ET3 Virtual Worlds in Education

Virtual Worlds in Education

"We all live every day in virtual environments, defined by our minds" 

- Crichton

Virtual Worlds offer unique opportunities to engage students in locations, characters, and situations that are difficult or impossible to replicate in the real world. Taking students into virtual spaces can engage student in similar ways to computer games, encouraging their imagination, creativity, and overcoming many barriers to communication and engagement by shy students.

Despite the hype reducing around the Second Life platform as a virtual world to rival the world wide web browser experience, educators around the world are exploring open source alternatives to commercial platforms and their inherent demands that rarely coincide with educational priorities. 

Virtual Worlds will continue to increasing play a role in education as we bring down the constraining walls of the classroom, letting students explore and engage in real and virtual worlds, guided by teachers with an understanding of the potential of both to support student learning.

Dr Jason Zagami


Virtual Worlds

A virtual world is an online community that takes the form of a computer-based simulated environment through which participants can interact with one another and use and create objects. The term has become largely synonymous with interactive 3D virtual environments, where the participants take the form of avatars visible to others. These avatars usually appear as textual, two-dimensional, or three-dimensional representations, although other forms are possible (auditory and touch sensations for example). Virtual worlds allow for multiple participants but they have difficulties of bandwidth if too many i.e. > 50 (depending on world) or avatars have a lot of animations included.

The computer accesses to a computer-simulated world and presents perceptual stimuli to the participants, who in turn can manipulate elements of the modeled world and thus experience a degree of telepresence. Such modeled worlds and their rules may draw from the reality or fantasy worlds. Example rules are gravity, topography, locomotion, real-time actions, and communication. Communication between users can range from text, graphical icons, visual gesture, sound, and rarely, forms using touch, voice command, and balance senses.

Massively multiplayer online games (MMOG) depict a wide range of worlds, including those based on fantasy, science fiction, the real world, super heroes, sports, horror, and historical milieus. The most common form of such games are fantasy worlds, whereas those based on the real world are relatively rare outside of educational/training simulations. Many MMORPGs have real-time actions and communication. Players create a character who travels between buildings, towns, and worlds to carry out business or leisure activities. Communication is usually textual, but real-time voice communication is also possible. The form of communication used can substantially affect the experience of players in the game.

Virtual worlds are not limited to games but, depending on the degree of immediacy presented, can encompass computer conferencing and text based chatrooms. Sometimes, emoticons or 'smilies' are available, to show feeling or facial expression. Emoticons often have a keyboard shortcut. 

Virtual Worlds and Education

Virtual worlds represent a powerful new media for instruction and education that presents many opportunities but also some challenges. Persistence allows for continuing and growing social interactions, which themselves can serve as a basis for collaborative education. The use of virtual worlds can give teachers the opportunity to have a greater level of student participation. It allows users to be able to carry out tasks that could be difficult in the real world due to constraints and restrictions, such as cost, scheduling or location. Virtual worlds have the capability to adapt and grow to different user needs, for example, classroom teachers are able to use virtual worlds in their classroom leveraging their interactive whiteboard with the open source project Edusim. They can be a good source of user feedback, the typical paper-based resources have limitations that Virtual Worlds can overcome.

Virtual world can also be used with virtual learning environments, as in the case of what is done in the Sloodle project, which aims to merge Second Life with the Moodle LMS.

Virtual worlds allow users with specific needs and requirements to access and use the same learning materials from home as they would be receiving if they were physically present. This can help users to keep up to date with the relevant information and needs while also feeling as though involved. Having the option to be able to attend a presentation via a virtual world from home or from their workplace, can help the user to be more at ease and comfortable. Although virtual worlds are a good way of communicating and interacting between students and teachers, they do not completely substitute for actual face-to-face meetings, in that downsides include losing certain body language cues and other more personal aspects. However, the very animated nature of avatars can encourage shyer to participate more fully in virtual classroom discussions.


Machinima is the use of computer games and virtual worlds to create a movie. Machinima has advantages and disadvantages when compared to other styles of filmmaking. Its relative simplicity over traditional frame-based animation limits control and range of expression, its real-time nature favors speed, cost saving, and flexibility over the higher quality of pre-rendered computer animation, and virtual acting is less expensive, dangerous, and physically restricted than live action.

Virtual World Tours

A popular educational activity in virtual worlds is touring locations within a virtual world and exploring their educational applications.

Virtual World Platforms

Second Life

Second Life is an online virtual world where participants interact with each other through avatars (virtual representations of themselves). Participants can explore the world (known as the grid), meet other participants, participate in individual and group activities, and create objects and buildings. Second Life is intended for participants aged 16 and over.

Built into the software is a three-dimensional modeling tool based on simple geometric shapes that allows participants to build virtual objects and buildings. There is also a scripting language which can be used to add interactivity to objects. 

Second Life is used as a platform for education by many institutions, such as colleges, universities, libraries and government entities. Because of age restrictions, there was a separate teen second life available but this has been closed and K12 schools tend to create their own OpenSimulator worlds rather than use the main Second Life grid.

Second Life however has numerous locations suitable for educational activities and these can be used by teachers to provide 'tours' of virtual locations.

Second Life lets schools to create virtual workplaces to allow teachers to virtually meet, hold events, communicate, conduct professional development sessions in 3D immersive virtual learning environment, and simulate teaching processes. The International Society for Information Technology in Education has conducted professional development for teachers in Second Life for several years, co-hosting conferences to include virtual world participation as well as the live event.

Beyond educations, Second Life is used extensively for all areas of the Arts where the virtual world facilitates participants expressing themselves creatively through virtual world adaptations of art exhibits, live music, live theater and machinima. Every avatar, being essentially an extremely detailed "skin" stretched over a complex sculpted "shape," can be seen and appreciated as a work of art in itself with many participants going to extraordinary ends to depict themselves in creative ways.

Second Life is used for scientific research, collaboration, and data visualisation, many religious organisations hold virtual services, and there a wide range of recreational activities, both competitive and non-competitive, taking place on the Second Life Grid, including both traditional sports and video game-like scenarios. 

There are many destinations within Second Life which are dedicated to those who enjoy role-playing. Some of these are targeted for adults, however there are also many which focus on fantasy role-playing. Many of these types of worlds have very specific sets of rules that each avatar who visits is expected to follow. Such rules can include things such as a dress code, a code of behavior, and world guidelines. 

Relationships are common in Second Life, including some couples who have married online. The social engagement offered by the online environment helps those who might be socially isolated. 


OpenSimulator is an open-source platform that can host a private Second Life like virtual world on a server and in grid mode, can add additional servers to expand the virtual world to handle more participants. OpenSimulator currently uses the Second Life client software to connect and interact with OpenSim virtual worlds, remaining compatible with connecting to Second Life. 

OpenSim also uses an architecture known as "Hypergrid", which allows users to teleport between multiple OpenSim-based virtual worlds by providing a hyperlinked map which indexes public grids. This allows for public grids to retain teleportation links to each other without having to be on the same grid. There are several public grids available which usually require registration and many educational grids such as the Jokadia Grid, allowing students participating in a schools local virtual world to visit those worlds created by other schools.

Other Worlds

Active Worlds (AW) is a 3D virtual world platform. The Active Worlds client runs on your computer, you assign yourself a name, log into the Active Worlds universe, and explore 3D virtual worlds and environments that other users have built. Users can chat with one another or build structures and areas from a selection of objects. AW allows users to own worlds and universes, and develop 3D content. The AW browser has web browsing capabilities, voice chat, and basic instant messaging. This integrated software can allow users to connect, explore, and gain a more in depth understanding of AW. 

Open Wonderland

Open Wonderland is a Java based open source toolkit for creating collaborative 3D virtual worlds. Within these worlds, participants can communicate with high-fidelity, immersive audio, share live desktop applications and documents and conduct educational sessions. Open Wonderland 

Open Cobalt 

Open Cobalt is a free and open source software platform for constructing, accessing, and sharing virtual worlds both on local area networks or across the Internet, without any requirement for centralized servers.

The technology makes it easy to create deeply collaborative and hyperlinked multi-user virtual workspaces, virtual exhibit spaces, and game-based learning and training environments that run on all major software operating systems. By using a peer-based messaging protocol to reduce reliance on server infrastructures for support of basic in world interactions across many participants, Open Cobalt makes it possible for people to hyperlink their virtual worlds via 3D portals to form a large distributed network of interconnected collaboration spaces. It also makes it possible for schools and other organizations to freely set up their own networks of public and private 3D virtual workspaces that feature integrated web browsing, voice chat, text chat and access to remote desktop applications and services.

Quest Atlantis

Quest Atlantis (QA) is a 3D multiuser virtual world learning environment that utilises a narrative to immerse children, ages 9–16, in meaningful inquiry tasks. Quest Atlantis combines strategies used in the commercial gaming environment with lessons from educational research on learning and motivation. The project is unique in its goals to combine the best aspects of learning, playing, and helping, as a means to motivate and engage students. QA combines strategies used in the commercial gaming environment with lessons from educational research on learning and motivation. It allows users to travel to virtual places to perform educational activities (known as Quests), talk with other users and mentors, and build virtual personae. The project is intended to engage children ages 9–16 in a form of transformational play comprising both online and off-line learning activities, with a storyline inspiring a disposition towards social action. More than sugar-coating content to coerce disempowered students into caring about disciplinary knowledge, the goal of Quest Atlantis is establish educational worlds where children become empowered scientists, doctors, reporters, and mathematicians who have to understand disciplinary content to accomplish desired ends.

Over the last four years, more than 50,000 children on six continents have participated in the Quest Atlantis project, submitting over 50,000 Quests and completing over 100,000 Missions, some of which were assigned by teachers and many of which were chosen by students to complete in their free time. Equally important have been reported personal experiences, with teachers and students reporting increased levels of engagement and interest in pursuing the curricular issues outside of school. Students and teachers conduct rich inquiry-based explorations through which they learn particular standards-based content, and at the same time develop pro-social attitudes regarding significant environmental and social issues. Rather than just placing work and play side-by-side, QA strives to make learning fun and to show children how they can make a difference.

Atlantis Remixed 

The Atlantis Remixed (ARX) Project is an international learning and teaching project that uses 3D multi-user environments to immerse children, ages 9-16, in educational tasks. Emerging from a decade of research with Quest Atlantis, the ARX Project now combines strategies used in commercial games with lessons from educational research on learning and motivation. The Atlantis Remixed Project allows students to travel to virtual places to play educational adventures, talk with other users and mentors, build virtual personae, and eventually create their own games. This project is intended to engage children in a form of transformational play comprising both online and off-line learning activities, with a storyline inspiring a disposition towards social action. The Atlantis Remixed Project and Quest Atlantis provide students entire worlds in which they are central, important participants; places where their actions have significant impact on the world, and places in which what one knows is directly related to what they are able to do and, ultimately, who they can become. 

The Atlantis Remixed and Quest Atlantis Projects are in 22 states, 18 countries, more than 1000 classrooms, and the number of schools asking to participate grows daily. We have demonstrated learning gains in science, language arts, and social studies. Equally important have been reported personal experiences, with teachers and students reporting increased levels of engagement and interest in pursuing the curricular issues outside of school. Students and teachers conduct rich inquiry-based explorations through which they learn particular standards-based content, and at the same time develop pro-social attitudes regarding significant environmental and social issues. Rather than just placing work and play side-by-side, the Atlantis Remixed Project strives to make learning fun and to show kids how they can make a difference. 

At the core of student activity with the Atlantis Remixed Project is the completion of Quests in Quest Atlantis. A Quest is an engaging curricular task designed to be educational and entertaining. In completing Quests, students are required to participate in simulated and real world activities that are socially and academically meaningful, such as environmental studies, researching other cultures, interviewing community members, and developing action plans. Through these activities, children will not only learn to use technology but develop standards-based academic and communication skills as well.

All of the academic activities are embedded in a secure online gaming context where children explore 3D virtual environments, “chat” online with other students and teachers using QA, and take part in the story of Atlantis – a complex civilization on a faraway planet that is similar to our own and in need of help. Building on strategies from online role-playing games, the ARX Project combines features used in the commercial gaming environment with lessons from educational research on learning and motivation. More than just a game, the Atlantis Remixed Project offers weblogs (or “blogs”) written by Atlantians, novels, comic books, cards, and a host of social opportunities. The ARX Project is about community.

A professional development course is mandatory for all new Atlantis Remixed Project teachers. While there has been very high demand by interested teachers and schools, the technology is complex and requires committed teachers. One of the early challenges with scaling the project was supporting teachers around the globe in effectively using such a technologically-advanced and pedagogically challenging curriculum. The professional development module allows teachers to effectively integrate this innovative curriculum into their classrooms. Through the ARX Project PD, teachers become familiar with the technology and a wide range of opportunities in the project, as well as with the inquiry-based pedagogical approaches which are most likely to lead to successful, exciting implementation. Rather than being prescriptive, the PD is a learning opportunity that gives teachers the tools to get the most out of a very flexible, fun curriculum.

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