There's still a great degree of skepticism about the value of virtual worlds in education but there's plenty of activity going on and valuable experience being gained. At Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab they've carried out an interesting piece of research on how virtual worlds can be used to bring about changes in attitude in ways that cannot be duplicated by more traditional communication.
This particular experiment was about people's attitudes to the environmental impact of paper use. One group was given written descriptions of the effects our paper consumption have on our forests and how non-recycled paper leads to deforestation. Another group went into a virtual world and cut down trees with a virtual chainsaw. Despite the graphic details and convincing rhetoric of the written accounts the groups who simply read about the problem did not change their paper consumption after the experiment whereas those who had been in the virtual world really did change their behaviour afterwards.
The research was not about paper consumption or deforestation but about how virtual experiences can have a real effect on our behaviour. This is not the first example of such research but it shows that virtual and augmented reality will be increasingly used for simulations and training as an effective behaviour reinforcer and in many cases will enable us to simulate experiences that would be impossible or extremely costly to carry out for real. Watch the video below for a report on the Stanford experiment and read the article from Stanford Report, New virtual reality research – and a new lab – at Stanford.