Virtual Worlds - What are They and Why do Educators Need to Pay Attention to Them?

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A presentation for the AFLF'S E-learning Networks June Online Event

Tuesday 19th June, 2007, 3:30pm - 4.30pm (AEST)

(other time zones - )

The recording of the Elluminate session is available here:

(directly opens the Elluminate session)


There is currently an explosion in the number and population of online 3D virtual worlds. This development could even be heralding the next evolutionary phase of the Internet - the 3D web.

This session will provide an overview of the latest developments in online 3D virtual worlds and describe some of their unique characteristics. We will also look at how these environments can be used in education and how they can help explore new learning models. We will look at why it is important for educators to pay attention to online 3D virtual worlds and become involved in their development.

The session will focus on Second Life, one of the more popular and flexible online 3D virtual worlds.

In this session we will address the following questions:

What are Online 3D Virtual Worlds? How Popular are they Becoming?

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  • Online 3D virtual worlds are online 3D environments that are navigated using a digital character called an 'avatar'. Users interact with other users from around the world using text chat, instant messaging, or voice chat (depending on the platform).
  • Online 3D virtual worlds are often called Multi-user Virtual Environments (MUVEs)
  • They are related to Massively Multi-user Online Games (MMOGs) such as World of Warcraft, but they are not games. However you can play, and sometimes create, games within them.
  • They range from completely open-ended environments with user-generated content (e.g. Second Life) to highly managed environments where the world-builder creates the content (e.g. Sony's Home).
  • Not all online virtual worlds are 3D - e.g. Habbo Hotel & Cyworld are 2.5D.
  • The quality of graphics is not necessarily related to level of immersion, suspension of disbelief and identification with avatar.
  • There is a convergence occurring between gaming worlds (MMOGs), social networking sites (e.g. Virtual World of Kaneva) for social media sharing and consumption, and virtual worlds (2D, 2.5D and 3D)
  • Online 3D virtual worlds provide new ways to create, communicate, interact, socialise, network, collaborate, as well as new ways to teach and learn online.

Video - Sony's 'Home' for PlayStation 3 (alternative version - mov)

Types of Online Virtual Worlds and Related Online Services

  • Massively Multi-player Online Games (MMOGs)
  • 3D Virtual Worlds
  • Corporate Workspaces, 3D Intranets & Conferencing
  • Avatar-based Communities
  • Virtual Worlds for Kids & Teens
  • DIY Virtual Worlds & 3D Web Spaces
  • Geo-spatial Data and Mapping (Mirror Worlds)

Full list of online virtual worlds and related online services with examples: Virtual Worlds Resources - Jo Kay and Sean FitzGerald

The Popularity of Virtual Worlds

According to Gartner Research -
80% of active Internet users will have a presence in a virtual world by the end of 2011.


What are the some of the Characteristics of Online 3D Virtual Worlds and what New Opportunities do they Present for Online Education?

  • Shared presence - it feels like you are in the same space at the same time with others, interacting with users from around the world.
  • Shared experience - you can view and experience the same events (e.g. videos, presentations, musical performances) and engage in shared activities (e.g. play games, pull apart 3D models, dance).
  • Real-time collaboration and creative co-production - users act on the same objects in real time, e.g. a spreadsheet, a whiteboard or a 3D model. Being in the same place at the same time naturally leads to peer learning.
  • Anonymity encourages more honest personal exploration. Shy students are reported to have higher participation rates then in face-to-face classes.
  • Spatial cues enhance communication - "What are they doing over there?"
  • Increased emotional bandwidth - enhanced communication from avatar choice and non-verbal cues such as avatar position, movement & gestures.
  • Immersion leads to the suspension of disbelief which enhances roleplay.
  • Identification with avatar can lead to emotional realism - you experience what your avatar experiences.
  • Liberation from the physical laws of the real world makes it possible to create innovative and imaginative spaces, activities and experiences.
  • Supports experiential and project-based learning through authentic experiences in authentic contexts. The environment can be built to support incidental and informal learning.
  • Instructors report far higher engagement than other online platforms (although the capacity for distraction is also increased).
  • Highly social environment - this leads to a more social experience than traditional online learning - students have greater opportunities to feel connected to other students and teachers. Students "hang out" after class, and are often found online working on class projects and/or socialising outside of class hours.

What is Second Life? Why has it Become so Popular?

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"Second Life is a 3D online digital world imagined, created and owned by its residents." The platform is developed by Linden Lab. Residents engage in a range of activities including socialising, attending musical events, playing games & sports, dancing, shopping, running businesses, building structures, scripting objects, attending meetings and presentations and undertaking training and education.

Statistics (June 2007):
  • Total accounts: over 7.2 million
  • Active users: approx. 720,000 (10% of total)
  • Premium (paid) accounts: approx. 90,000
  • Peak concurrency: approx. 47,000
  • Average concurrency: approx. 30,000
  • New signups a day: approx. 26,000
  • Age: average is 30 (was 37 in 2006) with approx. 16% over 55
  • Gender balance: 57% are men, 43% are women
  • US$ spent every 24hrs: approx. $1.7 million

Key Features of Second Life:
  • Completely user-generated content - it’s an open world that gives users creative control.
  • Relatively easy-to-use built-in building and scripting tools allow users to create almost any object or any experience they can imagine.
  • Customisation of avatars - users can create highly detailed ‘virtual selves’.
  • Users own the intellectual property for their creations.
  • A real in-world economy with real money transfer makes it easy to buy and sell creations (and profit from them). More than $12 million USD is transacted between users every month.
  • Audio and video can be streamed from the web and played in-world.
  • Linden Labs takes a hands-off approach to governance, allowing the residents to self-govern (although residents are expected to abide by the Terms of Service and Community Standards).

There is also a Teen Second Life for 13 - 17 year olds.

Alternatives To Second Life - Uber Edition « Second Life Games

What are Some of the Ways Online 3D Virtual Worlds can be used in Education?

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  • Distance and Flexible Education
  • Presentations, Panels and Discussions
  • Training and Skills Development
  • Displays and Exhibits
  • Roleplays and Simulations
  • Data Visualisations and Simulations
  • Historical Re-creations and Re-enactments, Living and Immersive Archeology
  • Multimedia and Games Design
  • Theatre and Performance Art
  • Machinima
  • Treasure Hunts and Quests
  • Virtual Tourism, Cultural Immersion and Cultural Exchange
  • Language Teaching and Practice, and Language Immersion
  • Social Science and Anthropological Research
  • Politics, Governance, Civics and Legal Practice
  • Business, Commerce, Financial Practice and Modelling
  • Real Estate Practice
  • Product Design, Prototyping, User-testing and Market Research
  • Architectural Design and Modelling
  • Urban Planning and Design

For more types of educational uses of Second Life with examples see:
Educational Uses of Second Life - Jo Kay and Sean FitzGerald

What are Some of the Challenges Educators Face when Using Online 3D Virtual Worlds?

There are a range of challenges, issues and cautions that need to be addressed when considering using virtual worlds for educational purposes... many of which are unique to 3D virtual environments.

These include:
  • High-end technical requirements.
  • Cost.
  • Accessibility issues.
  • Steep learning curves.
  • Closed proprietary systems.
  • Legal grey areas - e.g. intellectual property, virtual economies, avatar rights.
  • Student validation and control.
  • Access to inappropriate material and student duty of care.
  • Dealing with 'griefers' (troublemakers).
  • Resistance from institutions, both administrators (e.g. the perception that virtual worlds are games and therefore unsuitable for learning) and IT people (e.g. concerns over network security).

For a detailed list of issues (related mainly to Second Life) see - sleducation/gettingstarted#challenges|Getting Started with Second Life > Challenges/Issues/Cautions.

Why do Educators Need to Pay Attention to Online 3D Virtual Worlds?

  • This is going to be big - 3D online virtual worlds are exploding. Is 3D the next generation of online interaction?
  • They offer unique qualities not available in any other medium - immersion, shared presence, shared experience etc.
  • They are creative, expressive, playful, social environments that encourage engagement, interaction, communication, collaboration and social learning.
  • They are engaging for the Net Gen students who have grown up online and with video games - they are accustomed to interacting via avatars in online 3D immersive environments and will come to expect that.
  • Net Gen students have become accustomed to, and will expect to be involved in, the creation of their own media content - thanks to the Web 2.0 revolution.
  • Digital Natives need Digital Immigrants (Prensky) - young people need guidance from adults to learn how to use new online technologies effectively, critically, responsibly and safely.
  • We will see more use of 3D virtual worlds in the workplace (online meetings, staff training etc.) and at university/college for education.
  • Educators need to help define this space which is currently being driven and dominated by commercial interests. We need to move away from 'walled gardens' and push for accessible, open source virtual worlds based on open standards.

Virtual Worlds as Environments to Explore and Prototype New Pedagogical Models

  • "Virtual worlds provide a clean slate for organizational renewal, a transition
  • from the rigid structures and boundaries of the industrial (physical) world
  • to the flexibility and innovation of the knowledge (intangible) world."
  • - Jay Cross - Informal Learning Blog :: Another Life Unexpurgated

  • Virtual worlds like Second Life provide an opportunity to explore and prototype new learning models more suitable for the knowledge era - Constructivism, student/learner-centred, life-based learning, informal learning, project-based learning and experiential learning. In turn these explorations can influence "real world" pedagogies that have been based on industrial models of teaching and learning.

  • Students can move out into the world-at-large and engage in authentic projects in authentic contexts that have relevance for them:
    - They can develop and run a business.
    - They can design and sell clothes.
    - They can hold art exhibitions or learn how to run events.
    - They can design and build a house for an in-world client.
    - They can do environmental research in simulated environments such as wetlands or volcanoes.
    - They can do social and ethnographic research with any of the communities and subcultures within the virtual world.
    - They can study a new language and culture in an environment that reflects the culture, interacting with native speakers.

  • Likewise, we can explore new, flexible, learning spaces more suitable for the knowledge era, which can in turn influence the bricks-and-mortar learning spaces and institutions that are based on industrial models of teaching and learning. Without physical restraints, new learning spaces can be quickly protyped and tested with little effort and at almost no cost.

And the last reason why educators need to pay attention to virtual worlds?
  • Answer: so that our students don't think we are artards! :-)

What Does the Future Hold for Online 3D Virtual Worlds and the 3D Web?

Convergence of the following areas:

Future trends:
  • Proliferation of virtual worlds - watch what the big players do - Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Myspace, mainstream media companies & games companies.
  • Open source, open standards virtual worlds (no more, or fewer, 'walled gardens') - IBM's Bob Sutor : Open standards, open source, open minds, open opportunities.
  • The 3D web? Integration of 2D and 3D? - HTML-on-a-prim, Sloodle, blogHUD, Twitter, Jabber/IM, virtual world APIs.
  • Dissolution of the barriers between the virtual and the real via things such as mixed reality events - events that mix virtual world and real world participants.
  • Access to virtual worlds everywhere via mobile devices and ubiquitous computing.
  • Alternative interfaces and input devices - 3D desktops, touch screens, 3D mice, data gloves, Nintendo's Wii, neurological interfaces.
  • Photo-realistic 3D worlds with more life-like avatars.
  • Interaction with artificial intelligences, 'bots', NPCs (non-player characters).
  • Augmentation (HUDS mapping virtual data onto the real world).
  • Radio-frequency identification (RFID) of objects - leading to Bruce Sterling and The Internet of Things.
  • Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and geotagging.
  • Virtual Reality.

Further Resources