Should virtual environments be realistic?

I have been involved with education in virtual worlds for several years now, and at discussions and conferences I often hear the question asked, “Why recreate a classroom with desks and PPT presentations in a world where anything is possible? Why create buildings with roofs and walls in a place where it never rains or gets cold?”

These are good and interesting points to consider, and certainly one of the most exciting aspects of virtual worlds is the sense of limitless possibilities they offer – we could hold class in the clouds, or on a beach, or in an environment imagined and created by the students themselves, for that matter. I think many educators hope that the flexibility and endless creativity available in virtual worlds will help us re-think and re-examine our teaching spaces and practices – not just in the virtual world, but in the real world, too. I count myself in that camp and think rigorous questioning of our teaching methods and learning spaces is very important, particularly in light of the changing landscape of knowledge production, aggregation, publication, and sharing that we’re seeing with Web 2.0 technologies.

FleepGrid Plaza, the central welcome region on FleepGrid.

Having said that, however, I’d like to make the case for why you  shouldn’t scoff at the countless university islands in Second Life with traditional buildings containing traditional classrooms with traditional desks and chairs and the ubiquitous PowerPoint slide presenter. I’ll add this caveat: If in 10 years those Second Life islands still contain nothing but traditional buildings with traditional classroom spaces, then you have my permission to scoff and you should. But today, hold your scorn in check, because what you are seeing are the artifacts of learning taking place, and who of us ever gets anything perfect on the first draft?

I’ve personally introduced the concept of virtual worlds and Second Life to hundreds and hundreds of people. From my grandfather to college professors, from personal friends to strangers and students and administrators and geeks and non-geeks alike; I’ve sat through their first tentative steps, encouraged them to explore, and watched as many decided it wasn’t for them or took too much time or wasn’t far enough along yet. I’ve also watched as some smaller percentage become intrigued and stick with it long enough to cross the line into immersion, and I see patterns in what happens next – across gender and age lines, across populations with varied levels of computer and technology access, skill, and know-how, and even across cultural and national identities.

The first step for the majority of folks is to recreate what is familiar. The first spaces they create are meaningful _real world_ symbols that resonate within the context of their engagement with the _virtual world_. Teachers look for classrooms, administrators look for familiar campus landmarks, librarians want to know how to make books. Friends create houses and gardens and look for fancy cars and luxury items they don’t have in real life. My mother looks for virtual replicas of the types of furniture she wants to put in her real life sewing room.

For some people, the transitionary period seems to be much shorter – before long they tire of recreating the familiar and move on to exploring the limits of the platform; instead of recreating their house, they imagine a house in the clouds or skip the concept of a house altogether and begin building fantastic creations that simply are not possible in real life. Given enough time, and the resources and learning communities that speed learning, teachers begin to hold classes around campfires and in tree houses. They might not demolish that first traditional classroom they built, though, not yet anyway, because man that took a lot of work and there is some pride in the accomplishment and some nostalgia in remembering those early days when the virtual world was new and fun and not yet coupled to responsibility or work.

For those who begin to use it seriously to teach, believe me, it’s a lot of work! It’s the equivalent of a child’s crayon drawing that you don’t throw away, but rather hang on the fridge as a reminder of how far they’ve come.

But for others, the transitionary period takes much longer, or perhaps for their own personal reasons never happens at all – they choose to spend their time in and create for themselves spaces that are symbolic replicas of the real world. Maybe with some sparkly floating stars and a few bells and whistles not normally seen on Main Street, but for the most part they stay in spaces that evoke something you might see in the real world. My own Second Life community called Chilbo looks and feels like a small, cosy village, and we like it that way. Who are you to judge if it serves our purposes?

But to bring this back to education in particular, it seems unfairly harsh to criticize the early efforts of individuals and institutions who are exploring virtual worlds for the first time. A recognizable school building does serve a purpose – it says to the newcomer “This space is intended for learning!” A classroom with desks and podium and PowerPoint projector allows a teacher new to virtual worlds to experiment with a new interface while keeping all the other variables the same. And in terms of looking at a campus space, what we see manifested in that space often is not the result of one person’s journey, but the result of a group experience, with laggards and speed demons mixed in with bureaucrats and oversight committees, and relics of past stages of learning that simply haven’t been torn down yet.

There are some imaginative and creative teachers who perhaps never built a classroom in Second Life at all, because they chafe at real life classrooms already. That’s terrific, and I hope that virtual worlds will provide a giant laboratory for us all to experiment and play and explore other possibilities, other configurations. There are some instructional designers who can extrapolate from their experiences with other technologies and immediately seize on using virtual worlds for what they are best at (co-presence, simulation, collaboration, prototyping) and leave the quizzes and notes and document repositories on their course management system, which delivers those types of content better than virtual worlds currently can. That’s terrific too, and probably results in a more effective learning experience for students as a result of their wisdom.

But for every instructor who experiments with delivering a quiz in the virtual world, one of them might stumble upon a method that IS more effective than the course management system. I haven’t seen one in Second Life yet, though the Sloodle chair that moves a student higher up in the air the more questions they answer correctly is a step in that direction, but that doesn’t mean there won’t ever be one. And it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t _try_ and encourage others to try.

Critiquing our and our institutions’ efforts in virtual worlds is good practice, and it is imperative that we continue to push our own boundaries and not get locked into habits or practices in the virtual world that we don’t even like in the real world (true story, I rarely use PPT in real life presentations, but find myself using them more often than not in presentations I give in the virtual world), but to instantly dismiss every replica of a traditional learning space in a virtual world without understanding the context in which it was created, the purpose and intent with which it was to be used, is not only unproductive, I think it may even be harmful. No one wants their sincere efforts to be mocked, and as teachers and educators, we shouldn’t be engaging in that kind of behavior. We should be showing alternatives, starting conversations, and experimenting with new solutions to stubborn old real world problems that we can share with our colleagues.

I’ll continue to create familiar classroom spaces for faculty who are brave enough to explore these virtual worlds with me, because my goal is to facilitate their learning, and I believe learning should be student centered – don’t you? As far as I can tell, the best way to speed that process isn’t to refuse to build a classroom with a roof, it’s to create a classroom to real life dimensions with roofs and all and let them experience bumping their head every time they try to fly. And some examples of traditional learning spaces, I hope to keep for a very long time to come. I’m very fond of the little one room school house that sits on our virtual campus, complete with desks and chalkboard. It reminds me that learning can happen anywhere, that good teaching can happen anywhere, and that we truly are pioneers in this increasingly digital, computerized, information saturated, complex virtually real world.

To be pioneers means that many of our efforts will fail, that the development of virtual learning spaces will be iterative, and that the real world symbols of teaching and learning will take time to morph into something else even in the virtual world. I think we should be patient, take a longer view, and do some very real research into the efficacy of all sorts of learning spaces and teaching models in virtual worlds. And in the meantime, we should let people experiment with teaching and learning in whatever spaces feel the most comfortable for them, because in virtual worlds, we’re all learners – even the teachers.

(This article reprinted with permission from Fleep’s Deep Thoughts.)'