I just reviewed a book called Higher Education in Virtual Worlds for a Journal on Information Processing. A journal requires an academic review of a book, so we produced an academic review of the book – it was measured, talked specifically to the audience, reassured them it was a good practice to look at virtual worlds, provided many examples. It was a nice review.
What we didn’t do was our diatribe of our own opinion that lurks in the back of the mind of the writer. Here it is.
Underlying the quotes and the metrics, Higher Education in Virtual Worlds begins to prescribe how to get us past physical classrooms, lectures, tests, grades, and books, and into a collaborative student space that is basically surrounded by intellectual abundance, resilient communities of practice and geopolitically unconstrained learning environments. The authors clearly recognize the potential for the virtual world venue to put the learner at the center of the instruction and image what could really be different.
This is certainly clear in Ball and Pearce’s example of a student visiting Dante’s Inferno, They suggest that students experience a more personal, deeper engagement with the material than they do with traditional reading and discussion (p. 54). Most of the authors recognize that the persona that descends physically from one circle of hell to the other is an intense, visual accuracy akin to flying to a foreign country and being dropped off in the center of town by a taxi. The learner is forced to adapt and find the resources needed to understand and survive in the environment, something Edwin Love and coauthors imagine as running a real business in the virtual world (p. 80). But some of the authors worry about the subterfuge and deception of the “once-removed environment” and caution about identity, embodiment, instructor immediacy and disruption. They blur the readers eyes with academic rigor and traditional one step forwardness.
The enlightened say there will be an increase in business schools entering into the virtual world (p. 99). Other less enlightened relied on the limiting factors of the world such as chatting to test their hypotheses whether students had better relationships (p. 111) or leverage role playing for performance appraisals (p. 192). That is so odd when they could have used voice, cameras, and virtual cohabitation. Even though there was acknowledgment of the potential of virtual worlds in higher education, there was less time focused on discussing what and how to build in this world permanently. It’s impossible not to recognize the ability to leverage millions of people, thousands of mentors, and public/private collaborators in virtual worlds. Yet, the authors fail to insist that persistence in these spaces is imminent and everyone is already exposed to the availability of intellect, the intensity of neurological bombardment of 3D visual educational images and the seamless interconnectivity to the physical world through every sensor device imaginable.
The virtual world is a real place that is connected to everyone, everywhere and has a better interface than a web page. The Open University embraces that stakeholders understand the limits and encourages continuing participation in the evolution (p. 217). This realization is the same one instructional designers need to make. They need to desperately think beyond the learning objective and the formulaic design of introducing a certain instructional method to achieve that specific objective. I think the only thing that learns that way today is a robot. Frankly, I want to see more. I want to see strong positions on achieving avatar identity, strategies for co-creation of student intellectual property, strategies for finding groups of like interests, applications for critical problem solving using 3D objects, methods for leveraging the enormous resources of libraries and people, and sterling examples of co-located groups working out repeatable solutions. Books like this need to understand that learning is a consequence of doing there, not just being there and showing up for a physical class that uses Second Life as a tool for brand management. Students are participating in a living environment that extends their physical life into an immersive, 3D higher educational experience. This awareness is what will scale and what will be sustainable in our culture of billions.
The editor cautions the reader at the beginning that if educators ignore this technological trend, they do so at the peril of their professional credibility. As an educator and a technologist, I will go a step further. I believe the digital native is here right now, that they are using the Internet to think critically, and that they’re using every interface they can to communicate their competency and get things done. And, I think that they’re doing that despite the constraint of institutions and accreditation. They and the instructors in your institutions need your help and partnership. In short, virtual worlds are essential for higher education. If you’re not co-creating in there now, you’ll likely be irrelevant as an instructor in a university in five years and your students will likely not be relevant in business in the next five years either. We know it’s a bold statement, but the book only teases you in believing that; somebody needs to just say it. And now, we encourage these authors and others to continue to live it and write about it — and this time with more urgency.