Middlesex gets to grip with kids' virtual lives

January 7, 2000

Researchers at Middlesex University have launched a project that should help the training of teachers and students in the use of 3D virtual learning worlds, writes Tim Greenhalgh.

Fiona Bailey and Magnus Moar are lead researchers in Vertex, a collaborative initiative between the school of lifelong learning and education and the centre for electronic arts at the university.

Three-dimensional virtual worlds are media-rich, computer- simulated and shared environments within which people can congregate and communicate in real time over great geographical distances.

It is an area attracting the attention of all the major media businesses, which see its commercial, and academic, potential.

Ms Bailey said that the primary focus in the first stage of the project would be on the initial reaction of young students, between the ages of nine and 11, to virtual worlds. The information would be useful for later stages of the project where the role of the teacher in the 3D learning environment would be fully explored.

"We are looking at how these technologies can be used practically within a classroom setting. We need to include teachers in the process of setting up these worlds. They need to understand and be less fearful of the technology and culture involved as well as feed us ideas for research and development," she said.

The environments, accessible via the internet, bring together various media - image, text, sound, video and animation - into a navigable, interactive "space" within the computer, allowing multiple users, visually represented by animated characters called "avatars", to roam around and explore different worlds.

The worlds are created using an established multi-user 3D

architecture called Active Worlds, which allows users to visit

and interact with other participants and gives them the

option of editing, reconfiguring and adding to the visual environment.

Ms Bailey said: "It involves very human questions about how the children can develop for themselves and when they need help. We are very interested in how children will represent themselves, and so how they view themselves."

The first phase of the project, launched in September, has successfully linked schools in London and Orkney.

Ms Bailey said: "We will be looking at ways in which children and teachers build and alter these environments and ways in which gender plays a part. So far, we have found that girls are equally as keen to take part as the boys."

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