The Affordances of Virtual Worlds and 21st Century Learning Environments

Below is a reposting of an article from MacArthur's Digital Media and Learning, in which Connie Yowell asks: What can we learn from young people about why they find virtual worlds so appealing?

An affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action. This term came to mind as I read through Barry Joseph’s post—Comparing apples and oranges in virtual worlds. The recent simulcasting of an extraordinary speech by Kofi Annan into four different virtual worlds certainly provided an opportunity to think about virtual worlds and how young people use them. I came away from the event most struck, perhaps, by the size and quality of the discussion held in Whyville. Over 180 young people attended the event in Whyville, creating streams and streams of thoughtful chat discussion. Quite extraordinary really. What is it about the norms, practices, adult roles and other such affordances of this space that is so appealing and engaging for young people? More importantly perhaps, is if we cast aside our adult expectations and standards, what it is we can learn from young people about why they find this virtual world such an engaging learning space?

These are the kind of questions that form the basis of MacArthur’s grantmaking in Digital Media and Learning. What can we learn from young people about how to use digital media to support learning? What do young people have to tell us about the shape and future of learning environments in the 21st century? As research begins to emerge and as we observe the extraordinary engagement of young people in virtual worlds such as Whyville, Quest Atlantis and others, we have begun to form a tentative list of the kinds of affordances we see in environments that support learning. So far, we see the greatest engagement in those environments that allow young people to pursue a need to know, to share, to produce, to make their thoughts and productions public, and to develop a specialized language.

These are just a few tentative ideas that are emerging and are offered here simply to stimulate discussion. We think they are useful because they focus on the experience of young people in these environments rather than on the technology. In the posts that follow, I have invited a few of our colleagues to share their thoughts on the affordances of virtual worlds.