By Dr. John Jamison
One of the emerging technologies for learning we’ve enjoyed watching develop is the collection of online, 3D, virtual-environment platforms. Becoming more visible with the entry of Second Life around 2003, a search will present a list of more than 1000 approaches to virtual environments, each with their own unique twist. Many of us were already exploring the use of “virtual” learning tools, using less intuitive tools to create “virtual humans;” examples of artificial intelligence on our computers. One of the approaches to that early work was Peter Plantec’s Virtual Humans: A Build-It-Yourself Kit, still available on Amazon and still of value to those interested in the field. I spent many hours with that book and CD, trying to recreate Peter’s “Sylvie,” the personality that lived on his computer, kept his schedule, and served as a “buddy.”
I still remember sitting in the small conference presentation when I first saw an early demo of the Second Life environment. As the screen appeared and I realized what I was looking at, I saw a future of learning that incorporated our earlier work in virtual “humans,” the visual attractiveness of “games” with the new ability to create any virtual space and experience without having to be a master programmer. This was the opportunity for educators to step in and begin creating learning activities with an entirely new level of meaning.
Over the past 10 years, I have watched and worked with those who have taken on that challenge and I remain as excited now as I was then. You can see some of the educational work done in Second Life on the Education Wiki at:http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/Second_Life_Education. From the basic recreation of real-world activities to developing highly sophisticated simulations, the Second Life platform has provided a starting point for many. From that starting point, projects have moved out into open-sourced environments using the OpenSim platform, based on the open-source version of the Second Life platform.
There are many critiques of virtual environments used as learning tools, and to be honest, many of those are fair and correct. One of the more common criticisms is that virtual platforms have extremely high technical requirements to access, they are difficult to use on networks because of software needing to be installed and regularly updated, and the perceived risks of opening network access. Aslo, there is the question of security for our learners and being concerned about who and what they might bump into in the virtual spaces. While legitimate concerns, these don’t need to stop us.
If you are interested in an alternative approach to creating 3D online virtual environments and activities, I would recommend taking a look at what can be done using the Unity3D software. Yes it is a game development engine and is used for creating games that can be published to the Xbox, PS3, iOS, Android, and most other platforms. But Unity3d is not just about “games.” It is a tool for creating highly visual and interactive “activities” of any type. In my case, we’re choosing to use it to create activities for learning and training. And yes, Unity3D is a full-
blown development engine, and at first appearance looks pretty intimidating and suitable only to people who speak in zeros and ones.
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