Developing and delivering educational experiences in a 3-dimensional virtual world is by no means a new thing. Second Life, for example, which started in 2003 and reached its peak in 2006 (although is still functioning today), gave to many individuals, groups, institutions and organizations a highly flexible and adaptable platform that allowed them to experiment widely in education, training and development. Despite its promise, and despite the no-little-hype that grew around it, Second Life, I believe, failed to disrupt education to any meaningful extent, and certainly had little if any effect on the K-12 space. I would suggest that at least part of the reason for this failure to disrupt was that, back in 2006, most people lacked what I term ‘cloud literacy’.
From the educational perspective, I define cloud literacy as the competence or knowledge required in order to be able to teach and learn proficiently and effectively in the cloud. With this in mind, I had the opportunity, during the past year, to help to create a stimulating avatar-based virtual 3d world, not dissimilar to the Second Life paradigm, for the students of New Milford High School using a solution called ProtoSphere from ProtonMedia. Through the establishment of our virtual campus we had the opportunity to explore the varied and, I would suggest, unique pedagogy that a virtual environment such as this offers. The technology itself, in a real sense, becomes the learning environment. In this era of pervasive communications, our students need to know how to communicate and collaborate virtually: however, where do we, as teachers, find the medium through which we can help our students to grasp the skills they will need throughout their working lives? Yes, of course, over time, simply by our immersion in the digital technologies, we have all naturally become more ‘cloud literate’, however traditional pedagogical techniques don’t meet the diverse needs of all of our students in the kinds of environments available to us. Cloud Literate teachers deliver classes more efficiently and effectively and they have the knowledge and the skills needed to make our students more ‘cloud literate’ learners. Such teachers can help students to take more effective ownership of their own learning, raise student achievement and improve their performance overall. The teachers themselves are also, I believe, enabled to deliver classes more efficiently and effectively.
A number of things can be done do to encourage and increase engagement amongst learners and make your virtual classes more likely to help you reach your learning goals. This post assumes that your learner has a basic understanding of your virtual environment and focuses more on best practices and real-world processes that you can implement and apply them to your classes, make you more effective at planning, administering, and delivering them to the benefit of students
What is the Teacher’s Role?
In a 3d Virtual Classroom, the role of the teacher shifts to facilitator of knowledge acquisition. Establishing the role of teacher as facilitator is critical in a virtual environment, and it is a role that can help the teacher better design and deliver the structure needed for a successful lesson. Facilitators can (and should!) also be the learners themselves – something that tends to work better with small groups. This shift allows the facilitators to:
- Help participants prepare their content
- Assist in guiding the group discussions to keep the learners on track
- Record notes and track questions
- Load content into the virtual environment (allowing for synchronous and asynchronous learning to occur)
- Monitor the avatars in the room to see if anyone has their hand raised with a question or comment
Learners as Avatars
In our avatar-based virtual environment, students were able to create content together, and collaborate virtually using various forms of media. Within the context of learning, doing so as an avatar was a new experience for many of them. Some of the practices they had to get used to were:
- Face the rest of the class. Try not to have the back of your avatar facing the other participants, even when looking at boards or content.
- Learners should raise a hand before asking a question
- We were lucky enough to have Voice over IP in our virtual environment. Our avatars had voices and both teachers and students could use that as a powerful way to engage the other participants.
- Use people’s names when addressing them.
- Use gestures and expressions
Instructional Design for Avatar-based Virtual Environments
From the perspective of the school or teacher setting up such an environment, a number of lessons came out of this first year of our experiment:
- Define learning objectives and benefits of the lesson so that there is some method of measurement of success
- Establish goals and desired learning outcomes and based on these, define tasks/agenda together with your learners
- Tailor lessons/activities toward your learners’ needs
- Make material available before, during and after the lessons/activities, if they should come into the environment outside of class time
- Allow students to backchannel during the lesson/activity. We used group text-based conversations throughout ours. The majority of students are familiar with this type of communication, so are comfortable communicating this way. This area can be used to garner student participation. You may ask a question and ask that students all respond here. You, as the facilitator, would monitor that area for responses.
- We used polling, frequently…..students raised hands…..moved their avatar to stand in a place that represents their answer, making each experience highly participatory.
- Create locations that are specifically suited to the lesson/content including room types and styles, layouts, themes, and objects
Cloud literate educators and learners can use an online environment of this kind highly effectively as a powerful medium to communicate and collaborate powerfully around curricular content, as well as create an exciting and engaging learning environment for all.