GRC Science Viz: Day Two

This morning’s GRC Science and Education Visualization conference started with a session on Virtual Worlds, Games and Simulations.  There were three talks in the session – Cynthia Calongne (Lyr Lobo in SL), Andy Stricker (Spinoza Quinnell in SL), Marianne Riis (Mariis Mills in SL), and Margaret Honey (CEO of NY Hall of Science).

Andrew Stricker

The kick-off presenters were Andrew Stricker (Air University, U.S. Air Force) and Cynthia Calongne (Colorado Technical University) who talked compellingly about the creation of a “third space” – alternative, shared environments in which students can collaborate, think, share, and problem solve. Cynthia and Andy work together in various virtual worlds (Second Life, Open Sim) to prototype and develop shared experiences between faculty and students.

One of their developed virtual experiences, Mars Expedition Strategy Challenge, was voted one of the top ten best innovations in the country, by Department of Defense, and won the Grand Prize in the Federal Virtual Challenge. All of their work is completely open source – their materials, articles, documentation, and assets – are available for sharing. They build using rezzers so when you’re finished interacting in one of these spaces, the pieces and parts are put away, much like a holodeck, to put up/make room for the next experience. They have also successfully deployed work, built in one virtual world, in another.

Andy and Cynthia also showed us some screen shots from a new virtual build called Cape Harmony Launch Facilities that allows students to learn about the trade-offs of energy retrieval (science, math, technologies). Students go into a NASA-oriented complex, travel to Mars to visit a future geothermal station, and make repairs to a geothermal unit.

One of the things I find so compelling about their work, is that they are making the avatar part of the model, fully participating in the problem solving and the eventual solution.  It begs the question of whether or not learning is improved when is part of the model they are studying?

Marianne Riis

Next up – Marianne Riis, a Ph.D. candidate at Aalborg University in Denmark.  Prior to teaching in the virtual world of Second Life, she taught online in 2D environments but felt that there was “something missing”.  Once she began using immersive 3D worlds, she discovered what that missing thing was – a sense of presence (Ralph Schroeder) – the importance of being there, being there with others, and working on something meaningful together.

There are many challenges, of course, to teaching in virtual worlds:  What is this?  Is it real?  How do I make sense of this? — not to mention all of the technology challenges. Riis’s work is inspired by Etienne Wegner‘s work on Communities of Practice. Her students are professionals, distance learners, nontraditional (average age of 45), and very used to studying asynchronously.  Her course is a 6-week, online course called “ICT and Pedagogic Design”. She’s gone through four research cycles with the course, collecting data on her students and their outcomes, adjusting the course based on what she learns from her students.

One of her insights is that, when teaching in these immersive virtual worlds, you must oscillate between respectful and radical remediation.  With respectful remediation, the objective is to reproduce prior practice with no apparent critique.  In this case, changes are experienced as minor, evolutionary modifications (e.g. a lecture-style set-up with traditional seating, very familiar).  In radical remediation, the objective is to reform prior practice (e.g. sitting in the sky with information delivered in a non-traditional method).  In this case, changes are experienced as major, revolutionary and typically involve change in both modality and activities.

Margaret Honey

Third in the morning line up was Margaret Honey, President and CEO of the New York Hall of Science.  Her talk centered around a report,Learning Science through Computer Games and Simulations from the National Academies in which she was very involved. The report focuses on the questions what is the connection between learning theory and computer gaming and simulation, what role could gaming and simulation play in assessment, and the whole question of how to achieve sufficient scale to make an impact?

The report’s conclusions are that simulations and games have great potential to advance multiple science learning goals (motivation, conceptual understanding, science process skills, understanding the nature of science, scientific discourse) but that the evidence base for their effectiveness is weaker than it should be (stronger for simulations than for games). There is emerging evidence to indicate that different individuals respond differently to different features of games and situations (e.g. lower prior knowledge students show greater gains). Honey explained that the new science common core standards being developed will help to overcome the obstacles of embedding games and simulations into the curriculum. She talked about the importance of context for these games and simuations…it matters – really matters (informal settings versus formal, for instance).

Honey talked about the fact that technology has out-paced assessment development. That is, paper and pencil assessments are just not able to accurately assess how you make meaning of what’s going on in a simulated environment. She put forward the idea that games and simulations hold enormous potential to immerse learners in a rich array of tasks and undertakings that we just don’t know how to assess.  There is also an intriguing opportunity here for assessment to play a more instructional, pedagogical role in learning.

Honey concluded with a call for more work to be done on the concept of flow, the role of metacognition, transfer of the knowledge to other domains, contextualizing learning, examination of different types of games, and assessing and supporting this new ecology of learning.

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