Virtual Worlds – a serious learning contender?

by | Aug 13, 2009 | Articles

Are Virtual Worlds a serious contender as a corporate learning tool?

The evidence shows that they are already a useful tool for Higher Education; over 80% of Higher Education institutes in the UK are users of Virtual Worlds for educational purposes according to the Virtual World Watch  Experimental research work in schools also reveals Virtual Worlds make a difference to learners.  A project called Schome Park  has been used by The Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology (CREET)  at the Open University.  One hundred and forty nine young people were given access to an island in Teen Second Life .  One such learner commented “one thing I am really grateful to Schome Park for doing is making me feel more confident about trying new things, also about helping others if I know something they don’t, through communication.  Learning certainly doesn’t have to be a pen and paper – I much prefer learning through the Schome way, because it has much more bearing on RL (Real Life) than a load of stuff I would have forgotten in a year’s time.”

The fact that it is valuable to business is demonstrated by CISCO saving US$6m with just one virtual event  (Blog date May 14th 2009).   This update highlights the social phenomena of Second Life, the business benefit of Virtual Worlds and the opportunities for learning and development in work-based learning including a number of examples. Previous articles at Towards Maturity have introduced virtual worlds, and reported on the rise of serious games. This paper makes the case for Virtual Worlds to be taken seriously and presents some examples of their use for corporate training.

Social Phenomena of the Virtual World

The most widely used Virtual World space is Second Life.  This was launched by Linden Labs eight years ago on 23rd June 2003.  In February 2009 CNN reported that Second Life had, worldwide, six million users.  It would also appear that more of these users are outside the USA than within its borders.  Even if we accept the general estimate that 10% of registered users of technologies are actually active, this still gives 1.6 million active users in Second Life.  Users spend real money.  A short report by PA Consulting reports a daily turnover in excess of US$700,000.   PA Consulting themselves have opened a Virtual Presence in Second Life, primarily as a marketing channel for recruiting but also to gain hands-on experience of this environment.  The commercial opportunities of Second Life are being exploited by large companies.  Big brands like Vodaphone, Coca Cola and Sky News have a presence  in Second Life.  In May 2008 Business Week reported 340,000 active users and in an article called The (Virtual) Global Office  explored the business benefit of 3D spaces.

Politicians regard Second Life as worthwhile expenses.  David Milliband has recently become a resident as has Mark Field , Tory member for Cities of London and Westminster.

There is some doubt about the number of registered users in Second Life, their activity and how much revenue is actually spent.  Other Virtual World tools, such as Forterra, OpenSim and Blink 3D have much less hype surrounding them and a lower presence in the consumer world.  They are more likely to be used for serious corporate implementations as described in the next section.

Virtual Worlds as a business tool

Companies are using Virtual Worlds for internal meetings; particularly those with a Global reach.  Companies like IBM are investing in Immersive Workspaces from meetings to replace travelliJune 2009 IBM launched their Virtual Collaboration for Lotus Same Time Service. The Virtual Space has boardrooms, auditoriums and collaboration ng.  In spaces.  In a recent survey by the research firm Think Arm and reported in Information Week on June 25th 2009 more than half the respondents said that Virtual Spaces were less expensive than face-to-face meetings that often include travel and accommodation costs.  They were considered by many to be more cost-effective than web conferencing.

The article also describes the use of this Virtual Space by Northcentral Technical College in Wisconsin.  The college provides on-line Courses within IBM’s 3D environment.  This is considered to be more businesslike for educational use than consumer focused on-line worlds such as Second Life.  In May 2009 CISCO held a major strategic leadership conference to align all functions of the company worldwide on the key priorities for the coming year.  The web site report  (blog date May 14th 2009) described historical costs averaging US$2,800 per person and typically 3,000 attendees.  The cost for the Virtual Conference looks like being less than US$700 per person.  In addition with 3,000 attendees saving perhaps typically two days of travel time it also makes 6,000 person days of work saved in addition to the $6million cost savings.

Virtual Worlds as research tools.

In Second Health members of the Medical profession explore, discuss and shape a shared vision of the future of health care.  They do this in two Polyclinics to experiment and experience how new medical facilities could be designed and built.  This Virtual World includes an interactive Virtual Hospital Bay (including patient, pump, pulse oximeter and notes) to assess the potential of Second Life as a medium for the delivery of complex clinical training environments.  Watch the scenario played out on You Tube.

The same environment demonstrates the use of virtual worlds for training. The modern medical world is full of gadgets, complex to use. The Dept of Biosurgery and Surgical Technologies at Imperial College London built a scenario-based simulation in Second Life for learners to practice using modern medical devices. This demonstrates how virtual worlds can be used for learning. Participants were able to learn and practice in a complex but safe environment where they could make mistakes without risk to any real patients. Watch the scenario   play out on You Tube
Virtual Worlds as a Learning Tool


There is significant evidence that Virtual Worlds are useful educational tools.  In the Virtual World Watch of 22nd June 2009 John Kirriemuir reviewed the use made of Virtual Worlds by UK universities (over 80% of them do so).  In his report he quotes a typical view ‘Virtual Worlds have become a core technology for our teaching, learning, research and collaboration’ – Fiona Lyttleton, Virtual Worlds development adviser, University of Edinburgh.  Whilst a number of subjects, such as Health & Safety, Art & Design and Computer Science, are well represented in these Virtual Worlds the subject area that is leading the field is that of Health & Medical Science.   He comments this could be because the subject matter lends itself more easily to such development or may be due to the (relative) ease of funding for such applications.  An additional thought is that the critical nature of health care justifies greater fidelity of learning as mistakes may have fatal consequences as with aviation where full fidelity simulations have been used for many years.

As well as Higher Education, Virtual Worlds are being explored as a school environment.  Through a Becta  funded programme the Open University established a Virtual World suitable for school and home (hence Schome Park).  Resident teenagers have a high degree of control of their environment, local rules and what happens.  See www.schome.ac.uk for more detail of this exciting application.  The Schome Park initiative was led by Peter Twining of the OU and in a recent article in the May 2009 British Journal of Educational Technology he comments that “in the industrialised countries dissatisfaction with current education systems is most evident in the compulsory education sector, particularly those designed to cater for teenage learners.  This is reflected in growing rates of dissatisfaction in schools, growing teenage truancy and the increasing migration of parents away from school and towards home schooling”.

Peter argues that changing this dissatisfaction and engaging the large numbers of disappointed, disillusioned and disappeared learners in education will require a complete re-think of education.  This must go beyond the reform of our existing systems because this will fail to deliver a workable solution.  The degree of change needed is too great.  Certainly the comments from within Schome demonstrate an active engagement by many residents.  Although there were also many who failed to engage in discussion and collaboration.

The last word on Schome should come from its “residents” (learners).  “I’ve learned stuff just from chatting to people and hearing what they have to say”; “You always get a feeling that you can apply the skills and experience here to RL (Real Life)”; “Just talking to new people too it builds up confidence”; “I’ve learnt so much that I didn’t know before, it’s amazing what a real close community can do.  I particularly notice that no matter what the problem, there’s always some bright SParker  that will be able to help”; “This project is very liberating.  You can speak to other people without the hang-ups of real life, like appearance”; “You can be the real you without the judgement that is considered normal in the real world and can pursue your interests with the help and support of other like-minded individuals”.  It is self-evident that learners within Virtual Worlds find it a sociable and collaborative atmosphere for learning; possibly for some, more supportive than real life.

Corporate Training and Virtual Worlds

Given that Virtual Worlds are here to stay and have a future in education, conferencing and consumer activity it seems inevitable that they will become platforms for learning.  Will this engage the 43% of SME employers who provided no training to their employees in 2007/2008 as reported in the Annual Small Business Survey 07/08.  Given that implementing learning is a management issue not a technical issue the answer is unlikely.  However, given some of the cost and availability advantages it is likely that Virtual Worlds will become a much more popular learning environment.

One example that bridges the gap between education and work is a Virtual Work Experience  development by Careers Scotland. Careers Scotland (Highlands and Islands) struggled to find work placements for teenagers.  The very dispersed communities away from large centres of population means that there is a very limited range of employers suitable and offering work experience.  Currently this offers 24 different work environments.  The simulation includes video clips of real life situations and interviews with people in various job roles.  Although it falls well short of a true Virtual World it demonstrates a bridge between education and corporate training.

Current examples of corporate Virtual Worlds are few and mostly in large companies with topics where mistakes have disastrous consequences; defence and medical topics. Daden Limited  has developed an immersive training environment of paramedic training.  Learners are “transported” to the scene of an incident, given all the normal tools available to them and have to carry out procedures and make decisions as they would in the real world.  Scenarios are facilitated by tutors who give real world feedback.  Learners ‘talk’ to the patient (either with text chat or voice chat) and the patient responds appropriately.  Both forms of interaction have their advantage, as one student commented “scenarios are much easier to use with voice to collaborate more naturally but with text you can go back and see what everyone has said”.  Both tutors and learners found it a positive experience; two comments: “I found that students assessed the patient as they should.  The students were able to talk about ways to assess the patient and discuss each step in detail before moving on” and from learners: “Making decisions helped learning”; “Decisions would be better if it affected the scenario more”; “Sometimes hard to realise what could and couldn’t do. Quite impressed by functionality.”

Watch a BBC on-line video of the programme and download more about this example of virtual worlds for serious training at the end of the article

Also from Daden (see the download section) is training for fashion designers in how to set up a fashion; of wider applicability to all those constructing public shows and events learners can set up, store and sequence lighting in a similar way to real-life. Once combined with avatars wearing fashions designed by the fashion students, and a full sound-system learners were able to recreate the whole fashion-show experience within the virtual world..  Read more about this in the download section at the end.

Incredible Sims Limited have used their Virtual World tool kit to develop a Submarine 3D World.  This is a Trafalgar Class Submarine.  It is absolutely vital that sub-mariners are closely familiar with a boat-systems layout.  Through the 3D experience they can explore and navigate their way through a submarine’s layout and recognise where systems can be found.  In June 2009 the BBC broadcast a brief synopsis of this training simulator viewable here

The British Army has development mathematics training (as traditional e-Learning modules) that is then put into practice by learners in a Virtual World.  Learners have to calculate loads and travel times to route a truck in battlefield conditions over temporary routes to arrive at a destination at a given time.  The Virtual World provides a practical ‘real world’ example for learners to put their newly gained mathematics knowledge into practice.  It also motivates them to complete their mathematics study. Learners work as teams to solve the various problems presented.  This scenario is primarily motivational in nature, the game being a stylised version of a battlefield.  Nevertheless it enables the theoretical knowledge gained through traditional e-Learning to be put into practice immediately.

Pixel Learning has created a Virtual World for a major US retail bank.  All 27,000 employees complete regular diversity and inclusion training.  This is so that they recognise the value of alternative views as well as ensuring their organisation is compliant with legislation.  The scenario is based in an alien space station where not one character is of the same ethnic origin.  Conflict needs resolving and disciplinary action may be required.  Users draw on previous knowledge and experiences to complete various tasks and challenges.  Although in an alien environment with no human forms the scenarios and content reflect those of real life.  This hybrid experience allows the simulation to reinforce specific concepts, thus allowing the user to take a step into a ‘character’s’ shoes instead of their own.

Read more about this in the download section at the end of the article

Pixel Learning have also developed an enterprise game created with the intention of familiarising learners, be they students or adults, about what running a business truly involves, introducing business concepts such as marketing and finance, business silos and the cause and effect factor of decisions.  Current use of this has been in classroom sessions both with school children and adult learners in further education. Business simulations in general, (see Towards Maturity article) are attractive as a means of training. One that allows entrepreneurs to drive businesses forward has the potential to be a powerful learning environment; after all what better way to learn to run a business than to compete with a Virtual Enterprise in a ‘Virtual Apprentice’ programme.

Read more about this in the download section at the end of the article

Conclusion
The principle driving force behind the investment in Virtual Worlds and by extension Serious Games is a The principle driving force behind the investment in Virtual Worlds and by extension Serious Games is a consumer-driven business. This presents all organisations with opportunity for the re-use or modification of games for serious training purposes, thereby saving a significant proportion of development costs as well as enhancing learner engagement, but balanced by the enduring need to meet formal training objectives and respect the laws of physics within the virtual environment.   The initial dialogue between the commercial game and  formal  training sectors could be characterised by an exchange which took place at the 2005 Serious Games Summit in Washington DC: thus, Marc Prensky, an educational futurologist and presenter, cited with approval a remark he had heard from a game developer who had said “Whenever you add an instructional designer to the team, the first thing they do is suck the fun out!“; whereupon a member of the audience (and presumably an instructional designer), Ricardo Rademacher, retorted that the converse could also be argued: “Whenever you add a games developer to the team, the first thing they do is suck the education out!“.  Since then mutual understanding and respect have allowed the development of many successful collaborative applications. There has to be a balance between the game and real world benefit.

The motivation for many learners in corporate learning is to do their job better.  If the Virtual World is closely aligned with doing their job better than they are likely to find it a valuable experience.  The other potential for Virtual Worlds is to simulate situations in which mistakes would have unfortunate consequences.  Learners can learn from their mistakes in a Virtual World without harming others or damaging property.  Any procedure concerning safety therefore lends itself well to the Virtual World experience.

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