Virtual worlds just might be the future of e-learning.
It is enough to make a learning professional's head spin. Every day
there is a new story about online worlds providing new learning
environments. Articles and books are describing how a generation
raised on video games is invading the workplace and demanding new
online learning environments. Unfortunately, for those not on the
bleeding edge of game technologies, all this talk of virtual
worlds, avatars, MMORPGs, metaverses, and microworlds seems right
out of a science fiction novel and, in some cases, it is.
Here are a few examples. Cisco
Systems, the company that creates Internet networks, has
developed a training island in the virtual 3D world known as
Second Life. The
training island has classrooms, areas for students to mix and
mingle, and a teleportation system. Learners move around the large
virtual campus, by sitting on a teleporter and magically appearing
at a desired location.
IBM, the computer consulting
company, also has launched a number of workplace learning
initiatives within Second Life. IBM is exploring how to conduct new
employee orientation in virtual environments, as well as how to
establish a mentoring process within these new worlds. It is not
uncommon to see two virtual people fly overhead discussing business
issues as the 3D world passes beneath.
Corporate initiatives are simply following the lead of academics
who have been staking real claims in cyberspace. There are more
than 70 colleges and universities that have campuses or classrooms
in Second Life. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded a
number of virtual projects through the work of the VITAL
Laboratory at Ohio University. These online learning
environments are filled with avatars roaming around the classroom
conducting virtual experiments and applying real world principles
to online objects.
But Second Life is not the only virtual world available. At some
universities, economic courses are conducted using the virtual
economy of the massively multiplayer online role play game
(MMOLRPG) World of
Warcraft. In World of Warcraft, students witness
economic principles at work in real time as residents of the world
buy, sell, and trade such goods as Powerful Mojo, Blasting Powder,
Devilsaw Leather, and Black Vitriol. Students study macroeconomic
forces in a confined area and then extrapolate those results to the
Learning professionals are left in the unenviable position of
trying to sort it all out. What is the difference between a
metaverse and a MMORPG? What is an avatar? Is Second Life a MMORPG?
Is there an online world built specifically for learning?
Defining the online worlds
One of the first things to understand is the difference between a
simulation and an online world. The primary
difference is that in simulations only one person is interacting
with the software at a time. You encounter a virtual character like
a doctor and he or she responds to you based on a pre-programmed
script. While a group may work together to help make decisions
while observing the learner navigating through the simulation, the
learner is only interacting online with the program behind the
In an online world, multiple learners are "inside the simulation"
at the same time. You can either interact with the pre-programmed
items in the world or interact with other learners or instructors
who are also in that world. The online world becomes the
environment in which learners interact and respond to one another.
To complicate matters even further, there are several different
types of online worlds, and some environments with multiple
learners are called simulations. However, more descriptive
label exists for those types of environments.
Having an awareness of the differences among virtual worlds and the
impact they have on learners will help you make intelligent choices
about which of these online worlds you might want to deploy in your
organization. There are three major categories of online worlds.
These are massively multiplayer online role play games (MMORPG),
metaverses, and massively multilearner online learning environments
MMORPG: Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play
In an MMORPG the player assume a role and identity not typically
related to his or her real world self and attempts to earn points
to move to a higher level within the game. Players become
magicians, knights, priests, or warriors with special powers and
interact within a persistent online world. Once a role is assumed,
the player embarks on adventures or quests with a team, guild, or
clan. They seek treasure, battle monsters, or accomplish other
specific goals and objectives that are an inherent part of the
These worlds are also inhabited by non-player characters (NPCs),
which are also known as a bots (presumably short for robot) or
agents (like Agent Smith in The Matrix). These NPCs are
not controlled by people; they are actually programs that are
designed to look like characters in the game but are designed
perform certain tasks or play a limited role, such as providing a
clue to the treasure. NPCs operate based on pre-programmed logic.
For example, in many online role-play games there are NPCs who can
be defeated to earn points or to gain wealth. Defeating these NPCs
helps a player progress to the highest level in the game. Three
well known examples of MMORPGs are World of Warcraft,
Most MMORPGs require players to work together to achieve certain
goals. In World of Warcraft, a variety of players with
different skills and roles join forces to achieve success in many
of the quests. For example, to defeat Ragnaros, a giant seething
fire god (and one of the game's signature foes), you need a guild
of some 40 people to assume such roles as mages, hunters, healers,
warlocks, or priests. Each player involved in the attack of
Ragnaros performs a different task. The tasks are related and are
interdependent. For instance, a player acting as a warrior may be
doing battle and receiving a high level of damage but be kept alive
by a spell cast by a fellow player acting as a mage.
MMORPGs are used to teach concepts related to the real world
through examples. It is possible to completely corner a market in
an MMORPG and then observe the repercussions where that is not
possible in real life. One can also observe interactions between
and among players to understand teamwork, group goals, and other
social interactions. However, the fantasy aspects of most MMORPGs
make it difficult to apply the use of these games within a work
Metaverse is a term coined in 1992 by Neal Stephenson's science
fiction novel Snow Crash. The term embodies Stephenson's vision of
how a virtual reality-based Internet might evolve in the future.
The term has come to represent the idea of an online 3D world
inhabited by avatars controlled by their real-life counterparts.
An avatar is how a person represents him or herself in the virtual
world. The word avatar is said to be a Sanskrit word
meaning the incarnation of a form of god on Earth. While this may
have been the original meaning, the term now represents the virtual
figure a learner decides to create to interact in the 3D world.
Figure 2: Kapp's Second Life Avatar
In most online environments, the player has the ability to change
or alter his or her avatar, which can be 2D or 3D. These
alterations typically include body shape, clothes, and hair style.
Avatars are controlled through the computer keyboard or mouse. They
are able to move independently through the virtual environment
controlled by their real life owner. In the simplest terms, the
avatar is an online version of the person who inhabits the
A metaverse is similar to an MMORPG but with some vital
differences. First, in a metaverse, players are not playing a
defined role such as a hunter or mage, they are playing a character
they have created.
In addition, the metaverse typically does not have specific goals
or objectives created by the metaverse itself. Players can create
their own goals or objectives, but they are not an inherent part of
Finally, the environment of a metaverse typically allows the player
to create his or her own digital items, such as houses and clothes,
using a scripting language or by dragging and dropping items.
Because of the ability to create your own things in a metaverse,
these environments typically involve the exchange of some type of
currency tied to real-world dollars. A person in a metaverse can
buy, sell, or trade digital assets that are created by themselves
or others, and then exchange the virtual currency for real-world
Perhaps the best known example of a metaverse is Second Life.
However, Second Life is not the only metaverse commercially
available. Other worlds exist with names like Active Worlds and
There. In fact, there
is an organization called the Open Source Metaverse
Project, which is actively promoting a free, open source
version of a metaverse.
A metaverse environment can be used for training purposes. As
mentioned earlier, IBM and Cisco have both established classroom
spaces within a metaverse for training purposes. It is also
possible to create other learning environments in which people can
interact to learn about items in 3D. One can imagine providing
instruction on how to repair a laptop through a virtual tour of the
laptop within the metaverse.
MMOLE-Massively Multilearner Online Learning
One of the newest online worlds is one specifically created for
learning. These worlds have been called virtual learning worlds
(VLWs) and multiuser virtual environments (MUVEs),
but the term that best captures this environment is massively
multilearner online learning environment (MMOLE).
The MMOLE is a genre of a computer generated learning environment
in which large numbers of learners interact with each other in a
virtual 3D world with the specific goal of learning. The learning
can occur formally through a class-like environment or through a
scripted scenario (like a role play). In that way it is like a
MMORPG since it has specific goals. However, learning also can
occur informally through chats and discussions among learners in a
fashion similar to a metaverse. So, the MMOLE is a combination of a
metaverse and a MMORPG designed for learning.
MMOLEs typically have two modes, one for an instructor and one for
the learners. The instructor mode allows someone to facilitate a
learning event and manage the interactions within the environment.
This prevents everyone from chatting at once, and it provides a
formal environment in which to learn. In other words, it allows the
learning to be managed.
Figure 4: Student raising hand in MMOLE of ProtoSphere
But managed learning is not the only kind of learning that can or
should occur in a MMOLE. The fact that avatars can roam around the
virtual space and interact with each other through pre-programmed
jesters, Voice over Internet Protocol, or text chat means that the
environment can foster and encourage informal learning.
One example of this sort of MMOLE is ProtoSphere, a product created
by Philadelphia-based e-learning development firm ProtonMedia. The ProtoSphere
environment contains several elements that make it effective for
learning, including linkages to LMSs, the ability to link to
traditional e-learning courses from within the MMOLE world, and
programming for tracking learner outcomes on specific events.
Additionally, there is a profiling system that matches learners
with each other in terms of interest and knowledge. This networking
aspect facilitates informal learning within the learning
There is also a group working on combining the open-source learning
management system, Moodle with Second Life, to create a link
between the two software platforms to track learning. This effort
is called Sloodle and is still in its infancy.
Virtual worlds have great potential for knowledge transfer.
Learners can interact within the environment of an MMORPG and learn
about teamwork and communication. Learners can build a virtual
classroom in a metaverse. Or learners can attend classes in a
The potential of virtual worlds is exciting, especially when
combined with the upcoming Gamer Generation's focus on video games
and electronic learning environments. As professionals in the field
of learning and development, it will be our job to separate the
hype from fact and to properly design these worlds so learners
benefit from this new technology.