Virtual Worlds in Schools?

Posted by Matt Berringer on June 16, 2014

By Dr. Ramiro Zuniga

Virtual Worlds in SchoolsLet me begin by describing what a virtual world consists of and how someone can become a part of one.

Typically, anyone wanting to enter a virtual world is required to create an online account. The first part of creating an account involves selecting an avatar. This avatar will visually represent the participant while in the virtual world.

There are many virtual worlds on the Internet. In fact, a quick search on the Internet for virtual worlds for kids returned more than 49 million hits. There are, however, features that are common in most of the virtual worlds that I have seen.

  • Virtual worlds consist of locations: buildings, islands, planets, etc.
  • Avatars are used to travel from place to place
  • Participants come from different parts of the world
  • Participants can collaborate on projects
  • Participants can play games
  • Participants can socialize with other avatars

The creators of these worlds carry out strong promotional campaigns in order to continually increase their membership. One virtual world I recently looked at boasts a membership of 3 million.

These worlds are definitely gaining traction. Recently, virtual world creators have set their sights on the educational arena. As I reflect, I recall that virtual worlds were being introduced at the university where I taught in 2011.

Normally, I present new technologies and let individuals decide whether the technology is a good fit. In this instance, however, I find myself taking a definite position. In short, I don’t believe that virtual worlds have a place in education. I see too many areas of concern.

First, most of the virtual worlds that I looked at were marketed at younger audiences. Most marketing strategies emphasized games and fun to be had by all. Perhaps the biggest emphasis is placed on chatting with other avatars.

Second, I am disappointed that most of the avatars are either thuggish or provocative in appearance and attitude. I understand that rebellion is part of youth but, surely, designers could have created avatars that are less outlandish. This is especially true for those worlds designed to include teachers and students.

Third, I am concerned virtual worlds can be too distracting from the real world. One particular site actually invited participants to come live in their world. Another site promotes the similarities of their world with the natural world, including gravity and weather.

Finally, I am concerned with the whole concept of a virtual world. I am fine with virtual worlds or parallel worlds as part of a movie plot. I find, however, that the concept of virtual worlds is too abstract to be practical in schools.

I can recall sitting in on a virtual world discussion with educators from across the country. As I listened to the designers extol the latest of their world, I struggled to see the value to educators.

I leaned over to an audience member and asked if she saw some value in what she was hearing. She shook her head indicating that she too was perplexed. As I looked at each face in the crowd, I saw the same puzzled expression. I could see that, like me, everyone was trying to connect with the concept and how it could be used for something meaningful.

I know that there may be many out there who believe that virtual worlds can be used productively in the classroom. I respectfully disagree.

Topics: technology, 21st-Century Learner, K-12