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Virtual Worlds – Westminster Professors Discuss Research

Today we offer readers a follow up to our recent discussion of the work of Professors Lizzie Jackson and David Gauntlett including a Q&A with the researchers. The two Westminster University professors recently completed a study of the various learning opportunities available to children exploring the virtual world Adventure Rock.

University of Westminster Lizzie Jackson was previously nominated as one of the 100 innovators of the UK Internet Decade by NOP World and in 2004. Over the past decade she has managed the BBC’s online community and Internet safety initiatives. She assisted BBC Children’s “with the facilitation of their online communities and user-generated content and the development of editorial policy in that area.”

Jackson is currently a Research Fellow at the University of Westminster, School of Media, Arts and Design. While working at the BBC, producers within her team created websites and services which were later nominated for the Guardian Unlimited Race in the Media Award and The Internet Service Provider’s Association Award for Safety on the Internet.

David Gauntlett (b. 1971) is “a sociologist specialising in the study of contemporary media audiences, and the role of media in shaping self-identity.” For nine years, Gauntlett taught at the University of Leeds, UK. He was appointed Professor of Media and Audiences at Bournemouth University, UK in 2002 and then joined the School of Media, Arts and Design at University of Westminster, London, as Professor of Media and Communications in 2006. Gauntlett has published a number of books and research papers on the role of popular media in people’s lives. Gauntlett has focused on the way in which digital media is changing the experience of media in general and his critique of media ‘effects’ studies sparked controversy in 1995. In 2007, Gauntlett was shortlisted for the ‘Young Academic Author of the Year’ award in the Times Higher awards.

Today we offer readers a follow up to our recent discussion of the work of Professors Lizzie Jackson and David Gauntlett. The two Westminster University professors recently completed a study of the various learning opportunities available to children exploring the virtual world Adventure Rock.

Educational Value of Virtual Worlds
With their recent research of Adventure Rock, the two professors noted how virtual worlds could serve to educate children in a number of ways. One of the key components for children is the ability of such worlds to involve participants in the activity.

“Virtual worlds can be a powerful, engaging and interactive alternative to more passive media,” states Gauntlett.

In fact, the interactive nature of virtual worlds gave the researchers direct insight into psyche of those children involved in the study. One of the more interesting revelations of the study involved the various roles that the children assumed as they navigated the island.

Gauntlett and Jackson categorized the children by the attributes they demonstrated as they explored Adventure Rock. The eight summative categories the researchers created included explorer-investigators, self-stampers, social climbers, fighters, collector consumers, power users, nurturers, and life-system builders.

One of the more interesting aspects regarding the categories was the lack of age and gender distinctions in certain areas. For example, the group of children making up the explorer-investigator category demonstrated great interest in “following a quest, solving a mystery, going on a journey, and being ‘outdoors.’” Such explorers also demonstrated greater confidence, higher levels of curiosity and more imaginative levels of engagement than did other users. But other than demonstrating greater confidence, this category lacked both age and gender differences.

In contrast, the Fighter category was as one might expect. This group of children was described as more interested in violence, specifically, death and destruction, and the superpower universe. These islanders were more likely to be male and there was a slight bias towards older boys. An interesting characteristic of the group was a sense of frustration due to an inability to express themselves except when beating the crocodiles.

And as one might expect the Nurturers, islanders who were more interested in looking after their avatar and the pets, were more likely to be the younger children or when older, more likely to be girls. Nurturers were also defined by their desire to meet and play with others.

Such distinctions could eventually help educators tailor virtual world experiences to the user’s preference when exploring. In essence, each student could be provided their own unique world to best match their personality and exploration style.

A Q & A with the Researchers
bbcIn our prior post we noted the potential of virtual worlds to revolutionize education for children. We recently had the chance to converse with Jackson and Gauntlett about their research and the potential for worlds like Adventure Rock to become a future classroom staple.

Our questions ranged from the basis of their theoretical research to the future of virtual worlds as an educational tool.

Can you give a brief overview of the overall partnership between the BBC and Westminster University regarding Adventure Rock? What is/was the basic goal of this collaborative effort and what were the objectives of your study?

Gauntlett: This project aims to establish how children inhabit and engage with immersive digital environments, based on a case study of Adventure Rock, in collaboration with BBC Children’s department.

The BBC wanted to engage more with academic researchers, and we wanted to be able to study children’s feelings about these new media environments, so we have mutual interests but also some tensions. For example, the BBC tends to think of research as being about product testing, whereas we like to think that we are exploring deeper questions about how a public service broadcaster can use new technologies to provide enriching experiences for children.

My understanding is that one aspect of the study was to research why the BBC chose to make Adventure Rock a closed world. Can you explain what is meant by a closed virtual world? And why was this an important part of the study?

Jackson: Adventure Rock has registration, it’s open to all children but you have to register to play. The children can’t chat to each other directly, but they can chat to Cody, the robot who travels with their avatar and they can chat to other children in the BBC Children’s message boards.

The aim of the study was to find out what the children thought of Adventure Rock, and also to find out what new production techniques were necessary when developing and running a virtual world for children.

We have noted your quote in one of our articles: “Virtual worlds can be a powerful, engaging and interactive alternative to more passive media.” Could you give us a brief explanation of what you meant by that statement?

University of WestminsterGauntlett: For the past two or three decades, researchers in media studies have not liked to talk about television as a ‘passive medium’, as of course people are not entirely passive – they often engage with TV in a range of thoughtful and unpredictable ways. However, compared with interactive media it clearly is a more passive experience. It’s the now-cliched contrast between ‘sit forward’ and ‘sit back’ media. Dealing with a virtual world means that you have to necessarily think about various things – decisions, responsibilities, and (often) interactions with others, that don’t confront you if you’re watching TV or flicking through a magazine.

Could you summarize what virtual worlds have to offer children in terms of the social development and do such worlds offer children a safer environment for overall risk-taking?

Jackson: The older children wanted to meet and chat to others, and most of the younger children too. Many children wanted to have group activities, but some of the younger children felt they didn’t want to fight others for tools or space in the world. This seems to reflect the natural play patterns children have; with younger or more immature children enjoying solo play much more and older or more confident or mature children wanting to have more group play scenarios. Many of the older/more confident children played multi-player games such as World of Warcraft.

Virtual worlds can teach children strategies such as how to avoid or deal with trouble, how to assess and manage risk (fighting crocodiles for example!). They can teach children exploring skills. The children who played in Adventure Rock loved finding out what the adventure or quest was all about. Many of the older children said they wanted to have shops and they said they liked buying and selling things; this is – again – rehearsing life skills.

From your research, can you discuss what you believe to be the possible educational advantages of exposing younger children to such worlds? It would seem that this could in essence revolutionize education, changing many aspects that have always been dull and dry to wonderful, interactive, game-like experiences?

Jackson: We found children wanted to rehearse real life in Adventure Rock, therefore it was a very useful tool for practicing skills. The children also learned keyboard strokes; several children said they normally used the mouse more than the keyboard, so they felt they had learned something about how the keyboard can be useful through the game play. The children said they learned how to put music together (in the music studio) using the available music samples; and they made cartoons in the cartoon studio. Finally, some of the younger children said they were learning exploring skills and how to get back ‘home’ safely.

Gauntlett: Unfortunately we can’t release our findings on this yet. I agree that if we could turn learning into “game-like experiences” then that could be great. At the same time, sitting at a computer usually isn’t that engaging and motivational – person-to-person contact and enthusiasm and direct physical response is crucial to teaching and learning as well, so we are not going to be predicting the end of teachers.

Certainly, not “good” teachers anyway!

You have categorized children according to their roles as virtual world explorers (power users, fighters, etc.). Can you assess how these roles translate to these youngsters approach to the real world and could we conceivably adjust educational programming accordingly for students based on what we observe from their behaviors while involved in virtual worlds?

Gauntlett: The child’s online persona typically, and unsurprisingly, has much in common with their real-life orientation to the world. Education should be carefully planned to match up with children’s needs and interests – as well as a dose of what we as educational professionals believe they really need – but I’m not sure that doing this by observing them in virtual worlds would necessarily be the best way to do it.

Nevertheless, I am sure that as “part” of a range of activities, virtual worlds can be exciting sites of learning for children – diverse, fantastic, and safe places to play and try out crazy things.

What general research findings surprised you the most? Are there any specific findings from your initial research that you would like to follow up on?

e-consultancy.comJackson: We were surprised by the number of children who had imaginary friends and how important their imaginary lives and imaginary places were. We were also surprised how many children said they liked Adventure Rock because they could play ‘outside’. We think this may be due to the way children’s exploration of the outdoors has become increasingly curtailed over the last two generations; which is perhaps due to parents worrying about children’s safety.

We would like to follow up on how children could be more involved in co-designing new services for children with producers and how they could become more involved in the production or co-production of media for children.

Gauntlett: In general I was surprised the children liked it as much as they did. Being old, I thought they might get bored much quicker and want to climb a tree instead. But, that was not the case.

What do you see as the potential detriment (if any) to children being exposed to virtual worlds? Are there specific things parents should concern themselves with when their children explore these virtual worlds?

JAckson: Ideally parents should know what games their children are playing and what worlds their children are visiting. It would be nice if parents showed an interest (initially) and perhaps helped the children get started on new games or new worlds. But once the parent and child are happy, the parent should withdraw and allow the child to play on their own. This initial ‘set up time’ is a good moment to explain to the child that it is important to avoid very long sessions on the computer. Parents might like to set a time with the child (for example, one hour or 1.5 hours, for playing on the computer) and it might be an idea to encourage the child to move away from the computer to do something physically active for a while, before returning to play again.

It’s important for parents to have some awareness of what games are around, what children like to play; and what games are suitable for their child – some games/worlds are more suitable for younger children and others are more suitable for older children.

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