There are some valuable ways in which virtual worlds can be powerful learning environments, but there is a lot of nonsense being presented about this work as well. Robbins-Bell in a recent article in Educause Review makes a variety of assertions about virtual worlds in regards to higher education that don't make a lot of sense.
Here are a few of her assertions and my replies.
Participatory Culture Engages Students in New Ways
"The participatory culture offers exciting new opportunities to pull learners into conversations and turn passive, knowledge-receiving students into active, knowledge-making student."
There is a huge leap in this sentence between the notion that "participatory culture" has anything to do with "education." Most of the "participatory culture" involves entertainment and playful activities. This is fun and interesting, but there is no evidence to suggest that my ability to make and watch YouTube videos has anything to do with my learning math, science or literature.
Virtual Learning is more Life-Like Than Classroom Learning
"The false separation between classroom learning and life learning is falling away with each new form of social media that becomes part of our everyday life."
"The genuine conversation and participation that virtual worlds encourage is a step toward more authentic learning for all students."
Although much of today's education takes place in classrooms and laboratories, it is false to assume that these learning experiences have nothing to do with life learning. Although some of us learned to read at home with our families, most of us learned to read in classrooms and most of the rest of our life learning is dependent on that skill. Isn't this the case that learning to read in a classroom is strongly related to life learning? Likewise, doing a science experiment in a physical laboratory seems much more like the real life learning I might do some day working in a job doing biological or chemical analysis than doing this in a virtual reality.
Virtual Learning is Deeper, Richer or More Extended than other types of teaching.
Robbins-Bell makes the case for why virtual worlds can be powerful for teaching and learning, but most of these activities are not unique to virtual worlds or assume that other forms of online or F2F instruction do not use the same strategies. For example, she suggests that since students cannot get into classrooms 24/7 that classroom learning only occurs during the classroom time period. The reason that higher education campuses have students on campus is so that they can go to the library, get together in dorms and student centers to study and and visit the offices of professors is so that learning can take place outside of the specific classroom time period. Learning on college campuses has never been limited to just what happens in the classroom.
Likewise, many other web-based tools are also available 24/7, not just virtual worlds.
Virtual Worlds Create a more robust "presence" than other forms of online learning.
Robbins-Bell suggest that in virtual worlds one has a "presence" that is different than one's experience in a chatroom or discussion board. This is true, but as yet there is no evidence that this presence leads to better learning.
Virtual worlds allow people to explore identity which improves and or expands learning.
The most troublesome idea is that the ability to create avatars and deal with issues of identify, roles, etc. is advantageous in learning. Much of what we have to learn has nothing to do with issues of identity, roles, etc. There are clearly some topics that could use these tools to explore these issues, but this would be very limited. In most cases, how you look and what you wear makes no difference to the learning. Robbins-Bell also demonstrates little understanding of the experience of people with exceptionalities when she writes,
"a non-handicapped student can take on a handicapped avatar to see how it feels."
I would suggest that putting on a blindfold and walking around the house will give you a much better idea about dealing with blindness that pretending to be blind in a virtual world.
Wide-area Network Advantages of Virtual Worlds
Robbins-Bell asserts that "the wide area network of virtual worlds implies that the space is public to join and participate in, meaning that students can interact with and learn from a larger community than can be offered by their local campus." Again this assertion assumes that students in higher education are limited to campus for learning or that other web-based tools (discussion boards, learning communities, etc.) do not offer similar opportunities. This just isn't the case, students have always taken field trips & studied abroad, done internships and so forth. Likewise, communities members and other experts have always been invited to campuses to enrich and extend the learning opportunities. Clearly, any web-based tools can create opportunities for participation in a broader range of learning experiences, this is not only available in a virtual world. With videoconferencing, I don't just have the opportunity to interact with visual representations of people, I can actually see and participate with the actual representations of these people.
There are some valuable ways in which virtual learning environments can be used to create learning experiences, but the examples provided in this article don't offer those examples. To advance the development of learning within virtual worlds, we have to develop learning opportunities that can enrich or extend what can be done F2F or in other online environments.