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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Get a Life: Students Collaborate in Simulated Roles

Virtual reality provides a shared online universe in which students can play to learn.
By Laila Weir

Revolutionary Technology:

Students at Suffern Middle School, in Suffern, New York, created these avatars to represent characters from novels they read about the American Revolution.

Credit: Courtesy of Suffern Middle School

When the Whypox -- a plague that causes the afflicted to break out in red spots -- hit, residents had to go to the Center for Disease Control to learn about the epidemic. When the WhyFlu went around, those who got vaccinated were protected. But as new viruses escape from a biotechnology project, residents must scramble to develop new vaccines.

Then there was the deadly red tide, which prompted locals to take water samples to the Oceanographic Institution in an attempt to find solutions. And when Hurricane Alice landed, residents took a crash course on the impact of global climate change.

Generation Why

Such is life in Whyville, a Web-based virtual world that provides inquiry-based education for middle school students. Created by University of Texas professor Jim Bower -- a former professor at the California Institute of Technology and founder of CalTech's Pre-College Science Initiative -- Whyville looks and feels like a game to the kids who use it. For teachers, it is one more tool for delivering lessons in a package that delights their students.

Virtual worlds such as Whyville offer environments that users in various locations can access simultaneously via the Internet. All players, represented by animated characters called avatars, enter the same space to play (and learn) collaboratively. Many educators are experimenting with Whyville, while others are using the already well-known virtual world Second Life, which has a teen version called Teen Second Life, for kids ages 13-17. (Adults can also participate, but the company must approve them after a background check.) Many other virtual worlds exist out there as well, and more are surely on the way.

In Plane Sight:

Students from George Washington Carver Academy, in Waco, Texas, participate in a teamwork exercise in the online virtual world of Whyville.

©Numedeon 2008

In Waco, Texas, the public schools are integrating Whyville into their eighth-grade career-exploration classes. One recent morning, teacher Johnbelle Line and several students from George Washington Carver Academy gathered for a lesson in teamwork at Whyville PlaneWorks, a virtual airplane factory sponsored by the Texas Workforce Commission. All the kids used computers to manipulate their personal avatars, which interacted in the same animated online environment.

Line observed as the students dragged images of matching plane parts together -- yellow wings with yellow engines, for example -- to "build" the largest number of airplanes in the shortest period of time. After each student tried the timed game alone, Line instructed them to work together, asking them pointed questions as they tried to find strategies to increase their team's efficiency.

Collaboration Through Computers

"If you work alone, you can only get so far, but if you work with a partner, you can maximize the amount of clams you get," explains Donna McKethan, director of career and technology education for the Waco Independent School District. (Clams are Whyville's currency, which students can use to buy any number of virtual items for use in the game, from clothes to cars, or they can put their clams in a savings account.)

NASA, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Getty Museum, and the School Nutrition Association are among the groups to sponsor projects in Whyville. The site, which students access through a Web browser, uses simple graphics, and most people find it easy to learn. Second Life is much more graphically complicated, and it allows sophisticated users to help build its virtual environment. But it also requires users to download free software, and people consider it harder to learn than Whyville.

"If you're looking for something for teens who have less sophisticated technical skills, you may want to bring them into Whyville," advises Barry Joseph of Global Kids, a New York City nonprofit organization that's exploring the educational uses of virtual worlds. But he notes, "Second Life is great for teachers interested in working in collaborations to create something that users can view in a community environment."

Global Kids recently partnered with the High School for Global Citizenship, a public school in Brooklyn, to have the school's freshman global-science students work in Teen Second Life. There, they'll participate in simulations that bring to life the sustainability issues that are the focus of the class. In one activity about the impact of garbage on Venice, students, via their avatars, will explore a three-dimensional virtual Venice, where they will interview residents and look for solutions to the trash problem.

So far, according to Assistant Principal Tracy Rebe, students have been enthusiastic to the unheard-of point of arriving early to their first-period class. Student Shaquille Sanders explains their eagerness: "You're having fun while doing schoolwork, which I think is what every kid likes to do." He says the students look forward to "being able to go places we can't go in school and do experiments that are maybe a little too dangerous for the classroom." Adds senior Allan Marshall, who's assisting Rebe (who teaches the class), "In Second Life, you're just free."

Virtual Validation

Liza Medina, a language arts teacher at Suffern Middle School, in Suffern, New York, had such good results holding literature-circle discussions in Teen Second Life that she has planned more. (See "Reading Round Table: Literature Circles Expand Thought" for more information about literature circles.) "Students who are normally shy in class were less inhibited while using Second Life," she points out. "My struggling writers were actually stronger writers while using a medium they use daily to communicate with friends: the computer. My unmotivated readers liked the program so much, they invested time in reading."

Medina's next project had students create avatars for characters in novels they'd read about in a unit on the American Revolution. Besides designing the look of the avatar, the students had to provide rich profile information for each one. That included a first-person description of the character's personality and role, a list of the character's interests, links to relevant Web sites, and a telling quote by or about the character, along with an explanation of why the student chose that particular quote.

Once the avatars and their profiles were ready, the students -- in character -- interacted in the virtual environment with characters from at least two other novels. "I liked dressing and visualizing a personality for a character," explains Erika, one of Medina's students. Erika's classmate, Jon Jon, adds, "I felt like I lived in the 1700s."

Like Tracy Rebe's students, Medina's were enthusiastic about the game-like aspect of the assignment. "Some of the teachers make learning really boring," commented one such student, Alex. "But when you're in Second Life, it's like playing video games while you're learning."

Laila Weir is a contributing editor and writer for Edutopia. Her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, and online publications around the world.

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