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Peter Brantley

Peter Brantley

Virtual Worlds for Insurrection and Revolution in Education

I am attending a conference hosted by the Hewlett Foundation today, with the Kauffman Foundation and the Federation of American Scientists. This is live blogging.


Attendees include:

  • Daniel Adams, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
  • Dan Atkins is Head of the Office of Cyber-Infrastructure at the National Science Foundation.
  • Peter Brantley is the Executive Director for the Digital Library Federation.
  • John Seely Brown is currently a visiting scholar at the Annenberg Center at USC.
  • Dennis Cheek joined the Kauffman Foundation in 2005 as vice president of education.
  • Kim Fatton is the Assistant Director/Project Manager for the Synthetic Worlds Initiative.
  • Dexter Fletcher is a Research Staff Member at the Institute for Defense Analyses.
  • Colleen Girten manages and directs KnowledgeWorks Foundation's web strategies and projects.
  • Graham Johnson is a certified medical illustrator and works as an NSF predoctoral fellow in the Molecular Visualization Lab at The Scripps Research Institute.
  • Henry Kelly is the president of the Federation of American Scientists.
  • Jay Larson is an Education Program Officer at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
  • Daniel Laughlin is currently the NASA Learning Technologies Project coordinator and leads the games research effort for NASA's Education Office.
  • David Levinson is a veteran online entertainment and video game professional.
  • Marcia Linn is currently a Professor of Cognition and Education at University of California, Berkeley.
  • Dennis Liu is the Senior Program Officer at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
  • Christopher Mackie is an Associate Program Officer in the Research in Information Technology program at the Mellon Foundation.
  • Tim Magner is the Director of the Office of Educational Technology in the Dept of Education.
  • Bruce Milligan is the Project Manager for Learning Technologies for the Federation of American Scientists.
  • Michelle Roper is the Learning Technologies Project Director at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, DC.
  • Herbert Schorr is the Executive Director of Information Sciences Institute of the University of Southern California.
  • Mike Smith is the Program Director for the Education Program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
  • James Spohrer is Director of Almaden Services Research at IBM Almaden Research Center.
  • Andy van Dam, the Thomas J. Watson, Jr., University Professor of Technology and Education and Professor of Computer Science, Brown University.
  • Aaron Walsh is faculty at Boston College and Director of
  • Phoenix Wang is a Program Officer in the Education Program at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
  • James Werle is the Director of Special Projects within the Computing & Communications Department at the University of Washington.

* * * Henry Kelly, FAS:

What are the real options?

  1. Funders support dozens of experiments on dozens of worlds that are not inter-operable, none of which are likely to operate at scale large enough to build meaningful community (default).
  2. Try to force interoperability standards or wait for them to be developed.
  3. Fund the development of an ideal platform.
  4. Pick a platform that provides adequate services and start a community, pushing for interoperability and openness.

Can we choose one of these?

* * * Mike Smith and Phoenix Wang, Hewlett

[presentation: ppt]

Promise of Educational Resources. Quotes from Jefferson and Churchill. ("He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself ... ") A challenge for us: too many on the outside, looking in (to education); too many disadvantaged. Open Educational Resources (OER). Equalize access to knowledge; dramatically improve learning. Open means free for all on the web; open means free for downloading, using, and re-using. Mashable content.

Content that is not open: Second Life. Google Books post 1923 in U.S. Any content that has no license for use.
Content that is open: MIT Open Courseware. Wikipedia. Connexions.

Open Courseware Consortium: 108 universities around the world. 3,000 courses.

Create, maintain, share high quality materials -> must be fast feedback loop. Virtual worlds enable learn by doing. Accelerated learning: cognitively informed web based instruction. Immersive teaching and games.

* * * Dan Atkins, NSF OCI:

[presentation: pdf]

Comments on NSF interest in virtual worlds for education. Nomenclature: E-research / e-science / e-infrastructure == cyber-infrastructure (CI). CI enables science and engineering, increasingly catalytic for humanities. In Asia, term "cyber-science" is used equivalently. All of these are conversations about pervasive IT. Atkins chaired blue ribbon advisory panel on CI; CI = new way for doing science and research online. Computationally and data intensive research and analysis. A new kind of platform for conducting science. New director's office (ie high level) in CI. NSF wide effort. Budget for OCI is about $200 million this fiscal year. Major provisioning and middleware development responsibility -> transformative use for science and education -> research to enhance technical and social performance of future CI environments -> [loop repetitively]. OCI web site.

Virtual orgs for distributed communities incorporate data visualization and interaction, and high performance computing. NSF just funded petascale computing at UIUC. Much hi-perf incorporated in the Teragrid resource network. Science gateways are portals into science based virtual communities which could be extended into virtual worlds. Many data federation and stewardship issues. Need frameworks to sustain stewardship of data, and use of data intensive environments. Need work to enable creation of virtual organizations easily; distributed authentication. Examples of networks at Teragrid web site. NSF funds peering relationships with international research and education networks (Asia, Europe, and S. America, and increasingly SE Asia and Africa).

Virtual worlds + international e-science + CI in humanities + open participatory web movement (web 2.0) + open educational resources + open scholarly communication + new concepts of universities and learning (e.g. OECD work) + multi-stateholder interest in investment in virtual worlds == Huge opportunity for learning and discovery.


Discussion of existing virtual environments.
First successful virtual environment was Habitat, from 1987.

Possible evaluation criteria for virtual worlds ...

Functionality: graphics quality; APIs for simulation; interface tools; authoring tools; links to 2D web; chat/voice capabilities; support for multiple instances; ADA issues.
Performance: expansion, reliability, stability, scalability.
Compatibility: support for multiple platforms; import/export of standard CAD files; APIs for widely used physics and other engines; firewall co-existence.
Security: trust mgmt; identity mgmt; security against hacks; protection against theft; protection against malicious users.
Legal and Mgmt: open source?; IP (who owns created objects?); privacy policy; money (micro-pays, conversion to RW currency); mgmt of abusive behavior; access via subscription, secure areas, age-restricted areas?
Installed based: # of actual users; number, quality and diversity of objects free or for sale; size of developer community; level of adoption by academic, corporate, government users.

Example virtual worlds: Second Life; Active Worlds; Entropia; Olive
Example engines: Multiverse, Croquet, Delta3D

Sun's Mobile Avenue listing for worlds.


HK: Can you find a platform that will support a variety of learning paradigms or explorations?
JSB: How would we support n-level recursion into information and resources? (E.g., Toyota's 5 Whys).
DL-NASA: Notable how successful (financially) games (WOW) are compared to virtual environments.
DF: Distinction in DoD between an Exercise (as realistic as possible) and a Practice.
Misc: Is there a useful distinction in this context between training v. education? Distinction between simulations and games?
DC: Let's think about all of these as learning, generally.
HK: Don't confuse middleware platform and pedagogy theory. Conjecture: Recursion could be problematic. We should have a playground where we can test teaching alternatives.
AvD: Must be selective in what we try to accomplish. Not much discussion of course/teaching management, or assessment, for example. Virtual world platforms are not motivated by learning concerns -- how much of a problem is this? Premature standardization might be harmful.
AW: Wall St. frowns on game firms pursuing educational markets. Mistake probably to fund a game company to build an educational platform. Game cos. are risk averse now.
PW: We have been thinking about platform, and putting content on the platform. But another way of thinking should be the content is the technology - data is the driver.
ML: content/technology integration is the key. We want the material in the curriculum to come to life. Recursive simulation is really valuable, supporting of education.
PW: Let's start with what we have. We have lots of data already - e.g. on human physiology, on the natural world. We need to figure out how to use that.
GJ: Concerned about the complexity of 3D worlds. 2D worlds are often more easily navigable. 3D carries a lot of overhead. Trying to compile toolkits to enable construction of virtual representations of Protein DB imaging. How can we figure out how to make easily navigable datasets?
AvD: Content is linked to technology but they are not identical. Would love to have standards for portrayal of data. How can we support multi-scale scenarios simultaneously? (Real portrayal of planetary distribution is difficult to comprehend, and is usually compressed to aid understanding).
PW: In VWs are we re-creating things we already have or understand, or are we moving to explore our boundary of knowledge and experience? What is the 3D good for? Things we can't easily visualize in real life are suitable themes for virtualization.
JSB: Too early standardization could be bad. Visualization is changing fast, for example. Maybe we let 100 flowers bloom, and then choose later.


Existing development initiatives:

Digital Media and Learning Competition, funded by HASTAC and the Macarthur Foundation. "Innovation Awards will go to pioneers who are exploring new digital models of learning that build upon and enhance the informal, networked, and collaborative styles today, especially but not only among youth. These projects will demonstrate new modes of learning in many environments."

Immersive Education. "Originally available only to university students, the next generation of Immersive Education is focused on a broad spectrum of academic and non-academic users (higher education, K-12 [kindergarten through high school], and corporate training)."

IBM: Lessons from Online Gaming. "Yet, massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), which bring together thousands of simultaneous players in a fast-paced online environment, can provide an interesting portent for the future of organizations. ... [T]he similarities between the online, globe-spanning gaming world and the emerging picture of the globally integrated enterprise of the future are actually quite striking."


... Much wide-ranging discussion of how to foster development that will facilitate the special needs of k20 education and teaching. Should we work, e.g., work with existing platforms, and /or fund new initiatives, develop test beds, hold competitions, move towards solicitations. How much back-end work (e.g. figure out assessment, quality measures). Should worlds be built anew, to build better? Work in close collaboration with a single or small number of existing platforms or engines? Or take a hedge-fund approach with multiple avenues pursued. No consensus emerging in open discussion.

Session on selecting a virtual world platform for edu and training.

Assumptions: Might be console-based, mobile-based, or PC-based (generic use of the term). Internet-based access of varying closure (e.g., corporate LANS). Hewlett prefers open-access, intellectual property to be governed by CC licenses. In developing countries, getting on the net is costly; adding additional costs is a disincentive. Locate required authentication wall as deep into application as possible (e.g., registering for a course, or comment on content), or as an alternative tier authentication / profile information release. Some push back from others on whether content and / or platform need be necessarily, or fully, open. Conclusion, there is a continuum of openness for both content and platform; Hewlett (and DLF) would prefer maximal openness on both vectors.

FAS prefers short time frame for achieving first goods - hitting a point from a date where one can start to build and work - maybe six months to a year for first applications. (This takes features like natural language processing support off the table). Desire that within three years, one has the capacity to make changes to the platform (ie., the software base).

Recognize that major platform change / replacement / overhaul will occur every 3-5 years. It is absolutely critical to make sure that education is not ghettoized.

Key goal is to build collaborative community; fix/improve with virtual improvement with platform extensions; build content to teach classes. Platform extensions: how could we extend an existing virtual world platform to support better simulations? Or to substitute - relying on modular support for major services - an improved physics engine into an existing platform, or create a virtual space with alternative physics.


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Comments: 5

Daniel Laughlin   [08.16.07 03:13 PM]

Here's a perfectly good venue to get comments in when there is not time to wedge them into the discussion. I am not going to accept the comment 'games are not the new latin':)

scott gray   [08.16.07 06:03 PM]

I for one am skeptical of this new "immersive" education craze. Not that I'm against immersive education, but I am against using virtual worlds and games to teach subjects not appropriately taught in such environments.

In other words ... don't immerse someone in water when you want to teach them to walk.

Every bit of research over the last 30 years points to constuctivism over objectivism as the proper approach to teaching and learning when using computers. Educators need to build systems that behave more like tools, and design activities which get students creating and building their knowledge and not systems which are used mostly as presentation engines (like every virtual world education system I've ever seen).

My fear is that like the web before it, virtual worlds and games will simply be glorified presentation engines where interactivity is limited to cruising from presentation to presentation with a few quizzes in between for good measure.

To me immersive education is more like what we're doing at the O'Reilly School of Technology where the courses are all designed activities within development tools that get students building and creating things will very little presentation overhead. This type of system hands the ownership of the skills being learned over to the student where their creations and experiments are the biggest part of the learning system rather than simply being relative passive observer of some presentation (clicking is relative passive!).

Peter Brantley   [08.16.07 08:47 PM]

scott -

this was hastily blogged, so some of the nuances are not there, but I can assure you no one at the gathering wanted anything but scenarios where people could engage directly with learning materials - thus the emphasis on recursion, for example. it was also noted that one of the key features of many of these worlds was the inherent engagement of users in construction and modeling. in the meeting, we talked a lot about simulation, but it was also user-centered, and user-involved. no one there foresaw a glorified tv future.

please check out some of the things that have been done in this space by these actors - e.g., immune attack by FAS, and you'll see these theme quite strongly.

Jerome McDonough   [08.17.07 07:23 AM]

1. Funders support dozens of experiments on dozens of worlds that are not inter-operable, none of which are likely to operate at scale large enough to build meaningful community (default).
2. Try to force interoperability standards or wait for them to be developed.
3. Fund the development of an ideal platform.
4. Pick a platform that provides adequate services and start a community, pushing for interoperability and openness.

Of these, I'd pick #4. You cannot force interoperability standards on a bunch of commercial efforts that have bills to pay. They'll salute your efforts and ignore it. I'm also not optimistic about waiting for it to develop. The VRML and Living Worlds standard efforts left a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of 3D world developers, and lot of them are now convinced that standards efforts just hold back good development in this area at the moment. If you can find a player that's willing to open everything up and work with you, I'd go with that, and given that Linden has been making noises about opening the server code for awhile now, they're the obvious candidate.

Lucy, school teacher   [08.28.07 04:19 AM]

"To me immersive education is more like what we're doing at the O'Reilly School of Technology where the courses are all designed activities within development tools that get students building and creating things will very little presentation overhead." - I don't think it is a problem if immersive education itself. We just have to try, analyze the results and implement further improvements.

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