The trouble with virtual world learning

Virtual worlds are growing in colleges and universities despite significant problems in using them to teach courses and communicate, a panel of experts said during a virtual discussion sponsored by Cisco Systems Inc.

The problems range from giving students and educators access to networks to reach the online virtual worlds to ease-of-use with the applications and tools inside of the virtual worlds, panelists and audience members said.

“There’s a long way to go with this technology to make it easy for everybody to do,” said Sarah Smith-Robbins, director of emerging technology for Kelley Executive Partners at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. She has taught and written about virtual worlds for six years, and specializes in creating learning experiences that build on virtual worlds and alternative and augmented realities.

Smith-Robbins appeared on the same panel with officials from Cisco and Research in Motion Ltd., which provide technologies and services that support virtual worlds to universities, as well as Richard Bartle, famous for co-writing the first virtual world in 1978, called MUD.

The hour-long panel discussion held Tuesday was accessed by journalists and Cisco customers in a virtual auditorium inside the Second Life virtual world, where Cisco has conducted events for the press over the past two years.

The speakers’ comments were made in audio, but listeners could send questions in text, and some in the audience even engaged in spirited text conversations while the speakers talked.

Many in the audience were confused by the virtual world’s conventions and vocabulary, and repeatedly complained they couldn’t tell who on the panel was talking at any given time. Several others suggested the moderator arrange to turn on a light above the avatar for the panelist who was talking.

At one point one frustrated member of the audience texted that the discussion itself aptly demonstrated the problems many people have using virtual worlds in general.

Even though virtual worlds have been around 31 years, Bartle said they still are in a “transitional phase.” Cisco entitled the discussion “Virtual Worlds in Education — the University as Idea” and said that more than 200 colleges and universities are “looking into online immersive environments for uses in education.” About 150 colleges have some presence in Second Life alone, and others in Sun Wonderland, Open Sim, Open Croquet, and others, Cisco said.

In a text interview, Smith-Robbins said she felt the most successful academic uses of virtual worlds have been with students building historical recreations, complete with architecture, costumes and cultural artifacts. One creation she described allows visitors to immerse themselves in the art of Van Gogh, by going inside a painting to explore details. In addition, virtual worlds can be used for people to meet from any physical location that can access the Internet, she noted.

Cisco began conducting press meetings two years ago inside its Second Life site, allowing reporters to create avatars to see videos of Cisco products and to press buttons on the products to see some simple functions.

Last year, Cisco’s CEO, John Chambers, made a presentation inside Second Life using an avatar that made him appear quite a bit younger. In his talk, he predicted that virtual world technologies would eventually explode in impact and usage, despite expert analysis that predicted otherwise.

To the contrary, at this year’s Cisco Live! user conference, which was timed with the academic panel discussion, one Cisco executive implied that virtual world technology development at the company was somewhat stalled for now.

That executive, Doug Dennerline, senior vice-president of collaboration software, told reporters that Cisco’s WebEx collaboration software tool is adding many new features but that there were no plans to add virtual world functionality.

Smith-Robbins, who uses an avatar in Second Life called “Intellagirl Tully” said part of the lack of virtual world adoption in organizations such as a schools and businesses could be due to “limits to internal IT understanding” of the technology.

She said also that it isn’t for lack of IT expertise, but a general philosophy about information technology management that is averse to virtual worlds and other innovations. “IT doesn’t really belong to the IT department,” she said. “A mail department employee can bring down an entire company from a blog (with libelous comments) … so it’s more about (a need for) information literacy (throughout an organization.)”

One educator who is active in creating virtual world curricula at the University of Texas at San Antonio told Computerworld that colleges have in the last year undertaken more work with virtual worlds, based on an increase in online discussions between schools. “The opportunities provided by virtual worlds are tremendous on several levels,” said the educator, who asked not to be named because she is not an appointed representative.

Students at her school can learn to use tools to build virtual objects and environments and other content, including videos inside the Tejano Tech simulation inside Second Life. However, the biggest problem, has been “connectivity issues,” she said, including basic network access.

ComputerWorld (US)

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