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Virtual Worlds for Education – 1997 Redux?

Brass-At-Sign.jpgVirtual Worlds and Video Games for Education are getting a lot of press these days. With all the hoopla it helps to bring a little perspective to where we are in the development of this new market. It is feeling a lot like the web in 1997 and perhaps we can take some lessons from that era to help us make sense of today’s emerging opportunities.

Nick Wilson over at Metaversed did an excellent piece titled 7 Reasons Why Virtual Worlds are Like the Web Circa 1997. In this post is I delve a little deeper into his list as it relates specifically to education and the companies that serve this market.

Here is Silver’s premise:

The reality is that the 3D web is in its infancy…those people trying to make the best of the kludgy communications systems, poor system stability and all the other oddities that arise from using a system that’s in constant development are at the forefront of something that will eventually change the way we all live and work on the internet.

That doesn’t stop it feeling like some kind of insane time warp though. With that in mind, here’s a fun, but true list of reasons why what we’re doing in virtual worlds today is like what we did 10yrs ago.

He talks about the seven points for the broad general market, here are my expansions on his ideas for Education.

1. Return of the Walled Garden – No one wants to return to the browser wars, but in education there are valid reasons for creating walled gardens, children’s on-line safety being the leading one. There are also valid pedagogical reasons why a District or Classroom might want to restrict membership in a virtual world to their students. While this may be a negative in the consumer space it frequently is an advantage in educational spaces.

2. Clueless Corporations – In the late ’90s there were a slew of education internet sites that were total disasters because people rushed in who didn’t understand either the web or the classroom. You could tell who they were because they oozed arrogance all over the table.

There are some enduring sites that emerged from this era and the common thread seems to be a basic economic model that doesn’t rely on advertising and a focus on supporting teachers. Those sites that were going to spam the classroom with ads or who were going to rely on the students who “got it” to do their marketing failed. Often miserably and publicly.

3. Spinning Logos – Lots of people are building out education spaces in Second Life with no plan to actually build a community. A flashy building and cool amphitheater can’t overcome a lack of depth (or scalability). One of the most successful education sites around – Whyville – which has attracted 2.5 million kids since 1999 has a very simple interface based on older technologies. They succeed because they consciously put a great deal of effort into community building.

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4. First Fever – Unlike the larger market where companies are piling into Second Life in education market investors burned last time are hesitant to make a bet today. They now believe the education market is the equivalent of lighting cigars with $100 bills.

But there is a real first mover advantage in education which can lower the investment risk profile. Education markets take longer to build, but once they do they are a far stabler annuity stream than the fickle consumer space. When teachers embed activities in their lesson plans and get good results the switching costs go up considerably, hence the first mover advantage.

5. Rock Star Designers – Many education companies know that they lack the expertise and processes to move aggressively in these spaces. As a result they are looking to outsiders to help them move quickly. The mistake they make is assuming that the new products somehow require a new approach to product launches and diffusion. Hire the rock stars to build the environments, but make sure they are guided by education expertise from internal staff and consultants. For education the overriding theme should be how these efforts fit in to existing practice, otherwise it becomes too much work for the average teacher.

6. If You Spam It, They Will Come – Silvers focuses on search noting that “its very easy to find stuff, but not very easy to find good stuff.” For education the key links have to be to the education standards. No one outside of a university setting has done a good job of tightly integrating standards and making it easy for teachers to see this and report on it. Right now the attitude seems to be “just throw some stuff up there” and we’ll see what happens. An intentional approach will win the day here.

toy_workers.jpg7. Selling Picks and Shovels – The big winners last time were those who sold the tools. For educational virtual worlds the toolsets are changing quickly and reducing the cost of entry. There are several that can be used for educational tools and Richard Carey has done a nice job of explaining the differences. For those who want to play in this space the cost of getting your prototype done and in the hands of educators has come down considerably in just the past few months.

However the tool companies were not the biggest winners – the “content” providers (Amazon, eBay, Facebook, etc.) are where the serious money got made. For education this means finding a way to expand and amplify the core content areas. The virtual worlds that can do that in engaging and sustainable ways will be home runs.

This is a very exciting time to be involved in this arena – there is a great positive energy and a sense that we are on the cusp of building some powerful additions to the pool of tools that teachers use in the classroom. If we can learn a few things from the last time we went through this we can help that day arrive sooner and create products with real staying power.