Virtual worlds for education – gone, or just waiting?

Inde Clip – one of my favourite Second Life avatars

Why did I used to love virtual worlds so much? And are they dead for good?

I loved the relationships, the shared experience of learning, it was in your face that innovation was better than nothing, the whimsy of it, the sense of fun and adventure. The creativity. The ability to connect and immerse without having to leave home. The immediacy of it.

It was a space where I could learn, make, play, explore, have conversations about professional and personal issues – or just BE.

The community and camaraderie made it special. As did the low emotional and physical commitment. If I were tired, I didn’t have to talk much. I could be the life of the party because dancing didn’t cause me to sweat or tire me out. I could engage on my terms and disengage on my terms. And if I had too much to drink, I could log out and be home – no Uber required!

I saw so much potential in virtual worlds for people like me. Who are a hybrid extrovert/introvert. Who love people but don’t always have the energy or will to be actually out there amongst them. Who wanted to immerse in adventures but didn’t want to risk being ill or injured away from the safety and comfort of my home.

I also was fascinated by the maker space aspect of it – that with imagination, practice, study and resources – you could build whimsical, practical spaces and simulations that could educate, engage, comfort, amuse and welcome in anyone.  To me, it was an inclusive space because you truly had agency over who and what you were. One of my favourite avatars was a long-haired black cat!

Yet so many people chose to re-create their everyday world. Lecture theatres, meeting rooms, office buildings, PowerPoint displays. Maybe it added to their immersion. Or maybe they felt as if they had too much fun with the spaces and animations, it would somehow detract from the learning. A simulation has always traditionally been a safe space to practice and learn – so perhaps that is what they were after. In some cases, it was and interesting work and counselling happened there.

I don’t know where that sort of learning space – one that let’s you be creative, immersive and authentic – exists anymore. I do know that I find 2d learning spaces utterly uninspiring as they exist now. Learning management systems like Moodle, Blackboard and Canvas make a lot of things possible. But they aren’t immersive. They aren’t inherently social. And the visual and aural creativity are limited in so many ways.

Virtual worlds were simply too much like hard work for most. They didn’t see the benefit in learning how to personalise and move an avatar around or interact with a virtual world. Now one sees people barely existing in the physical realm – with their earphones on and their eyes and fingers locked onto screens – the physical world is just something to move through while attached by umbilical cords to the online realm.

But I can’t think virtual worlds are dead. Sci fi shows like Dark Mirror have a vision of virtual worlds where you can be you, not a stiff-legged cartoon character lurching through a world where shapes form only when you approach them. A vision of virtual worlds as an escape for people trapped in aged or paralysed bodies – or a game fantasy where you can travel outer space or experiment with new genders and ways of relating.

Perhaps virtual worlds aren’t dead, they’re just gestating. Waiting for a more hybrid incarnation of augmented reality where immersion is seamless and requires little more than the same effort we use to navigate this world.

In the meantime, I am increasingly uninspired by text on a page and pre-recorded media as a way to learn and communicate in education, training and social interaction.