Virtual Worlds Offer Meaningful Educational Opportunities for Children
The recent work of two University of Westminster professors could ultimately set the stage for a revamped learning process for children. The ground-breaking research [PDF] of Lizzie Jackson and David Gauntlett features an extensive look at children and the learning experiences available to them when they have the opportunity to explore a virtual world.
The potential to connect the pleasure-oriented video game industry with the classroom learning environment is one without limit. The work of Jackson and Gauntlett clearly documents some of that potential, noting many learning opportunities that are very similar to those fundamental to the traditional school setting.
While studying Adventure Rock, an immersive online 3D space that includes both games and creative studios, the professors found that virtual worlds provide children the opportunity to rehearse real life and to do so in a safe setting. In addition, the professors were able to determine the interactive nature of a virtual world serves as a “powerful and engaging” alternative to the current passive nature of television, a preferred medium for many children. Other by-products of exploring virtual worlds include social skill development, the chance for creative expression, and the enhancement of the technological skills of children as they explore.
Defining a Virtual World
For Jackson and Gauntlett, a virtual world is defined as an online space where an explorer can move around and have an impact on the world they are exploring. One of the key potential benefits, according to the professors, is the pay off from the network effects of online experiences. With such virtual online worlds, additional explorers add to the virtual experience, an aspect that a game on a CD cannot provide.
From their research, the professors were able to cite a number of characteristics that help define a successful virtual world for children. Among the critical components is a social aspect, an ability to meet and chat. Children also want to clearly understand the mission they are on and want support when they need it. Yet another critical component is the enjoyment children receive from having a space away from adult rules.
In addition, successful virtual worlds offer a creative component to the environment and provide children the opportunity to own and change that virtual space. Another key component is a degree of sophistication to the virtual environment. Children prefer a large, complex world to explore.
For Adventure Rock, the actual exploration of the island world is done alone. However, children can utilize message boards to share what they find while exploring as well as what they make when utilizing the various creative studios available to them.
In their study, Jackson and Gauntlett focused on the ways that the children used the world. They sought direct feedback from the Adventure Rock users on all aspects of the virtual island including what the children found to be “good” and what they found to be less than desirable.
Jackson and Gauntlett took an in depth look at children who have been using the BBC’s Adventure Rock virtual world. The online world, built by Belgian game maker Larian, provides children ages 6-12 a themed island for exploration.
The University of Westminster professors conducted research workshops in December of 2007 and January 2008 with 90 participants. The youngsters, ages 7 to 11, were among the first students to test the Adventure Rock online virtual world and came from five mixed socio-economic and ethnic groups, in Scotland, Wales, N Ireland, and England.
The researchers sought direct feedback from the children, encouraging the islanders “to talk about and illustrate imaginary friends and spaces. Jackson and Gauntlett also solicited suggestions as to what the children would like to see in a virtual world.”
Children explored Adventure Rock for four weeks on their own time and kept diaries that focused both on their personal feelings as well as their experiences while exploring the island. The islanders then participated in a second workshop where they provided the researchers maps of their key places and things in the world.
The youngsters were strongly encouraged to make creative suggestions about what they would add, change or remove regarding the island world. In addition to feedback from the youngsters themselves, parents were given a questionnaire to express their thoughts about their children’s participation in Adventure Rock.
Value of Virtual World Exploration for Children
Jackson and Gauntlett found many positive aspects to virtual world exploration for children. First and foremost, virtual worlds offer “a playful, engaging, interactive alternative to more passive media such as television.” Online worlds also represent useful rehearsal spaces where children may try things without fear of the consequences that might occur should such experimentation be conducted in the real world.
For example, children could rehearse taking responsibility and looking after things on the island. At the same time, the children have direct control over specific elements of the world they are exploring.
The researchers found many other basic educational components including fundamental computer literacy as children utilized the mouse and other keyboard function. In addition, through their exploration of the virtual world, children gain an understanding of potential real world systems including things like transportation and finances.
Creativity was clearly fostered by virtue of the content children could create. The explorers spoke positively regarding the chance to create content such as music, cartoons and video. Children utilize such virtual world features as a tool for self-expression.
Finally, Jackson and Gauntlett noted the social skill development that can occur alongside of children as they explore virtual worlds. Such skill development is predicated on children being able to consult with other explorers about the virtual world and be given the opportunity to share their individual creations.
The Educational Potential
Of course, the key to transforming education will be the ability for game developers to embed other learning components in such games with particular attention to age appropriate topics. Clearly, science and social studies subject matter has already been subtly included in these virtual worlds, but adding additional opportunities to reinforce reading and writing skills also appears well within reach.
With only a little ingenuity, it would be possible to reinforce prior reading and mathematics lessons, easily incorporating basic literacy components into both the exploration of the world and the competitive nature of children as they delve into aspects of such worlds. Certainly, exploring such worlds regularly within a classroom setting and then having children post to their own message boards would give students a fun opportunity to improve their writing skills and develop their vocabulary.
As for the learning process, the fundamental nature of virtual worlds would provide children interactive opportunities. It would provide another step away from the teacher centered classroom instruction of yesteryear to the more student driven learning format of the 21st century. Ultimately such video games could create a classroom with a more active learning environment while bringing a greater level of enjoyment to learning tasks.
Next, we spend some time talking with Professors Jackson and Gauntlett regarding their research.