Conversation with a V-Learning Expert on the Future of Virtual World Learning

Intro: Mark Sivy, Virtual World Educator

Mark Sivy has over 24 years of experience as a program director, instructor, educational technologist, professional developer, and instructional designer. He has seen and helped facilitate many changes in teaching with technology. Since becoming involved with Second Life as a teaching medium over 5 years ago, Mark has been a strong advocate of the constructivist-style learning, international collaboration, and sense of presence that virtual learning environments can promote. Through his Second Life avatar (Aedann Slade) he has been the administrator and designer of the beautiful NC WeBIEE region and director of the NC Education group, giving him a wide variety of experience in virtual environment leadership and instructional uses. Mark is currently the Chief Operating Officer and Chief Learning Officer at Cosmic Surrounding Technology, Inc., a full-service provider that uses intentional strategies, proven methodologies and world-class technologies to offer web-based services and solutions that fulfill its clients’ visions and objectives. I caught up with Mark to ask him what changes he has seen in his years of working with virtual environments and worlds, and to ask where he thinks things will be going in the future.

Picture of Mark Sivy's avatar Aedann Slade in Second Life.

Mark Sivy, aka Aedann Slade in Second Life, at the NC WeBIEE SL education complex he directs.

Mark, you have several years of experience with teaching and learning in virtual worlds, most of which has been in Second Life. What kinds of things have you been working on in SL lately? 

With SL one of the ongoing tasks is to maintain a current knowledge of the parent company’s, Linden Labs, policies, marketing directions, and changes in the SL client interface and in-world processes. Secondarily and as a result of these I am regularly attempting to positively fold, leverage, or otherwise adapt those into the realm of higher education and adult education. So as of late and with the beginning of the new academic year in higher education, my hands on work in SL has been to maintain a functional and attractive environment. This involves assessing people’s needs and suggestions and then updating, and in some cases totally changing the many learning spaces in the four-island region that I manage. Additionally I will be updating the content for the orientations and professional development occurs for this region.

Where do you think Second Life is going, as far as being “the” virtual world medium for teaching and learning. Why do you think that is happening? How did the end of the educational discount affect this (if any)? 

During the first few years of my using SL as an environment to host teaching and learning, I saw a rapidly growing interest and use of it by both corporations and higher education institutions. There were tremendous educational potentials and an increasing mass of academic uses. Then Linden Labs changed its philosophical approach to the direction that SL was taking, to become a social and commercial venue. In doing do it took away educational incentives and reduced its educational support. At that time the interest in and advancement of teaching and learning in SL reached a plateau and has been on the decline ever since. SL may still be beneficial in supporting educator networking and socialization, but I there are more accepting and appreciative choices for the teaching and learning community.

Mark/Aedann's avatar being eaten by a dinosaur in the NC WeBIEE sims.

Mark/Aedann goofing around at the paleontology area he designed in SL – an example of learning engagement in a virtual world.

What other direction(s) do you think VW teaching and learning (outside of SL) is going? Are you going in that direction or maybe even helping facilitating this change? How so?

To discuss this, I will need to elaborate a little more on SL. My stance is that SL served as a good stepping stone, creating and moving forward a strong interest in using interactive 3D virtual environments for education. Much practice and research were and still are being performed in SL. But it has its limitations. Already mentioned has been the abandonment of higher education teaching and learning, but more importantly is the fact that the SL interface is complex and it has high technical and bandwidth requirements. The bottom line is that SL has specialized applications that meet certain educational needs.

With that said the direction that I am now taking is to look more toward the mainstream use of avatar-based virtual environments. In my experience, instructors and students want to be able to access a learning system that has a relatively low learning curve and that does not require bulky higher end computing systems for a rewarding experience. Exploring and developing learning services and support around this type of technology is the direction that I am currently pursuing. Of particular interest is the Unity3D engine which can effectively turn a web-browser page into a 3D virtual environment or allows someone run a standalone app. This translates into that fact that a user can enter the environment using a common computer, laptop, tablet, or even mobile phone. I’m currently working on two major pilot projects that will make use of this technology, one for a state-wide higher education system and the other for a foreign government’s international student summit.

Unity3-D-MYS-Exhibit

An entirely web-based virtual exhibit made in Unity 3-D by Cosmic Surrounding Technology for the 2012 Muscat Youth Summit.

How will this new direction be different than the old “heydey” of  Teaching & Learning in Second Life? In other words: what will we be missing with these other new trends and tools? What new methods or benefits will we be gaining to make up for that loss? 

Relative to SL, there are some tradeoffs and benefits so I’ll start out by saying that neither of these technologies can comprehensively address all possibilities. Additionally, we must remember that teaching and learning needs must first be clearly identified and that we then can find the appropriate technological solution that will help meet those needs.

SL embodies broad social richness, but socialization outside the immediate class is most often well beyond the needs of teaching and learning. SL also makes interacting with the environment and customizing it possible for the average user, but there is still a need to learn and practice to become proficient to do this.

Unity3D-based learning environments are much easier to access and the interfaces are quickly mastered. Currently the user does not have to ability to alter the environment and there is not the ability to explore a wide ranging and diverse world created by thousands of individuals as is the case of SL. On the other hand, most instruction is focused and this expansiveness is generally not a benefit.

Unity 3-D can allow various institutions and businesses the ability to have their own separate virtual world, yet also allow these groups to be able to access a common, public virtual world in order to collaborate or socialize. There are a many different types of options and pack ages to aid creation and customization. So an institution can even create their own virtual presence for marketing purposes…but without the difficult learning curve, access issues, or technical problems that Second Life and its related technologies currently allow.

How is a virtual world better for users than standard web conferencing that allows video? In other words in what situation would it be more appropriate or preferable?

For me the web conferencing software is useful if you are doing a presentation or need to show images or documents, but there is still a presenter and people who are being presented to. It puts a divide between the people and the presenter. A virtual environment removes that divide, so that people can have open conversations and interaction beyond text or the need to switch presenters.  It engages interactivity and creates an “associative presence” that crosses these boundaries.

Associative presence”… that sounds like a new term, Aedann.

Yes. One of the challenges is setting up a language that transcends what is real and what is virtual. Sometimes there isn’t a good term for virtual – because people think ‘virtual’ isn’t real. I want to find terms that can apply to any world.

Where do you see virtual worlds 10 years from now? This can be a wish, a vision, a hunch or an educated guess!

At our fingertips! Meaning that the use of virtual environments will become commonplace and in many cases with replace today’s 2D web-browser with a 3D avatar-based web-browser experiences for education, business, shopping, entertainment and more.

When you say “at our fingertips” do you think it will go mobile? Right now I see mobile tablet technology as being at the peak of the hype cycle. Realistically if you go with the common definition of “mobility” it is still for the most part mobile phone-based. So a mobile phone would not be practical for a virtual world. The phone can serve however as more of a “touch point”… something where you can look at schedules or dates, touch base with people, etc. I think that people need a certain amount of visual real estate to truly experience a virtual environment. If we reach a point when a tablet will be able to run a virtual environment, I think that that type of environment will definitely fly. Will it have that immersion? Sure – I envision that tablets will be able to provide the type of environment that a notebook computer can, but in a different and more hands-on way.

How do you think that the Wii or Virtual Reality type technology will impact virtual worlds?  

I will just use the term “historic VR devices” such as the X-box motion detection devices. Some of these historic VR devices required a lot of head gear or bulky peripherals. I think these devices will eventually become more compact and more convenient, and our computers will ultimately incorporate them better. I think that we may one day use something that looks like a large set of eyeglasses, and that our head, hand and eye movements will become the controllers. What I envision is being enable to essentially walk into a web browser and moving pages… or access it on touch tables… it will extend to the environment all around us and be with us wherever we go.

Totally immersive and embedded everywhere we are… that is sounding a lot like The Matrix! But from how you describe it, I look forward to the day! Thanks for talking with me!

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