Multi-User Virtual Enrionments (MUVEs) have been around for a number of years. Second Life is by far the most well known. For at least a couple of years I have had a Second Life avatar (Coffee Roffo), and participated in a number of different events “in world”. As hard as I have tried, I have never seen where the effort involved was worth the results. Most of the educational events have been live presentations where a group assembles virtually, and listens to/watches a presentation. Woo-hoo. I have found other virtual meeting spaces such as Elluminate, WebEx, or even good old Skype to be more productive for synchronous meetings/presentations.
Along comes another virutal world environment, River City, a research project from Harvard. In this world, students are given the task to go back in time to determine why the people in the town of River City are sick, and what can be done about it. It is a great scenario in which participants have to use detective skills and lots of science application to figure out what happened. Students in our school participated and enjoyed the experience. The limitation with River City is that once the scenario is done, there is no more to do in the world.
This year we had a 6th grade class participate in another virtual world research project, Quest Atlantis (QA), from Indiana University. QA is a virtual world project in which there are multiple learning opportunities in multiple content areas. For the pilot, this class participated in a mission called Spacenik, where the goal was to determine how to deal with an asteroid that might be on a collision course with Earth. The task involved processing a lot of complex data, making judgements, and recommending to NASA a course of action. I worked the entire scenario as if I were a student, and it was hard. There was a lot of reading, analyzing, and writing to do. In addition to content-specific tasks (missions and quests), there is a whole virtual environment where students can earn credits that represent good character traits, get “jobs” to help other world members, and more.
With Quest Atlantis, suddenly MUVEs make sense. What sets Quest Atlantis apart from the other MUVEs I’ve seen is that is provides multiple true learning scenarios. If Second Life is the whole world, then Quest Atlantis is the school. It is a virtual learning world, and not just a virtual world. It is a focused, high-level place where students are challenged to do some great things.
Quest Atlantis is still an active research project, so it is not open to the general public. If projects like this are the future of MUVEs, then there are some great opportunities to come.