“These new citizens of Avatar Cyberspace know they are true pioneers of a new medium of human contact, a medium that will have as profound an impact on the 21st Century as the telephone, television or film had on the 20th.” 1
Virtual reality (VR) online worlds have the potential for being the next explosive arena for educational applications. With the increased availability of fast internet connections, inexpensive computer hardware and the global village concept educators should consider the endless possibilities and educational applications that exist in cyberspace. VR worlds are a wonderful combination of the two most popular activities that Generation XYZers participate in – text chatting (AIM, text messaging) and interactive role-playing video games (Xbox, Everquest). While online virtual worlds may not yet be at the interactive or graphics level of current video games, the potential for this quality of online education is virtually unlimited. Virtual worlds have been slow to enter the classrooms, perhaps from a lack of awareness of their capabilities. This paper will be a brief verbal tour of one specific online world – Active World Educational Universe (AWEDU) - as a demonstration of the nearly limitless possibilities for integration of virtual reality worlds into our classrooms.
AWEDU was chosen simply because it was the only multi-user VR world I found that was designed to focus strictly on educational endeavors. AWEDU is an interactive, media rich, stimulating learning environment that allows for a diversion from the established methods of educational learning. VR can be powerful learning tools that help students to achieve an understanding that goes well beyond what can occur in a traditional classroom2.
AWEDU has the ability to allows teachers and students to interact either synchronously or asynchronously in a somewhat protected three-dimensional learning environment. It also provides the user with the ability to communicate with other schools and students from anywhere in the world. One of the most powerful educational applications is the ability to link objects in AWEDU to web resources thus serving to broaden even farther the learning applications.3 The whole story behind the evolution of AWEDU is somewhat unclear, but it seems to have been multicultural, multinational undertaking spearheaded by Vlearn 3D, an offshoot of The Contact Consortium. This virtual world appears to have been created around the mid- 90’s, but unfortunately, for whatever reasons (lack of grant money?) has been somewhat abandoned as of late. Fortunately, there are still a large number of activities available with a wide variety of possible classroom applications. Most of these activities are available through the world project teleports, but more on that later.
Unfortunately, becoming an AWEDU citizen classroom is somewhat expensive. For $650 per year you get: 40,000 square meters to build on, annual citizen ship for 20 students and access to 3D object and avatars (your being in the virtual world). If an instructor wanted to use this in a high school setting, where they may have over 100 students in a given day, they could purchase additional student licenses ($450 per 30 students). AWEDU could easily cost an instructor over $2000. Unfortunately, most individual teachers do not have access to this amount of money to spend on this type of application. I believe that this extreme expense has severely limited VR integration into the classroom. Hopefully, as with all immerging technology, the financial investment required to obtain this technology will decrease over time.
AWEDU can be access in the tourist mode. As a tourist (non-paying) you don’t have access to all the areas, nor do you have the perks and privileges, that are afforded to a citizen (paying member) of the world. However, there is a wealth of information and ample activities available for the casual tourist. As a tourist you can’t create your own world, but you do have access to some of the excellent resources that are already available. There are a number of ‘worlds’ in AWEDU that were created as projects and allow total access to tourists. There are also a number of absolutely wonderful areas that serve as demonstration sites for Virtually Learning. Virtually Learning is a commercial endeavor that creates custom designed virtual worlds for their customers.
All you need to make virtual reality a reality in your classroom are computers with a fast connection and the software to run the VR community (free download http://www.activeworlds.com/edu/awedu_download.asp). With these two items you can be up and running – literally – in AWEDU. The bulk of this paper will be a verbal tour through the virtual world of AWEDU. It will focus on adventures and activities that have potential classroom applications.
When you first enter AWEDU, you are at ‘ground zero’. From this point if you head north, you will end up in the Help and Information Center. This is a great place to start. It is basically a training ground on how to get the best experience out AWEDU. There are helpful hints on reading signs, moving around, changing views, talking to other avatars, and teleporting. Teleporting is one of the methods of moving between various worlds that exist in AW. The user clicks on a teleport and is immediately transported to the new world they have chosen. Walking, running and flying are other options for traveling around AWEDU.
If you head west, you will end up in the AWEDU Pavilion. This is basically just a gathering place. If you wanted a place to gather your students around and chat with them prior to releasing them into the ‘world’, this would be a great place to accomplish that task.
If you head south you will end up in the Building & Tutorial Teleports. One of the major activities, if you become a citizen, is to build/create your virtual work. This is the area were you find all the tutorials needed and the objects required to create your space in the virtual world. There are some worlds available where you can build as a tourist, but I didn’t spend anytime learning how to build in AWEDU. However, I can think of oodles of classroom applications for this activity. My first thought was a fantasy floor plan assignment my children had in grade school. They were required to draw out the floor plan of their dream house. I think that assignment cost us a couple of reams of paper. How much more engaging and flexible would this activity have been if they could have actually built their dream house in 3D?
The main application of AWEDU can be found by heading east. This is where you will find the Project World Teleports. The Showcase teleport will bring you to the home of Virtually Learning (VL). This entire world is basically an advertisement for the company. When you arrive in the Showcase World, you will have a number of options to explore. The Info Building tries to sell the visitor on the marvels of the company and what they can do for you. The local teleports are the points of interest in this world. VL has designed 10 areas in their virtual space. There are four sites: Haunted Mansion, Planetarium, Egyptian Area and Cavern Experience - that are very interactive and could easily be integrated into classroom activities. Three of the teleports are designed as gathering places: Mountain House, Beach and Medieval Area. James Burkes’ World offers a plethora of information about the Knowledge Web Project. This is a great resource for teachers that encourages innovative uses of technology in the classroom, but doesn’t have much to offer the students. The picture gallery is just snapshots of a gathering in VL world. The cinema and media has access to a few radio (not necessarily education) and TV (BBC, KLRN, NASA) stations. The functionality of these stations was somewhat sketchy.
The Haunted Mansion offers two interactive, independent quests for users. There is an introductory story that sets up the scenario for the two quests. The first quest is a relatively easy treasure hunt. Users follow a trail of clues to find the old mans hidden treasure. The second quest is a bit more challenging. Users need to find clues and solve the mystery of what happened to the old man and Thomas in that spooky old house on the hill. Watch out for the ghosts. It is a fun problem solving activity that helps develop logic and deductive reasoning skills.
The Planetarium has a wealth of information located in the five different buildings. In the Info Building users can immerse themselves in a 3D solar system, learn about the history of space exploration, and discover facts about famous astronomers. The Solar System Display Building offers basic information about the planets in our solar system. The Solar System Exploration Building is dedicated to the history and future of space exploration. Very informative web sites are linked to the objects in this building. The Famous Astronomers Building gives in depth bibliographies (through associated web pages) of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Halley, Hubble and Hawking. The Hubble Telescope and ISS allows users to visit the International Space Station (tour the Zvezda service module), and connects to the Hubble and International Space Station web sites.
The Egyptian Area is very informative and interactive. Users can enter can enter the Sphynx and explore the underground gallery and research Egyptian trades, clothes, medicine, hieroglyphics (just to name a few choices). The Pyramid, dig site and Egyptian village of Al Jizad are involved in a education quest. Users need to locate fifteen stolen artifacts scattered around the area. Each artifact is associated with a question which can be answered from the linked web page. This is a wonderfully educational and engaging world where users can work independently or in groups.
The last educationally interactive site is the Cavern Experience. Users enter into the cave and have a choice of visiting the underground gallery featuring cave paintings and forest paintings. The forest images were a little weird; they seemed rather out of place. The other path the users can take is the tunnel to the Cavern Experience. On this adventure users can choose to learn about cave formation or the interaction between mankind and caves. Each path has a quiz associated with it and an adventure ride out of the cave.
This is a very brief summary of what is available from the Virtually Learning worlds. None of the other teleports in the Project World Teleports are quite as extensive and interactive as Virtually Learning worlds are, but they do have some useful applications.
Babel Teleport is designed by Active Art Design. The campus reception building contains a Science/Math room which features links to biographies of various Mathematicians and Scientists on the ground floor. If you take the elevator to the second floor there are links numerous papers virtual reality.
VBI (Virtual Bibliographic Instructions) is a world designed by Eastern University in Pennsylvania. This site is so massive; I still have not discovered everything that is available. There is a map of the world off to the right when you first enter VBI that is extremely helpful. Clicking on the map will be automatically teleported the user to that region of the VBI land. The user has available a: social science and education reference center, art and humanities reference center, reference central, bioscience and medical reference center, Warner Library virtual tour (non-active) Geo Lab, Astronomy and Astrophysics Observatory - just to name a few available resources. There aren’t any game-like activities available, but there is a wealth of information. As with all the other worlds, don’t expect all the links to work. That is one of the problems with the dynamics of the internet.
Van Gogh immerses the user in Van Gogh’s painting ‘The Yellow House”. This is a painting of Arles, his home town in France. The first time I visited this world, the Tour was functional, since then it has not been active. The user can just wander around an explore Arles and the sources of Van Gogh’s inspiration for a number of his paintings.
BioLearn is a project created in association with Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative. The one problem with this site is that getting around is very confusing and difficult. Negotiate your way through the really long house to the coordinates 18S 5W and you should be in a room that has teleports in it. It took me forever to run across this feature in this world. This site has abundant information about ecology related topics: global warming, biodiversity, GIS, GPS, and digital educational philosophy. Unfortunately a lot of the links don’t work, but there are a few that are worthwhile.
Rick’s is a recreation of the Café Américain from the movie Casablanca that the user can tour. There are a few web links pertaining to this movie that interested parties can connect to. ARES and Luna are virtual representation of the surface of Mars and the moon respectively. There are nice web links associated with both teleports.
LinkWorld is a non-functional teleport. 3Dclass is teleport that was set up for a conference. It is just a 3D classroom. There is nothing to do there. SciCentre has very few functional activities or information. It is a world that was created by the Cornell Theory Center. If this world ever becomes functional it will be very applicable to life science teachers. VLearn was created in conjunction with a VLearn 3D online conference. The focus of VLearn is the use of shared virtual space for learning. There is not much going on there now.
Those are just the project worlds. There are still around one hundred worlds that were created outside of the project. Most of these worlds allow access to citizens or invited guests only, but there are a few that are available to tourists and offer some educational applications. A few of the worlds that I found particularly interesting are included in Table 1.
Activities of Potential Interest
Role Playing, Problem solving site
Fun Maze for the user to get lost in
MCC – Middlesex Community College
Geared toward psychology
Architecture site – provides information and quiz on some architectural styles
Cross-cultural writing project – Virtual Fairy Tale
Global Challenge Competition for high school students. 2006 focus is global warming
Wolfden – North Carolina State University
Science education portal. Game Room has some very interesting science activities
Virtual reality worlds, in their current state do have room for improvement. In AWEDU users can chat and perform a limited number of gestures (wave, jump, blow kiss etc). However, you can’t pick up objects or even sit down, so that removes some of reality from virtual reality. But, even with these drawbacks, it is yet another tool for the education of our students. The more tools an instructor has, the more students that can be reached.
To help prove my point about the potential benefits of VR worlds in the classroom: you have spent a fair amount of time reading about AWEDU. Now go online, download the software and explore AWEDU. Which activity was more enjoyable, memorable, educational and beneficial?
2 Virtual Reality Worlds: Not Just Chat on Steroids. David Cillay. http://www.sloanconsortium.org/summerworkshop2004/draftpapers/cillay_083004.doc