· 7 min read · Features

E-learning: Virtual worlds - Virtually speaking

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Is virtual worlds learning a fad or is it better than the real thing? HR magazine asked the UK's top virtual worlds experts to leave their avatars behind and join a real discussion to debate the trends.

Even if you only believe the most conservative estimates (such at those by Gartner, which predicts a 20% take-up in the next five years), virtual worlds (VW) learning - the training platform whereby learners become 'avatars' in a 3D computer animated world - seems destined to become the training norm. Thanks to the popularity of VW Second Life, which has more than 3 million 'inhabitants' globally, VW learning is touted as the natural replacement to 'serious games' (taking PlayStation-type graphics and gaming styles into the corporate learning space - see HR magazine June 2007).

Early adopters in this space already include Harvard University, which has its own Second Life 'Island', where tutors run classes and demonstrate complex ideas to participating students, while the MoD has also begun running bomb disposal simulations, exact to the smallest detail, in a similar virtual world environment. But is VW learning yet another HR-fad destined to be the next best thing, but which will ultimately be left languishing as an idea that never really fulfilled its potential? Is it any better than face-to-face learning? Does it have a mainstream future? And will there really be demand for it by HR directors in these belt-tightening times?

To answer these and many more questions, HR magazine brought together some of the UK's leading innovators in the VW space. And for all the technological difference VW learning represents, it did not take long for the group to argue it must not be seen purely as a technology solution.

"One of the problems about talking about virtual worlds is that people get too obsessed with technology," says The Serious Games Institute's David Wortley. "Virtual worlds include any immersive environment that creates an experience that can be learned from. In the same way a painting or a book is immersive, VW is just a technology that provides an immersive experience."

The group was also keen not to label VW training as sequential, in the sense it replaces a methodology before it. "There are genres of virtual worlds," says CBBC's Marc Goodchild. "Virtual worlds are just one of the technologies at play, as are games technologies and simulations technologies; these can all be used, with different benefits, depending on what you want to achieve. One must see them as complementary. It is the HR manager's job to understand how the particular strengths of different technologies fit in with your requirements and what you are trying to achieve."

Beyond role play

The crucial thing for HR, says Goodchild, is less the 'world' part of VW, and more the 'virtual' side of it. "HR directors have long incorporated game-play, such as role-play. Other companies use actors, but you can only suspend reality for so long. The virtual world can take your staff much further into the realms of the unknown, to push them further."

Digital 2.0's Jude Ower argues the main reason virtual worlds are being used by companies, such as Shell and BP, is so they can build realistic training scenarios to test people's reactions to dangerous situations. "This is in addition to the usually cited benefit that VW saves transporting lots of people around the world to one training location," she adds.

For it to spread outside of defence, academia and oil, HR directors still need to be convinced VW learning is more engaging and has a greater transfer of information than normal 'talk' n'chalk' approaches. Here the panellists worked their hardest to get this message across: "Research suggests being in an immersive world is far more engaging and productive than not because it offers a deeper, collaborating experience," suggests Clare Rees of Linden Lab. "Peer-reviewed control tests from the defence sectors are showing virtual worlds games technology does perform better," adds Caspian's Graeme Duncan. "There's no bigger proof that a virtual experience works than remembering not a single pilot is allowed to fly without completing hours of training flights in a simulator."

Rees says she is seeing healthcare organisations coming to Second Life to do virtual medical operations. IBM's Kevin Aires, who with his avatar can wander into more than 20 Second Life locations, see other avatars give PowerPoint presentations and bump into teachers showing students 3D modelling of microchips, says he gets 20% more benefit from attending virtual worlds meetings for 2% of the cost. "People literally hover into meetings, and people come out a lot more engaged."

Peer support

The problem most seemed to have is that they are all too used to having to defend VW. "The problem is that this question forces us into niches by asking what the difference is between the physical world and the real world," says Paul Sweeney. "That's missing the point. A virtual room can look exactly the same as a real room, and we could all sit around it as we are here. But the difference is that in a virtual room you can achieve virtually anything you want." Wortley picks up this point further: "The virtual room is not always the most important part; the peer-to-peer support that also tends to become established as a result of a VW is also important. People who would never meet in the real world are now sharing information in their virtual worlds." He continues: "VW learning presents new challenges - how to move away from the 'sage on stage' to how trainers must act as moderators in a world where people want peer-to-peer support."

According to Eduserve's Andy Powell, there is still a meaningful debate about "the differences between games, where you have a purpose for being there, such as staying alive, and translating that play into an acceptance that it should comprise open-ended learning." However, Goodchild says forward thinking HRDs must look to the future. "CBBC's Adventure Rocks platform is single player, so there is no interaction yet, but it will happen and kids are used to this learning now." Rees adds: "Generation Y want it now. There is already a big difference between my 14 year-old son, who uses social networking sites, and my 11-year old who is already on Club Penguin (a similar virtual play world for children)." Duncan says: "The world is full of disappointed, disillusioned and disappeared learners. It's not surprising they have been alienated by a dry way of learning, which is autocratic, didactic and says: 'I know more than you - have some information'."

Debunking cost issues, the central part of any ROI argument, was not a subject the panel was so confident about, and it did reveal divisions. The cheapest option is to go into an open Second Life environment rather than build a closed, intraneted virtual world, but several of the software developers were ready to back the latter: "The area where Second Life is weak is its ability to integrate electronic content from the outside world," says Powell.

A range of virtual worlds

Ron Edwards, former head of e-learning at Unilever, now CEO of Ambient Performance, has used Forterra proprietary technology to build closed virtual world-type environments. Forterra allows sessions to be recorded and played back, and also has lip-syncing with avatars. He says: "The thing to reiterate is that there are a range of virtual worlds. One of the challenges we have with HR directors is that if you say 'virtual worlds' it has become synonymous with Second Life. That is good and bad. Second Life is good at certain things, but to say it can do any type of learning is like saying any car could be competitive on a Formula One racecourse. Different platforms have different strengths. Virtual worlds do not use standard modelling tools, so you often can't import third-party content. What we need to do is educate people that there are a variety of approaches that will match with learner needs, but also organisational needs."

"To say there is one HR solution is wrong," adds Goodchild. "HR needs to work out what its real-world is lacking. It may be you simply have a disparate workforce, and just finding a place to meet is most important."

But one thing all the delegates were keen to say is that virtual worlds need just as much control as real ones. Languagelab.com's Paul Sweeney says he has real experience of this: "Because technologically you can do anything, the only question is what education value do you want a VW to have. But even then you can give people a lot more freedom than they are prepared to accept. We have a virtual city, which is populated by actors, and people with real life skills like professional musicians and those with HR expertise. While the game play was incredibly motivating, people did not want to be left alone. They wanted to work within a structure - a series of linked activities which lead somewhere - a beginning, an end, and a way to know how they were doing along the way."

So what advice would the panel give HR professionals thinking about using virtual worlds learning. "Do not think you are going to build the perfect solution first time," says Goodchild. "A lot of HR directors are clearly not going to be ready to devote thousands of pounds," says Aires. "Company laptops ordered two years ago are still going to be used for the next year or two, and currently they do not run a lot of this stuff very well. But, by the time the next refresh comes around, suddenly VW is going to work a lot better. So now is the time to start exploring these technologies. If you do nothing else, send a few of your team to go and play within, say Second Life, and research what is good to look at, and you will start to get a body of experience and knowledge."

Eduserve's Powell says this is a salient point. "This is exactly how academic institutions tackled it; very few institutions have embraced VW because of a top-down executive decision, but they have simply tried it out for themselves."

Sweeney concludes: "If our agenda is encouraging uptake among HR managers, let us make it as easy as possible for them. Assume your first project is going to be a pilot. Find a platform that will enable you to concentrate on doing one thing you want to achieve, not creating a virtual HQ or hiring a bunch of coders. If you want to do training, find someone who can train in VW, and start training as soon as you can.

Kevin Aires, virtual worlds specialist, IBM. IBM has more than 25 virtual worlds for workers to congregate

Jude Ower, founder, serious games consultancy,Digital 2.Ower has more than 7 years' experience in serious games

Marc Goodchild, head of interactive and On-Demand, Children's BBC, launched children's virtual world 'Adventure Rocks'

Clare Rees, European marketing director, Linden Lab, makers of Second Life. Rees was formerly responsible for L&D at Adobe

David Wortley, director The Serious Games Institute, part of Coventry University

Paul Sweeney, director of education, languagelab.com. Sweeney is building a a language teaching hub inside Second Life

Graeme Duncan, CEO of Caspian Learning. Caspian is one of the longest standing serious games companies

Andy Powell, head of development at the Eduserve Foundation. Eduserve gives research grants to higher education

Ron Edwards, CEO of Ambient Performance, was formerly head of e-learning at Unilever for 13 years. He has also written several e-learning books

To read a full transcript of the Virtual Worlds Roundtable, click HERE

VIRTUAL WORLDS' GROWTH

- Gartner Group estimates 80% of active internet users will spend time in non-gaming virtual worlds by the end of 2011

- IBM, Sun, Dell, Toyota and GM are all investing in virtual worlds training

- Harvard and INSEAD teach in Second Life

- Sweden has opened an embassy in Second Life