Along with many other great websites, we've helped catalogue the forward-thinking colleges turning virtual literacy into degree programs and looked at the potential impact of virtual classrooms in poor Latin American communities.
Now Britain's Guardian newspaper has turned its international readership on to the growing trend of virtual worlds in education. Pixels and Policy takes a look at how virtual education is hitting the mainstream.
Championing Virtual Education: From England with Love
Virtual education is on the march around the world, and educators are increasingly finding that students more actively participate in classroom exercises when they're conducted through interactive virtual technology. Even organizations with no connection to educational organizations have begun using virtual worlds to teach job skills and hone the next generation of tech workers.
Just take a look at 3D Squared, a small Louisiana-based outfit pioneering the idea that engaging kids in virtual games can also open them up to learning important workforce skills. 3D Squared's virtual program stresses team building, project management and multitasking while building valuable competencies across diverse forms of digital media. In a state with few high schools teaching technology at a level close to industry standard, 3D Squared fills an important role.
Kids are responding to virtual education, and The Guardian finally took notice in a great article published over the weekend. The Guardian argues that students are learning valuable life and professional skills even when outside the classroom – all thanks to online games and interactive social media. The Guardian views online gaming as a vehicle for keeping kids engaged in learning:
Thanks to the way Xbox Live works, anyone playing on Microsoft's network isn't just trying to beat individual games; they're also working, often very hard, to earn cumulative "achievement" points for meeting particular targets in each and every game on the system, in an effort to lift their individual score ever higher in the global rankings.
It's this pattern of effort and reward, validated by a networked community of players, that makes modern games such an awesome engine for engagement.
Even if kids aren't spending the bulk of their time on purely "educational" games – and the data provided by The Guardian suggests they aren't – kids are still learning valuable skills. Open-ended online gaming teaches kids to think up multiple solutions to various problems. It teaches a crude sense of fairness as well, since players aren't likely to team up with someone who nabs all of the best armor for themselves.
Online games like World of Warcraft may not be teaching kids mathematics, but then again, a video game that passively teaches dealmaking, risk assessment and proper respect for social rules seems like a good way for kids to spend their off time. CNET's argument that virtual worlds help young kids learn how to be "members of a citizenship" may be closer to the truth than anyone thinks.
Virtual worlds are no longer viewed as mindless pastimes or a detrimental, antisocial influence in a child's life. In fact, as the CNET article notes, virtual worlds and widespread collaborative creativity may be changing both how we gain knowledge and what knowledge we need to gain:
"Particularly for teens with a drive for independence," Kafai said. "In (these worlds), there's a lot of flirting and socializing, a (play) ground for what comes later."
Thomas said he was astonished to hear that a majority of kids didn't know how to find Iraq on a map. But they would know how to find any kind of map of Iraq on the Internet, he said.
"Knowledge is changing. It (used to be that it) was a set of facts, now it's not so much a 'what' but a 'where,' in which kids learn how to find information," Thomas said. "That's going to be the single most important skill–the ability to adapt to change."
We're not saying games like World of Warcraft are teaching kids in the same way a classroom is, even though classrooms would benefit greatly if they introduced virtual learning techniques into everyday curricula. What's so interesting about the Guardian article (and about the trend towards online gaming in general) is that it's educating kids in an entirely different set of disciplines. Kids go to school to learn their math and science, then log into virtual worlds to learn socialization skills and abstract problem solving.
But they're always learning. That's the message more people need to hear.