Web 2.0 and Emerging Learning Technologies/Assessing

Assessing and Evaluating the Impact of Web 2.0 and Emerging Learning TechnologiesEdit

Virtually Learning: The Education Experience in Second LifeEdit


School is outdated and out of touch with the lives of today’s students. For the most part, our academic institutions continue to follow a model put forth in the nineteenth century (Herz, as quoted by Foreman, 2004). And, when asked to describe their school experiences, “boring” and “dry” are two words that often enter into the students’ conversation (Prensky, 2001). Oblinger (2003) asserts that these new students - individuals “raised on the Internet and interactive games” (p. 44) - may have expectations that are not met by the current “skill and drill” system of learning (e.g., Gee, 2003; Steinkuehler, 2005).

They, and more specifically the Net Generation or the Millennials (Carlson, 2005; Oblinger, 2003), come into the classroom equipped with different attitudes toward education, as well as a diverse array of technological skills. Scholars, such as Dede (2005) take this line of thought a step further by suggesting that information technology is reshaping the mindset of students of all ages and creating a “neomillennial” learning style. Regardless of the label, these new students want more than the traditional lecture format; instead, they are seeking out authentic and active educational experiences, like those found in virtual worlds.

According to the Entertainment Software Association (2007), the typical game player is 33 years old and has been playing games for more than 10 years; 38% of these game players are women. But, this is not to say that younger individuals – male and female – are not playing games. As Lenhart, Madden, and Hitlin (2005) report, the majority of teenagers are now using the Internet; further, 81% of these teens (or approximately 17 million individuals) play games set in online virtual worlds (p. 35). More importantly, though, the exposure to certain technologies, like video games and virtual worlds, may have altered the minds of these students, or “digital natives,” in such a way that educational theories that worked in the past may not in today’s world (Prensky, 2001). These technologies also raise flags about what exactly is learning.

What is Learning?

Behaviorism versus Constructivism

Learning means different things to different people. Vygotsky (1978) writes that learning is “more than the acquisition of the ability to think; it is the acquisition of many specialized abilities for thinking about a variety of things” (p. 83). To those who follow a behaviorist pedagogy, learning is viewed as an activity that takes place inside the head of a person. The assumption is that the child’s mind is like a blank slate waiting to be written on or an empty container ready to be filled. Drill and skill techniques and the standardized tests that accompany them often underlie this theory, yet they may not be able to account for higher-order thinking found in society. Papert (1993) points to the work of Paulo Freire (1987) who uses a ‘banking model’ to describe the behaviorist approach to education. Based on Papert’s interpretation of Freire’s metaphor, “information is deposited in the child’s mind” (p. 14) and knowledge is “treated like money to be put away in a bank for the future” (p. 51). With such an approach, learning is always about the future potential to use it, not about the present.

Today Web 2.0 and other emerging technologies make immediate use of learner skills and competencies more salient. Some scholars have attempted to extend the facets of constructionist theory to incorporate the use of technologies to facilitate the teaching and learning process. This is not to say that these scholars believe that computers alone will save education. They do not. In fact, Papert (1993) states that “nothing could be more absurd than an experiment in which computers are placed in a classroom where nothing else has changed” (p. 149). Following this lead, Jonassen (2000) argues that students do not learn from teachers or computers. Instead, Jonassen asserts that they both merely foster learning and views computers as cognitive tools, which he refers to as Mindtools.

In Jonassen’s assessment, Mindtools are “intellectual partners that enhance the learner’s ability to think” (p. 17). Wedemeyer (1981) takes a similar position on the ways to enhance learning but argues that “learning via technology is not merely a matter of substituting technology for the classroom” (p. 111). While Wedemeyer believes that teachers will not be replaced by computers, he does acknowledge that technology is beneficial in that it can “free faculty members from custodial duties so more of the teacher’s and learner’s time can be given to truly educational needs” (p. 36). Perhaps today, more than a quarter century after Wedemeyer's writing, we can realize some of his predictions and ideals. Like Wedemeyer, Jonassen, and Papert, Michael and Chen (2006) agree that educators will continue to be an essential element in the teaching and learning process, no matter how important video games become; in fact, their vision of video games is one where they become “part of the new educational toolbox” (p. 142)

Computer technologies are attractive because they provide students the opportunity to engage in complex thinking through active learning and autonomy. One example is Papert’s Logo project and the creation of “microworlds.” Logo was a computer-based environment where students could explore the concepts they learned by using programming languages to create and build creatures, as well as directing the movements of their design in this space. In this active and experiential environment, students were able control their learning and set their own goals. It is also in this type of space that multiple ways of understanding are acceptable and encouraged.

Jonassen (2000) considers this move toward different approaches to knowing to be beneficial, and believes that the reason why students have a “deficient understanding of content” is because “they were required to represent what they know in only one way” (p. 281). According to Jonassen as well as Papert, that is the beauty of environments such as Logo; understanding surfaces from meaningful activities rather than memorizing the correct solution. This approach is in direct opposition to the current educational system that “insists on the student being precisely right” (Papert, 1993, p. 167). It is also in this space where teaching and learning are freed from the constraints and barriers of what Wedemeyer's (1981) referred to as “time-place conditions” (p. 37) – education can happen anytime, anyplace. Wedemeyer also suggests that this technological affordance “opens up the doors to greater learner independence by permitting physical distance between teacher and learner” (p. 112). And the opportunities for student and teacher being physically distant from one another have certainly exploded in the decades since Wedemeyer was espousing such views.

Scholars have argued that the incorporation of technology into the teaching and learning process is complementary to the constructivist approach to education. Even though technology is viewed as a tool that fosters learning, it alone will not be enough to move education away from the behaviorist approaches that are entrenched in our current system. Wedemeyer (1981) suggests we may have to look beyond the classroom model for answers. He writes, “If America is on the threshold of becoming a Learning Society, non-traditional learning may be its most genuine ingredient” (p. 219). Nontraditional is certainly apparent today with Wikis for virtual collaboration, podcasts for playing lectures while driving in your car or on a morning jog, and subscribing to someone's blog posts or YouTube channel. It would fascinating to invite someone like Wedemeyer to comment on how he perceives the technologies of today in light or his writings and predictions from a few decades ago.

Situated Learning Theory

One way to effectively develop knowledge or skill in a topic area is through experience and learning in a rich, authentic context (Lave, 1988; Vygotsky, 1978). Lave and Wenger (1991) claim that learning “implies becoming a different person with respect to the possibilities enabled by these systems of relations” (p. 53). Individuals go through this process of knowing and learning in a variety of ways, but traditional education does not always take this into consideration. Instead, traditional education practices tend to regard thinking as a process that is consistent across all learners (Greeno, 1989).

There are a number of factors that enable learners to take knowledge and apply it. In the current environment, educators have stressed the importance of transmitting facts to learners with the hope that information will transfer come test time. And therein lies the rub; the exchange value may be such that learners are able to perform well on tests and other assessment measures; however, this does not mean they will be able to activate that knowledge spontaneously. The knowledge may actually lie inert and unusable outside the context of classroom. Emerging technologies have helped make this more evident as learners are able to engage in more authentic and real-world contexts where, unlike traditional learning situations, they apply as well as reflect on their knowledge through interactive sharing.

Unlike simulations and gaming, virtual worlds, and online tele-apprenticeships and problem-based learning, traditional education has created its own type of learning culture. Technically, it qualifies as a situated environment, but it is one in which the real world context is de-emphasized or completely severed from classroom learning. Instead of developing knowledge or tools that will assist them in solving problems, learners passively acquire a collection of facts from an all-knowing teacher. This type of knowledge is fragile and creates a situation where the learning becomes meaningless. At the time of this writing, however, the teachers’ perceived need to sacrifice deep understanding for broad material coverage overshadows such issues. There is a pervasive fear that valuable class time will be spent on initiatives that will not transfer is a real one. Therefore, traditional education focuses on microcontext teaching methods where subsets of larger problems are examined and oftentimes drilled into passive learners. With this approach, topics can change on a daily basis, without providing adequate time for learners to obtain a deep and rich understanding of the material.

Learners may face a number of obstacles while attempting to develop their own knowledge skills, but there are ways to circumvent these issues. One is for educators to create communities of practice that foster the emergence of robust knowledge rather than the acquisition of applications and procedures. For learning to be valuable and for knowledge to emerge, Brown and his colleagues (1989) argue that there must be a combination and interaction of activity, culture, and concept. Along these same lines, Lave and Wenger (1991) refer to a dynamic interaction with these elements as Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP). According to Lave and Wenger, LPP occurs when “learners inevitably participate in communities of practitioners and that the mastery of knowledge and skill requires newcomers to move toward full participation in the sociocultural practices of a community” (p. 29).

Anchored instruction – or apprenticeship-like learning experiences – is another way to integrate activity, culture, and concept into the teaching and learning environment (CTGV, 1990). In fact, Lave and Wenger (1991) suggest that in the United States today, much of the learning that requires higher-order thinking skills (e.g., medicine, law, business, engineering, etc.) is done through apprenticeship-like instruction. By becoming ingrained in the participatory process, learners understand how to actively use knowledge within an authentic context. This allows them to view information as a tool that evolves with use rather than a futile fact that remains inert. Instruction that is placed in a complex macro-context environment, like ones employed in anchored instruction, enable learners to sustain thinking about a particular topic over a period of time. Such a process allows them to move closer to becoming “experts.” Anchored instruction methods also enable learners to find ways to use elements that are available in the environment to assist them in solving problems. Through teacher-guided discovery and coaching, learners can develop a basis for their understanding.

Once learners have gained self-confidence and understanding of the material, they can rely less on the teacher and more on others in the community via collaboration. In an attempt to avoid situating the activity within one particular context, multiple perspectives are provided to layer the content. The goal is to create a situation where the knowledge can be decontextualized in such a manner that it allows the learner to use it in other contexts. Another way to promote the possibility of transfer is by creating an environment that not only supports the process of thinking about novel problems, but also encourages the articulation and reflection of ideas. Learners who articulate and reflect on their problem-solving procedures develop metacognitive skills that enable them to compare their learning and knowledge to others. It also makes visible any misconceptions that may exist in the learner’s understanding, while allowing the teacher to determine what is simply being regurgitated to complete assignments.

Overall, in order for learning and knowledge to be effective, they should be situated within a triangle of meaningful activities, culture, and concept (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). Taken out of its indexical context, learning loses its use value and becomes opaque. However, concerns over transferability have traditionally created a learning environment within the culture of schools that emphasizes the regurgitation of facts, rather than the development of deeper understandings and appreciations of the content. The acquisition of facts can be valuable in certain situations, but this type of knowledge can be rendered meaningless outside the confines of the classroom. In order for learners to take ownership for their learning and accurately assess their metacogntive skills, the learning and the knowledge cannot be extracted from the situation. By creating communities of practice like those described by Lave and Wenger (1991), learning and the development of knowledge can move out of the academic factory and into an environment that will enable learners to develop tools they can use in the world. As noted below, emerging technologies, such as virtual worlds and simulations, can be used to do just that.

A Virtual Educational Model

Learning is not what it used to be. Simply put, today’s students obtain knowledge differently from those of previous generations. It is important to emphasize that the interests and expectations in computers and video games of these technologically savvy students is not part of a quest to find an easier alternative; on the contrary, as Steinkuehler (2005) suggests, such tech savvy individuals are seeking out cognitive challenges via video games. Gee (2003) continues this line of thought, and argues that in the world of video games, “hard is not bad and easy is not good” (p. 165).

Kurt Squire (2005, February) is another scholar who recognizes the appeal of complexity within video games, as well as the objections players have toward easy games. He argues that what players do not like are “‘uninteresting decisions’, or games that leave them confused with too many ‘easy’ decisions – decisions where there is no learning to be had” (p. 25). Therefore, some educators, such as Sasha Barab et al. (2005), propose a different type of educational model. This alternative is one that blends together games and learning, while adding one ingredient that is typically absent in education – fun. In addition to creating an enjoyable experience, virtual worlds, like Second Life, provide students scaffolded spaces that can support practical experimentation, critical thinking, and other information literacy skills – important qualities needed in our technology-focused real world.

Modern players’ expectations for video games and virtual worlds are high. Increasingly, they want complex special effects and high quality graphics that create an immersive and “realistic” experience. In virtual worlds, students are able to experiment with identity, explore online role playing, and develop shared values. As they handle tools and materials, observe and interact with others, student-players can experientially develop a deeper understanding of a theme, a topic, a period of time, or a concept. Situated within a visually rich and engaging space, players are encouraged to interact with each other and travel to virtual lands by selecting from a diverse array of paths at various points. In addition to information obtained through player-to-player interactions, designers utilize feedback such as hue, lighting, and shape to guide player’s activities, as well.

Along with feedback that guides the players’ activities, the development of visual skills and creativity can enrich the students’ learning experiences. In worlds like Quest Atlantis and Second Life (SL), students can customize the appearance of their avatar, and, because the content in SL is created entirely by users, students may build content or interact with artifacts created by others. Students can also plan by mapping-out strategies to overcome challenges and navigate charted and uncharted paths. What’s more, they may explore alternatives or different viewpoints by modifying the visual display; for example, by selecting the avatar’s expression or switching between first- and third-person viewpoints. Even the physical act of controlling an avatar in real time may raise the students’ consciousness of the architectural constraints and possibilities. Also, students are able to create a sense of space through a process that Kalay (2004) contends is a “combination of context, activities, and action” (p. 196); they employ intellectual decision-making in order to accomplish both personal and in-game goals.

Virtual worlds, such as Second Life, are powerful in that they enable students to learn through seeing, knowing, feeling, and doing within visually rich and mentally engaging spaces. Rather than reading about events, such as the bloody conflicts between the colonists and the British soldiers, students who navigate Williamsburg in the history-themed, role playing game Revolution become part of the events through the adoption of a pre-set persona. In more fictional constructs such as Prospero’s Island, students interact and collaborate with Shakespearean characters and other players, as well as experience scenes as images mapped to text. As an added benefit, scaffolded activities are far more likely to create a safe environment with minimal risk of failure or embarrassment (Steinkuehler, 2004). Since games offer many options and respond to player choices, student-players often feel as if they are in control of their learning, and, as a result, own their learning process (Herz, 2001). Some students even assert that they learned more in these environments than they would have if they had only read the text (Van, 2007). Table 1 provides a summary of the possible educational uses of Second Life.

Table 1. Educational Uses of Second Life

Educational Uses
The Second Life Experience
Support experimentationConstruct identity, play with roles, develop shared values
Encourage playMotivates students (Squire, 2005; Vygotsky, 1978)
Construct scaffolded spacesPractical experimentation; minimal risk
Opt out of lecture and passive approachesLearn through seeing, knowing, and doing
Nurture player choices and decision-makingControl and own the learning process
Design "realistic" environments (special effects/graphics)Immersive and authentic experiences
Lead students toward a sense of space (Kalay, 2004)Context, activities, action
Increase student learningGreater than via text alone (Van, 2007)
Foster the formation of a learning culture (Nardi et al., 2007)Collaborate; create of new knowledge; develop greater understanding
Enhance technology-focused skillsVisual skills, information literacy, critical thinking

However, teaching and learning through video games or in virtual environments is not without its problems or concerns. First, while the power of play is motivating for some students (c.f., Squire, 2005), not everyone prefers to learn in a visual manner, which is privileged in virtual worlds. Additionally, there is a significant commitment by both instructors and students involved in such activities; for instance, educators who introduce students to a virtual experience should plan on prior instruction and hours of playing time before students grasp the main concepts that are introduced in the environment. In an examination of learning with commercially available video games in the classroom conducted by Kirriemuir and McFarlane (2004), they found that the “amount of time taken for both the student and teacher to orient themselves within the game” (p. 19) was one of the main disadvantages.

Students’ expectations may skew the experience, as well; if they anticipate that the virtual world will be game-like, they may expect the look and feel of slick, commercial products. As Elliott and his colleagues (2002) discovered, this is an experience that is not always available in education-themed spaces. In virtual worlds, like Second Life, other problems encountered by players may include banishment from the world for violations of community standards, encounters with griefers (i.e., players who cause grief to others in the virtual world through harassment), and even the costs associated with inflation. Hayes (2006) adds that as the teaching and learning opportunities available and exploited in SL expand, educators will also have to address issues regarding the proliferation of sexually explicit content as well as other sensitive and controversial topics.

In addition to such issues and concerns, students may feel initially frustrated as they learn how to be in-world. As Johnson (2005) points out, “The dirty little secret of gaming is how much time you spend not having fun. You may be frustrated; you may be confused or disoriented; you may be stuck” (p. 25). But, as Clark Aldrich (2005) contends, this can be a positive sign in that “frustration during the learning program and then the feeling of resolution afterward is the most reliable sign that learning is going on” (p. 243). Gee (2007) would agree with this position and adds that while good video games are ones that are challenging yet do-able, it is through guidance that learners can “prepare for action” (p. 80).

By overcoming these challenges, mastering tasks, and participating in communal activities presented within these virtual places, though, students are typically rewarded by gaining both points and status among other players (e.g., Herz, 2001). One study by Green and Bavelier (2003) also suggests that regular participation in these games can improve visual skills; skills that allow a student-player to decipher complex scenes, adapt more readily to distractions, and quickly and efficiently process fast-changing imagery and visual feedback. At least initially, some learners may become overwhelmed and frustrated with the virtual world, but Gee (2005) argues that these complex and cognitively challenging spaces are good not just because they are games; rather, he contends that the cutting edge is “realizing the potential of games for learning by building good games into good learning systems in and out of classrooms” (p. 21).


Despite those who suggest that there are benefits to the interactions that take place within these rich, complex virtual worlds, there is evidence to suggest that the educational community has been slow to adopt the use of new technologies in the classroom (Hitlin & Rainie, 2005). In some cases, parents are more accepting of incorporating video games and virtual worlds into the curriculum than teachers (Michael & Chen, 2006). Rather than relying on commercial game designers to exploit the learning potential of these environments, though, Lombardi and McCahill (2004) argue that it will take the efforts of educators to further these educational initiatives. In a recent report on game-based learning from the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) in the UK, Sara de Freitas (2007) from the Serious Games Institute in Coventry and Visiting Researcher at the London Knowledge Lab agrees with this perspective. She argues that designers, educators, and learners need to come together to move toward the creation of serious (i.e., educational) games and other immersive worlds. At the same time, scholars such as Coffman and Klinger (2008) remind others that even if educators do get involved in these efforts, they will continue to face the challenge of determining how to effectively integrate these virtual worlds into the curriculum.

Nonetheless, educators are beginning to recognize the potential of Second Life and the ways in which this world could enhance learning in their own classrooms, as well as fostering student collaboration worldwide. Shaffer and his group (2005) observe that a shift toward games is happening in corporations and the military, but not education. However, Diana Oblinger (2004) points out that the interest in the concept of informal learning is on the rise. Currently, there are also signs to suggest that educational entities have started to explore the possibilities associated with virtual world environments, like Second Life. According to the Horizon Report (2007), “educational use of these spaces is already underway and growing” (p. 18). Moreover, a survey conducted by the New Media Consortium (2007) found that educators believe that Second Life has great potential and consider this world to be a taste of the 3D future.

There are many directions for virtual learning across educational settings. Large-scale adaption, effective training, and innovative uses are among the goals of many of the scholars and educators reviewed in this chapter. Inroads into awareness, pedagogy, and training will likely not overnight, but will be interesting to watch, analyze, and help promote during the coming decade.


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