Educators in Virtual Worlds on Open Sim – the pioneers…


Image attribution Chealion on Flickr under this CC licence

This series of posts is intended to be a comprehensive look at the use and development of Virtual Worlds on Open Source technologies in Schools. It is to be the basis for a book I am writing to be released early next year on Lulu about Virtual Worlds, Open Source and Education.

Over the last six months, through a series of interviews with people from around the globe, I have been mapping out some of the major developments in this field. The trouble is that presently, technological advances are happening so fast, some days, in this area, that 12 hours can make all the difference between one exponential breakthrough and another – the field of virtual worlds is moving so fast!

By next year the technology for Virtual Worlds will be in the browser and at that point they will become mainstream – already firms such as 3DI are going down that route and others such as RealXtend are working on making it possible to interconnect several different types of Immersive Environment to enable the eventual building of what is termed, a hypergrid, and even more recently there is talk of a Universal World Web Client WebHud. There are exact parallels, here, to the construction of the early World Wide Web.

So let me take you on a journey with the help of a few of the main players in the United States, Canada and the UK and see and listen to their stories and reflect on why so many people are putting so much effort into building this vision…

This first blog post is the start of many that will be a testament to the perseverance and drive of those individuals involved in constructing these whole new immersive landscapes. I would like to thank everyone involved, (especially Vicki Davis, her students and their parents) for giving me time and access on this project which seems to have grown with every passing day.


Image attribution Torley under this CC licence

My involvement with Open Source and Virtual Worlds goes back quite a few years – during this time I have watched quietly, as the technology has gone from very geeky, obscure wikis, where enthusiasts are compiling and sharing code, to a more mature commercial enterprise with sophisticated clients and browser interfaces being rolled out and developed on a weekly basis.

For the past few months I have been interviewing the main players in the field of Virtual Worlds in Open Sim, Cobalt, Wonderland et al in education around the globe and taking footage and interviews with people in avatar form both inside the worlds themselves and in real life using Gmail video and Skype.

I have taken literally hundreds of hours of video of interviews with people to try and get a grasp on what is happening at the present time. This is the sum of all that work – I hope you feel it is useful and can guide your own choices of using virtual worlds/immersive environments in your school district or class…

Remember, these are interviews with serious educational professionals working in this field; they are the pioneers risking professional and academic reputation and the businesses promoting  innovative, “edge” technologies in a highly commercial world. Why should they do that – what is the appeal?


Image attribution hawken.dadako on Flickr under this CC licence

The future is here and it will serve the V Generation – the 5 year olds and upwards who currently use sites like Club Penguin and Disney Fairies and any number of the 200+ Virtual Worlds out there at home who will have much higher and more pronounced expectations of any future education system that they will enter and pass through in the next 10 – 15 years.

Global research firms such as Gartner have a very good understanding of how this use is beginning to work –

Generation V is the recognition that general behavior, attitudes and interests are starting to blend together in an online environment.”

  • Up to 3 percent of individuals will be creators
  • Between 3 percent and 10 percent of individuals will be contributors
  • Between 10 percent and 20 percent of individuals will be opportunists
  • Approximately 80 percent of individuals will be lurkers

(source Gartner June 2008 – my chart)

and, regardless of age, they will be using a variety of different Virtual Worlds or Immersive platforms for work and play.

And one year on, since that report, commercial entertainment firms such as Sony Playstation…

… XBox 360… :

are beginning to dabble in the realms of carefully scripted interactive augmented reality avatars. This technology has been around for some time in fact I interviewed Dr Adrian Woolard at the BBC a few years ago about an augmented reality  project he was involved in then:

Click on picture for Archived video at

But only recently has it become as sophisticated and fully mature for commercial release. This is the latest iteration of that technology in the commercial world:

Now my point is that the current generation of children will expect this level of sophistication in the future. It would seem quite feasible as Moore’s Law progresses that projection systems and more photo-realistic landscapes will be dreamed up and sold in commercial outlets to the home market.

We, as educators, need to start to map out these terrains before us and learn to use some of these platforms effectively in truly transformational ways as they will become the mainstream in time.


Already large corporate companies are involved in projects geared towards working in distributed environments and they are evolving technology to provide solutions for their workforce. Working virtually is a reality in many cases. Listen here to Bernard Horan, senior staff engineer for Sun Microsystems Laboratory talking about how Sun Systems are developing project Wonderland for the corporate and educational worlds – here he talks about the reasons behind the development of Wonderland and the MIRTLE education project – they are very practical:

An adaptation of Wonderland is being adapted for use in Boston by the Immersive Education Initiative there to work with young people for distance learning at the Roxbury Institute of Technology, again, in extremely practical ways:

and yet where are the other equivalent R&D activity in the schools system – where are the models – very few in the main? But they are slowly evolving. Certainly in Second Life there have been a number of educational exemplars over the years, mostly tied to work done by academics.

But what I think marks out people working in Virtual Worlds based on Open Sim or Open Source technologies, is that they are usually teachers who are trialling the system for themselves, independently of academic bodies and those contstraints, and often some very rapid prototyping of models of education are going on in there and, again, often with the help of fully blown commercial partners in ad hoc relationships that benefit all parties. The individuals concerned are often capable of working across silos to bring those different talents together and build exciting new engaging environments. This will be something I highlight in this blog as happening again and again. Often academia follows but does not drive the innovation and that is the main difference…

It is my contention that it is not always in the world of academia that the most rapid innovation happens but only when cross silo partnerships begin to coalesce around a highly focused project to create new and more effective adaptations of the technologies involved. Sometimes the realism and practicalities of markets and audience often determine how innovative technologies move forwards and we need to be aware of this pattern of development if we are going to understand how these platforms are used in the rest of this century.


Which one is real?

As Martin Bean, Vice Chancellor Designate of the Open University, pointed out at the recent Alt-C conference, there is a massification of Higher Education going on globally, there is a need for innovation and multi-channel ways of educating the present generation using multiple platforms if we are to keep up in terms of world-wide competition. Virtual Worlds/ Immersive Environments will be one of those channels without a doubt in HE, FE, Secondary and Junior school systems within the next few years.

In this blog I outline some of the major developments that are taking place right now, in this and allied fields and what I think are the major elements needed to introduce these technologies into schools. This year marks the point where I will begin to train teachers in mainstream education in the UK on the use and best practice of Virtual Worlds and to that effect this blog is setting down some of the landscape and exemplars of what is possible in those areas, some of the shared vision of the pioneers and many of the possibilities surrounding the whole arena.

I outline some of the most innovative exemplars at present and a tentative roadmap of how these technologies can be used to augment genuine learning in real life education communities across the board. I will be mentioning several parallel educational initiatives and binding them into the overall picture where possible. This blog post is the summation of that activity at this time and it is intended to be a strong pointer to the future. The time, I feel is ripe to show and tell what is happening…

As you read through this blog and watch the video interviews I would urge you to dismiss any previous preconceptions you might have had about Virtual Worlds. This is frontier territory – sit back and enjoy (or otherwise) the ride – if it challenges your expectations of what education is or can be, then good – I welcome any and all comments and counters to that vision in the comments box at the end of this post – I merely lay it out before you as the current landscape of what could be in the best of all possible worlds…


Part of my journey started in the noisy Greyhound pub in Knightsbridge in London in the UK earlier this year and a meeting with Giannina Rossini – one of the pivotal figures behind the introduction and dissemination of Sloodle technology in Second Life.

She had something I wanted to see – a virtual world running on a small Asus laptop – indeed from a memory stick attached to an Asus. So we arranged to meet at the Greyhound  where she showed me Open Sim running off that tiny machine – in that noisy environment in a busy London pub, I began to get an inkling of what could be, given the constraints of Open Source software, and the interconnectedness of personalised worlds – little did I know where it was to lead…

Bear in mind this was a very early iteration of the Open Sim software – there was a fair bit of compiling of code and launching of viewers to make the thing work. But it was a start and so I was off on my hunt for others to show me the way.

Giannina is one of the leading lights behind Sloodle, a technology that binds in Second Life and Open Sim to the Moodle VLE. Basically it allows for a registration system of your Virtual World Avatar on Moodle and the interoperability between the two and various objects in the Virtual World and the learning platform. Giannina was responsible for the main build on Sloodle Island in Second Life and there are regular free workshops there every Tuesday.


‘…it’s been such a powerful year that I don’t want to go back…’

My next port of call was with Vicki A Davis – award winning teacher from Georgia – and her students who talked to me over Skype about the Open Sim world they had built in four weeks on DigitTeen Island on Reaction Grid.

Vicki is the person who first used the phrase ‘V Generation‘ to me. She beams confidence and authority and is one of the new breed of teachers, globally, who is trialling these technologies with her students in highly successful ways.

She has an amazing ‘can do’ authority about her – no equivocation, nay-saying  or dithering, she just gets right on down and does it as she has done with Web 2.0 tools for the last four years. Like all the individuals I have met along the way – she’s a self starter with a whole raft of awards around the internet projects she’s been involved in.

There’s no doubt who is in charge in her classroom but all her projects are highly collaborative and emergent with time built in for reflection on the part of the students. Vicki is one of those new breed of global teachers who just simply changes the system by sheer force of work and dedication.


Suddenly I was confronted with an educational community that was involved with genuine dynamic curricular activity using a Virtual World. Their World, DigiTeen, part of the Learning on the Edge complex on Reaction Grid run by Trevor Meister – (of whom more later), is a perfect exemplar of how to get it right. The wiki is a practical dynamic documented case study in effective use of virtual worlds and stands as good record for anyone wanting to attempt a similar project. This isn’t an academic study but an extremely practical ‘action research’ guideline to development and scaffolding of new standards and opportunities for day to day working teachers.

Watch the interview with students below in Real Life and Avatar form and then the next one with Vicki see how eloquently she comments on these new learning landscapes. I would hold that interview up as a seminal exemplar of someone who knows exactly what they are doing in this field and if I had my way it would be required viewing for anyone who has doubts about the efficacy of using Web 2.0 tools in education and the systems and infrastructure that can be built around them. I would also point people to the award winning wiki on the global Flat Classroom Project for further reference – the Digiteen project is just one small subset of that whole activity.

In order to build these new systems you need to be a risk taker. At this point in time Reaction Grid was in early alpha but that didn’t stop Vicki and her students from forging a whole new way of working. Using the lessons learned when they used Google’s (now defunct) Lively they have evolved a very effective way of working in virtual worlds in education.

In the interview below with Vicki – she shares how she implements new technologies in the classroom and how she makes it work, practically. She is literally laying out a whole new curricular model and embedding lessons learned by using such a dynamic curriculum – it is an inspiration to hear the ethos underlying what she does and the vision behind it. Her students are a credit to her – notice how they talk of ‘teaching’ using the phrases ‘When I was teaching’ – a lot of co-collaboration and co-teaching goes on all the time. This is truly a 21st Century classroom. I was absolutely inspired by this interview.

Note how practical her models are and how focused she is on the teaching and learning aspects – she’s not shy to address any problems that might occur in using these new environments. Her opinions are borne from years of experience; not “what if” something happens but “when it does we do this”.

I have to say that is breath of fresh air to my ears as so many people will voice opinions and doubts based on hypothetical circumstance that so often prevents people from trialling technology like this – it’s good to hear from a practitioner out there doing it for “real” and doing it so well. Vicki is being given excellent support by the commercial owners of ReactionGrid to help fast prototype her and her students’ ideas.


Rich White at GreenBush Labs in Kansas is another amazing innovator/developer/educator working in the field of Open Source virtual worlds. He is one of those mutli-talented individuals who understands both the technical and pedagogical aspects of using these platforms. In the interview below we only just touched on the surface of the many, many innovation projects he is involved with. Again, we met on ReactionGrid which is something of a touchstone for innovative educators on Open Sim.

Rich is involved in so many projects that sometimes it is hard to keep up – he seems to innovate on a daily basis and I would mark him out as one of the leaders in this field globally. When he’s not writing about, developing and demonstrating Augmented Reality and Shape Shifting technologies he’s busily devising and trialling cave video, interactive whiteboard environments and projects like the excellent CSI Virtual World and Edusim in the videos below.

Rich’s background is, again, in a variety of fields including commercial and academic – he’s more likely to issue a White Paper on his work rather than an academic thesis and is typical of the crossover of individuals between silos of activities – a recurring theme in this blog. These multi-faceted individuals are a completely new breed and synthesize their expertise in different fields, business, academia, education to evolve whole new ways of working in this area.

Just the sort of skillset we would want our children to have in the 21st Century surely and if not why not? If we are to pull ourselves out of the increasingly anachronistic 20th Century education system we need more teachers like Vicki and Rich in the workforce.

Overwhelming, unrealstic? – I doubt it – I would argue that they are boilerplating new ways of working and laying down the foundation for excellent Continuing Professional Development in this area in education. I will continue to back up that claim in subsequent blogs and videos/ case studies with innovative teachers in the coming months.


Back over to the UK again for this Skype interview with Derek Robertson, National Adviser for Emerging Technologies and Learning in Scotland, who has managed to help mainstream Virtual Worlds in the Scottish Education system. As with so much that happens in Virtual Worlds, events have moved on since this video interview a few months back.

Scotland now has the biggest mainstream Open Sim Virtual World platform in the world called CANVAS.

Once again, Derek has a background firmly rooted in teaching and academia and other cross-discipline areas. CANVAS is part of the Scottish GLOW (the world’s biggest educational intranet) connected by Shibboleth. He is already well known for his seminal work on using commercial computer games in mainstream education and, together with Ollie Bray, has devised a number of practical ways of using these with local communites – all their work is underpinned by serious academic research.

CANVAS has to be the biggest mainstreaming of Virtual Worlds globally and is no mean feat. As I stated at the start of this blog – this is happening now – it’s not an idea or academic trial – it is live and working already.

Last year I did an interview with Mark Duffy of Second Places about his involvement with Open Sim. Many of the elements I questioned him about then are now in place.

John Duffy of Second Places

Click to play


In this Skype discussion with David Burden of Daden some months back we discussed, amongst many other things, the rollout of Pivote an open-source authoring system for learning in virtual worlds. This is an Open Source multi-platform authoring system which can be used on anything from a mobile phone to a web browser. It has been put to use in the training of paramedics and all academic research and money underwrote the development. It was then released as an Open Source application and can be freely downloaded.

Again another example of “real world” use of Immersive Environments to train and orient professionals…


My video interview with Aaron Walsh, director of the Immersive Education initiative at their summit in London back in April, again earlier this year highlighted a much wider scope when considering the future rollout of Virtual Worlds globally.

Aaron’s connection with Immersive Environments goes way back to the very beginning of international standards for 3D on the web in the 90’s – what was then the VRML consortium subsequently named the Web 3D consortium.

His main vision is to help collectively forge Open Source, Open Standards, Open Deployment of Immersive Educational Environments so that assets, tech and platforms can all work seamlessly together. This will be future proofing of technologies to some extent and will guarantee that all systems will work interoperably and be extensible and scalable.

The Media Grid Immersive Education Initiative has set up a number of working parties to investigate not only the technical but also the social aspects of use of Immersive Environments including the possible deleterious effects on mental health of addictive behaviour and engagement in-world.

Two of their recent projects are the development of an Immersive iED table and the announcement of the STEM (Science , Technology, Engineering, Math) Rocket World initiative.

Listen to Aaron’s thoughtful answers and reflect on them in the light of all I have revealed about the current state of the technology in this blog posting.


Trevor Meister’s Pachube helmet…

But probably one of the most inspiring individuals I have met on my journey has to be Trevor Meister. When I first encountered him I should imagine he was working virtually 20 hours a day on various educational projects on ReactionGrid.

The first thing he showed me was the use of Scratch for Open Sim. He had adapted Eric Rosenbaum’s code to work entirely in the immersive environment of Open Sim on ReactionGrid. Watch the video below – to see what it can do…

Trevor was also in the early stages of bringing in data into Open Sim and plotting it on Dynamic textures on primitive building blocks. I returned a couple of weeks later and it was obvious he had made enormous strides with development and adaptation of APIs from external spreadsheets to plot data more fluently.

But if that wasn’t enough he was experimenting with innovative Pachube sensor technology via a home made space helmet.

Trevor has over 20 years as a Maths and Physics teacher in Canada and with that track record he thinks this platfom a viable way to teach students and I entirely agree with him. What is so amazing is that he is now able to use the Immersive platform itself to flesh out his ideas about how it can be used.

I am personally astounded at how quickly he has developed several educational technologies in- world in such a short time. I think his expertise would be a boon for any government or educational institution wanting to use Virtual/ Immersive environments effectively in education.

He is currently seeking academic or governmental sponsorship and I am amazed he hasn’t been offered immediate funding for his work but I am sure it will not be long coming.


This interview is with Chris, Kyle and Robin of ReactionGrid without whom much of the access to educators and business people I have met on Open Sim would not have been possible.

Out of all the Open Sims I have visited in the last few months theirs has been the most approachable and welcoming towards education and their policy of a PG Island with appropriate protocols has been a model of use for the way access is going with virtual communities in Open Sim.

They have given amazing amounts of time and advice about their particular education and business sim and at no point have they refused to answer my copious questions about the process of getting schools onto Open Sim and their Gridizen policy.

In the interview above they introduce themselves and outline the ReactionGrid ethos. Of all the emerging Sims at the moment I would point educators, in particular to their grid. They are sure to get a very warm welcome and lots of advice about using the technology.


In the light of all this research into Open Sim and Immersive environments in education I am launching a new Virtual World consultancy business next week with my business partner, Julia Blagbrough, called SupaReal.

I feel the technology has now got to a point where Virtual Worlds are indeed a viable option for education at all levels – not just Secondary but also Primary schools and eventually a whole global network – a backbone of Open Source servers, will break open entirely the way we do things in education at the moment – a whole series of interconnected 3D learning environments that will almost certainly, in time, lead to a Hypergrid of interconnected learning spaces that will act as an intellectual crucible for innovation, creativity and new practices for 21st Century learning. It will be the 3D web…

It’s an exciting time and one I’m happy to be alive in to see how the road opens out before us as we continue into 21st Century learning. The seeds are there – it is up to us to make them grow and flower into new ways and pedagogies for our children and all our futures.

Sept 2009

Posted on by leoncych in Adult Learning, advisory, BSF, Continual Professional Development, Curriculum, Digital Literacy, Digital Media, distributed networking, Educational Change, informal learning, Innovation, Learning Content, Learning Tools, mediascapes, Mediated Reality, Moodle, MUVE, open source, pedagogy, Peer to Peer, Personalised Learning, Scottish Learning Festival, Second Life, sloodle, Uncategorized, video, video streaming, Virtual Worlds, Web 2.0