It was really great to see the US-oriented Immersive Education (iED) group venture over to Europe to help kick-off the European iED Summit in Madrid at the Universidad Carlos III. The EU team did a solid job with the event and it should become an important forum for new media initiatives in education.
The iED goals seem about right "Immersive Education is designed to immerse and engage students in the same way that today’s best video games grab and keep the attention of players. Immersive Education supports self-directed learning as well as collaborative group-based learning." (more on iED Mission here)
However, I would challenge the core notion that "immersive" is the ultimate goal, rather than just another tool. Students, it seems to me, are able to rapidly patch together various threads of content into their heads and immerse themselves (0r not) based upon the quality and mix of content. The immersive platform is maybe their brains and what they need is higher quality content and interactivity inputs.
It is important to get beyond the point of proving that things could be done in a virtual world (actually in the commercial world people did move on since 2008. Maybe it takes academics longer to digest changes? But isn't that a little scary if they are teaching "new technology" to students). It is time to critically consider what is most appropriate to do in a virtual world. The bad news is, it seems like the sweet spot of virtual world for education is pretty small and that there are other cheaper, easier, better options available to improve the learning experience. Sadly this conference didn't get into any of the those alternatives--and there are many to consider.
I showed the ST.ART project demo and also go into our new Unity3D product Quest History. ST.ART is an opensim-based edu and collaboration project that ran for 2 years, where Quest History is a fresh new concept without avatars, but packed with serious education content and full of stunning visuals.
For me the most interesting presentations and discussions were around actual uses of immersive education solutions. Download the conference presentations here. There were many points about how virtual worlds are still too hard to use, to get into schools and then ultimately that the actual use cases are not the exceptional. In the age of Facebook, do avatars add value or are they time-consuming distractions? In our experience, this was not a surprise. We have worked with teachers and students who get excited about virtual worlds, but then get mired in actually trying to use them for class lessons. Perhaps virtual worlds are more suited to distance learning where the digital realm uniquely enables community and shared experience.
We had some good overviews of the lastest usages from opensim, second life, open wonderland and realxtend. I would have to say though that these platforms are not moving along too quickly and in general they all look pretty dated and far from commercially ready still. There just isn't enough funding/resourcing going into their core development. These VW platforms are really complicated and they are anchored to what is now old code and architecture. I think it was really a shame that Sun had to abandon Wonderland when Oracle swallowed them. Probably that platform had the most potential for collaboration. Now it seems under-resourced like the rest of the them. But that didn't stop the OWL gang from getting a fairly disportionate amount of air time during the iED Summit.
Warren Sheaffer, from Saint Paul College in Minnesota, USA gave a lively presentation about his use of open wonderland for the MiRTLE project. It is a pretty cool "inside-out, outside-in" concept for mixing distance and phyically attending students and teachers. The teaching space is a sort of online arena. This usage enables a sense of community and action that reaches out beyond the wall of the classroom. I could see more generalized usage perhaps even in social shopping environments. Warren did also point out that he has a team of technicians scampering about on a daily basis to snuff out snags and help users access solutions. These techs sounded pretty busy. Warren's Blog about MiRTLE / Details on MiRTLE at Educase
Another interesting example Aaron Walsh, from Boston College, outline was the "Corner Cave" which is a low-ish cost immersive area set-up. You basically take a couple of projectors and aim them at a the corner of a room and then run streaming voice/video/gaming over the web. It seems like the kids love the scale and the potential interaction with objects and distance presenters. I did though think that the virtual content from realxtend looked poor when it got big and wondered if HD video wouldn't have been better. Check out this clip from the South Park School (no, not that South Park :0 )
Pilar Sancho, who like Warren, presented more of an enduser perspective than an academic one, shared the results and her conclusions about using multi-player virtual environments (MUVEs) for improving class results. She tried to ascertain whether or not using a MUVE tool would increase interest in staying in a course. Her data suggested there was some uplift, but her comments were that actually it was more the change in the style of teaching that generated the better results. She also detailed various problems and delays with using virtual world tools (they used Multiverse). Her paper on the MUVE research. I don't think she will be rushing back to the virtual world for her classes.
Also of note, Pilar co-authored a very useful paper titled "A narrative metaphor to facilitate educational game authoring" which is thought provoking and could be handy for deploying learning games. (We are currently looking tools like Inform7 to capture and manage interactive game content/stories).
So while it was a bit of downer on the virtual worlds, the good news is that social games seem to be able to cover most of the good without any of the bad.
Virtual worlds are ideal for multi-user and co-creation of new content. Yet, they are too open and disorient users. They have too much overhead in terms of computer specs, bandwidth and also learning curve. And they don't look that great (=poor mesh, weak lighting control, bad physics). Social games have the same potential for shared experiences, but also have (should have) more infrastructure for driving learning objectives and providing an acheivements system. The issue is not the platform but how to get next generation content out. And while the social games are easier for the enduser to use, they are more complicated for the content creators to package-up.
So, my sense is that actually the gap is about organizing the learning content into a sort of LMS/CMS that can then drive more of a social game experience around a learning domain. Otherwise all that "knowledge" will have to wound into the actual game code, making it really hard for educators to manage, edit, delete.
The clever guys over at Daden have some take on enabling this. I am particularly interested in their chatbot system which is an AI with a web front-end that would (theoretically) allow non-tech people to manage content and interaction within a game environment.
The entire iED Summit proceedings can be downloaded here. They promised a link to the .ppts which should come out soon.
By the way, Madrid was gorgeous with great food, many travel options, lots to do and not horribly expensive. It is an ideal location for a conference.