Virtual Worlds

What are Virtual Worlds?

Virtual worlds are computer-based simulated environments that enable the user to interact with a specific environment online. Some virtual worlds are games, such as Disney's Virtual Magic Kingdom, while others are more along the line of educational programs, such as Quest Atlantis. In virtual worlds, the users typically inhabitexternal image detective_magnifying_glass_lg_nwm.gif the environment by placing themselves right into the world in the form of an avatar. The avatar can be a three dimensional person, or a two dimensional representation.

Since it is a simulated environment, the virtual world appears very similar to the real world with many of the same features. One of the key educational feature of the virtual world is the interactive component; the users collaborate with other users through their avatars and make contributions to the environment of the virtual world, such as adding three dimensional pictures or computer graphics.

Picture from Quest Atlantis
Some virtual worlds are used in school classrooms specifically for the educational opportunities they provide the students. Quest Atlantis is such a program, used by schools, that enables students to participate in academically challenging activities that are meaningful. It allows students, through their avatars, to do research of other cultures, conduct environmental studies, and interview members of the virtual community. The students participate in “quests” that take them on adventures that involve traveling to different places to perform different educational activities. Quest Atlantis has eleven different worlds with three villages in each world that address different aspects of that world. There are 20-25 quests in each village, so there are a vast number of possible activities for students to engage in.

Second Life is another highly interactive program. It blends graphics, gaming elements, chat rooms and online commerce into a single platform (Grondstedt, 2007). This program is designed for students that are a little more advanced. Second Life is a 3-D online world in which the users themselves use their imagination to create the world. The users are known as the “residents.” external image Virtual%20Reality%20Reporter.jpg Again, they use avatars to navigate through the virtual world. They get around by walking, running, flying and even teleporting. Users can have more than one avatar, and can design the avatars to have any appearance that they choose (shown to the right, an avitar can be made to look similar to the real person.) Communication between the residents is either through chatting, or privately through instant messaging. Second life has its own economy and form of currency. The residents are responsible for creating what makes up this world, so it’s highly constructive.

Learning Theories that Guide the Use of Virtual Worlds

Virtual World is inherently a social activity as it allows its participants to interact with one another. Learning through collaboration and interaction is highly valued in the Vygotsky's Sociocultural learning theory. Virtual World environments encourages students to learn from the different avatars/people they meet and also think critically and respond to the context presented in the environment and to each other as well.

The Constructivism learning theory also supports this kind of learning that virtual worlds offer because of this strong focus on social interaction and the user's active involvement in the environment. The students learn by actively constructing knowledge as they interact with and create in the simulated environment.

Virtual worlds also provide environments that adapt to the learner's digital and mobile lifestyle and accommodate their learning needs as well (Grondstedt, 2007). Through the various activities that virtual worlds offer, it allows learners to approach and understand a topic/subject in different ways. This supports the theory of Multiple Intelligences. Linguistic, Interpersonal and Spatial are the most obvious intelligences that virtual worlds support. Nonetheless, Logical-Mathematical skills are also supported through the various scenarios that require logical and critical thinking, most evidently in environments where avatars transact business (i.e. buying and selling virtual products). It also supports Intrapersonal where the student can develop individual skills and also Bodily-Kinesthetic because such programs require eye-hand coordination, etc. (Rosen, 1997)

The Benefits of Using Virtual Worlds

One of the benefits of virtual worlds is that they frequently encourage responsibility. One of the missions of Quest Atlantis, for example is to promote responsibility towards self, towards the community, and towards the world. A sense of community and world are often a focus of the virtual worlds.

Virtual worlds also offers the capability of allowing students to visualize abstract concepts, observe events at atomic of planetary scales, and visit places, interact with events and other such activities which distance, time, or safety factors make unavailable (Youngblut, 1998). As Confucius said, " I hear and I forget. I see and I understand. I do and I remember." Confucius certainly didn't have virtual reality in mind, but these virtual worlds and second life place a student at the scene with all of the benefits of actually being there without the cost, time or effort of travel.

Another established use for virtual worlds is to use it as a kind of laboratory to test different theories on different environments. Professor Robert Bloomfield of Cornell Johnson's Graduate School of management makes use of these virtual environment to test ideas involving staples of economics such as game theory, the effects of regulation, and issues involving money (Di Meglio, 2007). These concepts would have normally been difficult to test in an uncontrolled environment. Moreover, these gives students the opportunity to have an active involvement with the theory and test it as well and gain learning from the first hand experience.

Lastly, another benefit is that users can have fun while doing something challenging and educational. This then promotes a healthy attitude towards learning whether within the confines of a classroom or outside of it.

The Challenges of Using Virtual Worlds

One of the Virtual Worlds charms is that it allows people to have an alter-ego through their avatars and essentially hide their true identities. As much as this veneer helps others to become more open and less inhibited in their collaboration with others it also poses a problem when this "invisibility" is abused. Troublemakers may cause scenes at places where people are gathered and disrupt activity by displaying nude images or offensive language (Carnavale, 2007). One such example cited by Carnavale is the virtual gun man that entered the virtual island of Ohio University and started to shoot other avatars. This led Ohio University to shut down their island until officials were able to get rid of the "gunman."

Students must also be advised that even with their "screen names," they should not put any personal information into their avatar profiles or in their conversations with other avatars. The open environment of most Virtual worlds poses a real challenge to privacy of users and educational institutions as well.

Some unwanted incidents might suggest that virtual worlds for learning institutions might require a higher or more strict content regulation.

Special Guidance for Using Virtual Worlds

Virtual Worlds have been a useful tool for a lot of educators from all over the world. Nonetheless, in using/creating such web tools, it is always important always review and re-evaluate the activities presented in these environment and if they do achieve the learning goals of the curriculum. It is the teacher's responsibility to make the virtual world experience purposeful for the student and not a place they can roam without any direction or focus.

Virtual Worlds highly support discovery based learning, wherein students seek answers for themselves, nonetheless, educators who make use of virtual worlds must not be complacent in their participation in the learning process of the student. After designing a virtual world that is apt of for a curriculum and implementing it in class, the presence of the teacher is still very valuable. At every stage of learning, the teacher needs to be fully present, engaged and alert to the development that happens in each student as they wade through the virtual worlds and acquire new knowledge.

Delia Bradshaw enumerates three key factors that are vital for teachers and learners in order to achieve educational wealth in virtual worlds such as Second Life:

  • the provision of time for teachers to prepare themselves for inhabiting Second Life as a broad and deep learning environment
  • according critical importance to continuous, integrated reflection – which means incorporating guided dialogues with students before and after immersion
  • providing adequate professional development and ongoing support for teachers, as they venture into what, for most, will be unknown territory – as both guides and ‘guardians’ of their students.

Research on Virtual Worlds

There has been a considerable amount of research done on virtual worlds and their benefits. Some research is indicating that virtual worlds will go far beyond gaming and will extend to commerce, education (where clearly it is already being used), professional, military, and vocational training, medical consultations, psychotherapy, and social and economic experimentation. Visual worlds are currently being used in the field of psychology for biofeedback. There are also suggestions that virtual worlds have potential for being research sites in the future. Here are some websites indicating some of the research that is currently taking place concerning virtual worlds:

Virtual World Lesson Ideas

Teachers can use virtual worlds to supplement amost any lesson. For example:

French Class and/or Art Class:
external image Pictures_of_the_Louvre_in_Paris.jpgHave students take a virtual tour of The Louvre.
Assign students to visit different floors and and gather a list of the items viewed in each different views.
Have students research origin/history gathered from one item in each view.

History Class:
When studying about the first settlements of the Europeans in
  • Students start by visiting a virtual tour of a plymoth plantation.
  • Students can explore a Virtual Jamestown automatically or a Jamestown Fort interactively.
    Have students take a virtual trip through the times leading up to the U.S. Consitution.external image istockphoto_2052535_united_states_constitution.jpg Have students take virtual tours of different stages through the timeline of the development of the U.S. Constitution.
    • Start students off by visiting and studying the 13 Colonies following the Revolution. Have them observe the dynamics, the chaos and the politics of those times. Students should identify why the U.S. constition was needed by connecting it with the observations they make.
    • Have students visit the Constitutional Convention. They should locate and list the stances of the Founding Fathers as they debated the constitution.

http___www.simteachMUSIC.jpgMusic Class:
Use Second Life characters created by students to play instruments and create sounds using instruments that the class would otherwise not have access to. Pair students together and have one Instant Message the other with instructions on which of the instruments to play. Students will learn to identify the instruments while interacting with them and following the partners virtual instructions.

Science ClassPONDhttp___www.simteach.jpg
Before taking a field trip to a real pond, have students prepare for things they will see and things they may not be able to see with their eyes as they visit the pond. Have studnets virtually manuver through the waters and the surroundings to count the number of animals and other items they see in the vitual pond.

Astronomy and Geography Classes:
Students can explore outer space virutally using the latest version Google Earth and Sky to explore the planet as well as outer space. This tool allows students to navigate around earth, zoom in, and identify places on earth as well as constellations, Hubble Space Telescope imagery, the moon, the planets, different types of galaxies, and to view the stages of the life of a star.

Virtual World Links


Bradshaw, D. (2006). Virtual worlds- real learning! Retrieved Oct. 6, 2007, from
Carnevale, D. (2007). Colleges find they must police online worlds. Chronicle of Higher Education, 53 (45), A22-24.
Create an avatar. (2007). Retrieved Oct. 1, 2007, from
Di Meglio, F. (2007). Theory meets practice online. Business Week Online, 8-8.
Gronstedt, A. (2007). Second life. T+D, 61 (8), 44-49.
Livingstone, D., & Kemp, J. (2006). Proceedings of the second life education workshop at the second life community convention. Retrieved Oct. 13, 2007, from
Ludwig, G. (1996). VIRTUAL REALITY: A new world for geographic exploration. Retrieved Oct. 13, 2007, from
Quest atlantis. (2000). Retrieved Oct. 1, 2007, from
Reid, R., & Sykes, W. P. (1999). Virtual reality in schools: The ultimate educational technology. Retrieved Oct. 13, 2007, from
Rosen, D. (1997). Do Technology based lessons meet the needs of student learning styles?. Retrieved Oct. 6, 2007, from
Second life. (2007). Retrieved Oct. 1, 2007, from
Virtual worlds review. (2006). Retrieved Oct. 1, 2007, from
What is an avatar. (1999). Retrieved Oct. 1, 2007, from
Youngblut, C. (1997). Educational uses of virtual reality technology. Retrieved Oct. 6, 2007, from