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Ami L. Barile-Spears , PhD
Mercer University
Atlanta, Georgia, USA


Exciting new technologies are emerging rapidly in today’s society. Educators need to be open to exploring these new technologies in an effort to engage the current generation of digitally savvy students. One such new technology that has grown in popularity is the virtual world. The focus of this paper is to explain the various educational uses of virtual worlds for the human services educator. The paper explores ways that both clients and students can learn about various topics through unique immersive and interactive experiences using 3D virtual spaces. Finally, this paper offers guidelines for the educator considering adoption of virtual world technologies for his or her classroom experience.

Keywords: virtual world, Second Life, education, instructional design, human services.

A Brief Introduction
The most popular form of technology today is social media. Social media is digital technology that affords an interactive experience rather than a passive experience. For example, reading information on web pages is a passive experience, commenting on an author’s weblog is an interactive experience. The interactive nature of social media affords unique opportunities for students to become engaged in the learning experience.

Social media comes in many forms including familiar tools such as Twitter and YouTube (Cavazza, 2008). These tools are being used by educators to create unique learning experiences (e.g. Hemmi, Bayne, & Land, 2009). One form of social media that educators are using to produce an interactive experience for students is called virtual worlds. Virtual worlds are digital environments where people create avatars (representations of themselves) and interact with the elements of the environment and with others sharing the same space.

Second Life is a virtual world where people meet to socialize, explore, participate in-group activities, and create unique spaces of their own. The creators of Second Life, Linden Labs, call this virtual world a metaverse (Linden Labs, 2011). People can do many of the things that they would do in real-life such as buying and building on property, buying and selling furniture and other objects, and buying and selling clothing and accessories to dress their avatars. There is also the ability to purchase services, such as builders to create a one-of-a-kind space for you. Virtual worlds are especially alluring because they are not constrained by the physical laws of this universe. Avatars can fly, but if they stop flying in midair, the avatar will fall to ground and then stand up unharmed. Avatars can explore underwater simulations without needing to breath. A simulation of our moon accurately depicts the moon’s surface and all that is necessary for a visit are the coordinates to teleport to the site, no spacesuit required.
The superhuman ability of an avatar is one feature of virtual worlds that allows educators to create unique learning adventures for students. To learn about the properties of the ear, rather than a picture in a textbook, an avatar can explore a virtual replication (see Figure 1). Educators in virtual worlds call these types of activities immersive experiences. Replications are just one example of the types of immersive experiences available in a virtual world. People can also join a community designed to give an immersive language experience during a language course. However, not all experiences are completely immersive. Even so, those that are not completely immersive have an interactive component that is difficult to create using more conventional technologies such as PowerPoint slides or web pages.

Figure 1. A replication of the ear created by an educator from Northern Michigan University located in the Biome II region of Second Life.

It is the interactive learn-by-doing nature of virtual worlds that got educators interested in creating virtual learning environments (Pfeifer, 2011). Second Life was not designed for educational use, but when educators did become interested, Linden Labs responded with enthusiasm. To date, there are over 700 universities using Second Life for educational purposes (Linden Labs, 2011) and Second Life is not the only virtual world where education experiences are available. OpenSim is another alternative. Together Second Life and OpenSim service approximately 90% of the world’s educators using virtual worlds (Dayden Limited, 2010). Educators using virtual worlds are comprised of a wide range of disciplines. For example, biology professors at Northern Michigan University developed Biome and Biome II. These virtual worlds focus on simulations dealing with biodiversity, classification, and bioenergetics. In computer science, at an island called Eduisland, the Think Computers project has various interactive exercises including a tour through the inside of a desktop computer (see Figure 2). Foreign language programs use virtual worlds to provide students with an immersive language learning experience. In psychology, an avatar can visit PSkY Park (so named because the park is in the sky), a place of exploration designed to inform people about the history of psychology (see Figure 3). I designed PSkY Park in collaboration with my History and Systems of Psychology students who decided on the elements for the space and researched the information to be provided within the park.

Figure 2. A tour of inside of a desktop computer at Eduisland.

Figure 3. PSkY Park, a park dedicated to the history of psychology conceived of by students at Mercer University.

For Human Services
Virtual world education in human services can provide experiences for the human services client as well as the human services student. Experiences for the human services client refer to educational experiences, not counseling services. While there are those attempting to provide counseling services within virtual communities, those services are beyond the scope of this paper. One type of client education experience that fits well into virtual world environments are life skills experiences. Virtual worlds are well-suited for role-playing and are especially well suited for skills training. One example of successful life skills training is the job search skills course taught at Texas State Technical College in Second Life (Ussery, 2010). The course helps students develop the skills they need to get a job in business and industry. Students learn interviewing skills and certain social skills, such as the rules of etiquette for a formal dinner learned through a role-playing activity.

Another example of life skills training using virtual worlds is the Financial Literacy Platform™ for High Schools (EverFi, 2011). This platform is a digital environment where students can learn various financial skills such as banking, credit cards, debt management, and purchasing insurance. According to EverFi, over 2000 schools are already using the system across the country. The main reason why this system is so popular is that it is cost effective (no need for real money) without sacrificing the interactive experience involved in actual banking. For  example, there is a virtual bank where your avatar receives and fills out deposit slips and other banking documents. EverFi’s success prompted the company to launch a new platform called Buttonwood because of concerns over the rise in student loan defaults. Buttonwood targets college students and teaches them the terminology and features of the financial loan system for education. Role-playing activities such as these are very popular in virtual world education and are especially well-suited for skills training. Dayden Limited (2010) outlined five ways educational experiences are enhanced using virtual worlds: remote learning, exploration, visualization, simulation, and activities not possible in real life.  First, Daden Limited suggests using virtual worlds for remote learning. Likewise, educators teaching distance learning courses have identified virtual worlds as a useful means for collaborative and discussion activities in distance education (Menon, 2010). The advantage of a virtual space for the distance learner over more traditional means of course delivery is that avatar representation provides a sense of “being there” (telepresence) for the student. In addition to telepresence, it is possible for the student to gain a sense of co-presence (“being together”). Peterson (2006) surveyed students before and after a virtual world learning experience and reported that the students felt more telepresence and co-presence than when communicating via simple text-based chat environments. Second, Daden Limited (2010) explains that the virtual world user might learn through exploration. In this context, the authors are referring to a passive learning experience much like a trip to a museum in which the learner is an information consumer. In Second Life, exploration is most often in the form of a virtual field trip. A well-known example in Second Life of a space that can be used as an exploration field trip is the Theorist Project created by Montclair State University. The Theorist Project is a massive project where each year students create a room or experience focusing on a counseling concept or theorist. So far there are tours of spaces dedicated to Freud, Jung, Rogers, Adler, Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (see Figure 4), Reality Therapy, Gestalt Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Existentialism. Each area has objects depicting key features of the theory. When the avatar touches the object the person either receives a note card explaining the concept or engages in an interactive experience demonstrating the concept.

Figure 4. The Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy room created by students at Montclair State University.

The third way users learn in virtual environments, according to Daden Limited, is through visualization. In this context, 2-dimensional representations can be represented in a 3D space and abstract concepts can be described through a concrete visual experience. The International Schools Island in Second Life provides a 3D rendering of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning (see Figure 5). When the avatar touches a place on the grid, an example of the concept appears in the chat box. For example, click on “experiment,” and the message you get reads, “Experiment: Use the chemistry and composition of foods to explain how it relates to the quality of a food product.”

Figure 5. Bloom’s taxonomy of learning domains in 3D.

The Bloom’s taxonomy virtual experience is an example of how information already visual in 2-
dimensional form can be enhanced further with a 3D space. What is unique about virtual worlds is that they can take abstract concepts that are difficult for students to visualize and create “real” experiences that help students better understand the concept. To illustrate, imagine what you would do to give students a sense of what Freud meant by id, ego, and superego using the
iceberg analogy while in a classroom setting. You would most likely have to do some form of a demonstration, but your resources are usually limited to verbal descriptions, displays on a screen, and theatrics. In Second Life, these concepts are demonstrated experientially. There is a tour of the iceberg located at Montclair State University (see Figure 6). When an avatar enters the iceberg, he or she first encounters bouncing bears and messages appear in the chat box describing the bears’ “wants.” The text messages from the bears say id-type demands such as “I want chocolate” and “mine, mine, mine!” As the avatar progresses upward through the iceberg, there are many demonstrations regarding the super ego and the ego until the avatar reaches “consciousness” at the tip of the iceberg. Whereas visualizations such as the iceberg are can explained and understood verbally, an experiential explanation allows a person to better integrate and retain the information.

Figure 6. An avatar encounters “id” bears in the iceberg experience developed by Montclair
State University.

The fourth element in Daden’s list is simulation. Concepts can also be better learned and remembered if accomplished experientially via simulation (Kolb, Boyatzis, & Mainemelis, 2001). Robbins and Butler (2009) describe the benefit of simulations in virtual worlds as allowing students the opportunity to engage in a “real life” situation and receive immediate feedback on performance without the angers and risks normally associated with the activity in the real world. An example outside of virtual environments is the flight simulator. For the Human Services student, simulations without actual interaction with clients could provide the opportunity to develop counseling skills. Walker (2009) reported a pilot study attempting to teach counseling techniques in a human services master’s degree program. In Second Life, a counseling training facility was created for students and educators. Self-reports from the students suggested that they benefited from the relational aspects of the training. Research into training simulations is in its infancy but these types of experiences do seem to hold promise for the counseling student as evidenced by the Walker study.

The fifth, and final, component of the Daden Limited (2010) taxonomy are activities that are not possible in real life. According to Daden Limited:

The virtual world is used to create environments which would just not be possible or safe in real life, from “grand simulations” like walking on the moon or inside a volcano, to impossibilities like exploring the inside of a cell or flying through
clouds of data hanging in space (p. 4). 

An immersive activity created and tested by Passig (2011) helps teachers better understand the various types of dyslexia though virtual world experiences. For example, to capture the  experience of semantic access dyslexia, the avatar enters a room and is given instructions that include a word that they do not understand. The avatar must discover the meaning of the word before the instructions can be completed. Passig even attempted to simulate the feeling of hopelessness and frustration often experienced by a reading-impaired child. An avatar that left a room without completing the task was suspended in an infinite space. Passig reported that, based on interviews and questionnaires, teachers developed a greater awareness of the dyslexic experience than a control group that watched a video about dyslexia.

This section described only a few experiences using the Daden Limited (2010) taxonomy for virtual world experiences. There are many other existing examples, and an important point to be made is that virtual environments are limitless in terms of what experiences can be created.

Guidelines and Tips 

One of the shortcomings of cutting-edge technologies is the absence of clear, widely accepted pedagogical practices. Sound quantitative research is lacking and instructional design principles are not well developed (Mayrath, Traphagan, Heikes, & Trivedi, 2011). The process of developing useful pedagogical tools is often trial-and-error.

The best advice for the new user in a virtual world to determine involvement based on your technological skills. Users who are not developers should realize that there is a steep learning curve in developing virtual world educational tools to fit your specific needs. In addition to the time taken to learn the technology, financial resources will be needed.

Virtual world users who are not developers will need only time to learn this new technique. New virtual world users need to learn how to use your avatar, find the existing experiences for clients or students to use, and assist clients and students in learning how to use their avatars. As students become more savvy as virtual worlds become more popular, training demands for the educator will decrease.

The educator must decide whether the virtual world is an augmentation to a traditional course or a component of distance learning in order to determine appropriate activities. The class discussion is particularly useful in distance learning (Linn, 1996). Chat box discussions with avatars give students both a sense of telepresence and co-presence (Peterson, 2006). Virtual field trips can be engaging and informative in both the distance learning environment and as an augmentation tool. A helpful resource for the beginning virtual world educator is

Educators interested in creating their own simulation or 3D experience must first decide which environment to use. The two most popular, Second Life and OpenSim have important advantages and disadvantages. Institutional resources will drive the selection of the environment. Privately owned Second Life requires purchasing space. Furthermore, Linden Labs places many restrictions on your building capabilities. Another disadvantage is that, as a public space, your students may find themselves in areas outside of the educational experience that are not “g-rated.” The main advantage is that server support is unnecessary because all of your builds are located on the Linden Lab servers. This is particularly advantageous for institutions without considerable instructional technology support. However, the danger is the lack of direct access to this information. Should Linden Labs, a private company, ever close its “virtual” doors, all your work is lost. OpenSim operates differently. Each virtual world is housed on the institution’s server, thereby guaranteeing complete ownership of the space. The benefit requires extensive technical in-house support from the institution. The foremost reason people choose OpenSim over Second Life is there are fewer restrictions on building (Young, 2010).

Human services educators using virtual worlds need to keep the following tips in mind.  Foremost, be user friendly. Students rate ease-of-use high when deciding whether they benefited from a technology. If it is not easy to use, they will not use it (Harris & Rea, 2009).  Additionally, clearly establish the usefulness of the technology to the learner. Shen and Eder (2009) found that perceived usefulness might actually be more important than ease of use. The authors also emphasize the importance of making the activity enjoyable. Students respond well to learning activities that are fun and virtual worlds do have the feel of a game. However, while considering the “fun factor,” be careful not to allow the student to lose sight of the learning intention. The environment itself must not distract from the learning experience.

A last piece of advice for the educator is to seek out other educators engaged in virtual world practices. Collaboration can benefit everyone while reducing resource issues. Interested in Second Life? If you decide to venture there, my Avatar’s name is Teach Bookmite. Look me up.  I will be glad to show you around.


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