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Virtual Environments

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A virtual world is a computer-based simulated environment navigated and experienced by one or more users. Over the past several years educators
have begun exploring virtual worlds as a powerful medium for instruction.

NIU eLearning provides three types of virtual worlds for faculty and students to use:

Some might compare virtual worlds to video games, and while it is true that many virtual environments have  similarities to 3D multi-player online role-play games, there are also many differences.  For example, virtual worlds do not typically contain strong back-stories or leveling. There are seldom game-like goals in virtual worlds (unless designed specifically by the users). Virtual worlds do compare to multi-user games in that they consist of persistent spaces made available by networked computers. Virtual worlds also provide inhabitants synchronous interactions not only between individuals but also the environment. Modern systems provide high resolution graphics, human like avatars, and real-time motion to provide an immersive 3D experience comparable to virtual reality. While virtual worlds provide a sense of place, multi-user virtual worlds also provide a sense of community (Bell, 2008; Click, Out for review; Ondrejka, 2008; Schroeder, 2008). A benefit of virtual worlds in education is that they are easily customizable by the users. However, it is the sense of community that makes virtual environments a powerful tool for online education.

Second Life has been a leader in virtual worlds since 2005, and contains easy to use 3D development tools, and communication tools including Voice over IP (VoIP), chat, and instant messages. However, Second Life is open to the world, which brings with it all the benefits and problems that come with global access. For this reason Second Life’s “Terms of Service” do not allow for access to children under the age of 13 and required parental permission for students under the age of 18, so the NIU Digital Convergence Lab installed OpenSimulator (Opensim) on an NIU server to manage user access for our virtual teaching and learning environments. Opensim is an opensource virtual world similar to Second Life, so much so that they can both be accessed by the same viewers (an application download is required to access Second Life and Opensim).

Recently, NIU has been experimenting with a browser-based virtual environment to reduce the learning curve, as well as time needed to access virtual meetings. Jibe is a browser-based solution developed by Reaction Grid (http://reactiongrid.com/). This means you can access a virtual world simply by entering a URL such as: http://jibe.niu.edu/aliworld/.  Jibe worlds are developed through Unity 3d, which is a profession grade game development tool. Visit the links to the right to learn more about NIU’s presence in Second Life, Opensim, and Jibe.

References:
Bell, M.W. (2008). Toward a definition of “virtual worlds”. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research. 1(1), 1-5.
Click, A. (Out for review). Definition of Virtual Worlds. AECT Definition Book.

Ondrejka, C. (2008). Education unleashed: Participatory culture, education, and innovation in Second Life. The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Edited by Katie Salen. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Mediaand Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 229–252.


Schroeder, R. (2008). Defining virtual worlds and virtual environments. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, 1(1). Retrieved from http://journals.tdl.org/jvwr/article/view/294/248