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Are Virtual Worlds (still) Relevant in Education?

By Sarah Smith-Robbins / December 2011

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This is the question that was posed to me when I was invited to write this article for eLearn magazine. Having been involved in the effort to leverage virtual worlds (VWs) in education since the early days, I think I've seen the idea run the gamut of reactions. From early unknowns, to excitement, to evangelism and early adopters, and to today's somewhat jaded and cautious reactions, VWs in education have been on the rollercoaster of Gartner's Hype Cycle.

Back in 2005, the growth of Second Life (SL), which was the first social virtual world without overt MMORPG game mechanics, seemed to herald the age of educational virtual world use. SL got the attention of educators because it wasn't a "game" and allowed users to build environments and programmed objects along with social interaction. Sudden increased awareness of the platform served as a "Technology Trigger" that had instructional technologists and educators clamoring to collaborate on ways to utilize this new tool. In the years following there were conferences dedicated to using SL on campus, countless sessions at non-dedicated conferences, and the birth of journals devoted solely to the topic of research and application of virtual worlds. The "Peak of Inflated Expectations" kicked in as campuses found the money to invest in islands and development projects. Administrators saw these initiatives as opportunities to overcome the perceived lack of social connection in online learning. Perhaps we had found the solution that would reinvigorate online courses and overcome the stereotypes of distance education.

However, in the last few years, the movement has lost steam. VWs aren't lauded as the "next big thing" anymore and every semester tells of another campus deciding to cut the funding to their VW initiatives. Where did all the promise go? The tools haven't changed so it must be our view of their usefulness that has shifted our attention to other opportunities. I decided to turn the question to the community of academics who have been part of the movement to find out why the excitement dwindled. There were four themes in their answers that, when combined, present a thorough picture of the seeming lack of enthusiasm for VWs in today's academic setting.

The Economy

In the last three years, universities have been slammed with more and more budget cuts. Campuses have been faced with downsizing and generally doing more with less; in this kind of environment, initiatives that aren't proven as effective are the first to go. As one academic told me "The world markets crashed right as the market trend in virtual worlds was experiencing the bottom of the 'Trough of Disillusionment.'" Basically, just when educators needed to be most rigorous about the potential benefits of the technology, they were faced with other obstacles that threatened the fabric of their duties and made the argument for VWs seem a bit less important than other fundamental efforts. Never mind that SL and many other platforms were an added expense that was in addition to other student support technologies rather than a replacement. Just one more expense that was easy to cut.

Steep Learning Curve

Unless you are a veteran MMORPG player or a MOO/MUD advocate, learning how to merely navigate a VW can be a substantial obstacle. Unlike an LMS, there is very little familiar to the average user within the interface of a VW. That is, if you've been convinced that there's enough value in learning to use a VW in the first place and you're willing to learn. The traits of a VW that create its potential for learning (such as immersion, identity flexibility, social interaction, spatial sense) are the same traits that make them difficult to learn to use. Add to this learning curve the need to not only have basic competence in the space but to have the advanced understanding of the affordances necessary to create learning experiences in the world and you have a sheer cliff of adoption difficulties. In a sense, it appears that evangelists who believed in the learning that could happen in VWs just got tired of making the argument over and over. As one respondent put it "There's just too much cognitive load upfront to accomplish the learning task." This is true, not just for students being asked to learn in a VW, but of technologists and faculty as well.

Unresponsive Business Models of Leading Providers

Over and over, the people who responded to my question told me that the headaches they endured while trying to deal with the logistics of VW implementation made the effort not quite worth the return. Whether it's the need to license and install expensive software in labs or continually deal with client updates or simply working with a company with little to no customer service, the business models of the companies behind many VWs have never treated educators as valuable clients. From an inability to get through to a billing department to pay for service to interface changes that alienate educators, many people I spoke to said that they just didn't believe that VW providers cared about the education market enough to provide quality service.

VWs Were Part of a Larger Effort to Change Education

The growth of VWs in education coincided with the edupunk and DIY U movements, which were both whispers of a larger conversation happening in higher education. As for-profit universities rose and public budgets fell, universities sought (and are still seeking) new models for the delivery of high quality education. The standard lecture hall experience is universally seen as inferior but economic constraints and stretched faculty and staff are strapped to innovate when overloaded. The enthusiasm around VWs may have been a symptom of a need for solutions to these difficult problems. The proposed promise of VWs was a symbolic life-preserver that some education innovators grabbed on to in hopes of change. VWs were seen as a possible solution just as e-books, iPads, laptop programs, and other technologies have been treated as a panacea for what ails much of higher education.

Ultimately, regardless of whether VWs are broadly used, their place in this broader conversation of technology's place in the university and the struggles over maintaining high quality with smaller budgets, the movement that VWs initiated is one that we shouldn't dismiss. Their adoption (or lack thereof) has a wider meaning. Educators know that there is room for improvement and we're dedicated to looking for solutions. A single technology will not solve the issues. However, the meaning behind the enthusiasm for such a tool may help us think deeper about what we're hoping to change and how we can go about it. VWs may not be as broadly relevant in education as many had hoped but that underlying hope is still very relevant.

About the Author

Sarah "Intellagirl" Smith-Robbins is a faculty member at the Kelley School of Business as well as the Director of Emerging Technologies in the executive education group within Kelley. Her research and teaching focus on the roles that dialogic and social media play in education, business, and personal communication. Her website can be found at


  • Thu, 22 Dec 2011
    Post by Ryan Tracey

    Sarah, I think you're spot on with the reasons for the relative decline of virtual worlds in recent times.

    I see it all the time in edtech: if it's not easy to do yourself, then you need to get someone else to do it for you - and that costs money. Unfortunately for Second Life, not only is it somewhat unintuitive for the user (as you mention), but it's also challenging for the L&D professional behind the scenes. That leaves it vulnerable to competition from the next big shiny thing that comes along.

    Having said that, I agree that virtual worlds do have much to offer L&D, particularly in terms of creating authentic environments - especially those which might otherwise be difficult to reproduce. A case in point is the virtual hospital at Sydney Medical School (see "Second Life for Medical Education" ).

    Indeed, a single technology will not solve the issues. It's the "how" and "why" you want to use that particular technology (among others) that matters.

  • Mon, 19 Dec 2011
    Post by Koreen Olbrish

    I get this question a lot too, in relation to the relevance of virtual worlds for corporate learning, and I think you're exactly right on all counts.

    The truth is, I don't know if it was ever about the technology so much as it was about the design opportunities that they provided when there were limited other options. Sadly, the virtual world platform companies didn't evolve to meet the demands of the market, and new technologies continue to emerge that are filling the void of tools that enable immersive learning: mobile, augmented reality, and sleeker, more agile and social game engines.

    I still believe there is a place for 3D environments, that avatars are a unique projection of ourselves and that all of us early evangelists will likely see most of our claims of potential realized. I don't believe that will happen with the current pool of available virtual worlds without a major integration with other social technologies and software systems. And at this point...we may not need them, not when we can create increasingly immersive experiences through other technologies.