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Archive for September, 2007

If you’re new to virtual worlds and are curious about this social phenomena and its educational potential, this post will attempt to introduce you to some basics to get you started. The concept of a virtual world is very difficult to explain in a meaningful way if you’ve not experienced one directly. Most adults over the age of 40 have never visited a virtual world, nor did they grow up with computer and video games. Those of us in this age bracket who have had this experience came to it through our children or as an interest later in life. This post will deal with the more modern worlds that make use of graphics and sounds rather than the early worlds which were text based (MOOs, MUDs, MUSHs).

It’s Not Just a Cartoon!

When first exposed to a virtual world many adults describe what they are viewing as looking something like a cartoon or one of the video games children play. Certainly the graphics employ some of the same technology used in the creation of video and computer games, and the imagery is more like an animated film than a photorealistic environment. The difference is that many of the animated characters you are viewing are controlled by real people.

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For my second visit to the virtual world of Everquest, I created a new character (an elf) and began exploring the surrounding area. I noticed activity on a nearby hill and upon coming closer spotted a group of avatars defending the hill from an onslaught of foul looking creatures (orcs as I recall). The group leader sent me a message to ask if I would like to join them. I was delighted to be invited and for the next hour or so I became a member of the team, using my abilities to help defend the high ground against the “evil” enemy. When we appeared to have succeeded and the number of orcs attacking us became fewer, we decided to disband the group and go on our separate ways. We congratulated each other on our success as a team and vowed to work together in the future. I recall feeling quite energized by the experience and it reminded me of times I had gone on “adventures” with my friends as a child. I was struck by how effectively this virtual world had recreated that experience.

What a Difference a Day Makes

The very next day I logged on and went straight to the same hill to see if any members of the team had returned. (more…)

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My First Virtual World Experience

In 2001, ten years after my my first computer game experience with Sid Meier’s Civilization, I was teaching an online course entitled Psychology of the Internet. Our text was a title by the same name authored by Patricia Wallace. Although somewhat dated (1999), it’s still a good read, filled with research comparing online and real life behavior. Wallace made several references in her book to Metaworlds which she described as “Internet based graphical multiuser worlds.” While I had heard of text based virtual worlds such as MUDs and MOOs, I was unfamiliar with the online worlds that included sound and graphics. Given the nature of the course, it seemed to me that I should have some first hand knowledge of these online environments.

My stereotyped image of a virtual world was that of a glorified chat room for teens with graphics. Definitely not a place I would want to hang out for an extended period of time. My plan was to visit one of these worlds for a couple of hours, snoop around, and then be able to say that I had been there. Not enough time to be an expert, but enough to avoid looking like a total novice on the topic. Looking back, I had no clue as to what would await me.

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There were a couple of memories and observations that remain with me from the days of using the Zoombinis and the other thinking games mentioned in the previous post.

Multiple Intelligences

There were often a few students in the critical and creative thinking course that had difficulty with the intensive writing in the course. They seemed to struggle when attempting to effectively express their thoughts and thinking skills in writing (and also in their oral communication). However, a number of these students did quite well with the computer thinking games. While observing them playing, I could see that they possessed considerable intelligence and some strong thinking and problem solving skills. The games had revealed abilities that had not been apparent in the more traditional measures of assessing student performance and achievement. I suspect that learning disabilities may have been a factor in at least some of the difficulties with language expression. The games were allowing them to both demonstrate their abilities and experience a sense of success and accomplishment, while also providing the teacher with a more complete assessment of their talents and thinking skills. Traditional forms of educational assessment may very well overlook these forms of intelligence to the detriment of student development and growth.

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After using Civilization in 1991 for a semester, my next use of educational computer games occurred in the mid 90’s when a few “thinking games” were added to a critical and creative thinking course. The development of the this new course “The Mind at Work, The Mind at Play” was inspired by the difficulty students displayed with a variety of thinking skills as they attempted to play the game Civilization.

Students were required to complete the assignments for one of the games (they could do more for additional credit) and they had their choice of a few games. The course was held in the college’s Center for Self-Paced Studies so I was able to work individually with students.

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(Follow-up to the Sept. 1 post)

Using the computer game Civilization in the classroom back in the early ‘90’s was a bit of an adventure, but we learned a lot from the experience and there were several surprises. I used the game in a social psychology course and my history colleague used it in a world history class. We were also teaching computing skills since not all students were computer literate at the time.

Surprise #1: Not all students loved the game as much as the teacher did.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise, but I was so enthusiastic about the activity, I forgot the fundamental principle that students will not always respond identically to any learning activity, particularly one the teacher loves.

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I had been using a computer for just a few years back in 1991. Like many teachers, my early educational use was primarily for basic tasks such as creating my syllabi and tests and computing grades. The Internet Age had not yet dawned. I found myself wondering if the computer might also be used as a teaching/learning tool.

I happened across a review of a game called “Sid Meier’s Civilization that claimed the program had educational value, so I decided to give it a try despite never having previously played a computer or video game. (more…)

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