Sunday, February 12, 2012

Virtual worlds - back to the drawing board

Whatever happened to virtual worlds like Second Life? I get asked that question quite often since I was an enthusiastic supporter during the high profile years around.2006-8. Virtual worlds (VW) are still used in education but mostly in a small niche often related to role play and simulation. Before the VW boom distance learning/e-learning was far too one-dimensional and text-based. VWs offered immersive environments that encouraged group work, offered participants shared experiences and new opportunities for taking learning beyond the traditional teacher-lead classroom model. Suddenly we saw the potential of taking the distance out of education.

I've just read an excellent article by Sarah Smith-Robbins in eLearn Magazine, Are Virtual Worlds (still) Relevant in Education?, which tries to explain why virtual worlds never quite broke through in education. The main reasons for the failure of VWs are given as:
  • Economy - cash-strapped universities have cut back on such experimental technologies often because they haven't been able to replace any existing investments.
  • Steep learning curve - VWs have proved too different from other tools used in education and therefore take too long to learn for most students and teachers.
  • VW providers unresponsive to needs of educators - VWs like Second Life were updated irritatingly often and often had little or no support for users. Payment for services was often difficult and many universities lost patience.
  • VWs part of a bigger picture - education is changing thanks to many new technologies of which VWs are just one small factor. Social media are at present the dominant force enabling change.
The main contribution of virtual worlds has been to inspire new ways of thinking about education. Thanks to VWs and a host of other technologies the static, text-based e-learning concept is being replaced by collaborative arenas where learners create and share insights and resources using a wide range of multimedia tools. Virtual worlds are back in the shadows today but the experiments were far from a waste of time. VWs did not change education, just as iPads, augmented reality, cloud computing or whatever are not in themselves going to change education. It's more a question of what we do with all these tools and how we integrate them into teaching and educational practice that will change things. Here's Sarah's conclusion:

"Ultimately, regardless of whether VWs are broadly used, their place in this broader conversation of technology's place in the university and the struggles over maintaining high quality with smaller budgets, the movement that VWs initiated is one that we shouldn't dismiss. Their adoption (or lack thereof) has a wider meaning. Educators know that there is room for improvement and we're dedicated to looking for solutions. A single technology will not solve the issues. However, the meaning behind the enthusiasm for such a tool may help us think deeper about what we're hoping to change and how we can go about it. VWs may not be as broadly relevant in education as many had hoped but that underlying hope is still very relevant."


  1. I think the future of virtual worlds lies in their ability to be integrated with the web and mobile devices. Most of the tools being used in educational practices are web-based, and devices like tablets are quickly supplanting desktop PCs as the primary means of getting online for many students.

    Since leaving Linden Lab, I've been working at ReactionGrid where we're developing the next generation of virtual world platforms. Our "Jibe" platform is web-based, will work on mobile devices, and is based on many industry standards. If you ever decide to jump back into exploring virtual worlds, I'd be happy to give you a demo. :)

    More info about Jibe at

  2. Thanks for the comment. I'll have a look at the videos on the site and a demo sounds very interesting. I still believe in virtual worlds in education but most educators and many students are still simply not ready for it.