One of the major affordances that educators often cite when describing MUVEs is exploration: learning by walking around, asking questions, poking things, and a general sense of discovery (which can blend over into purposeful experimentation). However, until recently most of the virtual spaces that students explore are artificial, not just in the physical sense but also in the social. For example, the village that students explore in River City is peopled by computer-run agents, not human-controlled avatars (although the avatars can interact with each other). The result is that the experience is mostly bounded by what the space’s designers can imagine and implement.
There are definite advantages to such an approach: teachers can focus the exploration on a particular topic, students are more likely to find and experience the desired phenomena or situation, and the class is not subject to random variation due to the vagaries of in-world people who are not accountable to the class (the safety of younger students is a particular concern in this regard). Of course, it’s also true that until recently there were few live worlds in which running a class would seem appropriate: studying architecture in Everquest would be pretty far off the beaten path for most teachers.
With the advent of “non-purposeful” (as opposed to game-oriented) worlds like SecondLife and There.com, a virtual world inhabited by real people has become itself a realistic option for exploration and field work. Teachers can use such worlds as actual educational instruments and not as just a setting (e.g. a convenient location to host a lecture) or for determinate simulations (e.g., a 3D model of the solar system).
I would distinguish, somewhat artificially, this instrumental use from straight research of virtual worlds (for example, the innumerable studies of MMORPG’s economies) in that its primary purpose is to promote learning among the students conducting the research, not necessarily to break new ground in a research field. I write “somewhat artificially” because, ideally, students are actually making new and meaningful discoveries. But it is no failure if students simply (re)discover a principle established by others, in the manner of a high school science lab “experiment.”
The possibility of exploring a virtual space embedded with real relationships has been very attractive to teachers I’ve spoken with recently about designing educational experiences in a MUVE. For example, how might one teach the topic of conflict resolution? Perhaps the best way to start would be for students to go forth and investigate what kinds of conflicts arise within a particular virtual world, and use the class’s theoretical framework to describe and analyze them. Other legal topics that jump out as immediate candidates for exploration within MUVEs include real and intellectual property, torts, speech and other civil liberties, and the very concept of rule- or norm-making itself.
The question then arises: is this learning valid in “RL,” not just in the virtual world they are exploring? This question will be important for educators to tackle an specific merits, but it’s worth noting that this problem arises in any distillation or simacrulum of “reality.” Whether SimCity is or isn’t a good tool for teaching urban planning, or municipal governance, or civic participation, depends on how well the game comports with the intended learning and framework.
Of course, such points of dissonance are themselves opportunities for a class to discuss the course framework, the assumptions built into the model, and the students’ own intuitions. When teaching practicing attorneys at Legal Aid University, we always invite our students to challenge the frameworks we use when they fail to mesh with the participants’ own experiences. Sometimes the student views their experiences in a new light; sometimes they discover the limitations of any thought model; and often, they do a little of both.
Last, but not least, the exploratory learning mode is an ideal way to bootstrap a class in which the teacher is also new to the topic. In such classes, the teacher would serve less like a sage or even a guide than an interpreter of the class’s mutual and hopefully wonder-filled exploration.