I participated in the Taxonomy of Virtual Worlds for Education workshop on Thursday of last week (I was supposed to be there on Friday as well, but unfortunately I got sick and could not attend the 2nd day). You can find a complete agenda of the workshop on the Taxonomy of Virtual Worlds for Education Workshop web site and can read about the Friday sessions, focused on educational applications, on this excellent blog by Erin Murphy.
Thursday was devoted to virtual world technology for K-12 educational applications. I gave a short Wonderland presentation followed by a 2-hour live demo. As you can see from the photo, I had Wonderland v0.4 running on one of the University of Pennsylvania’s classroom machines, and Wonderland v0.5-dev3 running on my laptop. This allowed me to show features from both versions.
As an aside, in the photo near my hands you’ll notice a Solo USB echo-canceling microphone. I highly recommend investing in one of these if you’re going to be doing Wonderland demos. You simply plug in a set of powered stereo speakers to the back of the device and everyone in the room can hear the in-world audio clearly and no echo is introduced for the remote participants.
Reflections on Developing Wonderland for K-12 Education
In reflecting on what I heard in my informal conversations with the mainly K-12 educators who were attending the workshop, I came to a new understanding of what it will take to make Wonderland a viable platform for this audience. They certainly liked many of the features of Wonderland. In particular, the educators appreciated the security aspects, the ability to run live applications in the world, and the fact that the software is free and open source. For some reason, they particularly loved the Cone of Silence. That said, almost all of the people I talked to were intimidated by the technology, feeling that the barrier-to-entry was too high.
Given where Wonderland is in its evolution, this reaction is not too surprising. The two worlds they cited most often as being easily accessible to educators were Whyville and especially Active Worlds, which was by far the most beloved platform. I found this Whyville demo video and this Active Worlds demo video on YouTube in case you’re not familiar with these systems. Some of the features people said they liked in these systems were the strong focus on educational content in the case of Whyville, and the ease of building with pre-fab components in Active Worlds. In addition, both environments have strong child safety controls.
I think the key is that the Wonderland toolkit is not appropriate for most K-12 educators. What they need is an educational environment that someone else builds using the toolkit. These environments can range from what I think of as "produced" activities in the form of pre-scripted, slick educational games, to much more open-ended, teacher-directed worlds. While teachers like the produced content if it fits exactly into their curriculum, many of them would like to create their own educational spaces.
Our job as developers is to figure out what primitives teachers need for building worlds. For example, could we create a history bundle with libraries of historic building models and period avatar costumes? Teachers could then set up a scene from ancient Rome or the Wild West, have students dress up their avatars, and re-enact scenes. Students re-enacting the US Revolutionary War period, for example, could use in-world tools to write and share "broadsides" or pretend to be wax museum figures that come to life and recite their biography when another avatar approaches.
What about a 5th grade science kit? Perhaps it includes a few different, simple eco-systems of "living," interdependent plants and animals, life-like weather systems based on real data, flowing bodies of water, and so forth? The teacher could then send teams of students on missions to observe various aspects of the eco-system and use in-world data collection tools to record findings that could be reported back to the class. Perhaps the teacher could introduce disease or natural disasters or pollution into the system, or have the students build a simple town and see the impact the construction has on the animal population, the waterways, and the pollution levels.
Assessment was another large area of concern for these educators. I told them that one of the great advantages we have with Wonderland is that the system is still under construction. This means that educators can have an important voice in the development of the tools and features that are created by the open source community. Even if the Wonderland platform is not ideal for K-12 educators in its current form, I strongly believe it has the potential to be a powerful educational tool. We’re already seeing some interesting work in this area, including the iSocial project at the University of Missouri. I look forward to seeing more work in the K-12 space once Wonderland v0.5 is released.