[Press} Get a Life: Students Collaborate in Simulated Roles

In a recent Edutopia.com article, Laila Weir writes about how virtual reality provides a shared online universe in which students can play to learn. She spotlights several programs, including Suffern Middle School and Global Kids that are using virtual worlds. Highlights from the article are below; to read the full article go here.

"If you're looking for something for teens who have less sophisticated technical skills, you may want to bring them into Whyville," advises Barry Joseph of Global Kids, a New York City nonprofit organization that's exploring the educational uses of virtual worlds. But he notes, "Second Life is great for teachers interested in working in collaborations to create something that users can view in a community environment."

Students Collaborate in Simulated Worlds

Global Kids recently partnered with the High School for Global Citizenship, a public school in Brooklyn, to have the school's freshman global-science students work in Teen Second Life. There, they'll participate in simulations that bring to life the sustainability issues that are the focus of the class. In one activity about the impact of garbage on Venice, students, via their avatars, will explore a three-dimensional virtual Venice, where they will interview residents and look for solutions to the trash problem.

So far, according to Assistant Principal Tracy Rebe, students have been enthusiastic to the unheard-of point of arriving early to their first-period class. Student Shaquille Sanders explains their eagerness: "You're having fun while doing schoolwork, which I think is what every kid likes to do." He says the students look forward to "being able to go places we can't go in school and do experiments that are maybe a little too dangerous for the classroom." Adds senior Allan Marshall, who's assisting Rebe (who teaches the class), "InSecond Life, you're just free."

Technology integration: "Technology is one of our biggest goals," says teacher Tracy Rebe about her science class that uses Second Life. "But we've never really used technology as the curriculum. It's been a support -- you'll type up a paper or do Internet research -- but we've never used it as a format for learning before."

Technology: You need at least a few good computers and a strong Internet connection to use virtual worlds. To allow an entire class to use the technologically sophisticated Second Life, the High School of Global Citizenship and Global Kids relied on a Motorola Innovation Generation Grant to pay for new laptops for all the students. There are many grants out there, but it's OK to start small. For instance, teacher Liza Medina held a more limited virtual activity with students sharing computers.

Student motivation: "The students are so into it, it's sometimes hard to tear them away," warns Tracy Rebe. "They want to learn, but they're excited, and refocusing them can be hard. Still, this is a good challenge."

Often, kids who have grown up with the Internet and video games may pick up the ins and outs of virtual worlds faster than even the most technologically savvy teachers. "I'm learning to be comfortable with my students being in their element, even though it's not my element necessarily," Rebe admits. But don't worry. There's plenty of support for virtual world newcomers, including groups that train teachers to use Second Life.

Bonus tip: Global Kids also uses Second Life for after-school activities. The group recently held a virtual press conference in Teen Second Life to launch projects developed by teens to tackle problems in their communities -- both in and outside the virtual world. At the event, Daniel, a teenager from the United Kingdom, introduced his project, Beat Bullying. "We hope to develop a space where teens can talk about bullying with other teens and how to tackle the problem," he explained.