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
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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.

Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

iDance's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

OMG!! i go 2 suffern middle school! i know erika, jon jon and alex!

Pub Ed's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for a grounded article examining real life classroom applications of the metaverse.

I had the pleasure of visiting Suffern County last fall and thought "WOW"...if only all kids could be this enthusiastic about literature.

Well done.
Pub Ed.

Randy L Lesley U Student's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I didn't know anything like this was out there. I wonder why there is a move to seperate interaction at schools. Maybe it is because of the violence in our society that is rising in our young students. Maybe this will the "safe school of the future."

Kim Flintoff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There has been good work happening in Virtual Worlds for some years now. The Global Kids team have some very exciting project work in their portfolio.

The "role" side of things still has a lot of potential to be shifted beyond simple role-taking activities into role-creation and role-playing - even moving into the metaphorical, symbolic and artistic representations that emerge from the best Drama pedagogy.

When students are operating within a state of metaxis the learning is more likely to shift across all domains... cognitive, psychomotor AND affective... the symbolic and metaphorical shifts serve to both broaden understanding and deepen significant meaning making moving beyond simple declarative encounters.

Having said that - there is a lot of lip-service given to embracing new technology but there is still a lot of resistance, in some education sectors, to meaningful and broad based engagement with social technologies. Typically, bureaucratic fear and chants of "we must protect the kids" seem to be the hallmarks of these more restrictive contexts.

The potential being demonstrated by these various projects seems to suggest that a socially mediated 3D MUVE can offer tremendous extension to a traditional classroom setting and yet many students are denied these possibilities because of ignorance and fear with educational bureauracy.

When will they learn that: ""When blockers are placed on the Internet, the system works to route around the 'damage'. Understandably, people will do the same." (R.Gesthuizen) - students and teachers are effectively vilified for wanting to push into these (not so) new territories.

Kudos to all those who perservere regardless.

Gail Hunter's picture
Gail Hunter
Adjunct Educational Psychology Professor and doctoral candidate at Temple U

Do you have any data on these learning tools? I would like to explore this as a dissertation. Please contact me at

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Research and Standards Editor

Hi Gail,

Here are a few resources that I hope will help:

Academic Second Life Studies

Second Life and Other Virtual Worlds: A Roadmap for Research

Journal of Virtual Worlds Research
- There are a few issues that look especially helpful:
Virtual Worlds for Kids:
Pedagogy, Education and Innovation:
Cultures of Virtual Worlds:
Research: Past, Present and Future:

Virtual Worlds Research Network

Good luck with your dissertation!


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