Virtual learning environments: an interview with Ruth Martínez

What makes a learning culture successful? Are virtual learning tools such as Second Life still relevant for today’s classrooms? And how can practitioners stay ahead of the curve? Ahead of her keynote speech “Evolving a Learning Culture” on Friday 2nd December, Ruth Martínez, an E-Learning consultant and researcher in 3D Virtual Worlds, shares her experiences of using virtual worlds in the classroom and discusses the impact of technological developments on new learning cultures.


You have specialised in learning design in virtual worlds since around 2000. Things have changed greatly since then. What are the most significant developments you have seen, both in terms of technology and teacher/learner behaviour?


I have been a specialist in learning design since 1999, but it was first in 2006 that I began to wonder how virtual worlds could help learning.  Nevertheless, in relation to learning and virtual worlds, the most significant development I have seen, both in terms of technology and teacher behaviour, is in attitude.


Before teaching in virtual worlds, I started in Active Worlds. I then moved to Second Life because it had a stronger educational community and I very soon noticed it offered a lot of possibilities. I was a player and I was a student. I had to learn by myself, finding the answers to my questions, and working out how this tool could help me to teach. I felt frustrated, overwhelmed, lost… and it was the same attitude I knew a teacher would have towards this tool or environment. In fact, I deliver some online courses on Second Life, in which I am actually teaching teachers, and they all agree about those feelings. Nowadays, technology is more developed, and teachers are more open-minded.


From the point of view of learners, it depends on their starting point. For example, if a learner is used to videogames, he or she will expect to find something to do in an open 3D environment but that doesn’t happen. You can do everything you want to do. An open 3D environment doesn’t focus on games like World of Warcraft: you don’t have a mission and you don’t have to rescue someone, you don’t have to be the winner…. In this case, if you don’t drive the learner they could feel disappointed or lost. Even if at the beginning he or she was curious, you lose the opportunity to engage them.


You are speaking at a session called Evolving a Learning Culture.  In your view, what are the key ingredients of a successful learning culture?


From my point of view and my experience in the field of learning, there isn’t a recipe for a successful learning culture, and that is the key in itself: creativity, innovation, exploration, openness, improvisation, intuition, capacity to change your mind, to be open to the dissonances, curiosity, emotional empowerment… all these things are important.


Are there differences between the virtual and physical worlds in terms of the interactions students have with one another and with their tutor or teacher?


Apparently the difference in terms of interactions in a virtual world resides in using a machine and an avatar to communicate with each other, while in physical teaching communication is face to face and direct. But in reality behind the avatar there is a person. And that person has feelings: he can feel happy, surprised, lost overwhelmed. How can a teacher manage all of this?


That’s the point. How can a teacher make the experience more intimate, personal and wonderful to the learner so they will engage with the learning experience?


What makes an effective tool for learning in virtual environments?


An effective tool for learning, whether in a virtual or physical environment, will have a positive answer to the question “will it help to fulfil my learning aims?” A virtual environment is a tool in itself, but you can’t do everything with it…so we come back to the question of how to determine the usefulness of the tool.


What are your thoughts on Second Life? It was seen as a panacea for learning, but has it perhaps since fallen from favour?


I didn’t see Second Life as a panacea for learning… Second Life wasn’t the first virtual world, there were others before them, and researchers at that time also wondered how these could be useful for learning (as seen in Dickey’s papers for example).


When a new technology is first invented, it is not suitable for immediate application. Instead, new technologies are usually subjected to experimentation and testing. Once the technology is sufficiently proven, it can be incorporated into a system/subsystem. The measure used by many of the world’s major companies is the Technology Readiness Level (TRL), originally developed by NASA in the 1980s.


Since 1995, Gartner has used hype cycles to characterize the over-enthusiasm or “hype” and subsequent disappointment that typically occur with the introduction of new technologies. In the last Gartner hype cycle of July, virtual worlds were deemed to be still in the “Trough of Disillusionment” phase.


What about the future: there is some very exciting work being done using consumer technologies like Kinect and iPad to break down the traditional keyboard/controller interface between user and virtual world… what are your thoughts on this? What do you think will be the big news in the next 5 years?


The best way to predict the future is to create it: in other words, think differently and do it.


Who knows? Apps in tablets and mobiles? Learning in the cloud? Learning through holograms? Anyway, it isn’t the technology that matters: it is what we do with it.


What advice do you have for practices that practitioners can adopt to ensure they stay in touch with their users and ahead of the curve?


Ensure you understand the learners’ feelings and know how to manage them, whether through an avatar in a virtual world, or with any new technology that you use.


Keep an eye on learning objectives, and if you are going to use a new technology, ask yourself “is it going to improve learning for my students?” That’s the question.


A new technology by itself is not the answer: the key is how you are going to use it.


Ruth Martínez, E-Learning consultant and researcher in 3D Virtual Worlds, will be giving her keynote speech “Evolving a Learning Culture” on Friday 2nd December at ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN.

3 Responses

  1. Pamala Clift

    I applaud anyone getting in and using this environment toward education, but I do not consider any of those that I met that have been in education actually functional in the environment. They all come in as entry augmentatives. I am the human/computer psychology expert, and most are just as she described seeking and floundering. I offer my services to those who wish to know how to communicate to this new culture. I do not fault anyone, it takes years to sort out what is happening within this mindset. Teachers & university professors and PhD students have impossibly tight schedules, no way they could devote the time or research I have in here. I expect my book out by Feb 14th. Virgins Handbook on Virtual Relationships, to give a glimpse into this complicated but highly experiential & memorable educational environment. Hugs!


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