Real Experiences with Virtual Worlds

Real Experiences with Virtual Worlds

Andrew Cram (Macquarie University, Australia) and John G. Hedberg (Macquarie University, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-189-4.ch003
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The virtual world provides a useful experimental space in which learners can experience the design parameters of a real world task. The importance of the simulated space is that it enables the learner to explore their solution to a design task. This chapter explores some educational opportunities offered by virtual world simulations, and presents a conceptual framework to guide their design and implementation. The framework is illustrated by exploring three contrasting simulation examples. In particular, the examples explain how simulations within virtual worlds can be linked to real world performances and provide an efficient way of developing difficult concepts. The examples outline different types of simulations: an exploratory simulation for learning socio-scientific inquiry; a role play simulation involving an ethically toned situation; and a design simulation in which learners test and refine their ideas for subsequent creation using concrete materials.
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Simulations And Virtual Worlds

The virtual learning is out of this world. It gives you a totally different view of education. (Learner, Student-Constructed Artwork simulation)

Virtual worlds offer unique opportunities for educational simulations. As users control an animated character (avatar) within a three-dimensional environment, virtual worlds offer a space in which a range of social phenomena may be simulated within a variety of conceptual contexts. Virtual worlds are essentially places to blend learners’ understandings of the real world with challenging and exploratory simulations. The blend ensures learners can explore concepts and ideas in safe and scaffolded learning contexts that in turn, provide experiences to inform everyday practice.

Simulations have been described as “a simplified and contrived situation that contains enough verisimilitude, or illusion of reality, to induce real world-like responses by those participating in the exercise” (Keys & Wolfe, 1990, p. 308). An important learning goal of virtual world simulations is to provide learners with an experience that can be transferred to activities that occur outside that simulation. Another potential goal is to engage the learner in verisimilar assessment, in which the learner’s responses within the simulation are as close as possible to responses to decisions in everyday contexts. Thus the virtual world enables observation and evaluation of a learner’s response in terms of actions and choices made during the exercise, which otherwise may be difficult to assess.

Real-world contexts require flexible, non-linear narratives with uncertain outcomes. Virtual worlds can require learners to make choices through active decision making, and provide a diverse set of opportunities for engagement, with different parts of the context being simulated. The verisimilitude of the simulation will partly determine how closely the learning experience within the simulation generates a similar experience outside the simulation. Within an educational simulation, verisimilitude facilitates transfer of understandings constructed within the simulation to the achievement of goals and resolution of problems outside the simulation, and impacts both the choice of representation and how learners interact with objects.

Several researchers have assisted designers by describing how the affordances of virtual worlds can be used to benefit learners. These include: extended or rich interactions, visualisation and contextualisation, authentic content and culture, identity play, immersion, simulation, community presence, content production (Warburton, 2009) and spatial knowledge representation, experiential learning, engagement, contextual learning, and collaborative learning (Dalgarno & Lee, 2010). In a similar fashion, Bell, Kanar, and Kozlowski (2008, p. 9) describe how certain features (relating to content, immersion, interactivity and communication) of technology-based simulations produce potential learning benefits including the enablement of emotional arousal, knowledge integration, real-time interactions, and use of characters and agents.

While these authors have given us a solid basis for the design of simulations that will help mimic real-world learning activities, this chapter seeks to extend understanding of those activities to include not only the features and affordances of the technology but also to suggest strategies that will help learners meaningfully interpret the objects and events in the simulated world. Further we explore some modifications of each element that will modulate and improve learners’ transfer of their experiences into real world contexts (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Conceptualising options for a virtual world simulation

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