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Learning in virtual worlds

After a flurry of publicity about virtual worlds over the past few years, things have recently been quieter, but that doesn’t mean virtual worlds have gone away; it may be more a sign of initial excitement giving way to longer-lasting and more mature uses for the technology. And use as a learning platform seems likely to be one of these.

Before I go any further; I’ll give a quick explanation for anyone unfamiliar with the concept. Briefly, virtual worlds are game-like two or three dimensional environments, where you control a figure or ‘avatar’ which represents you in the environment. You interact with other people via their avatars. The most famous virtual world is probably Linden Labs’ Second Life, where individuals, companies and educational institutions buy and populate islands.

Anyone who has visited a virtual world will know they can be fairly chaotic and unstructured places. Unlike a game, there is no overall purpose and no set goals; instead people generally find their own reasons for visiting a virtual world. It’s quickly possible to start identifying with your avatar as an extension of you, but the entire experience can feel quite aimless.

So how can virtual worlds be used for learning?

The danger is that virtual environments start being bolted onto learning packages to make them seem more ‘exciting’. So the unfortunate learner has to propel their avatar down a corridor to find a piece of paper on a table, which they need to read in order to make a business decision. This will quickly, if not immediately, become an irritation. It wastes time and doesn’t aid learning.

However, virtual environments have the potential to be a huge aid to learning when used appropriately. Where learners are given a goal relevant to their virtual environment the learning can be relevant and powerful. For example, evacuating an underground station in a state of chaos is not something which can easily and often be trained in the real-world. But by building a life-like virtual environment and using trainers to control some avatars, different situations and outcomes can be simulated and learners can make mistakes in a safe environment.

Less dramatically, distributed chains of shops can use virtual shop environments to globally train or induct new employees on store layouts and customer service situations without incurring transport costs.

Linden Labs, creator of Second Life, one of the more famous virtual worlds, certainly hopes that people will think of them for training. And there is a Second Life educators group on Linked in. But many organisations may feel that the relatively anonymous and unregulated nature of Second Life makes it an inappropriate training location. A custom made virtual world may be a better solution for some, as this allows the training environment to become a closed world.

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