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Teaching and Learning in Virtual Worlds

Did you know that universities are beginning to research the benefits of using virtual worlds as a means of classroom instruction? One such web interface is called Second Life (SL). Second Life provides a 3-D, model-based, user-generated content platform for users to interact with one another in simulated environments (worlds) through the use of avatars. Users (residents) are drawn to SL because it offers a novel way of interacting with others using an entirely fictitious identity that the user produces. Consider SL as a second world where you have another life with the ability to do anything you can do in the real world and more. Initially, SL was created for social interaction, allowing opportunities for users to connect with other like-minded people. Similar to most interactive games, there is a bit of a learning curve to SL, and navigating can be a challenge. It is not a game that you play with the goal of achieving the highest score. It is best not to view it as a typical game but rather as a world in which you explore, interact with others, and learn from your experiences. You are in the driverís seat, and it is up to you to make things transpire and allow yourself to achieve suspension of disbelief. Doing this increases your enjoyment of the experience, much like reading a romance novel or watching a scary movie.

Since the launch of SL, institutions are beginning to take a second look at SLís capabilities and how they can be beneficial. Corporations are now utilizing SL for virtual teaming, scientific research, virtual tours, and virtual role-playing. In the educational field, creating virtual classrooms to enhance distance-learning environments is just one way some universities are evaluating and implementing SL. Schools such as Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Stanford have developed university tours within SL for potential students to visit the campus virtually. This is a great first step that introduces SL to students, allowing them the opportunity to learn about it firsthand.

Imagine taking a distance-learning art history course and participating with your class within an SL classroom environment. Your instructor then transports her classmates to a virtual museum for a tour of fine art. Each room displays art created by famous historical artists such a Monet, Michelangelo, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Da Vinci. As a virtual student you listen carefully, observing each piece of art while taking notes, because at the end of the tour, you are transported back into your virtual classroom to take a quiz based on the lecture during the tour. Itís much more interesting than looking at artwork in a book or on a website; donít you think? Virtual worlds offer the reality absent from a distance-learning forum. Creating a multidimensional learning experience using virtual worlds offers the stimulation needed to acquire and retain the attention of todayís students.

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