As I reflect on virtual reality in education, I’m not sure I see the benefits of systems like Minecraft and Second Life. I understand that there are teachers who have found ways to create, simulate, and collaborate within these environments however, I wonder if learning is really occurring. In some of my research I found that Second Life hosts “virtual learning” landscapes where students log in virtually and go participate in learning excursions, build simulations, etc. However, users have complete control over their environment so really it doesn’t simulate reality but fantasy. For example in Second Life you can fly around. Sure I look like a human but it’s not really a real simulation in the sense I’m simulating a real or like how Flight Simulator X simulates the real conditions that exist when piloting an aircraft.
As teachers we should be cautious of what virtual reality tools we select and be very intentional as to why we select them. I understand that many teachers jump into these technologies simply because their fun, exciting, and engage students. I also must admit that playing Halo on Xbox 360 evokes the same feelings for myself yet I do not gain much in the realm of what we would consider an “official education” (reading, writing, math, etc). If we can look at a tool, like Minecraft, we could potentially teach students about basic programming by looking at the commands that can be entered into the Minecraft system. In reality it’s not about Minecraft, but understanding Java systems, which is more beneficial to the student than the experience of playing Minecraft. I could easily see teachers putting kids on Minecraft, letting them play, and students coming away only with the understanding that Minecraft is another game they can play online. Ultimately it comes down to teachers making these educational objective very explicit with students to help them understand the learning that really occurring as the tool, as many of us know, is unimportant.
I of course have concerns about the addictiveness of virtual worlds and the anti-social tendencies that can stem from excessive online time. I know firsthand the pull of video games, especially on males, and even I have found myself neglecting other areas of my life just to spend a few hours playing an online RP. Thus it is important, if we utilize these virtual tools, that we give our students the skills necessary to moderate their time online and offline. Unfortunately we haven’t done a very good job at this which is why you see companies like Apple, Android, and Microsoft putting parent controls on devices which limit the amount of time those devices can be used. If we as educators can bring out the best in virtual reality by filtering through the tool to find the real learning while demonstrating to our students digital responsibility, we can utilize a very powerful tool to the benefit of our kids.