Teaching in Virtual Worlds: Opportunities and Challenges

Article excerpt

Introduction

Jennifer James (1997) identified technology as one of four primary societal influencers that will have a significant impact on the future. This societal influence will usher in a period of rapid, technological change to which society, and it follows, its educational systems, will have to adapt. According to Polka (1999) educational technologies will have a profound impact on curriculum and on teaching and learning methodologies in the new millennium. These educational visionaries could not have been more correct. Technological change and innovation have greatly altered both what is taught and how educators teach. In order to survive, colleges will have to rethink where, what, when and how students learn.

In reconsidering how students learn, there are many significant changes to be made. Instead of using the centralized-control model where the instructor acts as a "sage on the stage" delivering information to a classroom of students, educators need to move to a more pluralistic and entrepreneurial approach to learning, where students take a much more active and independent role. Under this model the instructor acts more as a facilitator than as a chief executive. Students will be encouraged to work collaboratively, forming learning communities where each participant is both a teacher as well as a learner. Curriculum may also become more interdisciplinary, encouraging students to explore "rich connections among different domains of knowledge." (Kirkman, Cornelius, Sachs, & Schwab, 2002, p. 36)

In rethinking what people learn, curricula should be updated to incorporate the instructional technologies that are available today. Much of what students learn today is still based on old technologies of instruction; paper-and-pencil, chalk, and blackboard. Digital technologies not only change what students should learn, but what students can learn. Ideas, topics, and experiences can be explored using digital technologies. These would have been too difficult to represent with textbooks, blackboards, and chalk. Additionally, digital technologies allow learners to explore many more domains of knowledge in greater depth. As the amount of easily accessible information grows at an astounding rate, institutions will have to focus less on imparting information and more on teaching students how to access necessary information (Kirkman et al, 2002).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to transform curricula so that they focus less on 'things to know' and more on 'strategies for learning the things you don't know.' As new technologies continue to quicken the pace of change in all parts of our lives, learning to become a better learner is far more important than learning to multiply fractions or memorizing the capitals of the world. (Kirkman et al, 2002, p. 36)

In rethinking where and when people learn, educators must recognize that schools "... are just part of a broader learning ecosystem. In the digital age, learning can and must become a daylong and lifelong experience." (Kirkman et al, 2002, p. 36) Learning has become an activity where location is increasingly less important. Learning is no longer limited to a building with four walls, but can take place anytime, anywhere, facilitated by increasingly ubiquitous digital information and communication technologies. Colleges "should aim to improve learning opportunities not only in schools, but also in homes, community centers, museums, and workplaces." (Kirkman et al, 2002, p. 36)

Significance of Virtual Worlds

The emergence of online virtual worlds, three-dimensional environments where individuals are represented by avatars, poses many exciting opportunities as well as challenges for educators. These online virtual worlds, imagined and created by their inhabitants, are often referred to as "metaverses." Metaverses include aspects of the real world represented in virtual spaces. …