The Potential of Multi-User Virtual Environments: Fun Plus Learning

Fun Plus Learning
The following article written by Annette Lamb is part of a panel presentation prepared for the K-12 Online Conference in October 2007.

My name is Annette Lamb. I'm a professor at Indiana University at Indianapolis (IUPUI) in the School of Information and Library Science and work with teachers, librarians, and teacher librarians.

You've seen some great examples of how virtual worlds can be used with young people and adults. It's lots of fun, but what's the potential for the schools today and tomorrow?

As the environments and tools evolve, what kinds of teaching and learning environments will be effective, efficient, and appealing?

Let's explore a few possibilities across the curriculum:

English, Literature, and Language Arts

Literature comes alive when watching a performance of a Shakespearean play at the virtual Globe Theater where actors from around the world come together wearing elaborate period costumes for a live event. Young people could read their creative works in a virtual poetry slam or joining an author in a virtual discussion. It's possible to explore one person's vision of the Secret Garden at Imagination Island, but wouldn't it be great to involve students in creating their own vision of a book setting like Tuck Everlasting. What book setting would you like to visualize... science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction?

Many of these opportunities are already available in Second Life. The key is building direct connections with the curriculum and providing young people with easy to use tools and spaces.

Explore the Libraries area for examples of online resources for literature and other information.


Places like Renaissance Island provide insight into life in the past. Imagine young people reading an historical fiction novel, researching the time period, then immersing themselves in the time and place.

Whether walking in the shoes of a confederate solider or baking bread in the middle ages, history can be brought to life through re-enactments. Let's recreate a famous day in history or an average day in the life of a pioneer. What would you trade on the Silk Road or take on the Santa Fe trail?

Not only could you recreate actual events and situations, but you could explore "what-if" scenarios. What would it be like to dine with authors or scientists from the past? Who would you be? Who would you invite?

Bernie Dodge at San Diego State University has been working on ways to incorporate the WebQuest approach into the Second Life environment. While it's currently time consuming to produce materials with the current tools, you can get an idea of the approach by exploring the pioneer, mission, Puritans, and Chinese Immigrant areas by visiting the Second Life Pioneers area.

Explore the Time Travel area for other examples.

Culture and Learning
Culture and Language

Whether practicing Spanish in a Mexican market or recreating a Japanese Theater performance, young people can become immersed culture and language. Right now, it's possible to stroll Japanese gardens. What if a warehouse of customizable costumes and props were available to young people? What if volunteers from various cultures worked together to provide information and resources to bring authenticity to these experiences? Interacting with native speakers, discussing local customs, and dispelling myths are only a few of the possibilities.

Economics and Public Service

NoWomanNoLife is a Second Life project that promotes the works of a non-profit organization. People create and donate virtual objects that are sold in a marketplace. Money from these sales go to support real-world projects.

Using this model, young people could learn about both real-world economics and public service in an environment they create. They could even build their own virtual marketplace where objects could be created and sold to support real life school and community service projects.

Social activism is a popular activity in virtual environments. Explore the Relay for Life as an example.

Math and Science
Math and Science

Virtual worlds provide a place to try out scientific ideas in a safe environment. Organizations such as NASA and NOAA already provide some basic experiences.

What if young people could design their own ecosystem by creating virtual plants and animals that could interact with each other? They could learn what happens when predators and prey become unbalanced and make comparisons to the real world. Explore the potential at Second Nature.

From exploring the spread of viruses to examining the physics of moving objects, virtual worlds provide a safe environment for learning and applying scientific concepts. Explore natural wonders, space exploration, and underwater adventures.

The Arts
The Arts

Whether showcasing a digital painting, performing a virtual ballet, or playing the trumpet in a jazz band, virtual performances are a way for young people to share their skills and talents with an authentic audience. Virtual worlds provide a venture for all kinds of performances. Explore performance examples.

What if the coolest objects and easy development tools were available to teachers and young learners
in a free, sheltered environment? What world would you create?


Second Life Teens provides a safe, nurturing place for young people to build and explore. Unfortunately, it's not a place where young people can interact with adults or easily collaborate on projects without special arrangements and expensive virtual space.

The main grid of Second Life is designed for adults and reflects the best and worst of society. Although there are rules governing behavior, there are many places and activities that are only appropriate for mature audiences. From nudity and adult theme clothing to war games and sexual activities, one of the pitfalls of Second Life for educators is that mature content is scattered throughout the world making it an inappropriate tool for kids. This open atmosphere is what draws some people to the environment, but it's also a cause of frustration for educators who would love to be able to take students on virtual field trips and immerse their students in resources available in SL, but not SL for Teens.

Another concern is bandwidth. Many schools don't have the infrastructure to support multiuser environments. In addition, it can be time consuming to develop the learning environments that might be the most useful to young learners.


Given the potential and pitfalls, Multi-User Virtual Environments promise to provide a wonderful world for teaching and learning. The key is matching the promise of technology with the creative minds of educators and their students.