How Virtual Worlds Help Real Learners

Oct 18, 2012

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All of us enjoy the escapism of sitting in a theatre and letting a movie take us to another place. We're physically sitting in our seats, but our minds are living in the world of, say, Harry Potter at Hogwarts. This is the process of immersion, the subjective impression that one is participating in a comprehensive, realistic experience.

And watching a movie is only the tip of the iceberg of immersion, as we can observe but not shape the virtual context.

In contrast, multi-user virtual environment (MUVE) interfaces offer learners an engaging “Alice in Wonderland” experience—their avatars interact with each other and with computerized agents in a graphical, virtual context.

In the education world, MUVEs can provide rich environments in which participants interact with digital entities and tools. For example, EcoMUVE, a project we’re working on at Harvard, is an inquiry-based, four-week curriculum that helps students understand ecosystem science, the inquiry process, and the complex cause and effect relationships inherent in ecosystem dynamics.

One of our two immersive digital ecosystems is a pond in which students use their avatars to explore the environment, observe realistic organisms in their natural habitats, talk to the local “residents,” and collect water, weather, and population data. Students study the dynamics of water chemistry at the virtual pond.

Figure 1: Studying water chemistry at the EcoMUVE pond

EcoMUVE’s submarine tool (below) allows students to see and identify microscopic organisms, allowing the realization that organisms invisible at the macro level, such as algae and bacteria, play critical roles in the pond ecosystem.

Figure 2: Studying species at the EcoMUVE pond

Students visit the pond over a number of virtual days, eventually making the surprising discovery that many fish have suddenly died. Students work in teams to collect and analyze data, solving the mystery through learning about complex causality.

Why are virtual worlds such as the EcoMUVE curriculum powerful for learning? They create immersive, extended experiences with problems and contexts similar to the real world. Participants gain knowledge and problem-solving skills by interacting with others at various levels of skills and knowledge within the virtual worlds.

With conventional instruction, students often have to apply knowledge learned in a classroom to a quite different real-world context. In virtual worlds, the transfer of knowledge to a real-world context isn't as much of a stretch. So for example, learning about flying a plane or performing surgery from a textbook is much less tangible then learning from a flight or surgical simulator.

Overall, immersive interfaces such as virtual worlds offer many ways to enhance learning and teaching. However, research is still needed to understand how to fully realize their potential. The 2010 National Educational Technology Plan offers recommendations on next steps in achieving this goal, which I believe is central to a 21st-century educational system.

 This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.