The learning power of a virtual world

By Anne Collier

It’s definitely not a flashy video production, but if you’re interested in learning about a virtual world that 6.4 million kids aged 8-15 (68% girls, average age 12.5) like because it challenges them in math and science and expects them to be smart, watch this interview about at Discover magazine. Founder and CEO of Whyville parent Numedeon Inc., Jim Bower – who is also a professor of computational neuroscience at the University of Texas, San Antonio – says he started Whyville because he’s been interested in improving education since he was 14, and a virtual world was a way for both kids and community creators to explore how to do science in fun but serious ways (through simulation and community).

“We integrate community with learning just like a good 3rd-grade teacher does,” he says. This is something I’d like more and more parents and educators to see: that the sense of community teachers create and nurture in classroom activity involving social media (virtual worlds, wikis, blogs, etc.) is the same sense of community they’ve always fostered. This sense of community includes the social norms (citizenship) and critical thinking about information and behavior (new media literacy) that mitigate antisocial behavior (e.g., bullying and cyberbullying) – in addition to learning about and interaction with the content (examples below). A lot is accomplished by folding new media like virtual worlds into classroom community: learning, increased student engagement, opportunities to practice good citizenship and media literacy, and – from an online safety perspective – lasting protection for social media users (because aggressive behavior increases risk, respect and civility mitigate it – see “Digital risk, digital citizenship”).

Relevance more than escapism engages

A key point in the 16-min. interview is where Bower says that the real power of virtual worlds is not escapism but its relevance to the real world. Kids can use virtual worlds to understand and interact with the real world better. A nutrition project has led to parents emailing Whyville that their kids are now insisting on going to the grocery store with their parents so they can read the product labels, Bower says. In-world population growth is leading to “red tide” – virtual algae blooms – in the Whyville Lagoon, a problem users have to fix as they work the problem of population growth. The newest project concerns the Whyville power grid. “The power grid’s a mess,” Bower says – hacked together, fragile, and unable to support the growing population. “In the new energy project, kids can monitor the power grid. Then we’re going to have a brown out. The kids will have to figure out what’s wrong, then in the second phase, they’ll design a new community from the ground up, making political decisions about sources of energy, home efficiency, new smart grid technology, and so on.” They’ll build various solutions themselves “basically in competition with each other,” Bower says, adding that the funding for the project includes the development of 15 curriculum units linked to Texas’s 8th-grade career education mandate.

Related links

* Virtual gardens, real nutrition: Wisconsin-based virtual world this year teamed up with Michigan State University’s Mich. Nutrition Network and the 4-H Children’s Garden at the university to teach kids about nutrition and gardening and “fight childhood obesity” by enabling young users to create their own virtual gardens in-world, VirtualWorldsNews reported. Soon users will be able to harvest their virtual produce “to follow USDA-approved recipes to make “healthy meals online and at home.”
* VWs for student engagement: A new study in Britain found that tech lessons in UK schools “are so dull they are putting pupils off the subject and careers in computing, [threatening future economic health], top scientists warn,” the BBC reports. I can see the importance of teaching computing in school, but what about 1) using computing to teach everything from social studies to citizenship (and make it all as engaging as do virtual worlds like Whyville,, and QuestAtlantis) and 2) using online games and virtual worlds to teach computing, programming, and game design (see MIT’s Scratch)?
* Other experts in Discover: Along with the interview with Whyville’s Jim Bower mentioned above, Discover magazine has a 16.5 min. interview with Lucy Bradshaw, who headed the team at Electronic Arts that developed the game Spore, and a 6 min. interview with Prof. Tiffany Barnes about her Game2Learn computer science project at University of North Carolina, Charlotte.
* “The 8 highest ranked colleges for game design” at
* “The power of play: Cyberbullying solution?”
* “From chalk ‘n’ talk to learning by doing”
* “Videogames’ mental health benefits researched”
* “WoW: The guild effect for teachers”
* “World of Warcraft: MMORPGs in school”
* Here are our virtual world safety tips for parents of kids and teens

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