Virtual Worlds and 3D in Online Education

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A webinar for the Learning Technologies User Group
May 3rd 2007, 4pm - 5pm AEST (Sydney time)


In this session we will address the following questions:


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

  • Online 3D virtual worlds are online 3D spaces that you navigate using a digital character called an 'avatar'. You interact with other users from around the world using text chat/instant messaging/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
  • Quality of graphics is not necessarily related to level of immersion, suspension of disbelief and identification with avatar.
  • There is a convergence occuring between gaming worlds (MMOGs), social networking sites (Kaneva) for social media sharing and consumption, and virtual worlds (2D, 2.5D and 3D)

Video - Sony's 'Home' for PlayStation 3

Types of Online 3D Virtual Worlds and Related Online Communities

  • 3D Virtual Worlds
  • DIY Virtual Worlds & 3D Web Spaces
  • 2.5D Worlds & Avatar-based Communities
  • Virtual Worlds for Kids & Teens
  • Massively Multi-player Online Games (MMOGs)
  • Geo-spatial Data and Mapping

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

How Popular are Online Virtual Worlds?

Game Worlds
  • World of Warcraft - 8.5 million players worldwide
  • Runescape - 5 million players, inc. 1 million paying subscribers, over 200,000 concurrent users
  • Lineage - over 2 1/4 million active users
  • Entropia Universe - 500,000 registered participants
  • Star Wars Galaxies - estimated 110,000 to 175,000 subscribers

3D Virtual Worlds
  • Second Life - approx. 600,000 active users (6 million accounts)
  • - 500,000 members
  • MTV's Virtual Hills, Laguna Beach & Virtual Pimp My Ride - 600,000 users

Social Networking Worlds
  • Cyworld - 20 million members - 33 percent of all South Koreans, 90 percent of Korean 20-30 year olds
  • Habbo Hotel - 66 million Habbos with 7 million unique users per month (UU/mth)
  • Gaia Online - 2.5m UU/mth
  • Club Penguin - 4.1m UU/mth
  • Neopets - 4.2m UU/mth
  • Webkinz - 4.1m UU/mth
  • Nicktropolis - 2.5 million registered unique visitors


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

  • Shared presence - it feels like being 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 - act on the same objects in real time, e.g. a spreadsheet, a whiteboard or a 3D model.
  • Anonymity encourages more personal exploration. Shy students more likely to participate.
  • Immersion leads to the suspension of disbelief - enhances roleplay.
  • Spacial 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.
  • Identification with avatar. Emotional realism - you experience what your avatar experiences.
  • Supports experiential and project-based learning through authentic experiences in authentic contexts. The environment can be built to support incidental and informal learning.
  • Being in the same place at the same time naturally leads to peer learning.
  • Liberation from the physical laws of the real world makes possible the creation of innovative and imaginative spaces, activites and experiences.
  • Instructors report far higher engagement than other online platforms (although the capacity for distraction is also increased).
  • A very 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?

"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 (April 2007):
  • Total accounts: over 6 million
  • Active users: approx. 600,000 (10% total)
  • Premium (paid) accounts: approx. 80,000
  • Peak concurrency: approx. 40,000
  • Average concurrency: approx. 25,000
  • New signups a day: approx. 25,000
  • Age: average is 30 (was 37 in 2006) with approx. 16% over 55
  • Gender balance: 60% are men, 40% are women

  • Completely user-generated content - it's an open world where you can create just about any thing and any experience you want.
  • Relatively easy-to-use built-in building and scripting tools.
  • Creators own the intellectual property for their creations.
  • In-world economy with real money transfer makes it easy to buy and sell creations (and profit from them).
  • Linden Labs takes a hands-off approach to governance, allowing the residents to self-govern (although there are Terms of Service and Community Standards residents are expected to abide by).

Alternatives To Second Life - Uber Edition « Second Life Games

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

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

  • 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?

  • Proprietary services - putting money in corporate pockets.
  • Walled gardens vs open platforms.
  • Level of freedom/autonomy/choice to create own worlds with own rules.
  • Cost
  • High technological requirements - need a relatively fast computer with a good graphics card and broadband internet access.
  • Digital divide - due to access to technology or cost.
  • Steep learning curve (easier for gamers and the Net Gen).
  • Accessibility.
  • Mobility?
  • Griefers.

Specific to Second Life
  • Difficult interface.
  • Poor introductory experience - problems with Orientation Island, Welcome Areas and a lack of obvious search makes it difficult to find places, experiences and people of interest.
  • Grid stability, performance problems, downtime and lag.
  • Regular downtime for grid updates & need to download a new client regularly.
  • Platform limitations - prim economy, limit of number of avatars per area.
  • Questionable content - privacy and control.
  • Legal issues for institutions - indemnity, copyright.
  • No backup. Limited import tools.
  • You can lose everything with no legal recourse - both as a result of technical issues and conflict with Linden Lab.

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

  • This is going to be big - 3D online virtual worlds are exploding. The next generation of online interaction?
  • They offer unique qualities not available in any other medium - immersion, shared presence, shared experience etc.
  • They offer compelling and engaging environments for collaboration, interaction, communication etc.
  • They encourage student engagement.
  • Net Gen students have grown up interacting via avatars in online 3D immersive environments and will come to expect them.
  • Net Gen students are digitally literate and expect to be involved in the creation of their own media.
  • We will see more use of 3D virtual worlds in the workplace (online meetings, staff training) and at university/college.
  • Digital Natives need Digital Immigrants (Prensky) - young people need guidance from adult to learn how to use new online technologies effectively, critically, responsibly and safely.
  • Educators need to help define this space which is currently being driven by commercial interests.
  • Virtual worlds like Second Life provide an opportunity to explore and prototype new learning models - lifelong learning, Constructivism, experiential, project-based and informal learning.

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

Convergence of the following areas:

Future trends:
  • Photo-realistic 3D worlds with more life-like avatars
  • 3D web? Integration of 2D and 3D?
  • Alternative interfaces and input devices - e.g. Nintendo's Wii, neural interfaces
  • Mobile access via mobile devices and ubiquitous computing
  • Mixed reality
  • Augmentation (HUDS in the real world)
  • Virtual Reality

Further Resources

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