3D and Virtual worlds: magic bullet of pedagogical nirvana

The education community is all a buzz with 3D content. 3D projectors and 3D teaching material is shown to improve grades.

Well . . . duh.

Maybe my reaction is a bit harsh. Do take it (my reaction) with a big grain of salt. What follows is just my perspective on the latest and greatest classroom technology. Let’s put on our travel caps and go back in time a bit . . .

From the 1940s up till 1990, the film strip ruled the multimedia world, at least in K-12 settings. The 1950s, 60s, and 70s saw its use skyrocket (also a time when the rocket was an iconic part of science education). Film strips were much less expensive than 16 mm films and far easier to use (no film to splice). The really fancy ones had an accompanying 33 RPM record (later a cassette tape) complete with audio cue when to advance to the next static image. If you were lucky, maybe you, as a student, were chosen to advance the slides. Ah, fond memories (or bad if you were considered the teacher’s pet).

Seems low tech by today’s standards but that was multimedia. Perhaps even immersive multimedia. After all, vibrant images and accompanying audio with lights off allowed you to be transported into the circulatory system or through the solar system.

Student grades went up with the use of film strips. It’s not hard to see why, you had a break from your teacher (there are many good teachers, but also many that just lecture and are, frankly, boring and drone on and on), the lights went out, you had larger pictures and audio that surely was done by some high level expert! When you take a class setting that has students sitting neatly at their desks, a teacher in the front of the class, a textbook on their desks, plus all the pressure from other students and how you, as the student, thought you had to act, it’s no wonder film strips made a difference and helped students learn better.

Once the lights go off, it’s easier to forget about those around you (unless you were focused on note passing), let your guard down, and learn more. Different pathways of the brain become active with a different voice, brighter images, and so on – this leads to deeper learning.

When I see all the hoopla about 3D in the classroom these days, it reminds me of the same claims made by film strip producers. Higher engagement, better grades, blah, blah, blah.

The reason? It’s the same as film strips – it’s different and different is often exciting and reaches different parts of the brain.

But . . . in the long run, many of these technologies fail as we strive to build the “smart classroom”. Integrating technology does not lead to better education in, and of, itself. There is also a rush to adopt new technologies without understanding that teachers will adopt those things that work and work well. The film strip succeeded because it was reliable, inexpensive, and easy to use. The same happened with VHS tapes (which made film strips obsolete). A VHS tape allowed for many teachers (myself included) to tape (hmm, pirate in reality) great shows and show them in the classroom. That was a great resource because you had vast amounts of programming out there and could find something that fit your lesson and your perspective.

With 3D learning materials, you are limited to a much smaller pool of material. And you have a technology that is difficult, if not impossible, for the teacher to create their own material in. With the VCR came video cameras. I could (and did) film model rockets, rock climbing, rivers, SCUBA diving, and sailing to illustrate certain concepts (science home movies, how’s that for geeky!).

Certainly, there is value to 3D material, but will it last? Will it replace some of the home-grown nature of teaching? And what about schools with tight budgets? Is one $700 3D LCD projector the very best way to reach more students in a school running on a small budget?

Sometimes we forget that it is the content and the teacher that make the impact on learners. While technology is cool and maybe even fun, it won’t improve mediocre teaching very much.

What are other 3D options? This is easy to guess if you read what I write or what Ener writes. =)

Virtual worlds.

Yes, Second Life had its hype a few years back. But it is very expensive and takes some serious time to create activities in for students to use. Actually, the biggest stumbling block is the age limit. You have to be 18 to use the main grid. The teen grid only goes down to 13 years old and it’s hard to get in as an adult and build activities. Plus, Second Life has a certain stigma to it with its “adult” areas. This is a real concern for teachers and parents. It’s a real drag to be holding a class in Second Life and have some nude dude walk by! The FTC report on this was discussed by Ener some time back, with the FTC finding that sexual material was readily available in Second Life: ” . . . heavy amount of explicit content” and “during the Commission’s review, explicit content was still easily available free of charge in Second Life, without account verification.”

That’s Second Life and, unfortunately, it has somewhat tarnished what virtual worlds can be for education. There are great examples of fabulous education programs in Second Life, but mainly for post-secondary level.

There are options though that behave just like Second Life (because they are built on the same code) but cost far less and are suitable for primary and secondary education. And some of these options already see K-12 teachers building activities for students. We are in Reaction grid doing this type of development. But, we are also very grounded with it.

Virtual worlds are not a magic bullet of pedagogical nirvana.

Rather, our approach is that it is simply that virtual worlds are a medium for communication. The purpose of a textbook and it’s images are not to be the ultimate material to learn. They should spark a conversation and act as a different “voice” to help expose the student to a more rounded view of the subject at hand.

For example, almost all depictions of the water cycle do not place people, animals, or even trees as part of the cycle. They typically show radiation, evaporation, condensation, precipitation, runoff, and maybe ground water. And there is nothing wrong with that. But how do we fit in? Isn’t Earth mostly a closed system and are we not part of it? We must factor in, even if in a minute manner. And we do! Respiration in humans and animals includes water vapor. We exhale some water as byproducts of cellular combustion. Plants don’t breathe but they do transpire and that involves water too (remember the stomata?).

When I taught the water cycle, I always added a stick figure dog and person (yes, it was a pretty sad-looking dog, but students understood) and trees. That gives a sense of context and it ties us into the cycle and into the environment. We all know that we impact the environment so why not depict us within all of these systems?

A drawing on the chalk board, later the dry erase board, later the overhead, and finally a flash animation I made (still had the odd stick figure dog in it) are all simply channels of communication. The same can be done drawing in the dirt or in creating a 3D version in a virtual world where the student can become the “stick figure” and walk around within it.

That’s precisely what we are doing in OpenSim-based virtual worlds. We are building places to spark conversations between teachers (or parents) and students. This is a film strip in 3D that you can walk around in.

Is it the end all be all of education?

No more than the current 3D projector is. But I think it can be accessible and economical. It leverages the work of others (like our work) and also allows teachers, that have an interest, to build their own places. I know of one group that are using virtual worlds to have their students build an historic recreation. The students themselves are creating a historic town. That’s pretty cool.


A rain gauge at a mountain top weather station


Inside a weather station outpost