In March 2007, I submitted an article on learning in virtual worlds to eLearn Magazine. eLearn’s editor-in-chief, Lisa Neal, is sharp as a tack. Our article appeared in record time, becoming the only piece published on learning in virtual worlds before the first Virtual Worlds Conference in New York a few days later. Our article came through the editorial gauntlet unscathed but the graphics and a few last-minute changes never made it into the final. Here’s the updated version of the article:
Virtual Worlds as Tools for Learning
By Jay Cross, Internet Time Group; Tony O’Driscoll, IBM; and Eilif Trondsen, SRI Consulting Business Intelligence
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all.
Are virtual worlds a breakthrough technology that will forever reshape learning and business? Or are they this season’s over-hyped fad?
You have to be trying really hard to not be exposed to the virtual world phenomenon these days. From South-Park’s hilarious episode on World of WarCraft (the world’s largest Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), to Business Week’s cover article in April, to the Avatar based advertisement for Two-and-a-Half Men at the Superbowl, to coverage on Good Morning America and CBS Sunday Morning, virtual worlds appear to have become the new-new thing.
Second Life (SL) is the poster child for virtual worlds, those computer-generated mass hallucinations where people fly and perform magic, companies build artificial buildings and islands, and public relations firms spend boatloads of money making virtual splashes on behalf of clients with deep pockets. Tens of thousands of people are “in” Second Life at any given time. More than three million people have registered (but purportedly 9 out of 10 disappear within a month). SL says 1.6 million residents checked in during the last 30 days.
Wired, Fortune, the New York Times, Reuters: name any major publication, and the question is not whether they’ve covered virtual worlds (VWs), but how often. VW enthusiasts may spend twelve hours a day surrounded by bits, not atoms. Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus and Second-Life insider, considers virtual worlds (henceforth, VWs) a disruptive and transformative technology on the level of the personal computer or the internet.
Aren’t you curious about what VWs can do for you? It’s not out of bounds to ask how much of this virtual stuff is real. Learning professionals are asking if VWs are just the latest fad. What’s in it for a learning organization? What companies are currently involved? Specifically, how do VWs help people learn? Are VWs right for my organization? Are VWs ready for prime time? How do I find out more without making a major investment?
This article addresses these questions from the perspective of three thought leaders in learning. At IBM, Tony O’Driscoll has been exploring the learning potential for Virtual Worlds for the past 18 months. Eilif Trondsen, director of the ground-breaking Learning on Demand project at SRI Consulting Business Intelligence and founder of eLearning Forum has made VW learning the primary focus of his research. Jay Cross, author of Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation and Performance, considers VWs ideal for natural learning without limits.
From a disruptive technology perspective, we don’t want you to find yourselves in the position of the chairman of Western Union telegraph who passed up the option to buy Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, saying “Who wants to hear people talk?” VWs have too much potential for learning professionals to ignore. From a “paving cow paths” perspective we don’t want to see Virtual Worlds applied errantly to automate existing learning approaches and models. A virtual classroom with virtual students and a virtual PowerPoint deck is not the end-game for learning in VWs. To avoid these pitfalls, let’s explore how VWs work, how they are being used in learning, who the major players are, and what the future may hold.
What do people do in VWs?
First, lets go on the record by stating the obvious: VWs will not replace other forms of learning. Instead, we believe the thoughtful application of VW technology will significantly enhance the experience and transfer of learning. We encourage you to examine this technology with fresh eyes and begin by asking what sensibilities it can bring to the learner that traditional learning technology cannot. So instead of asking “How do I build a virtual classroom?” we might ask “What can this technology do that will enhance the learner’s experience that my current learning technology portfolio cannot?”
Here are the VW sensibilities that we have come up with so far:
- The Sense of Self
- The Death of Distance
- The Power of Presence
- The Sense of Space and Perspective
- The Capability to Co-Create
- The Pervasiveness of Practice
The Sense of Self:
First, a bit of terminology. Your virtual self is called an avatar. Your avatar is your persona, totally under your control. As opposed to games or simulations where people have limited freedom to set their own course, your avatar can walk (or fly) wherever he or she chooses. This occurs in real time: click to fly and your avatar is aloft. More importantly, the more you hang out in VWs the more you and your avatar become one. In short, in VWs you are your avatar and your emotional attachment to that avatar will surprise you!
The authors and their avatars
The Death of Distance:
Avatars reside in a boundless, virtual landscape. The only difference here is that you can teleport from one place in cyberspace to another at the speed of light. There is no distance in VWs. Think of yourself as Einstein did in formulating the theory of relativity. You are sitting on a beam of light and you can go from one place to the next in an instant. SL’s landscape is home to stores, businesses, shops, houses, office buildings, campuses, and playing fields, all constructed by residents themselves, thousands of entrepreneurs who design and build with great skills, or by over 60 firms offering a range of professional services. It’s like SimCity except that it’s SimContinent or SimPlanet. Other VWs come with more structure: Protosphere (ProtonMedia’s virtual environment) comes with pre-built classrooms, lecture halls, and meeting spaces. The landscape in a VW is persistent; cut off your computer and the VW will be there when you return.
The Power of Presence, The Sense of Space and The Capacity to Co-Create:
Avatars interact with one another, through the actions of their real-life puppet-masters. Avatars converse, collaborate, attend book signings, concerts and meetings, listen to presentations, explore, co-construct virtual buildings or sculptures, write in wikis, play baseball or tringo (a popular in-world game that will be soon available on cell-phones and be launched as a TV game-show by the BBC). VWs encourage social groups to form. Unimaginable? Stanford researcher Clifford Nast has discovered that people often treat computers as they would other people. They like a computer that praises them. If humans treat beige boxes as kin, surely they can identify with animated humanoids in a VW.
The Pervasiveness of Practice
Walk around Second Life for a while and you will come to the conclusion that it is not only a virtual social world but it is also a world that fosters a culture of collaborative learning. Sandboxes abound where slightly more experienced SL’rs share what they know with others. In every corner you see chat interactions that start with the wonderful learning question “How do I?” Stop and look around and what you will come to realize is that this is really an emotive network where all the cultural attributes of peer-to-peer creation and learning are present but in a way that renders out more logically for us as human beings. For those of you who bang bits for a living, think usenet or linux development in 3D. For those of you from the Web2.0 generation, think Myspace plus e-Bay in 3D. For those of you who are part of the wiki movement, think Wikipedia becomes Wikitechture, with avatars co-creating things in 3D space and learning all along the way.
The Enrichment of Experience:
Another sensibility VWs provide is the enrichment of experience. In saying this we don’t just mean that VWs are better than Centra or Interwise. We are saying that is possible to have experiences in these spaces that are not possible in the Real World. VWs provide the ability to exist in an augmented reality. Be it that you are confined to a wheelchair and suddenly you can dance the night away or be it that you can interact with your design colleagues around the world to check out a virtual prototype of a car, a chip layout, a battlefield situation or a caffeine molecule, this platform enables people to experience life in new and engaging ways.
Second Life still exhibits some rough edges. Hackers have shut down the world (imagine that!). People have been mugged. Business Week reported that “when a space is swamped with visitors (more than 60 to 90), a bug in the system can make avatars’ clothes disappear.” It can be distracting when the guy next to you in class looks like Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver and the woman to the other side has wings and glowing green skin. As we write this, cyber-terrorists have just brought down a building in SL with a bomb.
Major corporations are creating a lot of buzz around VWs but most of it is promotional. It’s hip, and compared to alternatives, it’s cheap. But it holds few answers to our questions about how to improve learning with VWs.
What companies provide Virtual Worlds for learning?
Tony classifies virtual worlds along a continuum from Metaverse (a business on its own) that leads to Interverse (3D comes to learning) that in turn leads to Intraverse (intensive collaboration across firewalls).
These verses roughly correlate to the value drivers of Commerce, Collaboration, and Learning. But as you can see in the picture, these value drivers themselves overlap value spaces.
Some of the key players are mapped by how they create value. Second Life is clearly in the Metaverse/Commerce and Intraverse/Collaboration realm with the emphasis being on the former. There.com and Forterra are different packages of the same stuff, one for Metaverse and the other for Intra/Interverse. There.com already has VOIP on board but you can’t build stuff like you can in SL. If Peer Procuction (or prosumption as Don Tapscott calls it) is what you are after, then Second Life is probably your best bet.
However if you want a platform that runs on 56K, integrates with existing apps, allows you to fire up a browser in world and integrates with your current LMS, you may want to check out Protosphere. Multiverse is a new arrival on the scene, but it seems to fit somewhere in between. And finally for all of us who are educators and have been salivating over Second Life meets Moodle (SLOODLE), take a look at Open Croquet. Some big brains are behind this software, most notably Alan Kay.
Not all avatars are created equal.
Linden Labs’ Second Life
How are corporations using VWs for learning?
Corporations are actively exploring virtual worlds, drawing on VW’s capabilities for:
- A new level of always-on real time connectivity for collaboration
- Empowering groups, both customer and employee groups
- Making informal viral learning a core mechanism of transformation
A few organizations are betting VWs will evolve into engines for broad change. Among those experimenting with training and education are:
IBM is the gorilla in the emerging market. VWs have been designated an Emerging Business Opportunity. CEO Sam Palmisano has his own avatar keeping an eye on things.… IBM will invest millions in virtual worlds over the next few years. Many IBMers have alternative lives in virtual worlds. Irving Wladawsky-Berger, IBM’s soon-to-retired departing vice president of technology and innovation, recently said. “For sure, learning and training will be one of the major killer apps.” Virtual reality connects directly with the human mind, he added. “There is something very human about visual interfaces. I almost think of text-based interfaces, including browsers, as ‘narrowband’ into our brains, whereas visual interfaces are ‘broadband’ into our brains.”
IBM CEO Sam Palmisano’s avatar making an announcement in China
Apple has long recognized the need for more innovative and engaging online learning and training environments, especially to meet the needs and preferences of younger, Net Generation sales staff in its own stores or those of its retail partners, such as Best Buy and Circuit City. Lucy Carter, Director of Apple’s World Wide Sales Training and Communications, understands the potential of Second Life and other virtual worlds as environments that allow unique forms of experimentation and exploration of new and innovative learning experiences. The ease of designing anything in Second Life also appeals to Apple and anything the company builds in any virtual world will have to align with its design principles.
Pharmaceutical companies. A number of pharmaceutical companies have used ProtonMedia’s virtual environment for various business applications, including learning and training. As a more enterprise-focused and closed environment, it can offer greater security as well as other functionality that some companies may want for their learning and training operations, not currently available in Second Life. Sales training and onboarding are some of the specific learning operations that some of its clients have used the ProtoSphere platform for.
New Media Consortium (NMC), consisting of 200 leading universities and museums dedicated to exploring and using new media and new technologies, has been the leading, early adopter of Second Life for educational purposes. Although NMC has only been active in Second Life since last Summer, it has seen great enthusiasm among its members in using Second life to innovate and test this virtual environment for a range of educational activities. A number of art exhibits have been arranged and inworld sessions have been held to explore how virtual worlds can enable unique environments for digital storytelling as a means of learning.
As with most breakthrough technologies, VWs are somewhat a solution looking for a problem. VWs can provide a platform for collaboration, community, and commerce, but so can a sofa. Aside from entertainment appeal, what’s new here?
The most powerful learning technology ever invented is conversation, but most VWs lack the horsepower to entice people to converse naturally. Time will bring voice, more expressive avatars, and higher resolution to VWs. When the virtual environment functions much like the real world, conversation will flow, making it easier to mentor, coach, teach, brainstorm, discuss and manipulate prototypes, and to collaborate on problems. This is informal learning, for learners invest the amount of time appropriate to what’s to be learned; engaging conversation personalizes learning, and often a brief chat is all it takes to seize an opportunity.
The bonanza comes when VWs support learning in ways that current methods cannot, i.e. when the horseless carriage becomes the car and the icebox becomes a refrigerator.
Virtual boot camp. VWs are not held back by the laws of physics. Rigorous learning is possible by setting a VW’s metronome to a faster pace, by changing the frequency of learning moments, or by manipulating other contextual variables.
Relationships. Networks are relationships, and relationships thrive on trust. Bandwidth, resolution, and functionality are improving at the pace of Moore’s Law, whereas the real world is still poking along to the tune of natural selection of accidental mutations of DNA. Within a few years, looking at someone on screen will feel as real as looking at someone through a window pane. If technology can capture the magic of face-to-face interactions, commercial and social networks will bloom. People long to talk with other people, not with institutions.
Jam. The more you spread it, the thinner it gets. Whoops. Our mistake. That’s The Law of Raspberry Jam. We were thinking of the sort of mass on-line rally that IBM has employed to generate new ideas, build camaraderie, and get everyone on the same page. This opens an era of citizen democracy.
Simulation creator. When Clark Aldrich introduced SimLeader, Jay was enthralled. Then he found out that the simulation couldn’t be customized. He wanted an engine for generating simulations of a specific learning environment, not generic leader skills. Virtual worlds have the potential to create simulations galore.
Evaluation of learning through tests of subject knowledge are notoriously poor at assessing what one can and will do on the job. Pitching someone into a VW of their future workspace provides a better test of competency. The individual being evaluated could call her lifelines, consult notes, whatever – as long as she can get the job done. This evaluation-by-simulation also challenges the participant to ask the right questions before divining the right answers. The same situation applies to incoming job candidates.
At the end of the day, VWs afford us more FREEDOM as we think about how to apply it to make learning more engaging and memorable. Much more than training, VWs are what Jay’s book calls a Learnscape. They are learning/working ecosystems that by their very nature embrace:
- Flow, balancing boredom and challenge in just the right proportions to keep people moving through the experience
- Repetition that allows learners to try-and-try again as many times as they choose
- Experimentation, encouraging learners to try new things and learn in the process
- Experience that is much more engaging than other digitally mediated technologies
- Doing, because practice makes perfect and VWs are big practice fields
- Observing, because if you’re not ready to act now, you have plenty of opportunities to observe others and learn from them
- Motivation: All of these factors culminate in an environment that cultivates teachable moments at every turn. Motivation is baked into the context as people want to learn within it.
Where are we headed?
Humans evolved to pick berries and hunt woolly mammoths, not to strain reality through text, words, concepts, and computers. In many ways, knowledge workers already live in a fantasy world. VWs may herald a more intuitive metaphor for communication and interpretation of our real world.
The industrial-age approach to learning put a wall around schools and training departments. This “protected” the learners from outside interference and distraction. Children were kept at school rather than sent out into the community. Workers left work for training. Talk about artificial life! It’s so much more effective to learn from the real thing, and VWs are the closest we’ve got for practicing without customer consequences.
We are shucking off the legacy of treating humans as products and making their development process as standard and routine as an automobile assembly line. Factory-style schooling did more damage than producing under-par training. It also cut schools and training departments off from the “real world.” For self preservation, educators and trainers created silos of their own. Hence, the conceit that management doesn’t understand instructional design so trainers feel “misunderstood.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. VWs can evolve into a new common ground to bring everyone in an organization together on the same field. Person-to-person interaction can replace rigid policies. The wonders of interoperability and Web Services will pull real-world data into virtual worlds seamlessly.
Virtual worlds provide a clean slate for organizational renewal, a transition from the rigid structures and boundaries of the industrial (physical) world to the flexibility and innovation of the knowledge (intangible) world.
We’ll have our avatars call your avatars to collaborate on that one.
Unless your organization is a true early adopter, say, a technology innovator like IBM, it is premature to invest a ton of energy in VWs.
Nonetheless, we encourage you to dip your toe in the virtual water. It’s neither expensive nor difficult, it will give you an appreciation for the fresh viewpoints that are rippling out of VW innovations, and it might just change your perspective on the possibilities that it affords for informal and generative learning. Create an avatar and zoom around a VW; it’s free. Make yourself some hip clothes (or go buy some ; ). Chat with a few people and join them for a few events. Snap photos or take videos in cyberspace, and email them to the outside world. Teleport to a few company locations and check out what is going on. Drop by the Internet Time Wiki to wander around in some VWs. Check out SRIC-BI’s Virtual Worlds Consortium. . And learn the latest from IBM at eightbar (www.eightbar.co.uk).