Virtual Worlds in the Hands of Student Scientists

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Can video games really work as a learning tool? If so, what happens to the role of the teacher in this realm? Chris Dede and his colleagues at Harvard Graduate School of Education have been working on testing these theories and have come up with fascinating results.

I spoke with Dede at the Cyberlearning Tools for STEM Education Conference recently, and asked him to elaborate on his thesis. Here's the video, and the full transcript follow below. The big takeaway: When combined with challenges and assessments, along with the guidance of a teacher, video games can lead students to  rich learning experiences.

Read the full transcript here.


One of the big challenges of classrooms is that they're very barren places. They're isolated from the world.  Teachers typically have very limited resources that they can bring to bear, and yet we know that science takes place in very rich, real world settings with lots of lab equipment and with a lot of access to technology.


So, how students learn to act like scientists is complicated, but cyberlearning is really helping us with this because through cyberlearning, we can bring immersive experiences like those that students have in games or Club Penguin or Second Life into classrooms so that they're physically in the classroom, but psychologically, they're inside of some sort of digital environment. And if it's well constructed, and we build and study environments like this, we find that students can assume the role of scientists, and they can see the kinds of challenges that scientists face, and THEY CAN LEARN A LOT OF SKILLS THAT ARE THEN IMPORTANT FOR THEM LATER WHEN THEY'RE OUT OF THE CLASSROOM, AND IN THE REAL WORLD, bring science to bear on understanding problems.


We have four projects that deal with immersive virtual worlds in classrooms. One is curriculum oriented, where we're building and studying digital ecosystems. One is assessment oriented, where we put students in a challenging situation, and we ask them to use their inquiry skills to figure out what's happening. One is mathematics instead of science, and students land in the virtual world on a strange planet, and they have to use math in order to rescue their captain, and then the fourth goes back to the digital pond, and students are learning [about] social perspective taking and some skills out of social psychology and negotiating about land use.

So what we’re studying is how broad a range of 21st century skills and sophisticated kind of processes can students learn in virtual worlds. And what is the role of the teacher in all of this. How does the teacher help them interpret and reflect on these experiences that they are having in the world. So it’s fascinating to look out how these worlds can be used in different ways. And see what the strengths and limits are with each approach. So what we find is that if students simply experience a virtual world without any guidance, it’s fun for them, they are engaged, they probably learned something, but they don't learn very much. Because the virtual world is simpler than the real world. But to be authentic, it’s still pretty complicated.

So we’re not trying to create some teacher in the box experience, where kids go into a virtual world and all by themselves they learn a great deal. Instead we find COMBINING A VIRTUAL WORLD AND A SKILLED TEACHER IS VERY POWERFUL, BECAUSE THE WORLD PROVIDES THE ENGAGEMENT AND EXPERIENCE, BUT THE TEACHER PROVIDES THE INTERPRETATION AND THE ABILITY TO HELP STUDENTS PLAN. So the next time they go through the magic portal and back into the virtual world, they can organize themselves more effectively. We’re also finding that collaborative learning is also very powerful in virtual worlds. It’s easy for the students to play different roles, in which each gathers another set of data. And to put their elephant together they have to combine their knowledge of the trunk and the ears and the tail.  And that kind of jigsaw pedagogy is difficult to do in a standard classroom, but it works really well in a virtual environment.


When we think about how to bring cyberlearning into more conventional forms of instruction, I think that we need to think about the beginning and the end of a curricular unit. So, often students wonder, "Why am I learning this? I don’t see any relevance to my life," and if you have a cyberlearning experience that's authentic right at the beginning of a curricular unit, students see. They see why it's relevant to their lives, and they also see that they don’t know what to do, that they're confused and lost. So, now they have a reason to learn the curriculum. In the middle, I might use an assessment based on cyberlearning so that the students can see, "Yeah. I'm making some progress here, but there's also some things that I still don’t know." And then at the end, as a culminating experience and as an assessment, again, some kind of authentic cyberlearning can be really powerful. So, IT'S A LITTLE LIKE A DANCE, WHERE YOU'RE WEAVING CYBERLEARNING IN AND OUT OF FORMS OF INSTRUCTION THAT WE'RE MORE FAMILIAR WITH building on the strengths of each.