The Future of Virtual Worlds and EdTech Island

Four years ago, Chareen Snelson and I sketched an inital layout of EdTech Island on a napkin (ok, it was a piece of paper, but the idea of napkin sketch is appealing).  Since that time, EdTech Island in Second Life has grown to become a major educational initiative in our program, providing training to teachers and instructional designers in virtual worlds.  We’ve offered approximately 14 graduate courses there to-date, hosted many workshops and speaker events, and provided space to the public for building, teaching, and temporary educator housing.  Chris Haskell has become the island manager, and we’ve also added an an additional island, CAVE, to support our partnerships with iNACOL, AECT and ARVEL SIG.

If you follow news on virtual worlds, then you may be aware that Linden Labs has recently closed Teen Second Life, and opened Second Life to ages 13+.  Prior to this time, Second Life had been an 18+ only virtual world.  As if that change didn’t cause enough speculation among educators, even more recently Linden Labs made the decision to cut discount pricing made available to educational institutions.  The natives are now in an uproar, looking to make decisions about whether they will maintain a presence in Second Life, or make a mass migration to other virtual worlds.  Some are questioning if the life cycle of virtual worlds has come and gone, and whether it is time to just pull out all together.

Question #1:  Are virtual worlds dead?
In a nutshell, an emphatic “no.” Virtual world registered user accounts are estimated at over 1 billion, half of those belonging to kids 5-15.  KZero, an organization that tracks the virtual world growth across sectors, also reports approximately 300 virtual worlds in existence, with numbers growing to over 800 in two years.

Nic Mithim, CEO of KZero, was kind enough to provide me with recent reports and radar charts to help address our first question.  It’s easy to see why many educational faculty might think virtual worlds are dying or dead, because there aren’t many new educational virtual worlds being designed for that age group. In the below section of a radar chart, showing different market sectors of virtual worlds by age, note the large amount of educational virtual worlds showing up in the 10-15 age bracket, in particular.

In case that information isn’t quite sinking in, here’s another graph from 2009 that shows the population using virtual worlds by age.  Note the skinny green line at the top represents adults.

Some parents and educators have ethical issues with virtual worlds.  From my perspective, the worst ethical stance we could take is to turn our heads away as if these environments didn’t exist.   It appears we better get busy in schools figuring out how to educate kids on safe and appropriate use, and learn how to use them to our advantage for educational purposes.  That implies teachers need training and support to not only understand what a virtual world is and how they operate, but how they can serve as leaders and role models with their students, as well as design instruction that draws on the best attributes across these environments to promote engaging learning.

This past week, Claudia L’Amoreaux was kind enough to set up a meeting with Jori Clarke, CEO of Idea Seeker Universe. Jori took us on a tour of Idea Seeker Universe, and explained several of the educational projects that are embedded in this 2D virtual world environment.

I was really impressed with the Chicago Field Museum project, where kids could go on a scientific expedition to photograph and study animals.  Even more impressive was the “My Garden” project, where kids could grow and harvest food in realistic timelines, learn to combine ingredients from their food to make actual recipes of healthy food, and earn rewards such as the ability to dance by making a healthy drink.  Jori reported that kids would group up to make healthy drinks so they could host dance parties.  This project illustrates how we can leverage the fun and social elements of virtual worlds to help instill basic concepts of food growth and preparation to many kids who can be distanced from where their food is grown and how it is prepared.

From all available data, usage of virtual worlds is continuing to grow across all markets.  To see a great example of a fun and educational world for very young children, take a peek at Jumpstart, with a reported 20 million users.

Question#2: What is the future of EdTech Island?
Edtech Island will continue to evolve along with technological innovations and the needs of our audience.  Right now, we have renewed our island through December 2011, plan to offer two graduate courses this coming spring semester, and have GA and faculty support allocated to our sims.  We will remain as long as there is an interested audience in our work, and we are able to sustain management and research support for our activities there.  For an academic department, those decisions are typically made on a year-by-year basis.  Annie Jeffery is hosting bi-weekly events which you can view on our calendar.  I hope to see you there.

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