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You *Will* Teach in a Virtual World

Girl-virtual-buttons
As our internet connections, computer power, and continued drive to perform more and more tasks virtually occurs, the rapidly evolving virtual worlds within the metaverse promise to become easy enough to use that we'll increasingly partake of them for what we do socially, collaboratively, and as emergent virtual learning environments.

When the virtual world There became all the rage back in 2003, I joined and began climbing the learning curve. Even though a few buddies were in it, I quickly became bored as I realized little of use would come from virtual socializing and what felt like a lame video game.

The next hot thing to join was Second Life (SL) and I did so. SL sported a significantly better in-world building capability and other in-world features. Quite soon the tech cognoscenti flocked to it and began holding virtual lectures and events within it. That waned fairly quickly too, as many found the learning curve too steep for others they'd invited in while the benefits seemed to be too few of holding virtual meetings (vs. a conference call and computer desktop screensharing or even live video streaming of an event). The novelty wore off for all but the diehard fans and my use is every other month at best. 

Many of us were still quite eager to partake of virtual spaces, especially since they hold one quite tangible benefit: they're immersive. A 3D space, viewed through a 2D computer display, is amazingly captivating and the usual distractions that tug our attention away from conference calls or webinars dissolve when one is within a virtual space manipulating our avatar and interacting with other avatars in-world.

There is a key trend that points the way to my argument that you will be teaching in a virtual world at some point in the very near future: virtual worlds are becoming easier to use and more powerful.  

Today's drawbacks are primarily in three areas: usability, realism and the learning curve required to become accomplished in using most of the current popular virtual worlds.

Usability comes down to the premise that you shouldn't have to invest time in using technology in order to reacquaint yourself with how it works every time. If you want to make a phone call, you pick up the phone and dial, right? Unless, of course, it's an infrequently dialed international call and thus you might have to figure out the dialing string for country code, city code and number and dial them in the right sequence. Beyond that, you dial without thinking.

Same thing holds true with much of the software we use on our computers: if you want to go to your bank website, you open your web browser and type in the URL. 

But when it comes to virtual worlds, if you're away from it for a week or two it's necessary to stop, think, remember, and maybe use the help system. It's also incumbent upon users to be willing to invest time to learn the system since the options and variables are in the hundreds (and invariably I'm on some island and other avatars are doing something interesting or amazing and I cannot figure out how they do it which only leads to frustration). 

Realism is another issue, primarily with the cartoonish nature of the graphics. Another issue lies with avatar interactions and the ability to spoof your identity. In a virtual classroom environment, one never knows what can happen outside of that closed classroom island and the "realism" kids might be exposed to (figuratively and literally). As such, I'm not yet comfortable with parental controls in Second Life and won't allow my 15 year old son to use it...too many "dark alleys" in-world.

Users want more realism with avatars and, most importantly, enjoy higher quality interactions and more robust integrations with real world digital assets like videos, documents and webpages. When Second Life built-in voice, anyone with a headset could now talk to others when in proximity to their avatar. This helped quite a bit with the avatar-interaction-realism issue, but is a far cry from what many of us believe is the eventual manifestation of these worlds: one that is photorealistic and almost indistinguishable from reality.

The learning curve is too high for casual use of the most popular virtual worlds. I presented on the use of Second Life in a corporate environment two years ago and showed the organizational and human resources team examples of training environments in SL. The SVP of HR asked me, "So show us getting to that 'island' from login to avatar creation to being seated in the virtual classroom.

I did as she asked and the hilarity of the volume of steps required, the incredibly detailed menu structure causing even me to hunt around for some commands, and what was required to remember all of the steps to get to the 'island' where training was hosted, made our session fun but wasn't lost on either she nor I as we later discussed what might be required for their company to actually use it for real-world training in a virtual space.

Not something that makes for a great classroom experience or ongoing use.

APPROACHABLE VIRTUAL WORLDS

The big trend is toward approachable virtual worlds that are easy to use, more realistic, and delivering a short learning curve and are ones that enable a geographically disbursed (or asynchronous time) group to collaborate in a virtual world quickly and easily.

Forterra  The virtual world "There" split off in to two companies several years ago and there sister company, Forterra, has taken the "There" engine in to several areas, including education and the government sector, where several news organizations showed this video of the There-based engine and the simulation created by the Dept of Defense to train soldiers on proper methods of interacting with the Iraqi citizenry.

Though the There platform is still a fairly steep learning curve, the custom applications they've created are specifically targeted and extraneous capabilities are minimized or eliminated, making it easy to use even if that use is periodic.

Teleplace I was enamored with a startup called Qwaq (renamed Teleplace) and interviewed the CEO in 2007 about their platform. In comparison to Second Life, this invite-only, closed and secure environment -- customized for an organization -- is laughingly easy to use. 

Built on the open source Croquet Project platform, this company has taken it in a direction that is focused on corporate collaboration and it is incredibly simple to join a meeting, setup an avatar with a couple of clicks (one of which is uploading a small photo of your head which is then placed on the avatar so you see a real person) and it is a virtual space one can manipulate and use with little training.

Logo The relatively new kid on the block is ProtonMedia.  ReadWriteWeb calls their platform, "...the most advanced collaboration environment we have seen in the market" and it truly is amazing (try it out for yourself for free here but note it's Windows only).

ProtonMedia describes themselves this way, "We're the leading provider of virtual world technology for the enterprise. Our flagship product ProtoSphere is a secure, private virtual world environment for collaboration and learning. As the premier virtual world platform for the enterprise, ProtoSphere features a suite of communications and social networking tools designed to overcome linear communications and create a networked, learning organization."

They've streamlined all the aspects of usability and is a system easy to use. Most importantly, they've integrated multiple systems and their next version, ProtoSphere 2.0, is a second-generation social collaboration platform that will combine holographic virtual spaces with interactive avatars and bots, document and application sharing, VoIP audio conferencing, text chat, presence awareness, video streaming, blogs, wikis, feeds, role playing simulations, content workflow, and enterprise social networking. In other words, they're the furthest along with usability, realism, and a system with just enough commands to make the learning curve short and the utility of it high.

The issue with these systems is one of cost and the server environments in which to run them. Integration of these types is never cheap, and I believe it will be awhile before the cutting edge virtual platforms will be useful within a district.

VIRTUAL WORLDS FOR EDUCATION

The good news about real-world use of virtual worlds comes out of that open source Croquet Project platform and, specifically, with an innovative platform from Greenbush Labs' Edusim project (site; blog), a 3D multi-user virtual world platform and authoring toolkit intended for your classroom interactive whiteboard (but equally powerful on the students laptop or desktop computers!)

Edusim comes out of Greenbush Southeast Kansas Education Service Center and the initiative is run by Rich White who also wrote this white paper published in June of 2009 entitled, "Collaborative 3D Virtual Environments and Advanced Classroom Visualization - A Case Study".

What intrigued me about it was how Mr. White has leveraged the increasing footprint of interactive whiteboard installations in K-12 and made the use of virtual worlds manipulative through the whiteboard interface. 

They've taken approachability to a new level by tying the immersion of 3D worlds with high usability, fairly good realism as well as a learning curve measured in minutes vs. days or weeks. By using a whiteboard (instead of this world running on multiple workstations in a computer lab, for instance) the load on your network is lowered dramatically as well. Rather than explain more, take a peek at this video:

Virtual world use bears close examination and you keeping tabs on where it's headed is an imperative, especially as opportunities for learning explode online and within these virtual worlds. As Harvard Business School professor, Clayton Christensen, says when describing disruption, that it goes through three phases:

  • It's 'crappy' so the incumbents and status quo pay it no attention and then it becomes...
  • 'Less crappy' and early adopters begin to take it on and use momentum grows, and then...
  • It becomes 'good enough' and the tipping point occurs, putting old industries out of business while the new accelerates.

I would argue that virtual world software and solutions are in the 'less crappy' phase right now for education while getting pretty darn close to 'good enough'. Knowing precisely when it will become 'good enough' isn't likely -- and I haven't studied the minutiae of the industry to be able to make a smart prediction -- but even a casual observer can see the shifts and momentum in virtual adoption occurring and as a leader, you should pay attention to it.

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Nice article! WiloStar3D http://www.wilostar3d.com has been pioneering the use of 3D virtual worlds for education and K-12 for over a decade. We believe in emphasizing originality and creativity, not just 'immersing' in the 3D learning environment. Yes, that is important to the overall experience but allowing students to actually create their own 3D virtual worlds as part of the learning process allows them to demonstrate and focus on higher order thinking skills. Further, the sense of identity and being able to customize appropriate avatars has proven to be critically important for K-12 students. WiloStar3D has created a custom avatar system that allows students to be, change, and invent avatars to fit the curricula objectives. We provide teachers and students with easy access to content development and make learning in virtual worlds accessible and meaningful. We develop and create 3D virtual worlds for K-12 based on our successful 3D learning educational paradigm in action today with our "real" online students at WiloStar3D Academy. So it's not a "you will teach in a virtual world" but rather we ARE!

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Accelerating Change are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.