This paper presents our experiences of and reflections on five years work in using virtual worlds to support exploratory learning across a range of disciplines and educational contexts. Both educational and systems aspects are considered. Experiential learning enriches education by allowing exploration of a subject. However, often barriers of time, place, cost or scale make it difficult to conduct real world experiential learning. This paper presents experiences in utilizing virtual worlds to support experiential learning in the arts, humanities and sciences. The work presented here draws upon several years of experience in designing, developing and deploying Virtual World applications, which address the concrete needs of specific subject areas in a range of educational contexts.
The work was motivated by the observation that 3D educational environments could leverage digital literacy developed playing console games and to provide an engaging learning experience where users navigate a virtual environment much as they would the real world. Furthermore developments in computer hardware and networking mean that 3D applications run on standard computers found in offices and educational institutions.
The Initial application developed was a simulation of an archeological excavation. Prototypes were developed in a First Person Shooter game, a Virtual Reality environment and a Virtual World. We found that Virtual World technology offered users presence through the proxy of avatars and powerfull support for shaping and programming the environment.
Initially a simulation of an archeological dig, a virtual teaching space for a management course, a virtual laboratory for wireless networking and a lab for exploring Human Computer Interaction were developed on a Second Life island. The experience was positive and students engaged in valuable learning activities that would not otherwise have been possible. However, we came up against constraints, that were not inherent in Virtual Worlds per se, but rather flowed from Second Life's service model. This lead us to migrate our development platform from Second Life to OpenSim.
The ability for institutions to manage their own virtual world servers offers benefits in the areas of content creation, application development, cost and scalability. However in providing a virtual world service a number of challenges arise, which must be met if the potential of educational virtual worlds is to be realised. These challenges lie in the realms of application design, support for resource creation, and system support.
The power of Open Virtual Worlds is illustrated here by presenting three exemplar applications developed on OpenSim. These are a virtual laboratory for experimenting with Internet routing protocols, a reconstruction of Scotland largest and most important religious building, St Andrews Cathedral and a tool for learning about intervention in humanitarian disasters.
A number of subjects and educational contexts are considered: contexts include PhD and masters research projects, laboratory sessions as part of accredited degree programs, open days for aspiring entrants, an exhibition held in a science center attended by the “interested public”, parties of primary school students with their teachers as well as scouts and cubs on a days expedition. Subjects areas include, computer science, archeology, art history, history and management.
Taken together this work demonstrates the power of virtual worlds as a platform for developing 3D applications that support heterogeneous exploratory learning. There are still challenges to be met for the potential to be realised but the potential is considerable.