Removing Boundaries and Increasing Student Engagement through Virtual World Platforms
IS THE BURGEONING USE OF TECHNOLOGY IN HIGHER EDUCATION TO BE FEARED, GUARDED, OR embraced when creating new platforms for student learning? While the term “innovation” is often bandied about in various workplace settings, at Texas State Technical Colleges (TSTC) innovation is a valued and crucial element of the culture. Such an emphasis is demonstrated at TSTC’s annual conference for innovators, where employee-generated strategic initiatives are developed and promoted. In fact, it is from such an environment that TSTC’s venture into optional learning platforms began.
Expanding on traditional online and hybrid courses, TSTC became an early pioneer in the development of teaching and learning delivery systems using an online three-dimensional (3-D) world called Second Life. This virtual world is an immersive, user-configurable technology that allows participants to interact with fellow “inhabitants” or students and instructors, represented by avatars of their choice, from anywhere in the world via Internet access.
Apparently, TSTC’s early course-delivery work garnered the attention of other colleges also interested in emerging learning environments. Within a brief timeframe, TSTC began receiving inquiries and invitations for presentations; one of the first was entitled “Integration of Virtual Worlds in the Classroom” for the Texas Association of College Technical Educators (TACTE), a statewide educator convention.
However, when sharing information and learning experiences, TSTC is careful to stress that of the utmost importance to TSTC is not the technology per se, but the increased personal connectivity the platform provides when compared to two-dimensional online learning. Isolated online learning transforms into interactive learning in a 3-D virtual platform where students can receive immediate attention from their instructors and feel a greater sense of community with their classmates. In Second Life, students can also interact with others from around the world and expand their cultural experiences regardless of their geographical locations.
For example, one of the Digital Media students shared an experience in which she was given an assignment to survey a given number of Second Life inhabitants. She was gratified that she was able to communicate successfully with an avatar from Germany who agreed to answer her survey questions, even though neither of them was fluent in each other’s native language. Not only did she gain a new perspective, but she also increased her confidence level through interaction with an individual from a different culture. Removing boundaries and revamping the educational playing field equips students with a global awareness.
With these factors in place, faculty quickly recognized the critical advantages of the virtual world platform, and TSTC developed and began offering a Certificate in Digital Media and Design, via Second Life, within a year of creating its virtual campus. TSTC also produced teaching tools for the virtual environment that enable students to experience virtual “handson learning,” without the extra expense often associated with laboratory equipment. In the Introduction to Computer course, for example, students have the ability to explore a three-story computer while identifying and discussing hardware components. The students’ avatars literally sit on a video graphics card while discussing the purpose of the card and its most common attributes. Couple those advantages with the aforementioned benefits, and students’ learning opportunities increase dramatically.
In addition, instructors have the ability to offer assistance to students in a nonthreatening and caring manner. For instance, one of TSTC’s instructors has been known to accompany students on a virtual shopping spree to assist in the selection of appropriate avatar attire for formal dining etiquette learning events. And, in another situation, a student pointed out to an instructor that an interactive virtual learning platform enables individuals who may have physical challenges in “real life” to experience learning in a different way. Likewise, the student’s insight speaks to the potential of other Second Life students to observe interactions from another standpoint and increase their understanding of difficulties others face.
Through careful consideration and reflection, TSTC maintains that the “use of technology for the sake of technology” is not a practice conducive to effective student engagement. Instead, TSTC emphasizes that it is the applicable and innovative use of technology that is conducive to learning. Given the inherently engaging characteristics of 3-D virtual world platforms, the outlook for these tools is compelling. Indeed, adoption of this ever-expanding learning arena may be a necessity, not an option. D