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

17 December 2009

Virtual Worlds Value Proposition

Clark @ 7:17 AM

In prepping for tomorrow nights #lrnchat, Marcia Conner was asking about the value proposition of virtual worlds. I ripped out a screed and lobbed it, but thought I’d share it here as well:

At core, I believe the essential affordances of the virtual world are 3D/spatial, and social.  There are lower-overhead social environments (but…which I’ll get back to).  However, many of our more challenging tasks are 3D visualization (e.g. work of Liz Tancred in medicine, Hollan & Hutchins on steamships). Also, contextualization can be really critical, and immersion may be better.  So, for formal learning in particular domains, virtual environments really make a lot of sense.  Now you still might not need a social one, so let’s get back to that.

The overhead is high with virtual worlds on the social issue, so ordinarily I’d not put much weight on value proposition for informal learning, but…  two things are swaying me.  One is the ability to represent yourself as you’d like to be perceived, not as nature has provided.  The other is the ephemeral ‘presence’ and the context.  Can we make a more ambient environment to meet virtually, and be fully present (in a sense). Somehow there’s less intermediation through a virtual world than through a social networking site (with practice).

And one more thing in the informal side:  collaborative 3D creation.  This is, to me, the real untapped opportunity, but it may require both better interfaces, and more people with more experience.

Now, there’s certainly a business case for learning in virtual worlds *where* there’s an environment that really  needs 3D or contextualization, but does it need to be massively social (versus a constrained environment just for education, built in something like ThinkingWorlds)?

And we know there’s a business case for social, but is the overhead of virtual worlds worth it?

However, when we put these two together, adding the power of social learning onto the formal 3D/spatial, and in the social adding the ephemeral ‘presence’ *and* then consider the possibility of 3D spatial collaboration (model building, not just diagram building), and amortize the overhead over a long term organizational uptake, I’m beginning to think that it may just have crossed the threshold.

That is, for formal learning, 3D and contextualization is really underestimated.  For social learning, presence and representation may be underrated.  And the combination may have emergent benefits.

In short, I think the social learning value of virtual worlds may have broader application than I’ve been giving credit for.  Which isn’t even to mention what could come from bridging the social network across virtual, desktop, and even mobile!  So, what say you?


  1. I’ve tried to coina word to sum it up – “Togethering” – no other collaborative approach gives the same sense of beinge and doing together with others.

    Comment by Neil Canham — 17 December 2009 @ 1:57 PM

  2. Funny you use the term “value proposition.” I’ve caught myself saying that a lot lately and don’t quite know if that is a good thing.

    Let me address this element of your discussion: you touch the reality of overhead without specifying its source. It seems that at some level yours is a sales argument for why someone (Google, Microsoft, the Sloan Foundation, the Department of Ed, Dept of Commerce, or the NEA) should do the right thing and provide the environment and the means for 3D/virtual conceptualization. The trick is that it is fundamentally an issue of resources, as even “the cloud” exists as an aggregate of individuals paying the tab. If it’s not going to be a publicly funded commodity, it will need a mechanism for monetizing access or usage in order to work.

    There is a concurrent matter of cognitive/attentional resources. I suspect that one of the big reasons Twitter and the big social networking sites have exploded in success is their accessibility to a mobile public, with fairly low thresholds to participate and the push/pull of data flow is seen in one’s hands. I have yet to experience an immersive virtual world that doesn’t require a lot of bandwidth, processing power, and display capacity to really work the way it needs to. I’ll stop there, pontificate further if requested. SBJ

    Comment by Scott Johnson — 18 December 2009 @ 9:19 AM

  3. Scott, I was responding to request, essentially, for the value proposition, hence the term. And in this case I was largely talking about organizational use, so the monetization comes from an investment in social learning outcomes.

    I agree about the overhead: as you point out, there are both technical components and cognitive. The issue, to me, is whether the benefits justify the cost. If your learning objective is inherently 3D and social (teamwork in an emergency, for example), it seems obvious.

    The trick is when it’s more just social, and opportunistically 3D. Then the argument’s less clear. However, with a long term amortization of the use of the world, it may make sense.

    And, as came up in last night’s , there does seem to be some psychological validity to the ephemeral ‘presence’ that individuals describe but is hard to ascribe to causal processes. Regardless, sufficient qualitative description is quantitatively valid.

    Comment by Clark — 18 December 2009 @ 9:44 AM

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