An Interview with Nicole Yankelovich, CEO of WonderBuilders, Inc., Executive Director of the Open Wonderland Foundation, and Visiting Scientist, Center for Educational Computing Initiatives, MIT.

You probably know at least a few professors who have successfully integrated 3D virtual worlds, like those enabled by Second Life, into their courses. On the other hand, you probably know many more who have not yet taken that leap. Fortunately, the technology behind immersive 3D virtual environments continues to evolve, with new capabilities, toolkits, and applications that help to lower the bar for adoption within the education space.

The Open Wonderland Foundation, launched in 2010, provides an open source platform for developers who are interested in building 3D virtual applications, particularly those designed to be used in educational settings. The platform is based on technology that was originally developed at Sun Microsystems to meet the specific needs of Sun employees. Jeanne Heston recently had an opportunity to catch up with Nicole Yankelovich, who led the platform’s development team since the very beginning, to learn more about the set of needs that inspired its development, applications in the education community, and her thoughts on how the technology will be leveraged for education purposes in the future.

Jeanne Heston (JH): What was the inspiration for the original virtual world platform that you developed?  What needs were you trying to address?

Nicole Yankelovich (NY): The platform was first developed as part of a research project, with the primary goal of increasing the quality of our team meetings. The company culture valued collaboration, and group brainstorming played a big role in that culture. At the same time, the company had a flexible work-from-home policy, but it was difficult for those working from home to effectively participate in brainstorming sessions. The virtual world application that we initially developed enabled us to include remote workers in productive brainstorming sessions, using their real names, instead of the avatars used by some of the other virtual world platforms. When Oracle purchased Sun Microsystems in 2010, the company released all the project materials in open source. The Open Wonderland Foundation is now the governing body for the project.

JH: What factors influenced your decision to focus the efforts of the foundation – and the company – on the education community?

NY: The team realized early-on that some of the problems that we had solved for our own teams were issues that the education community was trying to address – especially for online classes. One example is team projects. In the working world, teamwork is one of the keys to success, yet many universities still focus on individual work. A virtual world provides a great environment for connecting members of a class team, particularly if some of the team members are not on campus at the time of the meeting, or if the team consists entirely of online students. In order to make it work really well, audio capabilities must be built into the system and participants need to be able to use their real names.

JH: What types of environments have you or others built for the education community, using the Open Wonderland platform?

NY: One recent application teaches communication skills to nursing students, within a virtual setting that is designed to replicate stressful real-world situations, including emergencies and shift changes. The goal is to prepare the students for live sessions in a regional medical simulation center. Each nursing student has the opportunity to spend only 45 minutes per semester in the live simulation facility because of the incredibly high demand for the facility’s time. The virtual world prepares them for the 45-minute session so that they can maximize the value of the learning experience. Facilitators at the “live” facility have reported that they can easily tell which students have used the virtual world application – and which ones have not — within the first one or two minutes of the live situation training program. Other applications include virtual English language training, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, virtual museums, a mixed reality space for science education, an environment that provides remote educational services to students with autism, and many others.

JH: Can you provide an example of an application that has surprised you over the past few years – a usage model that you had not considered?

NY: We are seeing an increase in on-campus use of 3D virtual worlds. In one course, students are using a 3D virtual world application to facilitate in-class participation. As part of the class format, guest speakers are often invited to speak in front of the class. Class participants, international first-year students, were previously too shy to ask questions of the speaker. The option of using the virtual world for in-class participation has helped students to gain confidence in the virtual world, overcome shyness more quickly, and increase the “live” participation rate.

JH: Where do you see this technology going over the next several years, especially in the education market?

NY:  It’s no secret that the completion rate for massive open online courses (MOOCs) is very low. Part of the reason is the low-touch nature of those courses. Virtual worlds can help provide a higher touch, especially for class meetings. Also, there is a lot of emphasis right now on the idea of flipping the classroom. An extension of this is the notion of flipping the workspace – making the virtual workspace the “space of record” instead of the physical classroom. Your “space” then becomes portable, along with all of the “stuff’ in that space. The result is that all class participants benefit from the same core team-oriented experience – whether on campus or remote.

At a recent conference, Anant Agarwal, President of edX, described an experiment that edX conducted at San Jose State University. Students took an edX physics course online while meeting in-person twice a week with a San Jose State instructor. The completion rate was dramatically better. About 7% of students world-wide who started taking the MOOC passed the course, while 91% of the San Jose State students passed. During the previous year at San Jose State, only 60% of students passed the traditional in-person course. Flipping the classroom using edX content appears to have been extremely effective. I would like to find out whether we can replicate the San Jose State results using a virtual world, instead of a live classroom, so that students who are not co-located can benefit from this higher-touch blended approach. Virtual worlds are ideal environments for planning, talking, and sharing. Once people start using them, new patterns will start to emerge. Education will be radically different in 10 years and we anticipate that 3D virtual worlds will play a big role in that transformation.

Do you use 3D virtual worlds in conjunction with any of your courses? If so, we would love to hear from you. Please share your experiences using the comments section below.

Are you interested in hearing more about immersive virtual worlds and the impact that they are expected to have on education? If so, you may want to watch this presentation featuring Professor Chris Dede of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Filmed during Cengage Learning’s Engage 2013 conference hosted by SXSWedu, this session uses specific examples from pre-college ecosystems science to show how faculty in all fields can use these new media to improve teaching and assessment. You can also read Dede’s Cengage Learning Blog post “Engaging Students Via Immersion in Virtual Worlds and Augmented Realities.”