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3D Virtual Environments in Education

Using 3D Virtual Environments in Education

This post is written by someone just getting his head around what is currently happening in this area, for other teachers in a similar situation. i.e. this is a Newbie perspective on 3D worlds.

There are 3D worlds that are free to access
over the Internet. The user controls a person who walks around the 3D world.
This person is called an ‘avatar’. Often, you can not only walk around the
world but create the world with fairly easy-to-use tools. 

One 3D world is called “Second Life” and is
populated by 100,000s, but is not suitable for young people. Luckily there is a
“Teen Second Life” which is very suitable! 
A couple of days ago I saw a presentation by a Peggy Sheehy, who started
researching Second Life for education in 2005, and then launched it in 2006 at
Suffern High School in New York. I had not believed this was possible. I’m
actually visiting her school in a few weeks and will certainly report back
about this.

Then, just an hour ago, I heard about Quest
Atlantis, another 3D world which is populated by students worldwide, under the
watchful eye of their teachers.


1. Useful Links.Quest Atlantis Students

2. Notes on using Teen Second Life

3. Notes on using Quest Atlantis

4. My Thoughts

5. Post Script: Open Sim

1. Useful Links.

Teen Second Life:

Blog website from

Suffern High School
about using Second Life: http://ramapoislands.edublogs.o

Some general ideas on Second Life for
Education: http://www.simteach.com/wiki/index.php?title=Second_Life_Education_Wiki

Peggy Sheehy’s Blog: http://metaversedltd.com/

Quest Atlantis:


And now, here is what I have learnt, in
handy dot point form! My intended readership is people curious about 3D worlds
in education, who doesn’t know much about them!

OpenSim and Skoolaborate:



2. Notes on Using “Teen Second Life” Virtual

(notes taken from presentation by Peggy Sheehy from Suffern High School)

-        They use “Teen
Second Life” which is a separate version of Second Life with strict controls.
(Normal Second Life is a largely unregulated adult 3D world, with an emphasis
on ‘adult’).

Teen Second Life
allows Suffern High School to establish a 3D
environment that is totally locked down. It is a safe little bubble world just
for this High School. Only students from Suffern can access it, and even this
is only when a staff member is in the world to supervise. So, students can
enter the world from school or at home, but only when a staff member is also in

There are also
some requirements for teachers to be legally cleared to use Teen Second Life.
I’m not sure what these requirements are,

It cost about
$1700 in the first year (an establishment fee and then a regular service fee)
and about half this in each successive year (just a regular service fee). This
money goes to Linden Labs, who created and run Second Life, and who run the
locked-down bubble of Teen Second Life for Suffern High School.

 Peggy reported that Linden Labs were very keen and supportive with this
project. (I asked her at the end “Do you think this project is easily
replicable?” and she said emphatically “yes”).

Students do need
a decent computer with a decent Internet connection to access it.

Peggy spent 2005
researching this. For this whole year she had Second Life running on her
computer at her desk, and colleagues would see it running and this would spark
conversation. In these conversations Peggy would suggest ways Second Life might
be used for the teacher’s specific situation – age, learning area, etc.

She ‘made up’ the
rules as she went, but clearly much thought went into these rules. Being
something new, she had to make them up because she couldn’t copy what another
school was already doing – she was the first!!! There are dress codes and
etiquette rules for the world.

One interesting
choice she made was to disable audio chat. This made all communication
text-based, which is recordable and monitorable, and can therefore feed into
the assessment process – indeed the process can be assessed, not just the final

Out of 1400 users
she has only had to ban a very small number, and this was essentially for

Quest Atlantis Library

How has “Teen Second Life” Been Used in
Practice at Suffern High School?

It is not
generally used for content delivery. Rather, the main value is that it is an
open-ended, exploratory, collaborative environment.

They created
tutorials for the students – i.e. the students could walk up to a tutorial area
of the world and try some simple tasks designed to teach the students about the
world and how to use the software. These tutorials were ignored!

Students build
the 3D world themselves. For instance they build historical environments, or
environments from books they are studying. They build interactive objects that
explore mathematical concepts, or simulate the laws of physics.

Students spontaneously
and intensively tutor each other. A huge benefit has been for naturally shy
students who have a knack for navigating this world and creating objects in
this world. They become the experts who other students come to for help, and
this instills social confidence that consistently transfers to face to face

Teachers use the
world for role-plays. They dress their ‘avatar’ up in appropriate clothes for
the role play and then speak to each other in character.

In particular
there are some special objects the teachers can place in the 3D world (they
have to be purchased but they are cheap) designed to provide structured
conversation. These are called “Decka’s Decks” and “Poinkey’s Pods”. They allow
students to text chat around a table about a topic, and a transcript of the
chat is automatically sent to their teacher. The “pods” throw two students
together in a text chat for several minutes then automatically reassigns
students into other pairs for another few minutes, and so on, like speed

The 3D world has
its own economy – students are paid a certain amount of simulated money as a
kind of stipend. Students can trade! E.g. a student might design a set of
clothes and sell these clothes. Thus they learn all kinds of skills useful in
face to face life – saving, investing, marketing, negotiating.

I’ve heard this
many times before – that these sorts of online environments are simply
wonderful for students with Aspergers.

Students created
a multimedia island with 3D objects that would play audio they had designed,
like musical compositions.

The environment
feels psychologically safe to the students so it encourages them to be
confident, creative, collaborative, and to take healthy risks.

Peggy shared many
stories about teachers adopting the 3D world as a standard teaching tool, not
just a temporary fad, and many stories about benefits for students.


3. Notes on Using Quest Atlantis – Another 3D World:

I’ve learnt about this at the ACEC
conference. Similar to Second Life, you download a small program to access it.
It is a locked down world too, but not locked down to one school, but rather
all schools that involved. 

Teachers have to
through a training process to participate.

It’s FREE!

Teachers report
an incredible leap in student motivation and social confidence

It does not feel
like school, so it provides a circuit breaker for the disenfranchised student –
a way to come back on board with no loss of face.


Quest Atlantis is
not materialistic (often 3D worlds and games provoke a preoccupation with the
acquisition of status).

All activities in
Quest Atlantis are linked to 7 key values which driv
e the activities. These are
really prominent and fundamental to everything. E.g. Social Responsibility and
Compassionate Wisdom. There are set activities – a whole range of
them across learning areas and for different ages.

Quest Atlantis does
deliver content – in the form of many educational quests which earn students
currency. These quests are very interactive & open ended.

Some quests have
real-world elements to them. You have to do something (things) in real life to
complete the quest.

Students tutor
each other and help each other.

Can be accessed
anytime, 24/7

It is actively
peer-moderated. The experienced students guide and manage the behaviour of the
new students, for instance if they are silly or conduct themselves in a way
that doesn’t fit the positive community culture.

4. My Thoughts:

Okay, so I am thinking to myself: “What
does a 3D world bring to the classroom that is new and useful?” It seems to be
an entirely new space with rules and potentials that are different (but
related) to the real physical space of the classroom. The space is naturally
creative and collaborative is psychologically safer and more consistent than
face to face interactions.

I wonder if a 3D world provides a kind of
scaffold to develop in students skills in designing and implementing projects,
working together, coordinating tasks, exchanging information, negotiating roles,
peer tutoring, constructively conversing about/debating topics, identifying
strengths and gaining recognition for these, and so on. 

These dynamics then transfer to the
Quest Atlantis swimmingstudents’ face to face lives – this is what a scaffold is, right? - A step
towards something rather than requiring a sud
den leap. Students often are
scared to make a sudden leap, and are therefore shy and reticent – for instance
suddenly asking students to give a presentation to the rest of the class, right
in the deep end, and no wonder students find this overwhelming and are left
with negative memories. There is a predictability and a lack
of ‘in your face’
intensity about 3D worlds that seem to coax students into confidence.

Students associate physical activity with
the school oval. Why not associate creativity, role playing and collaboration
with another school space – a virtual one? Not an exclusive place, I just mean one space among many. The virtual 3D world becomes a
school space with its own dynamics and purposes, like the canteen, playground,
assembly hall, etc.

Ok so I am just rambling & speculating
on what I hear people reporting on. I am dead keen to set up a 3D world at my
school now. I can’t wait to visit Suffern High School and will of
course report on the experience.

5. Open Sim:

I barely know anything about this. OpenSim seems to be an open source program that allows you run your own Second Life server. So, people download the Second Life program, but instead of using it to connect to Second Life they connect to your Open Sim server.

Using this technique you can start up your own mini Second Life for your school. Some people in Australia and elsewhere have launched "Skoolaborate" which uses this technique to run a mini Second Life for a cluster of schools. Word on the street is this may open up to more schools.