Virtual Education

Virtual Education

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61692-808-7.ch008
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Virtual education is a multi-billion dollar business and maintains a firm place in the world of E-Commerce. It is a mode used by educational institutions, the military, professional organizations, commercial companies, and others to inform, educate and interact with students, consumers, and participants. Second Life® is the most well-known forum for virtual education for many colleges and universities, but it is not the only virtual environment used for educational purposes. Many organizations such as the military have developed their own virtual training and education frameworks (See Ciaramitaro and Jones, Chapter 7). Conferences and seminars offered by professional organizations and business consortiums are increasingly using the virtual environment to attract its participants. Even virtual worlds embraced by children provide many educational aspects such as the “working” experience in the Webkinz world. This chapter will discuss the varying ways that virtual worlds have been incorporated into education. The authors will examine several virtual worlds to see what they offer in terms of content and user experience. They will also examine virtual education from the faculty and student perspective, and investigate how it compares with traditional forms of teaching and learning. As is true in all virtual worlds, within the education domain there are issues and challenges that must be addressed before full-scale adoption is achieved and we will discuss several of these. The authors will conclude with an examination of what the future holds for virtual education.
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This chapter takes the position that the purpose of education is to “is to enable individuals to reach their full potential as human beings, individually and as members of a society; this means that these individuals will receive an education which will enable them to think and act intelligently and purposefully” (21st Century Schools, 2009, p.1.) With that goal in mind, we will examine how well virtual worlds are able to meet these objectives. However education is not just an altruistic goal: it is a business and virtual education is big business.

Online education is a multi-billion dollar global industry that has experienced a dramatic increase in the rate of adoption by educational institutions, the military and private organizations (White, 2009). Today, much of online education continues to be delivered in an asynchronous (one way) and somewhat static form using posted lectures, discussion forums, videos, podcasts and other forms of information. But in the past few years we have seen an impressive shift in the mode of online learning toward the use of virtual worlds. The use of virtual worlds in education is distinguished from asynchronous learning environments by the immersive interactive experience they offer their students. Students in virtual worlds adopt a graphical persona or avatar with which they travel – walking or flying – through the virtual world interacting with other student and teacher avatars. Through their avatars, they learn by listening, observing, talking, and doing.

Virtual education is a relatively new phenomenon in the world of online learning. It goes beyond asynchronous online learning modes in that it offers a three-dimensional (3D) virtual reality environment along with a real-time chat feature. Although there are many 3D virtual education worlds, they all share three characteristics: a virtual world presented in three dimensions; avatars to visually represent users; and an interactive chat (text or voice) through which users can talk with each other (Dickey, 2003).

Virtual worlds are better able to emulate real world experiences than the passive exchange of asynchronous environments. Students are represented by avatars that can travel through the virtual world observing virtual exhibits or presentations, attending lectures, and communicating with other avatars on a real-time basis. Rather than talking about it or merely looking at images, students can enter a virtual representation like the Sistine Chapel or a coral reef and experience the learning on a more personal basis. The students are immersed in the experience rather than simply observing it from a distance.

Student avatars in a virtual Spanish class can float down the Amazon River while listening to a Spanish-speaking guide teach them about the culture of the area, and actually practice their Spanish with natives also using the virtual world (Pechar, 2008, p. 2)

There are several virtual worlds that house educational activities. These worlds can generally be divided into two categories: proprietary and open source. The first group is best represented by Second Life® which was developed by Linden Labs. Second Life® offers a proprietary foundation for the development of virtual worlds. It has become the most commonly used hub of virtual education. The second category includes various virtual worlds built on open source foundations. Open source is an open platform that is developed through the concerted voluntary efforts of many developers. Open source virtual education offerings include Wonderland by Sun Microsystems (Sun Microsystems, 2009), Active Worlds, and Small Worlds.

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