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ReLIVE08: Recap of paper sessions on education in virtual environments, Day One

The opening plenary speech was given by Dr. Ted Castranova of Indiana University who specializes in the economics of massively multiplayer on-line role-playing games (MMORPGs) like he was introduced by an Open University administrator who spoke briefly of the challenges facing school administrations as new educational technologies come into more common use, specifically with the agenda of learning via playing.

She said that crafting revised policy, management, budget, and strategy for online games and Web 2.0 sites (like blogs, wikis, and social networks) are challenges that are currently being undertaken by the Open University. She recognizes that the potential of these new digital tools is good for students, and what’s good for students is good for the university. The Open University has, over the past forty years, used new technologies for distance learning. The challenge, she says, of anyone seeking to leverage new technologies into established educational institutions is to seek a body of evidence to help guide university or school practice. At the Open University, they are producing scholarship for the Digital Age and are moving from practice to building sound pedagogic theory around these newly adopted tools.

When she finished, Ted took the stage to deliver a talk on “Virtual Worlds as Petri Dishes”. He was extremely hard on Second Life as a learning environment (he was in the minority, but his arguments are very good ones), because he has seen a lot of people misusing it. What he is referring to is the fact that teachers go into Second Life and build virtual classrooms that look and behave exactly like classrooms. There are desks and a board for PowerPoints. There are walls. To Ted, the most important thing one can do in a virtual environment is play. As he said, “it’s not just the virtual; it’s the game….Games create worlds that become social and persistent.” To the Second Lifers in the audience, we need to make learning fun and engage students in a state of play. I think we’re doing the right thing by having togas and a Second Life space for Latin play. It’s a non-traditional classroom and it’s fun.

Ted through out a number which, as an economist, he says is conservative, that by 2011, 80% of the computer-using population will have at least one avatar in at least one virtual world. For learning-via-gaming, Ted suggested Active Worlds (http://activeworlds.com/) as a space better suited for eLearning than Second Life. He said that Active Worlds is more education-based and is more fun to use; people can have many avatars, and there is no age barrier – the place is open for teenagers and adults to facilitate learning. I will investigate this virtual environment during the first part of December.

Ted says that to engage students in learning online that we need to build a way for students to create something of their own, to make their own fun. The students become emotionally invested in the program and will keep coming back as long as there are opportunities to do things and get rewards. For developers of spaces within virtual environments like Second Life, Ted asked us to spend as much time on the audio as we do with what we can see in-world. By adding ambient sounds and sound effects, the immersion into the world becomes more complete, and students will stay longer.

Regarding the argument of some educators that something virtual is value-less, Ted takes real issue with that assumption. First, if we make virtual worlds fun, people will pay to play. This is true of physical things like good books, music, golf, and the like. Virtual environments behave in the same way.

People, as a general rule, are creative. They want to play, to entertain themselves, but to also have the chance to create and explore things. Virtual environments and massive online games are taking off because people are seeking inexpensive ways to find places of refuge for their minds. It’s not escapism. Instead, these environments allow people to challenge their minds in different ways, to build an idealized space, to have another home for the human mind as we prepare ourselves for what’s coming next in our “real” lives.

Switching back to eLearning and Second Life, he challenged us to try to use this virtual environment to do things that we cannot do in a traditional, real-world classroom. We need to make those spaces fun, and open those spaces up to those who want to play in them.

Following Ted’s speech, we all split up to go to different sessions. I went to parallel session B which focused mainly on World of Warcraft with one paper on Second Life. Leonie Ramondt gave her paper on “Toward the Adoption of Massively Multiplayer Educational Gaming”. Her PowerPoint slideshow can be viewed here: http://tinyurl.com/5bfg5n. She believes that mainstream educational institutions will adopt the learning-via-gaming approach offered by virtual environments by 2010 or 2011. She feels also that software developers should be partnering with educators to create games that are fun, aesthetically pleasing, with a solid core of educational value and pedagogy at the center.

As people, Ramondt said, “we are wired for stories” and enjoy “learning by being”. Virtual environments allows us to merge the left and right hemispheres of our brains, the logical and the creative. With both Second Life and World of Warcraft, users experience “flow”, or that which gives us optimal happiness. Flow empowers learners and boosts their problem-solving skills and comprehension of complex concepts.

The second of three papers in this session was delivered by Elena Moschini who presented on “The Second Life Researcher Toolkit: An Exploration of In-World Tools, Methods and Approaches for Researching and Evaluating Educational Projects in Second Life”. While most of this paper was not particularly useful to what I want BCP to do in-world, the presenter did offer a couple of practical suggestions.

First, she reminded the group that there are free bits of Second Life software that can be installed in a structure inside Second Life to track visitors. We could conceivably track everyone who visits the Latin house in Roma, see what they do and how long they stay.

The presenter also stated that as people who understand and use Second Life, we need to educate our colleagues about the virtual environment and create a buy-in at the institutional level. We need to let people play in these spaces so that they can realize the potential they have for learning.

One other thing I took away from this paper was that Moschini develops educational games. She also took several years of Latin as a high school student in Italy and she was thrilled that Classics was represented in spaces like Second Life and World of Warcraft. We will be dialoguing about Latin game creation soon.

The final paper of the first session was given by Clint Jeffrey of the University of Idaho on “Using Non-Player Characters as Tutors in Virtual Environments”. Non-Player Characters (abbreviated as NPCs), are characters in a game that can be interacted with by real-live players in order to get quests or sets of instructions for things that need to be done in a game. They might tell a story, give context to the environment, or give rewards for completed tasks.

NPCs can exist in Second Life via some programming and can exist as educators with AI (artificial intelligence) as live players interact with them. In Jeffrey’s computer science classes, his students write computer code within Second Life which is then given to an NPC to review and critique. Students can then get back their critiqued results in-world and make changes prior to resubmitting.

Jeffrey did compare and contrast Second Life and World of Warcraft as eLearning environments. While Second Life is open and allows for creation from the ground up, the reward system is quite weak, and there are no real goals or things to do. In World of Warcraft, things are more static, but the reward system of treasure and gear is quite high, making the game more fun and addictive.

The workaround for Second Life is to create NPCs who can give tasks to students. As tasks are completed, an email can be sent to a teacher from within the game to alert them as to who completed an assignment in-world, how long it took, how many times did it take to complete. All of this information can be automatically logged and stored in an online database for the teachers to reference at any time.

This session, more than any other, set my mind abuzz with possibilities. Jeffrey and I exchanged information and may be collaborating on a few projects which I will detail at the end of this report.

We broke for lunch after the session concluded. We sat in tables of eight, and I chatted extensively with a graduate student, Sabrina Tormey, at a teacher college in Dublin and a project manager, Tom Smits, from Royal Dutch/Shell in the Hague. Sabrina is writing her doctoral thesis on religion in Second Life, and is also exploring educational uses for virtual environments, introducing teachers to learning and teaching in virtual worlds. Tom manages corporate Second Life space for Shell employees in the home office to use as a place to chat, relax, and also get company news, and take online training classes.

After lunch, Sabrina and I joined twenty-eight other delegates in the workshop given by graduate student Michele Ryan on “16 Ways to Use Second Life in Your Classroom: A Course Design Workshop”. Michele does teach distance-learning courses in Second Life, mostly as multi-day workshops on how to acclimatize to Second Life and how to use it for education.

We split into groups of five for most of the workshop to work through a series of questions that were never fully answered by the presenter, but were important to consider anyway. I was grouped at a table with Andrew Tarling who directs the eLearning efforts for his company, Infinitas Learning (http://www.infinitaslearning.com). We exchanged cards. While his company focuses on general eLearning, he was very keen on talking about what we do for Classics. We will learn from each other. It was from Tarling that I learned of a rumor that Teen Second Life is currently under review by its creator, Linden Labs, to see if it will remain its own space, or if educators may simply just purchase independent server space (aka islands) in which to lead their classes in isolation. In this way, everyone is protected, there are no intrusions, and only those teachers and students who need to be on an island can actually go to the island for classwork. The downside of this is cost, as islands can cost a few thousand dollars a year to maintain. Again, Active Worlds might be a better long-term solution for younger learners and their teachers to exploit.

With real-world education, we are still building instructional design standards. There is not enough data yet to know what works, what hasn’t worked, and what will work in the future for standardized educational models. We are still very much pioneers, and while everyone at the conference seemed to feel that virtual environments would become part of the everyday toolkit of educators in the next three years, no one really had a lock on educational models that work in these environments now. By 2011, there should be a large enough sample that we can start building theory.

I learned about two other things that BCP might use in its future creation of eLearning products. Open Sim (http://opensimulator.org/wiki/Main_Page) is an open source virtual environment available for educators. Also, for game development, we should investigate using the powerful-yet-inexpensive gaming engine called Torque (http://www.garagegames.com/pg/product/view.php?id=1) . I will take a look at both in December.

The question of security in Second Life did come up. What some of the educators present had done was to create a classroom set of “ready-to-wear” avatars. The students would come into class, sign in as a pre-made avatar, participate in class projects and discussion, and then log out under teacher supervision.

One workshop participant asked about teacher training time for Second Life, and how many teachers were actively using Second Life for their classes. The speaker (and another one to whom I posed the same question later), said between 1 – 2 days to learn the basics of Second Life. There are between 4,000 – 5,000 educators in Second Life.

As for the sixteen ways to use Second Life for classes, here they are:

1. Visualization of Abstract Concepts (3D graphics)
2. Interactive Library (data repository, asynchronous)
3. Connection Device (VoIP, chat, etc.)
4. Role Play (synchronous)
5. Simulations (safe environment, practicing processes)
6. Learning Games (interactive learning objects)
7. Non-task Oriented (problem solving, soft skills)
8. Research (platform environment, economy, augmented reality)
9. Virtual Tourism (field trips, venue creation)
10. Social Settings (ice breaker, team building)
11. Anonymity (evaluations)
12. Machinima (project management, assessment)
13. Recruitment (3D presence)
14. Awareness (environmental, social agendas)
15. Technical Skill Development (3D rendering, animation, building, scripting)
16. Action Learning (Open, non-structured, student-centered, informal, collaborative)

The above points are explained in detail in her paper here:


After the workshop, I went to the last paper session of the day. Shailey Minocha and Rita Tingle from the Open University presented on “Social and Collaborative Learning of Distance Learners in 3D Virtual Worlds”. In their presentation, the importance was stressed that these environments foster socialization and collaboration. 3D virtual worlds explore the social dimension of learning including in-world blogs, wikis, and chats, and also foster small-group discussions, simulations, group projects, and creative problem-solving activities.

The speakers’ research found that 2D immersive worlds were not as effective as 3D immersive worlds for learning and collaboration. The presenters recommended that 3D virtual space be used by small groups with a moderator, and that a very popular educational activity is a scavenger hunt. We could translate this over to Latin and give people a list of things to find in Latin around Roma and spaces like it in Second Life.

The second paper of the session was on “Education and social interaction in virtual worlds: science and language education in Second Life,” presented by Wan-Ying Tay and Ralph Schroeder of the Oxford Internet Institute. The paper focused exclusively on science education (they said they ran out of time and were not going to talk about language education). The speakers spoke about distance-learning classes given in-world: there are programming classes given in one space 10-12 times per day for free, so that people new to building things in Second Life can play. The difficulty in in-world classes is sustaining interest. Especially with free classes, participants might just wander away midway through the course. When people sign up for a class that is popular or that they have to pay for, attendance does not suffer. This seemed like a no-brainer to me.

The final paper of the day was given by Julia Gillen of Lancaster University on “Literacy Policies in Schome Park: A Virtual Literacy Ehtnography”. SCHOME (http://www.schome.ac.uk/) is billed as “the education system for the information age” and is a combination of Second Life, Teen Second Life, and real-world classrooms for a complete, blended learning experience. SCHOME is setting the standards for online distance learning via 3D virtual worlds in the United Kingdom and is getting a lot of positive press. They reported that the students in the testbed project used text in Second Life instead of Voice and actively use the Second Life form and in-world wikis. The students are gaining technical literacy in-world, and are using the tools for their online classes.

My free-time between papers and the pre-supper reception was spent finishing my workshop presentation and replying to BCP emails. At seven I went downstairs for free drinks and to talk with people. I loved the expressions I got when I told people that BCP was leveraging virtual environments for Latin-learning. I spoke at length to the Education Programs Manager of Linden Labs (creator of Second Life), Claudia L’Amoreaux, about what we’re working on (and about the Teen Grid), and she thinks what we’re doing is cool and very much in the right direction. She said she’d come by for an in-world tour after catching up with her work back home. We’re getting noticed and we’re ahead of the wave which is exactly where we should be as an independent educational publishing house.

I had dinner seated with seven others including Sabrina (see above), the two speakers from the Oxford Internet Institute, Dave Taylor of Imperial College London (who does a space museum simulation in Second Life), and four others. The Oxford people were quite interested in learning more about Classics and virtual environments and there was some discussion about having me out to speak at Oxford maybe in January. We’ll see. I’ll be in touch with them next week sometime to talk more. Our after-dinner speaker was Terry Waite, CBE, a journalist who was held hostage in Iran for three years in solitary confinement. He talked about creating his own virtual head-space in order to survive. I’m glad his story had a happy ending.

After supper, I found myself tossed in to an impromptu group of digital evangelists (those who are actively promoting virtual worlds and learning-via-gaming) and did not realize until the chaired debate the following morning that these people are actually Important: Ted Castranova (the plenary speaker), Roo Reynolds (Portfolio Executive for Social Media at the BBC, my age), Bill Thompson (pundit and founder of the New Media Lab in the UK), and two other scholars from Indiana University. We had a lot of fun talking about Obama, the fact that we’ll have our first “wired” President, and optimism. I ended up going to sleep around 2:30, and up again at 6:30.

Day Two recap to follow in a bit!

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Comment by Laura Gibbs on November 24, 2008 at 6:58pm
Wow, this was very interesting to read, Andrew - I'm still not sold on the incredibly high overhead for this kind of role-playing... but the roleplaying element is totally appealing to me. In my classes, students role-play in a very simple and very effective way: they often choose to write their Storybook stories in first person! This is an incredibly popular narrative choice - very little of what they read for class is written in first person, but they get really hooked on retelling the stories in first person form. In terms of classical topics, here are some of the things my students did just this semester - sometimes they are role-playing a character in the story, and sometimes they are writing in first-person by playing the role of the storyteller. Every semester I get a bunch of classical topics like this (along with all kinds of other topics, based on folklore and mythology from around the world) - the desire of the students to role-play by writing in first-person is really strong, and I enjoy it a lot. What I worry about with role-playing in a game situation is whether it would lend itself to the exploration of emotions and psychological twists and turns which is definitely what appeals to them about WRITING in first-person style. Anyway, here are the projects I had this semester with Greco-Roman themes - EVERY SINGLE ONE involved the presence of a first-person narrator:
Labors of Hercules told by Hercules himself (this one probably gets my vote for best project of the semester; I thought it was awesome)
The Trojan War, narrated by Zeus himself from on high
Heracles in the Stars: Four different characters provide first-person accounts of the labors of Heracles
Hera Tells All, in case you were curious what the goddess was really up to!
The Diary of Aphrodite: okay, so of course Aphrodite didn't keep a diary... but it's an excuse to role-play.
Aphrodite: Beauty and Power. Find out from the goddess herself how ruthless she can be!
Grandpa Goes Greek: During a power outage, a family is entertained by Grandpa telling stories.
Gossip with Ganymede: Stories from the bartender to the gods!
Apprentice with Zeus: The gods who want to be apprentice to Zeus present their case, singing their own praises in first-person.


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