Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

26 January 2008

Virtual World Learning

Clark @ 3:14 PM

Yesterday I had the privilege of an in-world meeting with my colleague Claudia L’Amoreaux, who’s now a major part of Linden Lab‘s education efforts with Second Life. Second Life, if you’ve been in a cave the past few years, is the first major successful virtual world. It’s a massively multi-player online environment, but it’s not a role-playing game, as there are no quests or NPC (non-player characters). In 2nd Life, you can build things, earn ‘money’ (Linden dollars; which have a cash exchange value for US$), and of course socialize. Many companies have set up places or islands in 2nd Life, and are holding learning events or creating learning places.

It was very gracious of her to give me time in her busy schedule, and I’m grateful because she refined and extended my understanding. I’ve talked before about virtual world learning affordances, so I let me focus on the new understandings.

First, I have to say that she didn’t change my fundamental take on the affordances. It is very much about spatial opportunity, both in place and in 3D representations. These are not trivial at all, but instead may have unique appeal for special needs rather than being general purpose. When those are the need, however, the virtual world is very compelling.

A second issue is one that I undervalued, and that’s the ability to represent yourself how you’d like to be seen, in more ways than one. The overhead is somewhat high, but I think I didn’t really ‘get’ how important this can be, as Tony O’Driscoll has let us know. There was another facet of this, however, which I truly missed, and that’s the ability to create a place to meet (if you own land, or you can presumably choose a meeting place that represents the ‘atmosphere’ you want to convey).

What Claudia helped me see is that the ability to create a look and environment serves as a powerful channel to communicate much information. She teleported me to a location she’s created to hold meetings with people and it’s a beautiful, comfortable place, very relaxing. She showed me Pathfinder Linden‘s in-world place which is very different, full of cool toys.

She emphasized the informal learning potential in such spaces, which can be building things to share if you’re appropriately skilled, or taking people to places with appropriate things. In formal learning, it’s more about, as said above, spatial and immersive experience. She mentioned learners making a ‘film’ of a book about a child soldier, and it did occur to me that if you have internet access, you could create a set and have actors and record it with much less overhead than a live movie. So there are some barrier-reductions involved in this world too.

So, all in all, I have to say I’ve underestimated virtual worlds. By the same token, I still think they’ve been over-hyped. Claudia’s lasting message, however, is intriguing. She said that when the world wide web was established, no one truly imagined how it would grow. Claudia sees virtual worlds as a similarly new platform with as yet unexplored potential, where we’re still repeating old activities with the new technology. Which we know is historic precedent, and gives us reason to pause in judgment.. As she said, no one she knows who’s really gotten into it has subsequently ‘got out’.

At the DevLearn conference, Paul Saffo pointed out that our technology expectations are linear, but the capabilities grow in a non-linear manner. Consequently, we’re liable to find that such innovations underperform our expectations initially, and outperform as they reach critical mass. And I know that my old boss/mentor/colleague Joe Miller and the folks within Second Life are continually driving new innovations, so we can probably expect things to get simpler, more powerful, or both. So there’re unexplored opportunities. I’ll stick with my (modified) position now, but eagerly await new understandings.


  1. Clark, I appreciate your comments here. I’ve been rambling around SL myself. I’ve seen several academic or library oriented environments, but only one so far that fits into a more corporate / organizational framework. (That’s a comment, not a critique.)

    I’m not sure it counts as an affordance, but one benefit of virtual-world interaction is similar to that you experience at a conference or other face-to-face event: you have the chance to deal with individuals or small groups who are (presumably) interested in whatever the topic is. So it’s another channel, like reading blogs or subscribing to listservs, that can help you connect with others.

    Similarly, one of my most striking experiences was at a virtual panel discussion. At first it seemed to me too much like an actual one: avatars sitting in rows of chairs (why chairs? why rows? extension of the metaphor?), a panel on the stage, speakers coming over the audio stream, virtual whiteboards with images.

    But then I saw the (public) chat, into which people would type comments that were for the most part related to what was going on. (Participant: “Greg, can you put that URL you mentioned into the chat?” A minute later, there was a clickable URL.) In addition, people could (and I did) send private messages (instant messages) to one another, the way you’d whisper to a seatmate in a live session.

    For me this was a powerful demonstration of the multidimensionality of this mode. Not better than live, different from it. And if you can’t go to a face-to-face conference, then participating in a virtual one can offer many of the same benefits.

    Comment by Dave Ferguson — 28 January 2008 @ 8:50 AM

  2. Dave, I guess I see how you could have side-discussions in a virtual world easier than in an online webinar, but certainly the other features, e.g. chat, are well-known and used in webinars. In fact, one of my early experiences in Active Worlds was that the only thing you paid attention to was the chat, and there wasn’t any benefit to the character’s standing around.

    Comment by Clark — 29 January 2008 @ 10:25 AM

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