Emphasizing Diversity through 3D Multi-User Virtual Worlds

Emphasizing Diversity through 3D Multi-User Virtual Worlds

Mary Beth Klinger (College of Southern Maryland, USA) and Teresa L. Coffman (University of Mary Washington, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-046-4.ch005


Integrating three dimensional multi-user virtual worlds into the online classroom is an effective way to enhance instruction and provide real world application to course content. This chapter explores virtual worlds and their ability to promote meaningful interaction, collaboration, and skill based learning. The focus for encouraging new technologies into the teaching and learning environment is to foster creativity and innovation in the 21st century learner so that inventive thinkers, collaborative problem solvers, and transformative leaders can emerge from our global educational system. Concerns regarding diversity, social equality, and accessibility to the technology tools are addressed with emphasis on the need to provide open systems so that our knowledge based global economy can thrive and all students can emerge as competent global citizens.
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Today’s learner benefits from a myriad of educational opportunities. In rapidly increasing numbers, courses and degree programs are no longer limited to students by distance or time. Online learning is becoming more prevalent as students in academic institutions around the world request this option due to geographical constraints, the need for greater schedule flexibility, and demands placed on the new knowledge workforce that requires lifelong learning.

The Internet has provided a transformational highway for distance learning. Access to information and communication technologies in education has gradually advanced as more schools and universities acquire the technology needed, particularly broadband capability.

Online course enrollments around the world continue to increase. Countries with the highest use of the Internet for educational activities in 2006 included Finland with over 30% of its population, followed by the United Kingdom, Turkey, Greece, Hungary, and the Netherlands, all with more than 20% usage by their respective populations (OECD Ministerial Meeting, 2008).

In 2007, the United States had 3.94 million online students. Over 20% of all U.S. higher education students were taking at least one online course. This was an increase of almost 13% over the preceding year in 2006. In 2002, there were only 1.6 million students taking at least one online course. The number of online students has therefore more than doubled in this five year period (Allen & Seaman, 2008).

At the same time, online enrollments continue to increase at a rate that exceeds that of overall higher education enrollments. In the United States, from 2002 to 2007, the annual growth rate for online learning was 19.7% compared to 1.6% for overall higher education during that same time frame (Allen & Seaman, 2008).

As the delivery of online courses becomes more main stream, best practices for teaching and learning online are paramount. A basic core requirement is that students must be enveloped in a community environment that is dynamic and rich in learning experiences. Course learning goals are best met through interaction, reflective feedback, and a community of practice.

The integration of online learning within education is providing opportunities for instructors to incorporate new technologies into their teaching and learning environments. These technologies include an array of Web 2.0 tools such as blogs, wikis, social networking, and three dimensional multi-user virtual environments (3D MUVEs). This is the new participatory Web.

Virtual worlds are a relatively new development to the Internet. They can be a text based, online virtual reality system where multiple users (players) are connected at the same time, known as a multi-user object oriented system (MOOS). And they can also be three dimensional, providing a 3D graphical user interface that can resemble actual places, such as the Louvre museum in France or a world created with a futuristic presence. (Figure 1)

Figure 1.

Virtual worlds allow multiple users to socialize and interact with each other in a dynamic and interactive space. Participants within a 3D MUVE interact synchronously, in real time, through the actions of their online personality or avatar. An avatar is a representation of self. (Figure 2)

Figure 2.

Virtual worlds present opportunities to promote student collaboration and learning of concepts. As a learning environment, virtual worlds have the potential to provide a positive learning experience to students by emphasizing real world application and skill based learning.

Here students can manipulate and apply theories in a meaningful context where content can be applied and practiced. The virtual world provides tangible real world experience with the direct purpose of learning from the environment and reflecting on the information presented.

While technology tools used in online or Web hybrid classes, such as blogs, wikis, and discussions provide opportunities for collaboration and guided, thoughtful discussion and feedback, multi-user virtual worlds extend opportunities for students to think critically about course content by role playing, interacting, and manipulating content within a graphical and interactive environment.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Virtual Worlds: A computer-based simulated environment that can be text based, two dimensional, or three dimensional where participants interact via their online persona as avatars. This environment allows participants to manipulate elements of the world itself allowing the user to feel as though they are present in the virtual world.

Constructivism: A theory that suggests students build on knowledge (schema) that they already know or understand. Within a constructivist learning environment, students are actively engaged in the learning process rather than passively listening to acquire knowledge. Students are challenged to build on existing knowledge and gain new and more complex knowledge.

Social Equality and Diversity: The assurance that technology is accessible to all. Identifying and removing global telecommunications barriers as well as educational resistance to technology integration, and improving teacher professional development training on MUVEs as well as open access to all Web 2.0 tools.

3D MUVE: A three dimensional multi-user virtual environment is a Web-based, three dimensional world that can be accessed by multiple, simultaneous users for interaction with digital artifacts and communication with other participants. Users represent themselves through avatars and interact in a simulated environment that mirrors the real world.

Avatar: Within the virtual environment, participants assume a virtual existence in the form of an avatar. In many MUVEs, avatars are fully customizable. An avatar is a personal representation of self in an online environment.

Web 2.0: This is the read/write, participatory Web. Facilitates interactive information sharing and collaboration. Includes Web-based communities, social networking Web sites, Wikis, blogs and MUVEs. In contrast to non-interactive Web sites where users are limited to passive information viewing, Web 2.0 encourages active participation and engagement.

Global Literacy: The ability of all citizens throughout the world to identify, interpret, analyze, synthesize, create, use, communicate, and share new knowledge using the written word, multimedia, and communication technologies with a worldwide audience. An understanding that the world is multicultural with specific and subtle differences in individuals and in cultural groups, both locally and globally.

Transformative Learning: Through transformative learning a student becomes increasingly aware of the information that surrounds them. Students explore this information, test assumptions and expectations, and beginning to think critically about this new information in order to make a tacit change in behavior or action.

21st Century Learner: Students who use skills, technology resources, and Web 2.0 tools to inquire, think critically, and gain knowledge in order to draw conclusions, make decisions, apply information, create knowledge, share resources, and participate as a productive member of the global economy.

Online Education: A learning environment created using the Web and accessed through the computer. Classes are conducted using the Internet as the delivery method rather than a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom setting.

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