Virtual worlds in action

Every 21st century skills implementation requires the development of core academic subject knowledge and understanding … students must also learn the essential skills for success in today’s world, such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration.

P21 Framework Definitions, 2009

At the time of writing this article, Kate was a new scheme teacher working at three NSW public schools.

What is virtual technology?

Virtual world technology is a simulated environment which is highly immersive and interactive. It can be shared by others through an online community (Howell, 2012; O’Connell & Groom, 2010), or as a standalone setting that ‘can produce a three-dimensional representation of phenomena’(Antonietti & Cantoia, 2000, p. 214). It utilises an avatar which generally is a 3D representation of the user. To some degree, as Howell (2012) explains, this avatar creates a ‘telepresence’which then, in turn, creates ‘perceptual stimulito the user’ (p. 209) that intensifies engagement within the virtual space. According to KZero Worldswide (2013), there are approximately 400 million 5-10 year olds registered as users of virtual worlds worldwide and this trend continues to grow.

Using virtual world technology

The two forms of virtual world technology I currently use are:

Sim on a Stick (SoaS) — a stand-alone secure virtual world on a USB flash drive

MinecraftEdu— a modified for educators version of Minecraft and Minecraft–Pocket editionfor iPads and portable devices.

Shared vision

Over the past eighteen months, I have been employed at a number of regional NSW public schools to integrate technology, particularly virtual worlds, into learning projects. Having supportive school leaders, who are also visionaries and risk takers, is empowering and rewarding.

Peter Hickey, my former Principal at Coffs Harbour Public School, was the first to allow me to bring this technology into his school and run with it. Because of Peter, so many other schools are now trying or using this technology and as a result many students in Australia and globally are achieving successes that would otherwise have been denied to them.

Comments about the learning

Peter Hickey, now Principal at South Grafton Public School, comments on the impact of virtual world technology on students’ learning.

The introduction of virtual technology at Coffs Harbour Public School has had an amazing effect on the engagement of our students across all levels of academic capabilities. Students who may have been disengaged with lesson delivery are now embracing this new technology and achieving outcomes which may have not been reachable.

Vanessa Cavanagh, Principal/Teacher, Crossmaglen Public School, comments on the students’ ability to describe their learning in the virtual world.

Crossmaglen students recently have been involved in developing Virtual farms— blueberry, dairy and macadamia, using Sim on a Stick, in conjunction with learning about sustainability and water usage to receive accreditation as a Water Wise School … students took teachers on a walk-through of their builds and verbally explained each section and element and how they related to sustainability.

Planning a unit of work utilising virtual technology

Teachers generally give me an outline of their learning outcomes/goals to be achieved for the term or I look at the School Management Plan for learning priorities, such as the Building Bridges PDHPE unit – Tyalla Public School plan.

Screen shot from Building bridges PDHPE unit

From there I begin to structure a unit of work. I am always aware that the technology is only as good as the pedagogy; if it does not enrich or transform the experience, I will not use it.

My planning is guided by the SAMR and TPACK models of design, and research. When parents or other teachers ask why the students are playing games and not learning,I will generally have a good response. All teachers need to foster lifelong learning skills, by keeping up-to-date with current research this will have great benefits not only for them but also, and more importantly, for their students. The National Professional Standards for Teaching(AITSL, 2011) acknowledges the importance of planning and implementing creative learning to extend students and challenge them to think divergently.

I teach students from diverse cultural backgrounds and I have found that using virtual world technology has helped to build strong learning communities. For example, virtual world library club, challenged students to think problematically, and helped them to acquire excellent self-regulated skills. My EAL/D class has had great success and many students speak extremely limited English. The technology intuitively differentiates. Students are on task almost immediately, and my role becomes one of facilitator as they become the expertssharing their knowledge and supporting each other’s learning. I have also found that my Indigenous students connect very well to their learning when they use Sim on a Stick.

We discuss and set strong behavioural guidelines as a class when we are working in a shared multi-user space; this allows for the students to own their behaviour and become more automated in their learning. Digital citizenship is key.

Creating avatars

An issue that I have observed time and time again is that avatar gender and appearance is extremely important to students (and teachers) and, unless they are allowed time to modify their appearance, many will continue to attempt to edit their look during lesson time and, therefore, be off task. Ultimately they want their avatar to appear how we want others to see us (Savin-Baden, 2010, p. 29).

Identity is not static. Over the duration of the year, students should be given time to revisit their appearance as what is needed instead is not a static view of self but a liquid view – a sense of multiple identities that shift and change with time (Savin-Baden, 2010, p. 29). Coffs Harbour student avatars wear the school uniform created in Photoshop and uploaded as a texture. This is an excellent solution if you want to take the focus off the avatar clothing.

Virtual world and the curriculum

To date, I have used virtual world technology with Year 1 to Year 6 students in English, HSIE, mathematics, PDHPE, and science and technology key learning areas (KLAs).

Two examples of units of work based on integrated KLAs are:

  1. Our Australian Heritage – COGs (G) for Stages 1,2 and3 (Years 1 to 6) Epic Citadel unit for Stages 1,2 and3 (Years 1 to 6)
Some of the Crossmaglen PS students’ Australian heritage virtual projects

Epic Citadel unit

Inspired by the work done by Ringwood North Primary Schoolusing the Epic Citadel app, I collaborated with Vanessa Cavanagh to develop an integrated unit of work for Stages 1–3 (Years 1 to 6). Visit Crossmaglen Public School’s blog for information, images and a video of the learning process for this Epic Citadel/ MinecraftEdu/BYOD English and Science unit.

Student task:

You will document and design a new city using MinecraftEdu. Working through the design process, you will create e-portfolios, using your own devices, to record your learning journey. You will also construct and edit texts based on your character roles, experiences and learning inspired by the virtual world of Epic Citadel. These will be published in the Nova Citadel library (MinecraftEdu). Your project will be presented to parents at the end of year presentation evening 12 December, Week 10.

English outcomes: Stage 2

EN2-2A: plans, composes and reviews a range of texts that are more demanding in terms of topic, audience and language

  • plan, compose and review imaginative and persuasive texts
  • create imaginative texts based on characters, settings and events from students’ own and other cultures using visual features, for example perspective, distance and angle (ACELT1601, ACELT1794)
  • reread and edit texts for meaning, appropriate structure, grammatical choices and punctuation (ACELY1683)

EN2-3A: uses effective handwriting and publishes texts using digital technologies

  • use a range of software including word processing programs to construct, edit and publish written text, and select, edit and place visual, print and audio elements (ACELY1685, ACELY1697)
  • publish text in Nova Citadel Library — MinecraftEdu

EN2-10C: thinks imaginatively, creatively and interpretively about information, ideas and texts when responding to and composing texts

  • use visual representations, including those digitally produced, to represent ideas, experience and information for different purposes and audiences
  • justify interpretations of a text, including responses to characters, information and ideas, for example, ‘The main character is selfish because … ‘

View the video presentations of the students’ learning journeys and a virtual excursion to Nova Citadel.

Assessing student learning

Stage 2 and Stage 3 students completed a virtual project for the Our Australian heritage unit. Virtual project outcomes and indicators were used to assess their learning in English, mathematics, science and technology, and visual arts.

Students:

  • demonstrate evidence and application of research
  • synthesise and apply the knowledge and skills of Sim on a Stick and integrated KLAs

communicate creative ideas and understanding of research through the design of a virtual artefact and blog report.

A student edits their outfit to match those worn in the late 1800s

Tips for teachers getting started in virtual worlds

1. Play with Sim on a Stick and Minecraft. I cannot stress this enough – you need to get your hands dirty. Learning how to start up and shut down Sim on a Stick correctly is extremely important. Do not rush into a huge project; just start small, like teacher Sally Wilson from Sawtell Public School has done, and build from there.

2. Get your hardware organised first so you know what you have available. It is no good planning an awesome unit only to discover the hardware does not support Sim on a Stick or that Java updates are required to run MinecraftEdu. Learn how to do this yourself and, if possible, get administrator rights. The 2012 Lenova M series and new Think Pads are excellent for building virtual worlds – anything older will probably require a manual update of the graphics drivers. Loading Sim on a Stick to the students roaming file will corrupt it, so do not do it.

3. Use USB flash drives for Sim on a Stick projects as students can work on them at home and will not have the issue of losing their work. If students do not have access to a home computer, make adequate time available at school. Equity issues, especially at low SES schools, and reducing the digital divide when using this technology, is a critical factor when planning. USB flash drives also differ greatly, so purchase ones that load quickly.

4. Read ‘Virtual Worlds: Learning in a Changing World’ by Judy O’Connell and Dean Groom as it gives an excellent overview and introduction to virtual worlds and explains why more educators should be using this technology.

5. Explore these links:

6. Join Yammerwhich has a fantastic support network of likeminded educators and virtual world groups.

7. Join the OZMinecraftEducators group on Edmodo. We have a dedicated server run by high school student Nick Patsianas. We regularly have meets to share ideas, skill up and experiment with Redstone and other features to support STEM subjects and teaching. We also just have a lot of fun. It is all about collaboration.

References and further reading

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) 2011, National professional standards for teachers, accessed 14 January 2018.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., Damon, W. & Gardner, H. 2012, The Good Project: ideas and tools for a good life, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA, accessed 14 January 2018.

Collier, A. 2013, ‘Digital citizenship, the lived curriculum: Part 1’, NetFamilyNews.org, accessed 14 January 2018.

Collier, A. 2013, ‘The lived curriculum, Part 2: what that looks like’, NetFamilyNews.org, accessed 14 January 2018.

Croft, J. 2011, ‘It’s just a game: ethical reasoning within virtual worlds’, in H. Gardner (ed.), GoodWork Project report series, Number 73, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA.

de Freitas, S. 2008, Serious virtual worlds: a scoping study, JISC, UK, accessed 14 January 2018.

Gee, J.P. 2007, Good video games and good learning: collected essays on video games, learning, and literacy, Peter Lang Publishing, New York.

Hedberg, J.G. 2011, ‘Towards a disruptive pedagogy: changing classroom practice with technologies and digital content’, Educational Media International, vol. 48, no. 1, pp.1-16, accessed 14 January 2018.

Howell, J. 2012, Teaching with ICT: digital pedagogies for collaboration and creativity, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, Vic.

Jensen, M. 2014, ‘Virtual worlds in education’, Scan, vol. 33, no. 1.

Kaufmann, H. 2009, ‘Virtual environments for mathematics and geometry education’, Themes in Science and Technology Education, Special issue: Virtual reality in Education, vol. 2, pp.131-152.

KZero Worldswide 2013, Virtual world/MMOs: universal chart for Q3 2013, SlideShare, accessed 14 January 2018.

Marsh, J. 2010, ‘Young children’s play in online virtual worlds’, Journal of Early Childhood Research, vol. 8, no. 1, pp.23-39, accessed 14 January 2017.

Nicosia, L. 2010, ‘Virtual constructivism: avatars in action’, in T. Dumova & R. Fiordo (eds), Handbook of research on social interaction technologies and collaboration software: concepts and trends, vol. 2, IGI Global, Hershey, PA, pp.623-638.

Wilson, B. 2012, ‘Constructivism in practical and historical context’, in R. Reiser & J. Dempsey (eds), Trends and issues in instructional design and technology, Pearson, Boston, MA.

Yager, K. & Weeding, A. 2012, ’Focus on creativity—a pedagogical shift’, in D. Laycock (ed.), Teaching boys at the coalface: mining key pedagogical approaches, International Boys Schools Coalition, Toronto, Canada, pp. 105-114, accessed 14 January 2018.

Keywords: virtual technology; learning and teaching; Minecraft; Sim

How to cite this article: Booth, 2014, ‘Virtual worlds in action’, Scan 33(1)

Return to top of page