Send your essay to my avatar: virtual worlds set to transform real learning

8th January 2010 at 00:00
Educators are latching on to the huge potential of interactive `distance learning'

A woman on roller-blades with a long black cloak streaming behind her is chatting to an animated young man in knee-length boots and blue jeans on the slopes of an active volcano. The conversation is more interesting than you might expect.

"Global Kids are the leaders in using virtual worlds in schools," Kate says. "What would you guys tell Scottish teachers who are interested but not sure where to start?"

"First, they need to see the possibilities," Rik replies. "So take a look at what educators around the world have been doing in these spaces."

The volcano is not real, but Kate and Rik are. They are avatars - 3D representations of real people sitting in a flat in Edinburgh and an office in East 25th Street, New York.

Kate Farrell is a computing teacher at Castlebrae High. Rik Panganiban is an assistant director at Global Kids, "a non-profit organisation that empowers young people with technology to be better students and global leaders". The two have met online to explore the ideas Kate presented at the Scottish Learning Festival in her seminar "Virtual worlds: a guide to using Second Life in education".

Second Life is the most commercially successful of the virtual worlds - online 3D spaces which users explore with their avatars, where they meet people and build, rent or buy rooms, buildings or whole islands. Kate is one of the few Scottish teachers with classroom experience in what many believe to be the next big thing in educational ICT.

The fact that the classroom was in Brooklyn, while Kate was in Edinburgh, illustrates the capabilities. "I worked with Global Kids for six months," Kate explains. "Every day, a teacher in New York and I ran a class. We'd give the kids that day's assignment, then they'd log onto Second Life on their laptops.

"We had a simulation, for instance, of waste management in Naples. So the kids walked around the city, chatted to various characters, did the research, visited a landfill site. We took them on a field trip to a simulated water treatment plant, and brought an expert in to talk to them. They were very engaged, asking loads of intelligent questions."

This is one of the main selling points of virtual worlds. They are not computer games but places to visit, explore, meet people and do stuff. Visitors and residents run businesses, play games, watch sports, visit night-clubs, take vacations.

Education is beginning to catch up. Large numbers of universities now "have a presence" in Second Life. This means that students and lecturers can meet online in lectures and tutorials. Assignments can be set and delivered. There are formal discussions and chats over coffee. In this way, students remote from the real university can participate in the learning and social side of student life. It's distance learning as it's never been seen before.

But if virtual worlds were good only for distance learning using the transmission model of education, innovative educators wouldn't be as excited. Their real potential lies in interactive, collaborative, student- led models of learning.

Educators like Kate and Rik, and organisations such as Global Kids in the United States and Learning and Teaching Scotland and Second Places in Scotland are putting these models into practice.

Until recently, the problem with virtual worlds for education was that sex and violence are as prevalent in them as in the real world. But Second Life has a separate world for under-18s and strictly vetted educators - which is where Kate and Rik are meeting today.

More significantly, educators can create their own virtual worlds - as Derek Robertson and Mark Duffy have done with the virtual art gallery Canvas (TESS, September 18, 2009). Kate sees Canvas as the key to unlocking the potential of virtual worlds in Scottish schools: "Having a virtual art gallery with authentication through Glow is brilliant."

Canvas will allow Scottish teachers to explore virtual worlds and, with Glow, provides a model of good practice for safe and secure use of virtual worlds in Scottish schools. "It's ideal for enterprise education, for instance," says Kate. "In English, kids can act out scenes from a novel and explore characters' motivations, or practise French in a Paris cafe."

Learning in all subjects through any imaginable activity can take place in virtual worlds. Travel costs and logistics are no barriers. Pupils from schools all over Scotland can work together. The potential is immense. But where to start?

"Online networks of educators are a good place," Rik says. "We helped start one called RezEd, which has 2,700 educators globally, sharing the good practice, challenges and resources for working in virtual worlds. It's a great space for people who want to get started doing stuff in this very cutting-edge but sometimes intimidating field."

Rik turns and walks towards the horizon, then flies past the volcano, which is about to erupt. "Nice talking to you," he says. "See you soon."


- "Virtual worlds: a guide to using Second Life in education", Kate Farrell's Scottish Learning Festival presentation, is available at: http:bit.ly40LQr1 and http:bit.lyd9OUQ

- RezEd: Resources, research and practitioners using virtual worlds for learning:

- Global Kids' virtual worlds skills curriculum: www.rezed.orggroupGKslcurriculum

- Canvas: http:bit.ly32tnG3

- Second Places:

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