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.

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Colorado University Rolls Out Doctorates in Social Media


   Colorado Tech's beautiful virtual campus

Pixels and Policy was one of the first to touch on St. Paul College's plan to make virtual world studies into a degree program.

We predicted that colleges would begin adopting virtual worlds programs over the next few years. Turns out things are moving faster than we thought.

Now Colorado is in on the fun, becoming one of the first universities in America to offer a PhD in social media and virtual worlds. Pixels and Policy investigates just what it takes to become a Doctor of Facebook.

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Virtual Schools Could Close the Inner-City Achievement Gap


The Achievement Gap, Face-to-Face

Politicians love to talk about the "Achievement Gap" in the public school system. What's apparent is that poor students are testing worse than wealthier students, and black kids are scraping the bottom in math and reading while white kids score in the middle of the pack.

Are these poor and minority students incapable of understanding the same material their wealthier, whiter friends study? Pixels and Policy analyzes the problem of environment, and how virtual schooling could put an end to the "Achievement Gap."

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Positioning Interactive Education in the Metaverse


I applauded The Guardian's technology columnist Victor Keegan last month ago for intelligently outlining how the explosive growth of virtual worlds across all major demographics means we may see some permanence to the phenomenon of virtual worlds.

Now Pixels and Policy takes a look at how education will soon have to teach understanding of virtual worlds alongside grammar and biology.

The Importance of Virtual Education

Given that virtual worlds are expected to hit nearly $4.5 billion in revenue next year – more than the GDP of Guinea – it may behoove children to learn virtual worlds skills now for future e-commerce dominance.

From  a report by The Guardian:

In, say, World of Warcraft you have to do calculations for crucial
strikes and damage limitation while academic dissertations are already
being written on how skills acquired in multiplayer online games are
exactly those needed in industry as the digital revolution proceeds.

Clearly, [online games] that could engage kids in maths during their early
teens could eventually have an effect on the whole economy. Maths is
the bedrock of the digital age.

How true it is. In high school I wanted to learn computer coding, but I never grasped Algebra sufficiently to make heads or tails of it. Even managing HTML for this blog required a bit of learning on my part. I've met kids no older than 14, though, who are in advanced trigonometry and algebra courses.

These are going to be the kids who can adapt to the online world. These kids are the future ridiculously wealthy content creators. As we reported last week, future-minded schools that currently fail to register on the academic radars of teens are adopting innovative Second Life curricula, and even devoting entire course programs to Second Life and virtual worlds.

As virtual technology becomes more accessible across the socio-economic spectrum, I have no doubt the physical walls of schools will fall to virtual learning centers like those proposed for Kenyan students too poor to travel to school. This will not only increase the emphasis on a virtual world-savvy education, but will serve to democratize education across the currently unbridgeable poor-rich divide.

The inner-city school could well fade away, a bad nightmare from the pre-virtual era.

As we've said and as Mr. Keegan boldly states, the model of education is changing with the times:

It is possible we are not far away from a revolution in which formal
education will give way more and more to the attractions of internet learning including virtual worlds. Something is clearly happening.

We can hope the evolution to a math-savvy culture, where learning and play are seamless and where even the poorest can access a top-tier school through the virutal world, is a change not far in the future.

New York Educators Discuss Using Virtual Worlds as a Teaching Tool

106415-004-1B158AEAYesterday, we took public schools to task for not integrating virtual worlds into their curriculum with the same fervor as forward-thinking universities.

Now a gathering of New York educators came together to discuss just that, and the results are reassuring on a number of levels.

Pixels and Policy looks at why virtual worlds may soon find a home in New York's public schools, and what these new tools might mean to the future of learning.

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Bringing Virtual Classrooms to Latin America’s Rural Villages


ClaseMovil's narrowband education experience

Virtual worlds are considered a pleasure of the developed world. After all, they require broadband internet connections, powerful computers, and the luxury of free time.

One education company is working to change that by bringing stripped-down mobile classrooms to the rural backroads of Latin America. Their goal? Educate the masses and improve quality of life.

ClaseMovil hopes to be the first private company to bring virtual worlds to groups previously written off as too impoverished. According to an article in DigitalBeat, they just might have what it takes.

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South Dakota State University Adopts Second Life

Continuing on in our Education Week, The SDSU Collegian reports that South Dakota State University is tilling the ground in preparation for using Second Life as a classroom enhancement tool. The administration at SDSU is taking a deep look at the myriad uses for Second Life's adaptability and interactivity:

"Examples of simulations that would be used are medical simulations in which students can take the position in a virtual world as a medical professional…They would do things like checking on patients and routine things like the avatar always washing their hands before seeing a patient."

Other examples of possible simulation include mental health simulation in which students would practice doing counseling consultations. [Vice President for IT Mike] Adelaine said Second Life provides various systems unavailable in a classroom.

SDSU would join over 500 institutes of higher education and a pitifully small percentage of America's public schools that have adopted Second Life as either a tool to augment classroom teaching or as a vehicle for completely replacing the physical classroom.


He suffers from dead pixels

It appears to me – and I could be wrong – that the greater leeway provided to higher education practitioners is a huge incentive for the addition of virtual worlds to the curriculum.

As we reported yesterday, the tighter bureaucratic restrictions on public schools may act as a damper on innovations that jeopardize local political careers.

The Collegian notes previous problems with adapting Second Life to the SDSU campus atmosphere:

Previously, SDSU tried a pilot program of Second Life in one of the nursing courses, but they came across a few problems.

"The class was completely wireless, and it really needs hard wire in order to work fast enough…When you have all those students trying to use it with wireless, it just doesn't work properly."

If the only problems are connectivity issues easily solved through in-dorm wired connections, the forward-thinking scholars at SDSU have a relatively small hurdle to leap in order to get expansive virtual education up and running.

What I find especially interesting about the rise of Second Life and virtual worlds in higher education is where these innovations tend to take place. Take a peek at our reporting earlier in the week about Minnesota's Saint Paul College and its new certificate program in Second Life studies. Look at SDSU. These aren't Ivy League institutions, and that may be the reason for their innovation.

A school like Saint Paul College faces less national scrutiny for adopting a forward-thinking program, and stands to gain much more if the program succeeds. With more high school students graduating than ever before, colleges are in the position of providing courses that give students an edge in the job market as well as teaching novel and emerging skills.

If Princeton Review ever makes a listing of the Top Virtual Campuses, SDSU will certainly make an appearance. That could make all the difference.