Online education can represent the best of education and the worst. In the worst case, it simply replicates the structure and content of a traditional classroom and translates it into the digital realm. So a boring lecture format from a traditional classroom becomes a boring presentation, most likely as text in it’s digital form.

The best case scenario is an inspired 3D interactive environment with the student choosing and dictating much of the direction of their own learning, and the teacher being in close, probably daily contact to guide the student along. The teacher will have provided enough information for the student to learn the necessary facts, but will have also provided a rich environment for the student to explore and develop critical thinking skills.

That sounds like a lot to ask of any educational environment. The tools to provide this are available now in several proprietary environments created by Universities to commercially created platforms such as Active Worlds and Second Life.

Online education has seen an evolution from a strictly online model, where all the interaction and materials are presented through computer mediated communication. This had many advantages to Universities and students. The material could be presented in an asynchronous mode, where the material resided on a server and could be accessed by a student at any time of day from any location. Universities would save money by not needing physical space to conduct classes. Academic work done online is easily graded and quantified. But the model had some failings.

It seems that human nature is inclined toward socialization. We tend to want to have real interaction with other people. The online modality offers email and chat rooms for social chatter, and it does seem that people do develop friendships and communities in this environment. But the bottom line is that the retention rate for all-online is not good at all. Students had less commitment to this model and due to the impersonal aspect, felt disconnected and would drop the class.

So, is online education inferior to traditional classrooms? Not necessarily. Another model has evolved and is gaining in popularity. It is a hybrid, or blended format, which includes not only the online content, but a traditional classroom component as well. Typically, students will meet for the first and last class in a traditional classroom. This provided an opportunity to meet the other students they have been interacting with online, as well as the professor. The opportunities for spontaneous interaction provided in live discussion are far superior to the text chat format of an all-online model. Students could study hard data online, work in teams, and then have the in-person meeting. This promotes the cohort phenomenon, where the students feel connected to their educational environment and the students and instructors who are a part of it. They become more committed and connected, and are much more likely to stay in the class. They are also more likely to complete their program of study.

Now, this provides some distinct advantages to the Universities as well. They don’t need the amount of classroom space as they do for traditional classes. They can stagger the use of existing classrooms to accommodate the on-ground component.

In addition, research is demonstrating that the hybrid format is providing as good an education as the traditional classroom model, and is even suggesting that this model may produce a superior education. It combines independent study time for the student with the freedom from location and time constrictions in the online component with the social essential of in-person meeting and interaction.

There are some limitations to the hybrid format. For one, the school would be limited to seeking students who live in a practical traveling distance from them. The on-ground component requires students to attend in-person, by driving to campus, or utilizing mass-transportation. Students may be willing to travel from a state away for the two or three onsite days. But students who live further are not likely to travel so far.

So, what can an institution do if they want to provide a hybrid program but they also want to expand it’s marketing and student demographics beyond a one or two state surrounding area? I would suggest they consider using an online 3D virtual platform to function as a substitute for the on-ground part of the hybrid model. This seems to be a throwback to the all-online model with all of the identified inadequacies. But such an environment is entirely different from the text-based model of all-online.

For those who have not experienced it, these platforms provide a realistic visual setting with a virtual character known as an avatar, who becomes the representation of the student in-world. The world itself is a persistent environment, meaning things are where you expect them to be when you return after logging out. There is ample opportunity to create and control the world you interact with. There is a very strong social element, with interaction and persistence of relationships (making friends). Objects, and entire environments can be created in theses space which can be used as classroom space, study space, research space, and a place where students can meet and form cohorts as well as socialize. Multi-media presentations can be done here, as well as having the ability to interact with the rest of the internet so that students can be pointed to other resources from within the virtual world environment.

Now, adapting virtual platforms does present some issues that would need to be addressed. A university would have to decide if they are going to create a proprietary platform or use an existing one and adapt it to their needs. Fortunately, platforms such as Second Life, provide the flexibility to be used in many ways, and in fact, was left open-ended as a user-created world. Other issues regarding actual structure would include the stability of the virtual platform. If it is unreliable and students cannot access it properly, it would not serve well for a classroom replacement. The University would loose control of the actual network and it’s function, having to rely on the ability of the platform technicians to keep things running smoothly, and address any technical issues.

Probably the greatest challenge to using a virtual platform for education is the re-design of courses. It just doesn’t work to convert an existing course into a digital version.

To take full advantage of what the virtual environment can do would require a design that included a high amount of interactivity, with the student being given a lot of choices to make in the direction of their progress through a course. It would have to be visually interesting, and have a game-like playability. The idea is to engage the student as fully as possible. An engaged student is more likely to continue in a course, learn from it, and come back for more.

Providing a virtual classroom environment allows a University to market and expand their student demographics to much larger areas. Even if a student is in California, and the school is in New York, there is only a three hour time difference. The school could have synchronous classes, say, Saturday at 2pm, which would be 11am in California. I don’t think this would be an unrealistic expectation. This model could easily be expanded to world-wide availability simply by offering any synchronous activity at different times of the day. Universities can use financial resources for course development without having to expand the brick and mortar facility. But it is the asynchronous aspects of virtual worlds that is challenging and interesting. Students can meet with groups outside of class time. They can access materials any time, and turn in assignments as they complete them.

Students would have greater access to content, in a more engaging environment. Even the social aspects of students meeting in a virtual world would somewhat mimic the life of a student who lives on campus and interacts with fellow students outside of class. Students could even choose to meet “outside of class” if it is geographically feasible.

The 3D virtual platform does seem to be a viable alternative to offering hybrid classes. It has the sense of immediacy, persistence, a very strong interactive potential, and can provide synchronous as well as asynchronous learning. I believe students would still benefit from the sense of being in a cohort, which would aid in motivation and retention. The 3D virtual world platform model has the potential to provide a superior education to the traditional classroom, and to be an equal to the hybrid course model.

Fame Follow-up

February 20, 2007

Well, we had our follow-up Second Life interview with TV 30 news. We met in-world at 30 Rock, which is a reproduction in SL of NBC’s headquarters in NYC. It was a beautiful building. We met outside; several students and the Professor. Some of his collegues arrived also. We wondered where Lauren, our reporter was. When she finally appeared, she was dancing. Yep, she’s hooked. She had a hard time getting her avatar to stop, but finally managed. We went into the building and stood in a rough circle expecting an interview. Well, the ladies started talking about getting Lauren some better hair, and a nice skin. She was trying to put these on but didn’t know how. So, the ladies decided to hook up later and get her fixed up.

And that was the extent of our interview…

The gathering digressed into splinter conversations so a few of us left to show one of our friends my house in the Elven Lands….

I suspect most of the (all) final newscast will come out of the first interview…


Moment of Fame

February 10, 2007

Wow! I was interviewed for a TV segment about Second Life. The Professor who got me involved in Second Life, invited myself and another student from that same intro class to participate. All three of us were interviewed by Lauren Petty, a reporter from the local NBC affiliate, WVIT-TV30. This was my first time in any kind of mainstream media interview.

After the interviews were done, we went in-world, which is to say that the cameraman focused on the computer screen, while we went into second life and revealed our avatars. The professor went first. Then my avatar, Kram, and my friend Maxi went in on separate computers so we could meet in-world. We went to a restaurant, and were going to sit for lunch, but Maxi got stuck in dance mode, which ultimately was, I’m sure, far more entertaining.

The reporter and cameraman seemed genuinely curious and interested in the whole concept. And, I think after having a small taste of in-world movement with my avatar, I predict that Lauren will become another SL addict. Another convert.

As a follow-up, we are supposed to meet again next Wednesday in-world. I think that will be it for Lauren; at that point, she will have her own avatar and will have interacted in-world. I will have a new SL friend.