Re-engaging students using virtual world simulations

Learning in “simulated worlds” is not a new idea – but the HP Catalyst team at City Academy in Norwich (UK) has a new approach… and some fascinating insights about its impact on at-risk students.

Jerome Thompson, a teacher at City Academy Norwich, is one of the lead developers of the Eco-Virtual Environment (EVE) Project. He presented recently at the BETT Show in London, sharing how they are using an open source immersive simulation platform ( to engage students in science and math inquiry.

(Image courtesy Hewlett Packard.)

For the EVE project, grade 7 students (and their teacher!) login as avatars and go “in world” to collaboratively explore how decisions about alternative energy affect their world. It’s not a simple simulation, though. According to the EVE project lead and teacher Tim Mullis, “An example of the deep learning that occurs is in the power simulation where students initially apply what they have learnt at school ‘renewable energy is good, non-renewable energy is bad’. They quickly realize the real world economic, social and political outcome of simply turning off the coal power stations and replacing them with wind turbines. The students find themselves in a real world situation where the lights need to be kept on, the company needs to be kept solvent and yet by careful planning a looking to the future their team can create a more sustainable energy supply.”

The team has plans to apply this virtual world platform to a variety of simulation activities covering other STEMx related topics. To keep the cost down and to make it easy to create a new simulation activity, the EVE team is doing something new: They are using the virtual world only as a meeting place, avoiding the expense and time needed for special programming to do terraform manipulation. Instead, the simulation is driven by a Google spreadsheet – and the data is transmitted into the virtual world onto virtual screens.

According to Mullis, “Data, graphics and graphs are fed to the students through ‘tri-screens’ and the students (e.g. accountant, manager, power engineer, environmental scientist), study their specialist information carefully and then meet to share their thoughts on the decision each turn. The OpenSim front end provides a stimulating backdrop for this rich social interaction between the students. Changing the context is as easy as changing the Google docs. We have now three simulations up and running on the context of power engineering, commodity trading and computing.”

So why do this in a virtual world?

Tapping into the power of anonymity to re-engage students

As I’ve seen with other projects, the “power of anonymity” turns out to be very important for students who are learning in a language that is not their primary language of origin. It is also VERY important for students who do not view themselves as “successful” students.

In a 3D virtual world, where you come as an “avatar”, students have partial anonymity. Though their names are still visible, in EVE there are only two avatar types (male and female). Because they don’t look like themselves and because all communication is accomplished via text chat in-world, the EVE teachers have observed important social changes.

“Students at our school (as with many) are developing their confidence. They do not always feel comfortable sharing an idea with a class due to the peer pressure and possible historic experiences with less sensitive teachers. In EVE they are all happy to contribute. They have the freedom to walk, run, fly, dive, zoom in and out on details – they find themselves in a surreal classroom with no walls and an utterly different set of social rules. Peer pressure / bullying is often a complex and refined interaction that involves tone of voice, expression, physical stance etc. In EVE these things just don’t exist and all of the students are equal.”

To me, this is a remarkable and important finding, especially since the context is an “in-class” experience. The class, as Mullis tells me, goes silent as the students immerse themselves in a distant world to take on the challenge together. It appears to be working rather well:

“We initially had concerns on the ability of the students to solve complex STEM problems using ‘text’ talk”, said Mullis. “We set up an experiment where half of a class solved problems in EVE and the other half solved them in a real world context sitting around a table. To our surprise the students in EVE performed better. We interviewed them afterwards and they told us that when limited to ‘text’ they had to focus more on the problem and weren’t distracted by gossip, etc.”

According to David Brunton, principal at City Academy Norwich, “What an honour and opportunity for staff and pupils to demonstrate their skills and achievement with this cutting edge development. The learning software unites game theory, team work, decision making and knowledge to produce an absorbing way to learn. This type of learning ensures the future success of City Academy Norwich students, which is the ultimate aim of our academy.”

Bravo to the EVE team for finding new ways to re-engage their students!

For more information about the EVE Project, please email: eve [at]

(This article reprinted with permission from Teaching, Learning and Technology.)'
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