University Finalists are the Real Winners of the Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge

Back when Pixels and Policy was just starting out, I wrote a piece about the United States Army's ambitious Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge, a program designed to find new and innovative methods for military training and research built in virtual environments. Now the Army has announced its finalists, and the non-government winners are surprising.

As it turns out, the list of non-government finalists (conveniently provided by Virtual Worlds News) samples heavily from universities with robust virtual worlds and Second Life programs. As I've reported in the past, large-scale adoption of virtual world degree programs is significantly reshuffling the power structure in American colleges, and the Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge provides the best evidence yet that universities needn't be Ivy League to grab major kudos from Uncle Sam.

Let's take a look at what the Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge results mean for the future of virtual worlds both in higher education and the traditionally tech-phobic public sector.

Universities Meet the Virtual Worlds Challenge

Several of the Army's finalists share interesting academic connections. Take Dr. Cynthia Calongne, Professor of Computer Science at Colorado Technical University. Dr. Calongne was selected by the FVWC for her interactive submission, "Building 3D Models in Second Life." Colorado Technical University isn't what one would consider an Ivy League institution, but the university has invested heavily in building a curriculum around the real-world applications of virtual world technology like Second Life.

I wrote about Colorado Technical University back in late January as they became one of the first universities to roll out doctorate-level degrees in social media and virtual worlds. Back in January I speculated that this heavy investment in emergent technology would help put schools like Colorado Technical on par with the established research and development universities of the Eastern and Western coasts. If Dr. Calongne's work is any indication, the university's heavy investment is already paying dividends.

Colorado Tech's official announcement of their doctorate rollouts points out the emerging business and government applications of social media and virtual worlds – coming in as a finalist for the Army Virtual Worlds Challenge provides an important footnote to the program's credibility. Virtual education skeptics now have to face the fact that, as a field of study, virtual technology is catching the attention of movers and shakers in the mighty military – and they're not turning solely to Ivy Leaguers for their techology needs.

Another university that recently began heavy investment in virtual worlds coursework is also seeing the short-term benefits of forward-thinking research. Idaho State University also landed in the finalists' pool after the ISU research team's take on virtual training impressed the panel judges. ISU's digital training program melds virtual play with valuable interactive training to deal with pressing public health issues:

"Play2Train" is a 3D virtual place where geographically separated
learners, subject-matter experts and content builders meet as avatars to
create collaboratively immersive learning experiences for the health
care, emergency preparedness and educational services industry. The
program's objective
is to enhance
the knowledge and skills of health care professionals to meet the public
health preparedness and emergency response demands resulting from acts
of bioterrorism and other incidents.

The Play2Train program showcases the collaborative power of a state school where virtual world research is considered a major focus instead of a secondary specialty within a larger degree program. It hits on major issues currently before Congress – the threat of bioterrorism and potentially under-trained emergency response specialists – in a cost-effective and collaborative way. By integrating training into a virtual space, it leaps over many of the geographical hurdles presented by the old method of conducting disaster simulations in an actual target city.

What's apparent from the Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge finalist roster is that virtual world innovation isn't monopolized at the top of an academic hierarchy. Many small, public universities submitted projects for consideration, and many of the finalists are either public universities or researchers/content creators affiliated with universities.

As I've said in the past and will say again, investing in forward-looking academic programs like virtual worlds and virtual solutions will not only level the playing field, it will create an entirely new academic order.

That's because virtual training programs are creating the jobs of the future. Students with a depth of understanding and a working knowledge of virtual world technology will be at a major competitive advantage over the next decade. With government looking to make the leap into cost-effective virtual simulations over expensive real-world disaster management programs (as evidenced by the Department of Homeland Security's recent full-throttle foray into virtual disaster planning). Organizations as diverse as Homeland Security and the British Council are proving virtual worlds are a lasting environment.

It's rare that viable new disciplines emerge in academia – virtual world study can provide a much-needed bout of rethinking to traditional fields like sociology and political science while also creating an entirely new (and highly lucrative) class of tech-savvy thinkers. What's needed now is more of the heavy institutional investment in academic virtual world research on the scale of Northern Kentucky University's virtual worlds research center, and the broad adoption of Second Life as a core learning tool in the University of Texas system.

With the right attention to smart programs and solid educators, it can be done.