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Issue 11 January 2008   Friday, January 25, 2008

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Educators Lead the Charge in Virtual World Learning
Who's getting serious about games?
by John Helmer

There are signs now that we are beginning to see a more favourable climate for game-based learning. The emergence of virtual world learning has given a shot in the arm to the games industry, and there has been a gradual shift in cultural attitudes in its favour. No longer seen as the sole preserve of spotty, adolescent sociopaths, games are beginning to be considered as something that can speed up our brains rather than just turn them to mush.
 
According to a recent article in New Scientist (Reilly, 2007) researchers from Duke University at Durham, North Carolina have discovered that playing shoot ‘em upcomputer games can help give baggage screeners at airports a sharper eye for finding target objects on cluttered computer screens. In the run-up to Christmas 2007, the games package which Nintendo used to promote their DS lite handheld gaming platform was Brain Age 2 (More Brain Training), essentially a learning package. The linkage of learning with gaming technology is not only becoming more acceptable in professional and academic circles, it is also in serious danger of becoming mainstream.
 
At the same time, the rise to widespread prominence of multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) like Second Life has given new life within the e-learning industry to what had begun to seem like a rather moribund corner of the market. The emergence of virtual world learning marks a paradigm shift in the possibilities open to those wishing to adopt gaming-based approaches, and also seems to solve, at a stroke, the economic question of high production costs for digital game-based learning.
 
The far-sighted vision of Linden Labs (the company that provides Second Life) based in Web 2.0 concepts such as creative commons and open source, harnessed the power of user-generated content. Almost incidentally, as a side effect or spin-off of Linden’s fundamentally entertainment-based objectives, Second Life created a learning-friendly world in which educational simulations and learning programmes could be easily and (relatively) cheaply developed.
 
Second Life provides a ready-made games engine and a large collection of environmentally diverse regions including landscapes complete with flora and fauna (entire eco-systems in some cases), civic spaces, buildings, vehicles, furnishings, apparel (­­­­­­­most of this generated by users)­­­­­­­­­­­ together with a set of building tools usable by non-technical people; all readily available at no development cost. In theory at least, anybody with a moderate level of computer literacy and the time to spend on acquiring the skills and knowledge necessary to build in the metaverse could now create virtual world learning.
Steps one, two and three in the creation of digital game-based learning were suddenly eradicated.  You no longer had to create the 3D world in which the game would take place; a world was already there to use: vast, teeming and multifarious.
 
The response of the digital game-based learning industry to this latter development has been interesting. A free online games engine might have been thought to pose some worrying commercial threats; however by and large the industry has embraced the new paradigm. Caspian Learning has even taken the step of making its own games engine available free online to developers, albeit with some qualifications in the specific case of Second Life. Inevitably, there are trade-offs involved in using a ready-made environment, and Second Life has many drawbacks as a learning medium, especially when it comes to the corporate market as those in the game-based learning industry are, away from the conference platform at least, keen to point out.
 
While cases studies from corporates and government organisations are thin on the ground, Second Life boasts a thriving community of educators  (including Coventry University, which has recently opened The Serious Games Institute, and is rapidly becoming an important hub for virtual world learning in the UK). The Second Life Education Wiki [1] lists 161 colleges & universities active in Second Life. These include high-profile education brands such as Harvard, INSEAD, NYU, Stanford and MIT, as well as the UK’s Open University. The SLED listserv for Educators numbers above 3,900.
 
Activities which this (largely HE-focused) community is engaged in include researching, experimenting, piloting, producing taxonomies, compiling databases of useful resources and writing up case studies, as well as running ongoing educational and research projects with and without students. This work is undoubtedly laying the foundations for future development of learning in virtual worlds from which organisational training will eventually benefit if it decides to become interested in virtual world learning at any future stage. For the moment, however, this part of the market seems largely indifferent.
 
This situation is very different from what has been seen in the general e-learning market, where organisational training has very much made the running in innovation, driven by the demands of a rapidly changing business environment which has thrown the spotlight on issues of skills and human capital. A great deal of debate and experimentation has been seen in the organisational context around the disruptive effects of web technology when applied to how learning is designed, delivered and accessed. We have seen a plethora of new ideas in the space, including blended learning, informal learning, performance support and rapid e-learning, all of which have mould-breaking implications; all of which have, to varying degrees, attacked the traditional model of the course as the basic unit of learning delivery. Meanwhile during the same period the education market for e-learning (at least in the UK), has perhaps shown a greater focus on infrastructure, platform and technology tools such as interactive whiteboards which enhance the classroom experience rather than offering an alternative to it. In virtual world learning, by contrast, leadership is very much to be seen coming from the educational sector. Why should this be?
 
In the earlier phase of digital game-based learning both communities were about equal in interest (which is to say that both were equally uninterested). The rise of virtual world learning seems to have caused a more noticeable split; those on the education side of the fence have shown themselves prepared to innovate and experiment, while the organisational training community adopts a far more cautious stance. So why is it that educators seem to have leapt at the opportunities offered by virtual world learning, while organisational trainers have, in large part, baulked?
 
Despite the rhetoric coming out of the e-learning gurusphere for a number of years about the importance of informal learning, the need to nurture self-directed learners and the importance of taking a bottom-up rather than top-down approach to training, most of the e-learning being produced within and for organisations is still extremely linear in character. The prevailing pattern of e-learning use - modules of instructional content structured in linear paths and launched from a centrally hosted learning management system -reproduces in many respects the traditional pattern of training design and administration. Not all organisational training is completely linear and closed in its outcomes. Equally, there are many interesting and even inspiring examples of e-learning that do not follow this model. However the great bulk of organisational training (and also e-learning) follows the traditional model in being heavily in thrall to the course.
 
Digital game-based learning, meanwhile, offers an expanded spectrum of learning experiences ranging from extremely linear and directed, on the one hand, to entirely open-ended and exploratory on the other, with the experience offered by Second Life and other public-access MUVEs situated at the open-ended, exploratory extreme.
 
This not to say that Second Life is incapable of offering directed experiences, far from it.
An interesting case study among the papers to the Second Life Education Workshop 2007 (Part of the Second Life Community Convention, Chicago 24-26 August 2007) details a project in which BP trialled using Second Life for employee ethics and compliance.
 
Making use of the anonymity afforded by Second Life, CADE worked with BP to develop a prototype counselling site where employees could report anonymously on ethical issues to upper management. Extensive bespoke development work was done on streamlining the process of avatar registration and creation. Employees entered Second Life through the BP website, and choice was limited to ten preset avatar designs. Employees were given a unique case ID and teleported direct to the secure counselling site. An avatar detection system alerted counsellors to the presence of an employee in the Second Life room, and all chat data was sent to an SQL server to be recorded. This project shows that, working within the constraints of Second Life, it is possible through using a bespoke point of entry to the world for a specific organisational project to create a much more linear experience.
Clearly, however, there are costs involved in putting linearity back into what is essentially an open environment. Not only does this obviate the point of using Second Life. If the economics make it just as feasible to use a closed solution like Forterra or even get a game-based developer to create a bespoke environment for you, it also begs the question: why use Second Life in the first place?
 
Another way of providing linearity, other than through expensive programming time, is by using human facilitators working in-world through their avatars to lead, shape and moderate the experience. However, trainers’ time is also expensive. And anyway, wasn’t the whole value proposition of e-learning supposed to be that organisations would no longer have to rely on cadres of expensive and unreliable human trainers? So what we’re perhaps seeing in the apparent reluctance of organisations to embrace virtual world learning to date is a symptom of a wider reluctance to engage seriously with anything other than a very traditional, course-based, linear style of training.
 
There are good reasons for this reluctance, which may in fact not be a matter of reluctance at all, so much as a lack of appropriate conceptual tools to suit the job at hand. It would be too easy to blame conservatism, myopia and institutional inertia. But organisations are having big problems coping with the people issues around Web 2.0, of which the revolution in learning is just one example. A common cry is that there is no pedagogy available for Web 2.0, and the possibilities for Learning 2.0 (as it is has been coined) that flow from this. There is a tendency to focus exclusively on how learning innovation is to be funded and implemented (i.e. let us just assume that it’s going to work), but many learning professionals, with some justification, would like to know how, in a Learning 2.0 world, these new types of learning experiences are going to be evaluated, designed and have their outcomes assessed.
 
Traditional pedagogies have proved just about sufficient for the purposes of the sort of meat-and-potatoes, course-based e-learning discussed above: Bloom’s Taxonomy [2], Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction[3], the ADDIE Model [4] and so on, provide familiar handrails on a walkway that leads, by and large, along a familiar route. What if we want to wander off the beaten path however? What happens then?
 
The rise of technology-enabled learning in the nineties and early noughties highlighted the weakness of many organisational training departments in the area of pedagogy. Producing effective online learning content requires a firm grip on principles of instructional design (as well as benefiting from some knowledge of the psychology of learning and of how people interact with media). Clients as well as suppliers need to know their stuff for effective online learning to take place. In an industry where some 95% of training is still delivered face-to-face in some kind of classroom situation, and where the chief (sometime the only) qualification for being a trainer is personal charisma, these can still seem like quite arcane interests.
 
Imagine the plight of an unschooled head of learning and development who has risen through the ranks and, having backfilled her knowledge of the academic literature enough to be able to produce credible online courses, then sees Learning 2.0 heave into view bringing along with it a whole host of new problems and insecurities. What if it is no longer about courses, but about collaborative knowledge construction, just-in-time learning, fingertip learning, and informal learning? Where does she turn for an academic authority on all that?
 
Perhaps this is why educators have taken so enthusiastically to Second Life. Certainly, the papers of the Second Life Education Workshop 2007 show educators engaging with the environment in an experimental and even improvisatory way that nevertheless is guided by the literature (both ancient and modern) and references it freely in analysing results and outcomes. It is clear from reading these accounts and case studies that educators have a great deal more conceptual scaffolding than the average training manager to help them in undertaking experimental projects. It is also clear that educators have far greater leeway in the degree of experimentality they allow themselves. Many of the projects undertaken together by educators and their students in Second Life are clearly designed to foster learning about the process of learning. And often the content of what they are studying is Second Life itself.
 
Such activity has almost no place within the organisational context and is even rare within large technology companies such as IBM. Organisations will inevitably be reluctant to put valuable tranches of training budget on the line in what is clearly an unproven environment, if the type of research being seen within it is so early-stage. Hard-pressed heads of learning and development (whose wages are on the rise compared to other HR functions for the first time, perhaps reflecting the increasing complexity of their jobs) have more options for training delivery than ever before at their fingertips. Though game-based approaches are increasingly being looked at as a serious option, virtual world learning, which at the moment is liable to look hopelessly blue sky to most people, is liable to be quite a way down the pecking order and is probably many years off becoming an accepted form of organisational learning.
 
In the short term at least we would expect to see innovation in this area, outside the defence and disaster sectors where it seems to be thriving, continuing to be led by educators - something new within the field of e-learning.
 
John Helmer
Epic
johnhe@epic.co.uk

References
Reilly, M. (2007) Let airport staff ‘kill’ baddies for better security New Scientist, 2628, 6 November 2007 [Online]. Available from
http://technology.newscientist.com/channel/tech/mg19626286.100-let-airport-staff-kill-baddies-for-better-security.html (subscription required for full article) [Accessed 19/1/08]



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