Thursday, October 27, 2005

lemke and education.

so jay lemke came to campus tonight.

for those of you not familiar with his work, jay works in education at the university of michigan, and his work is at the fringe of sociolinguistics, social policy, and the hard sciences. his talk veered towards his current research on online communities based around online gaming and various MMORPGs, specifically how the strong group dynamic and the learning potential of a virtual environment could be used towards the ends of improving education. he painted a picture of a university curriculum where students could learn about physics be controlling an avatar that performs experiments in a virtual world. it's an interesting prospect, maybe complicated by the socioeconomic stratification and gendered division of current users of such programs, but maybe being a contributing factor to making this part of the internet more accessible.

thoughts? comments?

In HUMlab (, a humanities computer environment that I’m affiliated with here at Umeå University, we do quite a lot of work with virtual environments in education. For instance, we have a project where students of English write hypertext essays around certain themes and link these to 3D representations in a virtual world that they themselves build (Virtual Weddings in Active Worlds). Another project in the same platform (Vdrama in AWEDU) lets students perform drama in ancient theatres and lets them build modern theatres themselves. In both of these projects, the fact that students themselves easily can construct quite impressive final products has proven to be very important. In the Vdrama project, also the possibility to experience the spatial layout of the ancient theatres has helped create a better understanding among the students, not least since it would be difficult/impossible to visit these places otherwise.

Another project we’re involved with is to let students participating in distance language courses communicate orally in a graphical 3D platform called Traveler. This has proven to be very successful; not least because the otherwise isolated students get an opportunity to meet in a shared space. Traveler is, btw, one of the environments that I look at in my research on communicative affordances and conversational structures in online environments.
I've never understood why the gaming technology we have to today has never been used to educate. I figured that these gigs wouldn't pay too much, and so the quality game developers wouldn't want to wasate their time.

Is there any way i can get a copy of this traveler program? Who developed it? Is ti for sale?
I saw a presentation in England two years ago about a similar project; they had a program that had a very game-like interface to help middle-school students learn Macbeth. The kids basically had different virtual layouts (i.e. Macbeth's castle) and the ability to create and manipulate characters (i.e. Lady Macbeth, etc) that they could place on the layouts, along with thought bubbles and speech bubbles, in order to recreate a scene from the play, as they understood it. I think a sidebar on the screen contained the relevant text from the play for that scene. The research was looking at how the teachers and students co-constructed the meaning of the play through their interaction around the computer. Really interesting stuff, I don't know if anything like that is going on in the US.
I'm not aware of anyone doing anyting like this in the US. When I taught ESL, i thought it would be great to have a virtual world where my students could interact with things. I could give them a "mission" (ie, give them directions from their "home" to a store and ask them to pick up some things and bring them home). this would let them practice vocabulary in an "immersive" environment.
Traveler is developed by Digital Space and has been around for quite some time now. You can download the program for free to your computer and try it out. It is mainly used for socializing chat, and there are no autonomous agents, so here you cannot really manipulate any of the characters... Well, I suppose you could try, but they are all real people :-) .
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