Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Virtual Worlds A Distraction? A Reply to Jon Himoff

Cast Pic 
Location: Reading Jon Himoff's Blog From The Ivory Tower

It has been a while since I've written about Rezzable's work, but I came across a post by Jon Himoff, the CEO, in which Jon asks,

"In the age of Facebook, do avatars add value or are they time-consuming distractions?"

I replied at length at his blog, but I'd like to repeat what I said here.

I'd argue that Facebook is more likely the distraction...students rarely, on my campus, use social networking for course-work. Avatar-based virtual worlds, on the other hand, provide an unparalleled ability to build simulations, Jon. Ask the US Army about MOSES, for instance.

Having just finished a final exam project in an OpenSim grid, my class loved the exerience because they were helping to shape what future classes will do. 15 of my 17 students opted for the OpenSim exam/improv session, and they had fun and learned more about the subject matter by seeing it, and more importantly, interacting with it, in 3D.  A number of observers have noted how users don't mind less-than-photographic verity in online games. We don't need "serious game" level graphics if Millennial students understand how the experience links to goals and outcomes in courses. Every demographic study of that age-cohort showed exactly this finding.

That was always the promise of something like Rezzable's Virtual King Tut experience. It saddens me that you moved on from a great bit of work that never got the marketing it merited.

Virtual worlds are a niche technology, not one for corporations to fatten the profit line. But that's not the mission for institutions of higher ed. We are in the business of helping students develop critical-thinking and content skills so they'll be better citizens and employees (in that order). I'd agree that the technology was over-hyped mid-decade, and many educators rushed in themselves, without clear pedagogical goals.

As the decade continued, and Internet use meant students using mobile devices, the niche continued to be ruled by firms with gaming and I.T. experience. Educators in the niche, however, began gaining skills to develop and deploy virtual worlds locally or in hosted settings. The emphasis could then shift to how to apply best practices to teaching, instead of how to make the tech stable. Truth be told, as with Web 1.0 and 2.0 sites, in a few years we won't need corporations to help or even host the content.

But then, many specialized apps on campuses work that way. Virtual worlds will be but another of them. They may never be mainstream, but that's not important. Mathematica and GIS software are not mainstream, either.

No comments: