Confidence and Education: Virtual Worlds and MOOCs

The promise of virtual worlds

In her blog post “Does a virtual world make our world better?”, Olga Vasileva celebrates the emancipatory possibilities of virtual worlds in online education. From her own experience as an educator, Vasileva knows that students with disabilities or in rural settings value the opportunity to seek education on the accessible, anonymous Internet. She embraces virtual worlds (VWs) for their ability to allow these students “to interact similar to the real class experience through their ideal avatar.”

Some avatars hanging at an amphitheatre in Second Life.

This is a real Polish-language university space in Second Life, or so I’ve been led to believe by Wikimedia Commons. (cc) Dex Euromat

Avatars and confidence

In discussions of VWs, virtual spaces tend to generate the most excitement. However, Vasileva correctly identifies the need for students to feel connected to the space, their teachers, and their classmates through their virtual representations, or avatars. The ability to “hide” behind the avatar could, in fact, be the answer to a serious problem technologically-savvy teenagers face today: crippling self-doubt caused by the 24/7 exposure of digital life.

6 out of 10 girls are now choosing not to do something because they don’t think they look good enough. (Ramsey)

During the TED@Unilever conference, Meaghan Ramsey, director of the viral Dove Self-Esteem Project (see videos here and here), spoke of the detrimental impact an extreme lack of body confidence has on teenagers. In addition to the above statistic, Ramsey noted that 30% of teenagers don’t participate in class discussions, and a shocking 1 in 5 will skip school when they don’t feel they look good. This low self-esteem has long-term effects on their educational success:

“When it comes to exams, if you don’t think you look good enough, specifically if you don’t think you look thin enough, you will score a lower grade point average than your peers that are not concerned with this.” (Ramsey)

Scores drop regardless of actual weight—just the fear of an imperfect body lowers a student’s grade.

See where I’m going with this?

Ramsey’s solution to the problem is to come up with better body confidence programs. The current ones, she says, tend to exacerbate insecurity, or have little impact. She does not explain what a better program would look like, but if Vasileva is correct, VWs (and the customizable, idealized avatars they come with) might not be a bad start.

Virtual worlds in education

The impact of virtual worlds in education has been extensively studied. For example, Quest Atlantis is essentially a Second Life-style 3D world with educational “quests” aimed at 8- to 14-year-olds. Travelling as avatars, students participate in experiential learning, inquiry, and reflection, according to educational researcher Jackie Gerstein. As a former teacher myself (and a big fan of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows), I tend to be wary of computers in the classroom. After all, the Internet is a distraction machine by design—users clicking from page to page generate ad revenue. However, I also know that education is changing, and students, especially those in Quest Atlantis’s target age group, are living in a world that will always be distracting. Encouraging students to explore ideas and reflect on that process in a virtual environment could tame the distracting power of the digital.

Steven Caldwell, an educator who uses Quest Atlantis in the classroom, also advocates for the system. He claims that it can “bolster self-esteem, maintain privacy, and also create effective communities.” Self-esteem is driving 1 in 5 teens to skip out on their regular brick-and-mortar schooling. The opportunity to keep up with school in a VW could be extremely liberating for these teenagers.

The physical classroom, virtually

Community building remains a particular challenge for virtual education, even with the emotive power of the avatar. Gerstein’s study was conducted on students exploring Quest Atlantis while sitting in the same physical classroom. In this collaborative environment, students engaged with each other in real life, mentoring one another through world navigation and quests. Every teacher knows that the best way to learn is to teach, and successfully encouraging your students to teach each other organically is a crowning achievement. However, the ultimate application of VWs will not be to brick-and-mortar classrooms, but to distance learning options, like MOOCs. How can students collaborate then? Gerstein envisioned this problem:

A possible solution could be giving students their own individualized learning areas similar to the virtual office space found at Meetsee, where the avatars have the capacity to showcase their work, and interact with other student avatars in their own personalized learning home areas. (Gerstein 13)

Avatars could interact in virtual classrooms just like students interacted in a physical classroom. However, what would such a space look like?

The semantic web and virtual worlds

In their article “Compounding the Results: The Integration of Virtual Worlds with the Semantic Web,” Charles J. Lesko and Yolanda A. Hollingsworth illustrate the organizational and community-building power of marrying the semantic web with virtual worlds. Lesko and Hollingsworth envision spaces where the Web’s ability to “know” what search inquiries mean couples with a VW’s ability to create a 3D, social environment, advancing the presentation of web searches and allowing individuals to curate their own collections.

One example they give is Kosmix, a search engine which returns results in magazine format. Unfortunately, the startup was purchased by WalMart and is now defunct. However, the idea could be adapted to the kinds of virtual spaces Gerstein recommends for Quest Atlantis. Imagine a school building where each classroom contains the most useful information on a topic, populated with documents from the semantic web and curated by the students themselves, a sort of 3D Wikipedia. Now imagine the students interacting with each other’s avatars in this environment, absolved of insecurities built on body image or ability. Sounds pretty utopian, right?

meetsee but for students and less lame

This is what Meetsee looks like, according to a press release. You’ll just have to pretend in the imaginative play students would bring to this VW.


Now to cast a shadow on our hold-hands-and-sing-kumbaya glow. It took some searching, but I finally found the pessimistic, online-education-isn’t-all-it’s-cracked-up-to-be scholarly article my distrustful heart craved. In 2010, Jenny Mackness, Sui Fai John Mak, and Roy Williams, researchers studying networked learning, participated in a MOOC, and surveyed users afterwards to see how the whole thing went. The participants identified many positives—collaboration with peers over great distances, the freedom to learn at their own pace, and most notably, crowd-driven accessibility initiatives (the syllabus was translated into 5 languages).

However, the researchers identified many user concerns, as well. On the minor side, instructors didn’t feel the students were learning what they were meant to learn, and students tended to interact only with like-minded folks. Most damagingly, however, users reported feeling intimidated by bullying and trolling which occurred on the classroom forums. Some became lurkers rather than active participants because they feared peer judgment—exactly the opposite of the intended effect.

Before I could really enjoy the rain falling on everyone’s digital parade, however, the study made some simple, concrete suggestions to help ensure user comfort and safety:

Some constraints and moderation exercised by instructors and/or learners may be necessary for effective learning in a course such as CCK08. These constraints might include light touch moderation to reduce confusion, or firm intervention to prevent negative behaviours which impede learning in the network, and explicit communication of what is unacceptable, to ensure the ‘safety’ of learners. (Mackness et. al.)

In a purpose-built educational VW, these needs can be addressed. Games like Quest Atlantis automatically include constraints through the rules of each quest. Moderation of chats can be conducted by teachers, and screening like that imposed on MMORPG chats can be implemented. Quest Atlantis already explicitly has classroom rules to help guide student behaviour, as well. While the anonymity of avatars certainly can lead to hurtful behaviours, keeping the VW small (the size of a typical high school classroom) should help reduce the problem, while enabling students to participate in their learning and take more risks.


Caldwell, Steven. “What is Quest Atlantis?” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 2 Aug. 2010. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.

Gerstein, Jackie. “Beyond the game: Quest Atlantis as an online learning experience for gifted elementary students.” Virtual Worlds Research 2.1 (2009): 3-18. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.

Lesko, Charles J. and Yolanda A. Hollingsworth. “Compounding the Results: The Integration of Virtual World with the Semantic Web.” Virtual Worlds Research 2.5 (2009): 3-10. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.

Mackness, Jenny, Sui Fai John Mak, and Roy Williams. “The Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC.” 7th International Conference on Networked Learning. Aalborg University. Aalborg, Denmark. 2010. Reading.

olgavasileva2014 [Olga Vasileva]. “Does a virtual world make our world better?” Olgavasileva2014. WordPress, 28 Oct. 2014. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.

Ramsey, Meaghan. “Why thinking you’re ugly is bad for you.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 7 Oct. 2014. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.


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