Guest Contributor Chris Dede, Harvard University.

This week, we are featuring articles from presenters at Cengage Learning’s upcoming Engage 2013 Conference. Today, we’ll hear from Chris Dede, who describes EcoMUVE, an immersive virtual environment designed to engage students in the process of learning about ecosystems. Though this particular project is designed for middle-school students, the learning principles and methodology behind it have application within higher education as well.

Have you used virtual worlds as a part of your course curriculum? How did this serve to engage students in the learning process? Provide your feedback in the comments section below.


We are developing a curriculum that combines digital ecosystems in immersive virtual worlds coupled with augmented realities that use mobile devices to overlay information and experiences onto real-world settings.

EcoMUVE provides an inquiry-based, two-week middle school curriculum module in which students use their virtual avatars to explore a pond ecosystem and how it changes over time. They observe realistic organisms in their natural habitats, collect measurement and population data, and work in teams to figure out the complex causality of the ecosystem. EcoMUVE utilizes many affordances of virtual worlds, for example, zooming in to the microscopic level (Figure 1), traveling to different points in time (Figure 2) and seeing effects emerge across time and distance (Figure 3).

 Figure 1: Microscopic submarine


Figure 2: Pond on sunny and rainy days


Figure 3: Data analysis over time


The EcoMOBILE activities are designed to be used over 1 to 2 weeks, during which time students make one or more field trips to their local pond or stream (Figure 4), Students work singly or in pairs using smartphones and also probes or instruments for hands-on data collection of water measurements such as temperature, pH, or turbidity.

Figure 4: Using EcoMOBILE at a local pond


Making Connections

Location-based augmented reality activities use hotspots to guide students to physical locations at the local pond or stream. Once at a hotspot, the AR software can present text, images, audio, video, 3D models or animations, and multiple-choice or open-ended questions (Figure 5).


Figure 5: Example of a hotspot


Data collection activities also support students in making connections between the real world and the classroom, e.g., collecting geo-referenced photographs of organisms or environmental features (Figure 6). Similarly, water measurements can be shared with teammates and analyzed during follow-up activities in the classroom.

Figure 6: Geo-referenced student photo uploaded to GoogleEarth


Seeing the Unseen

EcoMUVE provides visualizations of ecosystem phenomena at microscopic and even atomic levels. A similar approach is used in EcoMOBILE AR activities, enhanced by in situ 3D models and animations. For example, the Atom Tracker activity simulates virtual x-ray vision so that students can “see” a virtual atom as it moves through the processes of photosynthesis and respiration (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Animated model of photosynthesis


Similar instructional approaches with immersive media can be applied to college level curricula.


Chris Dede is the Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. His fields of scholarship include emerging technologies, policy, and leadership. In 2007, he was honored by Harvard University as an outstanding teacher, and in 2011 he was named a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association. His latest book, Digital Teaching Platforms, was published in April 2012.