Virtual worlds in education

Michelle Jensen is the teacher librarian at Hoxton Park High School, in south-west Sydney, and President of School Library Association of New South Wales (SLANSW).

Why use a virtual world?

Virtual worlds can be used in all schools with primary and secondary students for educational purposes. Virtual worlds support collaboration, creativity, decision making and the ability to overcoming language barriers. They engage and motivate students in ways that other media often fail to do.

This article is a snapshot of student learning in augmented reality. Although I have used Quest Atlantis and Minecraft with students: this article focuses on recent student learning with Sim on a Stick (SoaS).

What is Sim on a Stick?

Sim on a Stick (SoaS) is an immersive 3D environment that allows students to collaborate and create in ways that are not possible in the physical world. It allows users to run a virtual world (VW) on a USB stick and save on the fly.

SoaS is open source software that can be downloaded onto a USB flash drive. Having the VW on a USB is a wonderful way to introduce students to learning in a 3D environment. It is possible to have SoaS on an external hard drive and have more than one student log into the same virtual world, however, using SoaS this way is not for the novice. The beauty of SoaS is its simplicity. Once the software is loaded onto the USB, it is as easy as pressing one button to activate the virtual world.

I use SoaS with my classes in the library and in collaborative team teaching programs.

At the start of each project I allow one lesson of free play in SoaS for students to explore the 3D environment. It is through this experience that students obtain an understanding of the virtual world and are then ready to plan and research for the project ahead.

All lessons use The Information Process (ISP) as a scaffold for researching and project-based work. I explain to my students:

We are going to define, locate, select, organise, present, and assess information. We are just going to present in the virtual world instead of using a more familiar tool such as a poster or PowerPoint presentation.

Using this analogy helps the students understand what the aim of the project is and that using a virtual world is just another way of synthesising information. It is an enjoyable and exciting way to engage students while developing their spatial and visual skills.

Snapshots of student learning in the virtual world

Year 7 create an Aboriginal virtual world

Inspired by a holiday to Alice Springs, I decided to use SoaS with students in Year 7 to create an Aboriginal virtual world. Planning such a world involves critical thinking, asking questions, analysing various sources and consultation with Elders and local community.

During this project, students were introduced to note taking techniques and communicated with students in other classes. They decided how to communicate to the other members in their group. Some chose to leave notes in a Word document and then saved this to the USB on which the virtual world is stored. Others used Edublogsso that they have a record of their group’s journey.

Students learnt to collaborate with other students who were not physically sitting with them. They were collaboratively learning in a virtual world.

Learning in the virtual world was so engaging that student comments included:

Is it time to go already?

If I get a note from my science teacher, can I stay?

Students build their virtual worlds at recess, lunch and during study periods

Year 12 create a VW film

Team teaching with a Visual Arts teacher to introduce Year 12 students to creating in the virtual world was a rewarding experience.

During this six-week project with 9 periods a cycle, students were required to create a film for Tropfest. The project brief was based on the one found on the Tropfest website.

For this six-week project, students were required to:

  • build sets in the virtual world
  • create a short film using more than one SoaS.

Students filmed quite creatively using Quick Time and Audacity. Both files were then combined in Adobe Premier Elements.

During this project, students often worked through lunch, recess and during study periods. On many occasions, other students would gather around and comment on the building process. The vibe in the library was wonderful and collaboration was evident. The curiosity of the other Year 12 students on study periods often caused laughing and comments like, ‘Is that a game?’Others would comment on the structures being built and offer critique.

Curriculum links

The Australian Curriculum has one direct reference to using virtual worlds in the History syllabus - Unit 1: Investigating the Ancient World content description:

The reconstructions of the ancient site/s, for example paintings, historical fiction, film, documentaries, museum displays, and virtual worlds; and use for propaganda. ACHAH024

Of course, virtual worlds can be used in a range of subjects and areas. Here are some suggestions for integrating virtual worlds with Year 7 students in the NSW and Australian curriculums:

Year 7 Mathematics

Students will:

  • identify, visualise and quantify measures and the attributes of shapes and objects, and explore measurement concepts and geometric relationships, applying formulas, strategies and geometric reasoning in the solution of problems MA4-18MG
  • draw different views of prisms and solids formed from combinations of prisms ACMMG161
  • create and display number patterns; graphs and analyses linear relationships; and performs transformations on the Cartesian plane MA4-11NA
  • describe translations, reflections in an axis, and rotations of multiples of 90° on the Cartesian plane using coordinates. Identify line and rotational symmetries ACMMG181

In the virtual world, students can use X axis and Y axis to control the construction of shapes and the movement of shapes.

Year 7 English

Students will:

  • effectively use a widening range of processes, skills, strategies and knowledge for responding to and composing texts in different media and technologies EN4-2A
  • use a range of software, including word processing programs, to confidently create, edit and publish written and multimodal texts ACELY1728

Students are able to type into the virtual world, creating permanent note cards or using the communication bar for conversations.

Year 7 Science

A student:

  • describes the action of unbalanced forces in everyday situations SC4-10PW

Students understand that:

  • change to an object’s motion is caused by unbalanced forces acting on the object ACSSU117

Students quickly find the fly button and gravity buttons in the virtual world allowing objects to float and avatars to fly.

Conclusion

Are you ready to lead your students into the virtual world learning environment? Explore the seamless use of open source software in education and just have a go.

References and further reading

Booth, K. 2014, ‘Virtual worlds in action’, Scan vol. 33, no. 1.

Hax, E. ‘SoaS’, I live in science land, LLC, accessed 14 January 2018.

Minecraft, mojang.com, accessed 14 January 2018.

Stuckey, B. 2014, Quest Atlantis: professional development workshop, accessed 14 January 2018 (resource no longer available).

Quest Atlantis, Atlantis Remixed Project, accessed 14 January 2018.

Keywords: virtual worlds, Sim on a Stick, Year 7, Year 12, teacher librarian

How to cite this article: Jensen, M. 2014, ‘Virtual worlds in education’, Scan 33(1)

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