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Monday, May 17, 2010

Future of Virtual 3D Environments for Learning

Based on the recent Big Question - Learning Technology 2015 – I received an interesting question:

"Tony, what do you think of environments like Second Life? Do you think these have a great future in the world of learning for adults?"

This is a topic I’ve talked about a few times.  Probably before you begin to read my predictions, it’s worth looking at: Second Life Learning Videos where I’ve collected a few different examples of learning in Second Life.  You might also look at Second Life and Learning and Second Life as a Learning Tool.
There was a great recent article (found via  Gary Woodill) - Where Have All the Avatars Gone?  The basic point of the article is that despite not hearing as much about Second Life and other virtual worlds, a lot is happening where you can’t see it.  A couple of points from the article:
  • Over 2,000 global enterprises, 600 universities, 35 international governments, and several divisions of the U.S. federal government — including the Departments of State, Homeland Security, NOAA, NASA, Army, Navy and Air Force — now exploit Second Life technology to connect with stakeholders around the world, communicate complex ideas, train and collaborate.
  • In Second Life, the Michelin Group, for example, has an "extremely successful complex training program and interactive simulations for training worldwide employees in Enterprise Architecture.

My personal experience with Second Life is that there's something really compelling about conducting meetings and events in virtual worlds.  You really feel like you are more there.  I also think there are some incredible opportunities to use things like Second Life to create virtual learning experiences very much like the experience of visiting the Plymouth Plantation or Colonial Williamsburg – without travel or cost of the venue.  Forms of this are happening already.

But I also think that the current technical hurdles and learning curve is putting a damper on adoption.  It’s a bit like video conferencing systems.  If it’s not as easy as picking up a phone, then you need something pretty compelling to make it worth the headache.

So to answer the question directly:

  • Virtual worlds offer the possibility of creating some incredible learning experiences, however,
  • Current technical and learning curve adoption hurdles make it a niche technology, thus
  • If I’m creating a new company, product, etc., I’m pretty skeptical about basing it on these technologies.

What about by 2015 to go along with the big question?

My belief is that true 3D virtual worlds like Second Life will remain a bit more of a niche.  But I think there’s something that will come in from the back door that could cause significant adoption by 2015.

We’ve reached a tipping point for web conferencing where it’s equivalent too and often preferable to face-to-face (Learning from Others in the Room, Narrowing Gap between Face-to-Face and Online Presentations, New Presenter and Learner Skills and Methods).

I’ve predicted for a few years (Ten Predictions for eLearning 2008) that we would see adoption by mainstream web conferencing / video conferencing tools of something I would call a 2.5D environment.  Give people an avatar or picture.  Allow something along the lines of conference seating and break out rooms with separate voice streams in each.  But I’ve yet to see this materialize.  I think this changes the adoption dynamic entirely.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on where this is going and where we will really see adoption for the mainstream.


Anonymous said...

Second life and so called "virtual worlds" will not take off in e-learning like you're saying they will, but ironically for the reasons you've listed. If they were going to be anything, they would have by now. If you go into those corporate environments in SL, you'll notice they're completely empty for the most part and seldom used. I work for a large Fortune 10 company and we found the baby boomers thought SL was pretty neat, but nobody could really justify development of learning experiences just to have "presence". It really adds no benefit and adds complexity for the learner to get to content. Second Life is beyond decline mode, it's irrelevant and just an '00 trend. Having a 3D avatar to make you feel "in the room" to have presence in training is a gimmic that doesn't really work. Its need for the first 10 minutes, then it's old, boring and rather cliche.

Guy Boulet said...

Designing learning is primarily about filling the learner's needs. Do they need an avatar walking around a virtual building to learn? If they need to learn their way around the building, then yes, it may help. If they need to learn about internal policies or the new accounting software then what's the use of virtual worlds.

I once had to go in second life to access a virtual theater in order to view a video. Could have streamed it from YouTube way more easily and probably get better results.

Don't just use a technology because you can, use it because you need it.

NobodyTalking said...

As an eLearning developer I have never fully been able to see the large scale adoption of SecondLife, and its potential for virtual meetings. I believe that the general public, for some reason, has difficulty accepting and embracing virtual worlds as a medium to meet and learn. Right or wrong the adoption of SecondLife has plateaued and looks to remain as a niche technology. Virtual worlds have been around for years, and they continue to flounder, see Google Lively.

The eLearning community tends to create buzz around certain new technologies, only to find that they just don't quite fit, or function as initially thought. For me, virtual worlds fall into this category technology that is just not quite fitting.

Peter Miller said...

I'd just draw your attention to the recent Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds meeting where people like Clark Aldrich and Tony O'Driscoll seemed to be taking virtual worlds pretty seriously. Guy obviously has a point but that doesn't mean VWs are without merit as the other commenters imply. 2.5D worlds don't seem to be used as widely by educators for some reason so I'm not convinced there, even if that is the preferred platform for teens. Anyway, SL is certainly not "beyond decline mode". No evidence for that at all.

subquark said...

Virtual worlds are another channel of communication. They can be used effectively for eLearning and education. And so can a stick drawing in the sand (Plato).

As always, content and the teacher (the teacher can be the one authoring the course and need not be present) are what make learning engaging, meaningful, and relevant.

We always focus on the technology (I must agree with nobody talking about our love to jump onto the next greatest thing).

I know Second Life well - 19 sims for three years and now 16 in OpenSim. They are fun, immersive, collaborative, and can work very well or fail miserably.

Second Life is no longer the best choice, in my opinion, for doing eLearning or education. Like Ning networks, the content is not as much yours as you may think. Linden Lab's recent TOS changes should be enough to prevent anyone from developing too much in-world. Anything you create is only yours via a license granted to you by Linden Lab.

Personally, I think your content should belong to you. That includes blog content (and why I am moving to self-hosted - as long as a TOS says "modify or revise these Terms of Service and policies at any time", then you are not fully in control of your content).

OpenSim alternatives present you with a greater degree of ownership of your work including fully copying entire sims.

Also, the main SL grid does not allow use by those under 18. Considering that much education is done below that age, Second Life is a poor choice.

For corporate use, as in meetings, Second Life can work well albeit rather expensively. If you are actively doing meetings, install OpenSim on your own servers and fully control security.

Other options are being worked on now, such as sims that can hold 1000 avatars. That makes the possibility of conferences much more real.

This past January, I had the chance to log in via my facebook account to a browser-based virtual world that does the 1000 avatars per sim. The graphics were far richer (on the order of Eve Online) and I could be logged in as me, not my avatar's name.

In my opinion, virtual worlds are not there yet for mainstream consumption but are here to stay.

For eLearning developers, I hold fast to their use as effective 3D animation studios (certainly easier than Blender 3D or Studio 3D Max).

For education, I think they are great for school projects, such as a group of students building an historic recreation or my current project of virtual field trips to teach environmental science.

The current 3D craze in K-12 is focused on 3D projectors which, like many K-12 tech initiatives will fizzle out in time because of limited content, cost of maintenance, et cetera. For this purpose, virtual worlds may help fill in that need plus allow teachers to create their own in-world content for students and allow students to connect with people from all around the world.

I think Tony is right with 2015, maybe a bit sooner - OpenSim content is tripling yearly and there are more private regions in OSGrid (an OpenSim network) than in Second Life.

Erica Fecko said...

I believe that this is just the beginning of virtual world era and the use of learning within them will increase within the next 5 years. The technology is not fully there yet for it to be mainstream. It takes a powerful machine to be able to process the information and most users do not have that type of equipment. It also requires a good amount of effort to get setup and running and it seems that the more steps there are, allows for more problems for the user which causes them to get frustrated and give up. Once these items are eliminated, I think that more people will be willing and able to give it a try and the virtual worlds will gain more popularity. On the other hand, it is very similar to gamming and some people just do not have an interest and want nothing to do with it. They could also be unwilling to try something new cause the old way works just fine and they do not see the potential benefits of using it.

In my opinion, Second Life is a great tool to use for certain elements of e-learning, such as simulations, but should not replace or be used as the main learning platform. I have been working with Second Life as an additional tool to use in our classes but have not been successful because of the processing restrictions and securities on my students machines. I believe that once it is more easily accessible, there will be a increase in the use of Second Life (or another virtual world) for e-learning purposes. Although I do not believe it will ever fully replace other online learning technologies but would be most likely used as an additional piece that will allow for an enriched synchronous learning environment and can allow for more entertaining collaboration.

V Yonkers said...

I think the problem with the virtual worlds is they are "virtual". With the greater integration of video and the new generation of video software and tools, a person's presence can be "real" rather than simulated. As a result, it is not necessary to have a meeting in a virtual world, especially as the price for interactive video conferencing goes down, the picture quality improves, and the technology becomes easier to use.

I think also there is always a question of the anonymity in second life which may prevent the ability to create "real" relationships. There is also the blurring of lines between "real" and "virtual" which I know many of us teachers have a problem with. My students don't take SL interactions seriously.

However, as Erika points out, this is a great tool if you want interactive simulation and you don't have big budget to build it.

Tony Karrer said...

Fantastic discussion - very interesting to get various perspectives on this. Thanks for chiming in so far.

Anonymous said...

For a 3D conferencing environment you can try VenueGen
I haven't tried it but it is very much like what you are describing in the last few paragraphs.

Paul Angileri said...

This is an interesting topioc, and one that I think can be linked with Donald Clark's post last week regarding virtual meetings and collaboration.

I think the concept of using virtual environments for functions like learning and meeting still has a long way to go technologically before companies are willing to hand over their "A-Ha!" and jump in. 3D is easier than ever, but it's still a very intensive development process.

gih said...

@ V Yonkers

That true, I also use for today's latest technology and giving me more fantastic challenge than virtual one. But there's a big price gap, expensive than a virtual.

Sanjay Parker said...

Tony - good stuff; re: your 2.5D enviro (like the numerics, btw) --- we've been using some of the virtual trade show booths to deliver a similar experience (ie Unisfair, et al). It gives a nice blend of synch and asynch comms/webcasts/documents/learning -- without the typical 6-hours required for mastery of a true virtual world environment (ie, being able to sit on a chair instead of someone's adjacent lap by accident).

Melissa Seifman said...

As a high school educator using virtual worlds as part of my IT education, I see in my classroom how much the students are learning through this immersive environment. My students and I have found applications for various academic and vocational classes that are enjoyable as much as they are educational. Simulations and the latest interactivity enhancements open up a wide variety of educational possibilities for businesses, secondary, and post secondary institutions.

That being said, I do believe that it works best as a combined effort - the 'grids' of connected organizations. Due to the development time and expertise needed, collaboration is a must to keep this succesful. I feel that a combination of both public and private virtual world servers is the best solution to the issue of collaboration vs. protection of information (or in my case, students). I certainly hope this technology grows and that I might be able to collaborate more with my peers.

Anonymous said...

I would have to side with those who see opportunity in 3D VW's as I have seen the results first hand. We have run several virtual events in our VirtualU platform, which has been designed to overcome most of the obstacles that have been mentioned above. We have designed it to be simple, intuitive, and scalable. We just exhibited last week at ASTD and overwhelmingly the corporate trainers are struggling with a way to get their people together. Rather than a webinar where you broadcast your message out to an isolated participant who feels alone and separated from the team, why not bring that team together in a virtual world and then deliver your message to them as one unit. This creates a higher level of engagement, accountability, bonding and a feeling of being part of a whole. This may seem like a small detail, but in fact it is a huge issue when dealing with a workforce spread out over the entire continent or world. If you haven't tried our simple to use platform join us today at I would love to provide you a complete tour and even show you our newly designed Art Gallery, complete with interactive art exhibits and more.

Unknown said...

I believe that 3D immersive environments are/will become a valuable tool for virtual learning. Although I disagree in general with his conclusions, I think Guy Boulet hit the nail on the head when he said:

"Do they need an avatar walking around a virtual building to learn? If they need to learn their way around the building, then yes, it may help."

A great example of this is the Virtual Forbidden City sim:

There isn't much value add when you present a powerpoint deck on a screen in second life. The benefits are realized when you create an activity, interection, etc. that really does benefit from the feeling of presence, and ability to create a virtual experience for the learner that is either closely related to the performance objectives of the solution or allows for a richer more engaging experience that can't be created in 2D. There are also opportunities to get away from multiple choice quizzes as assesments and get closer to a "practicum".

Tony Ratcliffe said...

The answer needs to come back to the business/education need for Second Life or another virtual world. One of my favorite case studies is the Loyalist College Canadian Border Simulation. I relate to it, as I supervised college field placement students and their experiences with different police, government, and private agencies. In this simulation, there is documented grade improvement and evidence of increased participation when students put on the uniform and actually play the roles.

Case Study: Loyalist College

YouTube video

Personally, I feel that future research and demonstrated positive results will increase the use of Virtual Immersive Environments (VIEs) in education and workplace learning. We have a long way to go, and many have not even considered the possibilities. Just think, many have not yet reached 2D yet.

Melissa Seifman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Melissa Seifman said...

My students LOVE learning in 3D. I can't keep them out of it. They have designed and scripted amusement parks, vehicles, and translated science concepts into virtual world interactive lessons to share with our STEM teachers. The students reinforce data modeling, and are introduced to computational science. It is a different way of learning, but very appealing to every student I or my students have show the technology to. That being said, there is a learning curve, and an organization most likely needs instructional system designer who understands how to create in the selected virtual world to effectively use it within an organization. With the number of open virtual world grids available, why not team up and collaborate with a company that may already have something similar started? I feel that the sharing of whats been developed will reduce these issues.

Tom Stone said...

Good post Tony, and good comments from everyone so far. My perspective in this area remains unchanged... in the long-run, virtual worlds will make sense as a niche, for learning situations where either the 3D aspect or the simulated/safety aspect make them worthwhile. But I don't think that longterm virtual worlds will be used for presentations and meetings -- there just isn't enough benefit over simple webinars today, and once video-conferencing gets better and more affordable (think Cisco TelePresence but less costly and more ubiquitous) -- organizations will naturally opt for that over avatar characters in a simulated 3D VW.

One of my tests for questions like this -- the what will things be like in five or ten years types of questions -- is to think about sci-fi shows like Star Trek: Next Generation. Captain Picard and his colleagues had simple tablet-like computers -- and we are just about there with iPad and the upcoming Android-based tablets. So those are very significant I think. And for meetings/etc. the use of video-conferencing was used and seemed entirely reasonable -- what could have been better? Certainly not avatars that represent you in a simulated 3D world! That would have seemed quite silly on STNG... and so it will in reality for us in the next 5-10 years. (Again, I'm talking about basic meetings and most learning/training contexts -- simulated 3D environments will have a place for special needs learning scenarios.)

Jillian Zavitz said...

What is your take on using virtual 3D environments in e-language learning? I an undecided on the topic as I have seen first hand how well it works as a facilitator and especially in a dogme teaching/learning approach. However, would this learning be transferable IRL? What use would these virtual worlds be if they were just virtual? How to you create the transfer from virtual to real without loosing the confidence that was attained in the virtual?

David Davis said...

I would check out the research from kzero and in particular look at their "universe" data . Compare the number of virtual worlds and participants in school ages versus the number of participants in the over 25 age group. I think the learning needs of a generation that grows up in virtual worlds may be quite different than our own. There has been some discussion in Second Life of Linden Labs working on a plug-in technology for web pages. If that were to actually be the case then Second Life could become a type of "Dreamweaver" for virtual web pages or web environments. People could go to a web page and "walk" into a 3D world. I am really glad I have taken the time to gain the skills needed to both participate and create in a virtual world. I think these skills will serve me well as an educator.

Anonymous said...

Tony, you said in the end of this article, "I’ve predicted for a few years (Ten Predictions for eLearning 2008) that we would see adoption by mainstream web conferencing / video conferencing tools of something I would call a 2.5D environment. Give people an avatar or picture. Allow something along the lines of conference seating and break out rooms with separate voice streams in each. But I’ve yet to see this materialize. I think this changes the adoption dynamic entirely."

Have you seen Sococo? You can find it at This product is right on target with this statement and also has a lot of pretty cool developments coming in the near future to strengthen this type of tool effectiveness. Its new technology actually will be available in as a platform for others to build their software around to help this niche also.

What do you think?

Dennis Cafiero said...

I have found the most difficult thing with 3d and learning is the creation of 3D content. Second life had made it easier for average users to create content for 3D but the average user still had to learn the fundamentals of learning 3D techniques. This is a huge draw back for the 99.9% of people that have never developed for 3D. I ran across an interesting tool which I think is trying to change this for elearning and 3D. The product is call Presente3D, it is a add-on to PowerPoint that allows you to easily take standard 3D presentations and make itstereoscoptic 3D . They currently have a beta available for free at You might want to check it out.