In July of 2008, sixteen teensin Chicago and New York collaborated on a summer campproject that featured dinosaur bones, Tanzanian hip-hop and a virtual world. Insteadof making a real-world trek to Tanzaniato study paleontology and scientific field research, a team of Global Kids metvirtually in Teen Second Life. "It felt like we were working side-by-side withscientists in the field," says one of the teen participants, describing how thegroup used digital media to learn about real-life paleontologists on a fossilhunt in Tanzania.
In a Global Kids video describing the I Dig Tanzania summercamp, one of the participants tells viewers, "A virtual world made it possiblefor us to go on an expedition of a lifetime, with a virtual fossil dig createdjust for us." Educators, parents andyouth may have heard of virtual worlds, but for the uninitiated, the concepttakes some explaining. In the I Dig Tanzania video, avatars interactwith each other in a Global Kids-designated area of Teen Second Life. "You movearound using an avatar, a 3D character that looks like a regular human,"explains one of the teens, as images of human-like avatars and more fancifulcreatures move around the virtual landscape. While certainly there is astrangeness about virtual worlds, afterawhile a kind of ordinariness sets in: people appear, they interact, they communicate,they build, they change their appearances, and they disappear.
To communicate with the paleontologists, teens used videosand satellite phones to ask questions, "How much of a fossil fragment do youhave to find before you can identify what the actual creature is?" Real-lifefossil hunters were able to answer from thousands of miles and two continentsaway, "If you find just a rib, for example, it's very hard to identify whatmammal that rib came from. If you find a tooth, it can tell you what kind ofanimal you're looking at. It's a treasure hunt -- we're seeing things that haven'tseen the light of day for hundreds of millions of years." Back in Teen SecondLife, the teens recreated dinosaurs from fossils they found, using knowledge they gained from the paleontologists, and displayed themin virtual exhibits.
Fossils and virtual worlds might seem an odd couple, but thiskind of real-virtual matchmaking will only increase in 21st centuryeducation. Barry Joseph, Director of Online Leadership Program at Global Kids, says,"The growth of youth involvement with virtual worlds is predicted to surpass50% over the next few years." Where youth are involved, educators are sureto be close by. Joseph understood this when Global Kids won a 2007HASTAC/MacArthur Digital Media and Learning award to help launch RezEd: The Hubfor Learning and Virtual Worlds.
After launching RezEd.org in 2008, the social network wasquickly populated with educators, researchers, librarians, parents and othersinterested in a virtual world community of practice. By October of 2008,RezEd.org had 1,252 members, hosted 60 videos, announced 55 events, and washome to 32 member-created special groups. After growing the community, RezEdcompiled a seasonal report that highlighted discussions and emerging themes,including a section on ethics in virtual worlds. With such a new medium beingused as a learning tool, a focus on ethics is a hot topic that interests anyone trying to understand virtual worlds.
In the I Dig Tanzania summer camp, students werepart of a guided experience, using avatars to bridge gaps of distance andunderstanding with the help of educators and mentors. Given how easy it is tobe invisible and anonymous online, virtual worlds can sometimes raise ethicalquestions -- for youth and adults alike. Like anything that we do with kids,positive mentoring and best practices play an important role, themes that runthrough RezEd's community.
As RezEd member and Arizona StateUniversity Professor James Paul Gee notes, "Most Americans don't spend muchtime with people who are not like them. Today's public sphere, where Americanscome together across class and racial divides, has gotten smaller and smalleras we have economically stratified ourselves into many classes." In virtualworlds, as Gee observes, we must "confront the full array of diversity. All ofa sudden you must cross lines of class, race, country, interests, and politics."As more and more people log into virtual worlds, we need to develop ethicalguidelines for new (and age-old) situations made possible by 21stcentury technology.
In other virtual world scenarios, educators are reachingout to underserved youth. Technology Education Librarian Kelly Czarnecki ofCharlotte and Mecklenburg County Library volunteers in a teen jail, where she teachesincarcerated youth how to build, explore and communicate in Teen Second Life. Ina RezEd podcast, Czarnecki talks about her experience with the youth and howthe program was able to launch. Through these conversations, the RezEdcommunity can build a library of knowledge about best practices and how to usetechnology for social reform.
RezEd community members are also using virtual worlds forimmersive language learning. Amira Fouad, Program Manager with the Global KidsOnline Leadership Program, says that these members have really made the RezEd hubtheir own, "We knew about virtual worlds and youth because that's what GlobalKids is about, so the language and learning group -- dozens and dozens joined andreally made it their own." As educators mine Second Life and other virtualworlds for its communication and interaction potential, new models of learningare appearing. Being able to engage native-language speakers through theiravatars creates all kinds of learning opportunities for those who want topractice a second language with real people.
Of course, like any technology, wemust also show restraint.
As Gee writes, "Every technology can be used for evil orgood, and as we build virtual worlds with all the possibilities we have beentalking about, we need to remember this." Barry Joseph of Global Kids exploredthese two sides of virtual worlds in the RezEd seasonal report released inOctober of 2008. In an essay, Joseph imagined what he would say to members ofCongress about virtual worlds. "Generation after generation seems to go throughits own ?cycles of outrage,'" he writes, " whether with the waltz, pulp novels,comic books, rap music, or most recently with video games and online socialnetworks. It is understandable to feel uncomfortable when confronting a newmedium that changes, for lack of a better phrase, our sense of self."
Misconceptions raised by virtual worlds such as SecondLife are not uncommon, but Joseph reminds us that, "When you speak to yourchild on the phone, are your hearing their ?second voice?' No, you hear theirvoice, as they would claim that reproduction of voice as his or her own. Thephone is not our ?second voice' any more than photos are our ?second image' oremails our ?second handwriting.' That is YOU on the phone, in the photo, orthrough the email."
We need to look at virtual worlds like any othertechnology, and see the humanity behind it that makes it work. "Virtual worldsare not escapist fantasies but a new way to extend our lives and our sense ofself. How can virtual worlds expand our lives in new ways," asks Joseph, "What social affects arise as a result,and are these results desirable?" It will be communities of practice like RezEdand pioneering groups like Global Kids that will help determine the answers.