Virtual barriers will crumble

September 10, 2009

Your article about the impending decline in the use of virtual-world technologies may be an accurate reflection of the "hype cycle", but it could be misleading if used to interpret the long-term educational value of these technologies ("Threat to virtual worlds but silver lining for cloud email", 20 August).

It is true that the cycle of expectation, disillusionment, enlightenment and productivity can be applied to almost any new communications technology, but the time taken to move from expectation to productivity varies enormously depending on many factors, the most important of which are usability, accessibility and richness of experience. Technologies such as videoconferencing moved quickly from expectation to disillusionment in the 1970s; they are only now starting to climb towards productivity as the core technologies needed to make them usable, accessible and sufficiently rich in experience finally become available.

Email has long been usable, accessible and rich in experience, so it should not be surprising that its provision via cloud computing should have a high take-up in education. Both teachers and students understand email and use it regularly. The same is not true of virtual worlds, and the challenge for education is to understand what role they can play in a blend of learning-delivery mechanisms appropriate for an Information Age unlike any other in human history. Virtual worlds have yet to reach their optimum usability, accessibility and richness of experience because of technological limitations and relatively high development costs.

There is no doubt in my mind that these barriers to adoption are being demolished by the growing popularity of video games across all generations. I envisage that in two to three years' time, virtual worlds will begin to slide on to the plateau of productivity.

David Wortley, Director, The Serious Games Institute, Coventry University.

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