Virtual worlds are fully simulated 3-dimensional digital environments, much like gaming environments, which users enter in the form of a character known as an avatar. Virtual worlds are sometimes also referred to as MUVEs (Multi-User Virtual Environments). The difference between virtual worlds and gaming environments is that the former do not typically involve the kinds of game-like goals, quests and challenges which are an integral part of the latter.
Virtual worlds have much in common with web 2.0, given that they facilitate multimodal interaction and collaboration across the internet. At the same time, they are linked to the web 3.0 concept of the geospatial web. Half a decade ago, virtual worlds were widely viewed as being at the cutting edge of educational technology development, with many educational institutions establishing a presence and running interactive classes and meetings on the best-known platform, Second Life. In the intervening years, interest in virtual worlds has waned as educators have turned their attention to emerging forms of mobile learning which do not focus on a separate digital realm, but rather focus on (re-)integrating the virtual and the real through augmented reality and similar paradigms. However, as a subset of virtual reality platforms, virtual worlds may yet see a new lease of life with the increasing popularity of VR headsets that offer a much more immersive experience than a flat computer monitor. It is likely that virtual reality simulations – for example, of locations inaccessible from a classroom, or of content that cannot easily be seen – will come to have an important niche role in education.
Virtual worlds offer opportunities for immersive, situated learning in a simulated environment. In a virtual world like Second Life, students can visit museums and galleries whose layout matches that of their real-world counterparts. They can visit simulations to learn about everything from the structure of molecules to customs in Ancient Rome. They can practise skills in areas ranging from patient-doctor consultations to urban design, building up confidence before embarking on real-world encounters or entering real-world scenarios. Given the linguistic nature of most avatar-to-avatar interactions, there is potential for language learning, with effective communication depending also on the development of digital literacies like multimodal literacy. There has been some discussion of situated cognition, based on the notion that embodiment has a major impact on the way we learn. Although avatars’ bodies, like virtual worlds themselves, are simulated, it may be that even simulated embodiment affects the nature of the learning that takes place. A great deal of related research is now taking place in gaming environments, which combine many of the features of virtual worlds with game-oriented goals, as noted above.
Some virtual worlds can be accessed on the web, though others, including Second Life, still require users to download specialised (but generally free) software. For more information about Second Life, take a look at Second Life’s YouTube channel, and for more information on education in Second Life, see Second Life’s Destination Guide: Education & Nonprofits, the Second Life Wiki’s section on Education, or the Second Life for Educators Facebook Group. To further broaden your understanding of the teaching and learning possibilities in Second Life, you might like to take a look at Emily Carlson’s (2016) Second Life Educational Tutorial or Betty Klug’s (2017) Teaching in Second Life and Other Virtual Worlds.
Other virtual worlds include There and Twinity. There are a number of virtual worlds for children, which typically roll virtual world, social networking and gaming features into a single platform; these include Club Penguin Island, Habbo, Moshi Monsters, and Whyville. Note that although Teen Second Life was discontinued in 2011, teens can enter Second Life subject to certain restrictions.
There has been some educational interest in the multi-platform OpenSim, where users can create their own customised virtual worlds; other platforms for creating virtual worlds include Active Worlds, Kaneva, Kitely and Multiverse.
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