The Pioneering Spirit in the Virtual Frontier

The Pioneering Spirit in the Virtual Frontier

Cynthia M. Calongne (Colorado Technical University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2182-2.ch018
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Dreaming of opportunities that were not possible in real life, educators visualized the potential of virtual worlds. They gathered to share their enthusiasm for this strange new landscape, to share their concerns, and to see if it offered the promise of novel approaches to address educational challenges. One challenge was the decline of learner motivation and engagement in the study of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). This chapter explores the phenomenon of how selfhood and society were integral to the development of a vibrant educational community. At the heart of virtual world education is an ecosystem of institutions, groups, and conferences comprised of the early adopters and pioneers who stimulated their imagination and pooled their resources to encourage and strengthen the community, and cast their eye to the future.
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The River City project (2000-2009) fueled the imagination of educators with a historical multiuser virtual environment (MUVE) created for middle grade science students. Designed within a commercial virtual world called Active Worlds, the science-oriented learning environment was funded by National Science Foundation grants led by Harvard’s Chris Dede (2003) in collaboration with the Virtual Environments Lab at George Mason University, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American history, and a firm called Thoughtful Technologies, Inc.

The goal was to help learners discover a love of science. The curriculum mapped to established assessment methods and gave educators tools for studying the cognitive audit trails, which served as both a metaphor and a method of assessing when learners were ready for the next level. River City represented the early promise of virtual world education and employed a team-based approach to using scientific methods to analyze and address serious problems while increasing interest and a desire to study science.

The River City simulation featured traveling back in time to address 19th century problems and in particular, three diseases using 21st century tactics. It wove historical, social and geographical content amid the threat of diseases that stemmed from airborne, water-borne, and insect-based sources within the immersive landscape. Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education coordinated the design, with pilot tests conducted with Boston public schools and the implementation of the immersive MUVE (Dede & Ketelhut, 2003). The project reflected on scalability issues and how to offer the environment to schools throughout North America. In 2007-2008, over 100 teachers and 5,000 students studied in River City across twelve states. The River City project inspired the educational community and served as a road map for what might be possible for teaching other subjects. Active Worlds was a popular tool with educators, but a variety of forces, including financial and ownership changes led educators to seek other opportunities.

There®, a virtual landscape that encouraged the public to join the developers’ community, encouraged educational use during their beta test that led to a small, but devoted group of educators. The strengths included access to diverse content and technological affordances that supported safe use (dressing rooms appeared when changing the avatar’s appearance, classroom animations, vehicle physics, and an education special interest group), but also implemented a content creation and submission system that required review board approval to ensure that the content met community standards, after which, the creator pre-paid for a volume of copies. Mapping the virtual community’s goals with the curriculum and school district requirements was for some educators, a challenge.

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