is not necessarily the same as blocking for a high school child and C) we are not helping students to discern between useful and appropriate and not useful  and inappropriate.

The careful monitoring and releasing for access of websites or virtual worlds does require time, work, and judgment.  Much of this falls on IT staff and not instructional staff.  IT staff members are typically given parameters for blocking and they apply the firewall to adhere to these parameters.  Instructors and other personnel may request for “unblocking” of specific sites and provide justification.  Ultimately, that decision is made by someone other than the classroom teacher.  For the most part this practice protects the student, the teacher and the school system.

I cannot help but wonder about the learning that  could take place, the guidance that could be provided as technology becomes more ubiquitous in our daily lives.  Should we be using social networking and virtual worlds in our instruction?  Do the benefits outweigh the risks?  Can teachers supervise effectively enough to ensure the appropriate use of these technologies?  Should our instruction include what is available in the world beyond the classroom walls?  Can the technology provide access to some areas for some children?  Are teachers prepared to discern between what is appropriate and what is not?  Can the issue be reviewed holistically?  Certainly everything carries risk – getting on the highway is one of the riskiest activities we have yet we put children in school buses and send them on their way, without seat-belts.  Perhaps we need to develop “seat-belts” for the ride on the Internet rather than blocking all the ramps.  Ultimately we need to prepare our children for a future we do not know, that future includes access to the Internet and the ability to determine value of what is found there.

Student Management

I’ve gathered some ideas, perhaps promising practices in managing students in a virtual world.  These ideas have come from educators who instruct in a virtual setting.  Naming of avatars is a great way to manage your students and keep track of what they do as well as ensuring you have the correct students in your virtual setting.

  • Having students use their first names and the last name of the school identifies the student and put them in the school “family” .  A teacher on RG uses this method and she can easily spot who is around and what they are doing.  She can also identify any intruders.
  • Another teacher of RG reports using Student1, Student2, and a last name associated with the school or geographic location of the school. This method works well for when you have to reuse avatars for different students.
  • A variation of  the above method would be to use a group tag.  So the student could have use an avatar names Student 1 or a first and last name they select but then use a group tag that identifies the school.
  • Another strategy used in the virtual setting has been to make t-shirts identifying the school and/or the student.  The Tshirt could display the first name of the student, thus identifying the student even though the avatar name is “Student One” or it could display the name of the school.