Education is Changing

By AJ Kelton
Education is changing. The days filled with students facing front, teachers doing all the talking, and books and pencils the only tools of the educational process are not just now starting to decline, they are well into decline. Find the most talented teacher, K-12 or higher education, and ask if s/he only lectures to students or tries to engage them. Certainly issues of crumbling buildings and poor infrastructure need to be addressed, but we cannot overlook technology, existing and emerging, as an equal player at the table.

Many of us did not have computers when we were in high school, let alone 1st grade. The world is a dramatically different place now and we make note of this all the time. When was the last time you turned to another adult and said, “These kids are so much smarter than we were”? They are. And they want to learn. But they do not want to learn the way you and I did; they want, and need, to learn differently.

Our students today are going to be the ones who have to figure out how to get us all out of the messes we have created. In order to help them we need to invest in technology infrastructure for our educational facilities, libraries, and homes. We need to find and encourage use of the hands-on technology that will let these brilliant minds develop and grow.

New construction must be designed with a technology infrastructure that is given equal and important consideration at the earliest stages of planning. All too often, technology is tossed in at the end, once all the plans are already in motion. Everything, from network traffic to electrical supply and jack availability to standard computer hardware, needs to be planned and budgeted for at the onset and with the same maintenance considerations as other essential infrastructure.

What applications our students will be using on our networks is a completely different animal. The world of technology changes quickly. Who would have thought a few short years ago that we would be looking at mobile technology and virtual worlds as a raising tide that lifts all technology boats?

From the days of Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, and Star Trek, future inhabitants have been walking around with access to technology at their fingertips. One only need look at Apple’s iPhone to see a modern-day Communicator and Tricorder wrapped up in one. The idea that mobile technology would drive the marketplace so heavily was a distant thought not all that long ago. In the meantime, today we all iPhone and Blackberry our way through our workday, while students begin to do the same through their school workday.

So when you hear that virtual worlds are a growing market in the educational industry and have begun to provide exceptional learning experiences for students from many age ranges and from around the world, don’t wonder where your flying car is. We were all promised flying cars by the 21st-century, right?

Well, in virtual worlds, such as the very popular Second Life, we can have flying cars. But virtual environments are so much more than a frivolous place where “games” are played. Educators from all over the globe are finding amazing ways to engage students using a combination of the virtual and non-virtual worlds. Whether it’s a replica of a working heart one can walk through, a recreation of the Sistine Chapel, or a tour through a psychiatric ward hearing and seeing what a schizophrenic patient experiences, virtual worlds seem to be limited only by one’s imagination.

Although not the only virtual world being used for educational purposes, Second Life is currently the most widely used by a large margin. According to its main web page, http://www.secondlife.com, “Second Life is an online, 3D virtual world imagined and created by its Residents.” After signing up for a free membership (paid memberships with a few benefits are available but not required), and downloading the application to a computer, one creates an “avatar”, or 3D representation of oneself. The ability to customize the avatar in more ways than one can imagine is something that has attracted so many people to this virtual world.

Aside from flying cars, or even flying without cars, avatars can communicate with others, visit virtual places all designed and created by other “residents”, hold meetings, go to musical and artists performances, and even engage in micro transactions between individuals.

Second Life first became available to the public in 2003. On average, ten to fifteen thousand new avatars (accounts) are created each day and fifty thousand unique individuals are signed in to the Second Life grid at any given time, with a peak number recently exceeding seventy thousand. Over one million U.S. dollars are transacted each day in the Second Life economy. Although educational use makes up a small but growing percentage of the Second Life user base, there are well over three hundred self-identified educational institutions internationally with some kind of involvement in Second Life.

Second Life is designed specifically for adults, defined as those eighteen years old and older. This does not mean that those under eighteen are left out in the cold by the folks at Linden Lab, creators of Second Life. A few years back Linden Lab created Teen Second Life, a very carefully controlled and protected environment for those between the ages of thirteen and seventeen. A small number of middle and high schools in the U.S. have invested in creating a secure, school-only location for their students. An example of one assignment comes from the Suffern Middle School in the Ramapo School District. Students were asked to change their avatar’s appearance to reflect first on how they see themselves and then how they think society sees the idealized appearance of the gender they selected. This allowed for a rich and exciting discussion on how advertising and society impact not just what we do but even how we choose to look.

Aside from the educational uses of virtual worlds, there are practical design and architectural uses as well. Virtual environments have become an exceptional place to create, in advance, a planned non-virtual world space and allow users to experience it beyond the single dimension of drawings and blueprints. Imagine being able to build a technology-rich classroom, an innovatively designed library, a planned renovation of a current space or even a new construction, and then letting visitors, via an avatar experience that space. This is not the stuff that wild imaginations are dreaming of. This is happening in real time, right now.

At this point you may be scratching your head and thinking “Is this for real?” or “Where did this come from and how did I miss it?” The fact is that these types of environments have been around for decades. Educators, geeks, and kids have been using multi-user environments for as long as networks have allowed text to flow back and forth. More recently, while some have gotten into the fantasy role-playing environment of World of Warcraft, others have sat with their children and marveled as they engaged with their non-virtual and virtual Webkinz companion. If you are not sure what Webkinz is, ask almost anyone who has a young child or grandchild.

Whether its Webkinz by Ganz, Club Barbie by Mattel, or any of the many Disney virtual worlds our children are playing in these days, those same children are going to eventually bring this expectation for interactive and engaging learning environments to our schools. Trends in virtual worlds, as charted by companies like Virtual Worlds Management, show clear evidence that this is not a passing fad. Some folks at Princeton, Rutgers, Seton Hall, Kean, and Montclair State have also seen the handwriting on the virtual wall and have begun to experiment with learning and teaching in the virtual environment of Second Life. At Montclair State University, for example, a wide variety of subjects have used Second Life as a learning and teaching tool, including: Composition, Counseling, History, Law, Literacy, Literature, Media, and the New Student Experience. Even the Residence Life division has begun to experiment with using Second Life to reach a variety of students.

From a few visits to experience something not possible in the non-virtual world, to using the virtual environment to enhance distance and online learning, we are looking at the beginnings of a whole new world; a virtual one at the very least. The question becomes, who will be left wondering why or how some other college, school, library, or organization got the jump on this?

AJ Kelton is the Director of Emerging Instructional Technology for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, as well as the Second Life Project Coordinator for the College of Education and Human Services, both at Montclair State University. Mr. Kelton is the author of the recent article “Virtual Worlds? ‘Outlook Good’”, published by the EDUCAUSE Review and he is the owner of AFK Consulting, a company dedicated to providing services in support of virtual worlds, social media and networking, and Web 2.0 initiatives.

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