A Closer Look at Public Schools and the Rise of Virtual Learning Technology

In light of the great job done by public university entrants in the Army Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge, it's time to take a fresh look at just how universities around the world are adding virtual world literacy to their core curriculum. I've made it a point to report on individual schools and organizations with innovative new approaches to digital education and virtual world understanding, but there is relatively little out there about the overall effect of virtual education initiatives on education as a whole.

By creating novel ways of looking at old disciplines or by facilitating low-cost, long-distance education in virtual environments, classrooms with major virtual world components are slowly turning  calcified education system into a highly flexible, modern machine.

I've talked in the past about how schools that adopt virtual worlds as major parts of the learning process can – and have – upended established elite universities. Now let's take a look some new academic research that argues interactive virtual world education will pay dividends to students as well as institutions.

Virtual Programs and the Responsive Digital Classroom

As far back as 2000, academics like Randy Haluck and the Stanford University School of Medicine were reporting on the noted positive influence of virtual reality training on the field of surgical education. Though these virtual reality programs weren't individual courses and provided only supplementary education to surgical students, it remains an important starting point for any analysis of virtual education programs in higher education. 

Haluck's research noted that virtual education allows students to gain valuable skills in an entirely simulated environment that both limits the downside of occasional mistakes and provides a valuable record of student progress over time. In many ways the Haluck virtual surgery simulation research is a much smaller version of programs like Synaptic Mash, a program that tracks student errors and progress on homework assignments while auto-adjusting future quizzes to focus on skill-building in the student's weak areas.

As Haluck noted in 2000, and as Synaptic Mash's successful pilot program administrators report in 2010, interactive simulations that store valuable information about participants – where a surgeon often fumbled, where a Chicago 7th grader is frequently falling short in mathematics – marks a huge leap forward over traditional methods of testing. Instead of waiting until a section exam to find out a student is struggling, interactive virtual programs alert educators to trouble spots during a lesson while working with the student through a modified course plan.

In late 2009, researchers from Florida State University conducted a comprehensive study on the efficacy of virtual "embedded assessment," the official term for lesson plans and demonstrations that learn from student input. Their findings were impressive: Students engaged in interactive embedded assessment did better on end-of-term comprehensive examinations and felt more involved in their own education. Embedded assessment also decreased the percentage of students "left behind," meaning those who failed to grasp the material but went unnoticed until a final examination, when it was too late to provide educational support for their particular areas of weakness.

This is good news for public schools suffering from an acute shortage of educational support staff, and the development of systems like SynapticMash – which does everything from distributing homework assignments to processing grades and developing a virtual community of educators and students – are direct descendants of highly-specialized, single-use programs like Stanford's surgical laparoscopy simulators. 

The Power of Interactivity in Classroom Learning

Specialized classroom courses containing interactive virtual components are more than just a trend, and there's mounting evidence that a student's ability to interact with course subject matter may make a difference in how they learn. Whether bringing in examples for classes on biochemistry or art, some of the best learning tools are often out of reach. For atoms, they're simply too small to explore effectively. For classic French paintings, geography plays spoiler.

New research published this year on the effectiveness of virtual simulations in courses on art education points out the unique benefits of synthetic classrooms. Sohhyoun Yoon of Virginia Commonwealth University explored how photorealistic simulations of art pieces – including some showing the process of creation from canvas to final masterpiece – provide a needed boost of interactivity for programs unable to send students abroad for cultural education.

Yoon's research makes use of Teen Second Life, opening up the possibility of further interactivity by encouraging teen users to create their own art in a virtual arena. could be implemented as an effective means of encouraging artistic expression in schools where weak funding often prohibits fine arts programs from obtaining the canvasses and paints necessary to teach large numbers of students.

I wrote several months ago about how virtual education could potentially close the achievement gap – my original wording may have been a bit optimistic, but Yoon's research shows there is a definite role for virtual education in expanding the depth of resources available to students in otherwise underfunded areas. Though embedded assessment may not be very good at gauging a student's progress from doodler to budding Rembrandt, it could do wonders for research into the true effectiveness of virtual exposure to something like an art education program over the course of a semester.

The rise of research and excitement regarding virtual tools in the classroom has created a bit of a backlash among parents' groups and techno-skeptics. Concerns range from old fears about virtual gaming turning kids into antisocial mutes to the risk of cyberpredators trawling school networks for prey, but these seem overblown. Of the multiple entry points for antisocial behavior or child predators in a wired child's life, do we really expect school to become ground zero? I would worry more about their unmonitored Nintendo DSi internet connection.

More research on the role of immersive virtual worlds in education is expected in 2010, with studies covering both the traditional public primary and secondary school system as well as university studies. The University of Texas, adopter of Second Life in the classroom, has been particularly vigilant about producing high quality research on the interplay of virtual worlds and education. Expect more from them, and from Pixels and Policy, as the debate continues.