12 June 2006

Are virtual worlds the future of the classroom? [CNET News]

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This summer, as many as a million virtual kids could catch an infectious virus known as Whypox, causing them to break out in red welts and spout “Achoo” whenever chatting with friends.

Meanwhile, at the beach, crowds of “tweens,” 8- to 12-year-olds, will see their popular hangout beset with so-called red tides, as the seashore changes from blue to red with phytoplankton blossoms.

Are these two signs of a crumbling world? No, they’re learning tools for Whyvillains, the residents of an online virtual world whose population of kids has grown to about 1.6 million since its inception in 1999. Children in Whyville earn “clams” through activities and games, and use that virtual money to buy face decorations for their otherwise plain avatars. Then, they typically socialize with peers via chat, bulletin boards and the city’s mail system.

In educational circles, Whyville’s private universe is known as a multiuser virtual environment, or MUVE, a genre of software games created to inspire children to learn about math and science, among other subjects. Unlike most game software and social networks, which elicit negative associations for some parents and teachers, MUVEs are structured environments with rules for behavior, yet no pat formula for action. Designed to provide problems to solve that don’t involve slaying monsters, MUVEs compel kids to figure out the issues to succeed in the environments or have time to socialize.

Learning-based virtual worlds are growing more popular in schools and among children, thanks to ongoing efforts by universities and private companies.

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