3-D classrooms enable students to do things they can’t do in the real world, says University of Wisconsin-Madison Assistant Professor Constance Steinkuehler.

Apr 23 2007

Can Virtual Classrooms Deliver Concrete Results?

Colleges learn how avatars and electronic 3-D worlds can fit into their formal curricula.

Yes, there is room for avatars and 3-D worlds in higher education.

One minute you’re walking the floorboards of the Globe Theatre, circa 1590, watching Shakespeare give stage direction to a soon- to-be-famous Dane. The next minute, you’re immersed in a heated discussion about the intellectual property rights of bloggers — with opinionated copyright lawyers from around the world.

Learning opportunities like these are becoming familiar to students navigating the growing number of 3-D virtual worlds created by colleges and universities.

In this land of electronic smoke and mirrors, digital re-creations of the Globe Theatre aren’t the only magic. Students and faculty members also exist as pixel proxies called avatars, ranging from look-alikes of themselves to otherworldly life forms that float through the air.

“There’s a lot of research about the nature of massively multiplayer online [MMO] games and why they can be so compelling when we transform that paradigm into education,” says Lauren Gelman, associate director of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School and dean of the State of Play Academy (SOPA), founded by New York Law School.

But while the technical wizardry frees students and teachers to interact in new ways, it could force higher ed information technology departments to struggle to keep up with this uncharted digital world. IT is trusted with bringing virtual classrooms alive without straining computing resources. The other major challenge is to keep these schools safe from cyberhackers.

Two Worlds

Despite the technical concerns, virtual classrooms are part of a 3-D juggernaut rumbling across the Web. Two main “metaverses” exist for colleges and universities — Second Life, created by Linden Lab, and , from Makena Technologies. Visitors click into these 3-D platforms via the Web to colonize virtual real estate, interact with other avatars, and buy and sell virtual goods and services with real or cyber-dollars.

Second Life arrived in 2003 and its creators claim to have almost 4 million inhabitants. Colleges and universities are starting to notice. New York Law School and There.com tapped into this growing interest in December when it opened SOPA as one of the first educational environments to let avatars communicate using text messages and live voice conversations.

At press time, SOPA was ready to launch a new series of 24 classes running over two months, focusing on topics such as the pros and cons of domestic wiretapping by the U.S. government and how-to advice about trademark registration procedures for nonlawyers. SOPA classes are open to the public.

“We want to democratize the teaching of law across institutional boundaries,” says Beth Simone Noveck, law professor at New York Law School and director of the Institute for Information Law and Policy. “There are a lot of people who would like to learn something about copyrights or about how the Constitution works, but don’t necessarily want to enroll in law school for three years.”

Although SOPA attendees don’t receive college credits yet, New York Law School is working to incorporate virtual environments into its formal curricula.

New Dynamics

Virtual classrooms for colleges and universities can provide a platform for forging closer ties to the surrounding community, an important element in any school’s marketing strategy. In addition to enrolled students and faculty, SOPA’s virtual speaker series attracts “members of the community who are looking for something outside of their normal job experience,” Gelman says. “The whole design of everything we are doing is to make it as easy as possible for anybody to participate, from anywhere in the world.”

Avatars and virtual worlds may also change classroom dynamics in a positive way for students not at the top of their class, says Constance Steinkuehler, an MMO researcher and assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The engaging nature of MMOs “tend to help the bottom third of the class the most, which is great, because frankly, the top third of students are already doing fine in school,” she says.

Breaking physical bounds also makes it easy for guest lecturers to visit classes from anywhere, as well as for students to gather for online study sessions after real-life classes adjourn.

Virtual classrooms can help “democratize the teaching of law,” says New York Law School Professor Beth Simone Noveck.

Stumbling Blocks

3-D classes remain a work in progress, Steinkuehler says, while professors discover how to balance real and virtual worlds. She’s seen few applications of 3-D classrooms that take advantage of the technology’s full potential. Early adopters often have failed to grasp the academic capabilities of virtual worlds.

“The first wave just rolled out a classroom online, as in, ‘Oh look, we can all sit here, and I can lecture with PowerPoint, but we’ll do it online!’” she says. “People get discouraged. They don’t see much of a bang for the buck considering all the work that went into it.

“So the first thing I ask teachers is, ‘What in your class would you like to have students doing that they can’t do in the real world?’”

Law students, for example, might prowl a virtual courtroom with an instructor to practice prosecutorial skills. “Doing things jointly is a great way to apprentice people,” Steinkuehler says. “But if you just want students to synthesize a whole bunch of content, having them read a book is pretty good for that.”

Virtual worlds are also vulnerable to “griefers” — avatars that crash classes with the intent of disrupting them. Gelman believes griefers are an offshoot of the larger metaverse culture, which is dominated by pre-college students. “When kids show up in our classes and talk or behave inappropriately, I have a button I can use to eject them. I have had to exercise that option,” she says.

Over time, SOPA and other virtual learning centers will continue to learn to balance the freedom of 3-D classrooms with the necessary decorum for effective learning.

“The more we re-create what a brick-and-mortar class looks like, the less likely we are to get those kinds of disruptions,” Gelman says. “But then we wouldn’t get to test the value of the environment. Virtual worlds are about play and games, and we are trying to get some value from those things. We’re trying to capture the playful nature of the virtual space, but right now there isn’t a set of norms for determining how to create the right balance.”

Virtual Worlds Create Real Challenges for IT Departments

Using virtual worlds to break the bounds of reality can open up educational opportunities. These worlds also force colleges and universities to face real challenges.

Cost is one. Academic institutions receive discounts for virtual real estate on Second Life (secondlife.com) but small “islands” still cost $980 plus a monthly maintenance fee of $150. Those figures are in hard currency, not virtual money.

Schools also must ensure that students have access to high-speed Internet connections. For best results, participants need PCs with Pentium 4 or Athlon 2000+ processors or better. Graphics cards can be another sticking point. Second Life lists system requirements and recommendations, along with incompatible models.

College information technology managers may also bump into security concerns. For instance, firewalls and Internet security software might block people from logging into metaverses. While schools typically disable communication ports on network routers that aren’t otherwise used for Web surfing or other standard applications, metaverses need some of these blocked ports for data transfers.

Internet security software may also block metaverse traffic, depending on a school’s individual settings. Also, metaverse creators regularly release updates to their software as executable programs. Even if a school sets its security software to enable communications with a metaverse, the software may not recognize the update as coming from an acceptable source.

Addressing some of these concerns on an educator’s mailing list devoted to Second Life, Nova Scotia Community College faculty member Ian H. MacLeod says the school uses virtual server software to ease security concerns. If you’re familiar with virtual servers, you know they have no relation to virtual worlds. They’re used to partition network servers, and in this case keep the applications for virtual worlds separate from the rest of the network.

“All of our learners have large-capacity external USB hard drives on which they install virtual Microsoft Windows XP machines, and then run applications on those machines that our IT staff does not want on our college image,” MacLeod says.


How to Navigate Virtual Classrooms

Be Creative
Don’t just re-create traditional coursework for a virtual environment.

Virtual Isn’t Free
Schools must budget real dollars to buy or lease virtual real estate.

Work Together
Before launching cyberclassrooms, IT departments and faculty must iron out technological compatibility and security issues.

Plan For Disruptions
3-D “metaverses” attract a wide range of visitors, including some who may crash classrooms.