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Thoughts, Reports and Rambles from the AAG: Virtual Learning Environments and Geographic Education

Day 4 at the AAG and sitting in a session on Virtual Learning Environments and Geographic Education – its one of the best line ups of the conference so far.

First up is Michael N .DeMers of New Mexico State University with a talk entitled: Using Second Life to Augment an Online GIS Course..

The use of the virtual world called Second Life as a platform to enhance a traditional WebCT-based online GIS class is examined. Second Life provides an ability to enhance the social presence often lacking from typical discussion-based online classes. The ability of students to get together builds community and promotes collaboration.

More than just providing opportunities for traditional delivery methods like slides and discussions, Second Life provides a powerful set of 3-D building tools that allow tactile learners an ability to express their knowledge in ways that are difficult to reproduce outside of such an environment.

While some students find virtual worlds very difficult to negotiate others, particularly gamers adapt very quickly. For non-gamers the use of Second Life is best used to provide ways for students to get together for in-world discussions and study. Second Life then, when used properly, and with the student learning style kept in mind, provides something for every type of learner.

Michael makes the point that Second Life is not a game, it is a free form virtual world which takes time to create and build things. It also takes time to learn which creates the barriers that many put up upon first entry. He creates a ‘lab in a box’ using wrapped up course materials, directions, maps etc included in a box that can be rezzed. Finally Michael notes that the impact on the learning cycle is notable as it provides the students with the ability to visualize, for example ‘map projections’ in three dimensions – something that is not possible via text book. It also encourages active experimentation

A really well presented and interesting talk

Second up is Merril Johnson of the University of New Orleans talking about:

Virtual worlds such as Second Life are emerging as intriguing windows into the future of technology. According to the Gartner Group, 3-D Web will become mainstream in the next two-to-five years as Internet users construct 3-dimensional personas in new virtual geographies. Many of these geographies are being populated by residents with identities not at all like those in the real world, who come together in communities dedicated to the exploration and development of constructed identities. In other cases, residents create identities and communities that reflect and augment the real world. In either instance, opportunities become available for students interested in the study of places and their inhabitants. The purpose of this presentation is to examine identity creation in virtual worlds, focusing on Second Life; how this phenomenon affects the "cultural" geography of virtual worlds; and how this new geography can be put to the service of geographical education.
Third is L.Jesse Rouse and Susan J.Bergeron of West Virginia University with a talk on ‘Building and Experiencing Virtual Worlds.

Third up is L Jesse Rouse and Susan Bergeron – of West Virginia University, - also known as those nice people from Very Spatial, Jesse is presenting.

Technologies that drive videogames have been adopted to build educational tools from early 8-bit game platforms to today's high-end 3D graphics laden game environments. While videogames have been both lauded as the next step in education and condemned as frivolous, it is hard to argue against the prevalence of videogames in the lives of students outside of the classroom (or hidden out of sight of the teacher). In addition, there is a perceived disconnect between traditional teaching methods and those students, referred to as digital natives, who have grown up with access to digital technologies. It is important to look beyond VLE use, to all of the impacts that videogames can have in the classroom.

Staff and students in the Laboratory for Geographic Information Science and the Department of Geology and Geography at West Virginia University are involved in an ongoing project constructing a virtual world based on historic Morgantown, WV. The project began as a way to demonstrate the integration of GIS and Serious Games. The project became a way to not only create a reconstruction of an early 1900s town, but also to involve upper level students in GIS and Urban Geography in the construction of 2D and 3D data and learning about the historic development of the town. In addition, Computer Science student participants are able to apply their programming skills within a domain area. The creation of the virtual world supports not only outreach and introductory classes, but also provides technical experience for upper level students.

We are moving from the traditional classroom into the new digital classroom based on new media, serious games and virtual worlds etc. He uses a good term ‘Edutainment’ - a way to keep students interested and focused above and beyond the usual ‘powerpoint’ presentation.

Realworld data can be presented via ArcScene linked to SketchUp, the work has created over 400 buildings in which point ArcScene ‘falls over’. As such they have moved from ArcScene to create a ‘Spatial Experience Engine’ based on the XNA framework with a move away from polygons to represent architectural details towards textures to speed up the framerate. Information is embedded via the Census within the 3D space allowing the students to connect, learn and experience geographical information within the virtual space.

Again a really interesting and very well presented talk, the use of Second Life, games etc is starting to make notable inroads into geography and teaching. The game engine will be made available online soon as its complete.

Finally up Nicholas Hedley of Simon Fraser University, Spatial Interface Research Lab/Department of Geography.

Nick has another nice term – a ‘Geospatial Metaverse’, noting that T
there has been a quantum leap in the capabilities of MMORPG’s creating new spaces for social interaction and simulation. These virtual worlds are beginning to cross into the real world with financial trading etc.

Nicks abstract is as follows:

Over the past decade, major advances in distributed virtual environment architectures have resulted in a new generation of interactive, low-latency shared virtual spaces accessible by users with modest and high-specification systems alike. Increasingly, reality and virtuality are woven into our everyday lives. In only five years, Second Life has become one of the most widely-used 3D virtual spaces for mainstream collaborative social computing, and is used by over 15 million people. There has also been a quantum leap in the capabilities of MMOGs and MMORPGs, allowing real-time collaborative interaction with complex and dynamic 3D virtual spaces with real-time physics - resulting in physically persistent virtual spaces.

Second Life and contemporary MMORPGs have created new spaces for social interaction, revealing exciting new possibilities for geographic exploration, learning, and collaboration. These environments may be virtual, but are a very real part of the lives of their user networks. They allow ever more seamless movement between real and virtual spaces. The boundary between the real and virtual in everyday spaces is quickly fading. Mixed reality interfaces take this to another level entirely, making it possible to create a virtually-enhanced 3D physical reality. This paper explores how the technologies of Second Life, serious games and mixed reality redefine the relationship between real and virtual spaces, and are evidence that a geospatial metaverse has emerged. Research examples by the author using each of these technologies will be used to demonstrate their potential in geographic education.

On show are some neat outputs using the CryEngine 2 –Virtual Ucluelet noting the ability to simply ‘paint’ geography within the game engine. Virtual environments are becoming part of peoples real lives and is this disconnecting us with the real geographic landscape. The level of work on show is notable, again really refreshing to see Crysis used for geography...

The talk ends with research examples of on-site Augmented Reality – Geospatial ‘XRay vision’, really excellent work.

A series of excellent talks, perhaps representing the cutting edge in geospatial visualization within the geography community. Our 3D Agent Based modeling work – ie 3D Max, Second Life, NetLogo etc work is this afternoon, presented by Andrew Crooks of The main session on Mapping for the Masses is tomorrow at 8am in the main conference centre.

We have also had the pleasure to record a podcast with Very Spatial, it should be online some point soon, it was great to meet and chat with the people behind it…

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