This article is cross-posted from my class blog, Spring 2012.
“Virtual Learning Environments can be excellent for teaching and learning.”
After spending a little over a week in Second Life, I believe the above statement needs either some more emphasis on “can be” or perhaps altered to “will be in the future.” There is still not a wealth of opportunities in Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), as Second Life is just about the only one. Sure, many ed. tech. authors throw around World of Warcraft in the realm of VLEs, but there isn’t going to be a bunch of schools throwing math classes into World of Warcraft. However, I think that one of the reasons why Second Life isn’t just sweeping the world by storm is its technical immaturity.
Having actually played World of Warcraft for over seven years, and seen other MMOs come and go during that time, I can speak to the reasons why 10.1 million people worldwide volunteer $14 every month for the privilege of playing the game. WoW not only looks good, but it feels good as well. After booting up Second Life, this experienced gamer had a very hard time not only figuring out the controls, but also what I was “supposed to do.” Walking around felt extremely unnatural and clunky, the objectives were very unclear, and after the “tutorial” was over, I had no direction. I suppose that some people might find that appealing, but when my time for playing games is limited, I want to get in, do what I need to do, and get out. If you want to see what I’m talking about, I encourage you to download the free World of Warcraft client (it’s free to play forever, unless you want to play past level 20!)
Admittedly, it’s not fair to compare Second Life to WoW in terms of content. Second Life is designed to have user-created content, user-owned digital “property” and even the opportunity to earn real-world dollars. World of Warcraft, on the other hand, is story-driven from the minds of fantasy authors, and is designed to be more linear–taking its users through the content for 85 levels (currently), and then preparing them for the ultimate battle against the evil du jour.
So, since World of Warcraft is not going to be home to many online university classes, Second Life or any other VLEs wanting to take a lesson from WoW’s success should look at the following ideas:
First, design the VLE to look good and feel good. Controls should feel natural and shouldn’t require the user to spend hours “getting the hang of it.” Second, learning opportunities need to be clearly defined, with objectives that leads the user toward a meaningful learning experience. Thirdly, the VLE needs to provide rewards and achievements that give the user goals to work for even when “structured learning” is not going on. Any programmers wishing to capture the world of Virtual Learning Environments and bring it into the mainstream of education must begin with those three elements. Then and only then will VLEs “be excellent for teaching and learning.”