Cool Cat Teacher gets it – the future of the Web (and maybe online learning) will be 3D

In what Stephen Downes describes as “the best post of 2007 to date“, Cool Cat Teacher – Vicki Davis – does an excellent job of explaining why she thinks the future of the Web is 3D and how this 3D Web will offer great potential for online learning.

The article is being widely distributed amongst educational circles so I thought I would respond to a few of Vicki’s comments as well as correct what I think are a few minor inaccuracies. I thought I would also use it as sort of ‘launch pad’ to express a few of my own thoughts on the topic.

With “Web 2.0” barely taking a “bit” part in most of today’s classrooms, the next evolution of the web, I predict, is not Web 3.0. I think it will be Web 3D.

This is the central tenet of Vicki’s post, and of course I agree with her wholeheartedly!

On the name… many people are already describing Web3D as Web3.0. Some are mashing the two up and calling it Web3.D. It will be interesting to see what it ends up getting called. A lot of people hate Web2.0, many even refuse to agree that it exists, so it’s likely there will be no consensus anyway!

I notice on the Web3D 2007 Symposium website they include in Web3D technologies like “X3D, VRML, MPEG4, MPEG7, U3D, Collada, Acrobat3D and Java3D” which all seem to use the existing web architecture and browser. So maybe this is what Web3D is coming to mean. However, the future 3D Web may not use the existing architecture and browser.

Personally I like Web3.D as it gives a nod to the evolution of the 3D web beyond Web2.0. I don’t mean that Web3D will replace Web2.0 (or even Web1.0) it will just subsume earlier technologies, like the 2D web did before it.

However, things like Second Life, Xbox live, Google Earth and World of Warcraft, are just beginning to show the power of networks and engagement of the 3D web. Now things like Moove and Kaneva are cropping up.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are a gazillion new online 3D worlds and related services and technologies coming from a wide range of sectors – entertainment, gaming, media, social networking, business, education and training, mapping and geo-spatial data, just to name a few. And all these different online worlds may one day converge into one big metaverse (see Bryan Alexander’s excellent post on Third Life).

I will elaborate on the landscape of 3D developments in a later post, but for now you may want to subscribe to MyLinkBlog (RSS) – where I’ve been collecting projects, software, websites, services and news relevant to the evolution of the 3D web – to get a sense of what is going on in this arena.

But, lest you think web3d is only happening in the company atmosphere, scientists have been hard at work on standards to make web 3d available everywhere. In 1992, VRML (rhymes with thermal) was created, and after some discussion about the 3D web and work on standards by the W3C the X3D consortium has been created and X3d has officially replaced VRML.

As I mentioned before, the 3D web may not be Web3D, it may be built on a completely different architecture using a completely different client. The X3D standards will have an impact, but may not win out in the end. One of the biggest drawbacks of VRML/X3D is that it does not allow for multi-user interaction, and I believe this social, collaborative aspect of 3D worlds is what has been driving their adoption. I have heard that the Web3D Consortium are working on adding the multi-user element. I’m not sure where they are with that.

I think the next big browser will allow you to interact in 3D with any website.

Let’s hope so, but there are so many different clients being developed for all these different 3D worlds that it may take a long time to get there.

(Yes, Second Life is open source, but the environment is not!)

True for now, but Linden Labs do plan to open source the server software within 12 months. It will then be possible to host your own Second Life islands or worlds.

Second Life is OK, but its not ready for prime time in education.

I assume Vicki is talking about K-12 here, because there is something like 70 Universities already present on the main grid and many are already running courses, including those run by Sarah Robbins of Ball University, Ed Lamoureux of Bradley University, Bryan Carter of the University of Central Missouri and of course Charles Nesson from Harvard who is featured in the video on Vicki’s post.

However, remember, that many experts believe that a lot of money laundering is now going through Linden Dollars. (I have this on good authority from an Internet safety expert

There are plenty of other “experts” – including Edward Castronova, who literally wrote the book on virtual word economies – who disagree with this analysis.

and it is beginning to crop up in some news sources and even the Second Life Herald (the newspaper of Second Life.)

Some of the reporters on the Second Life Herald are very critical to the point of being actively hostile towards Linden Lab and Second Life. I’d take everything they say with a grain of salt. And they are not only not the newspaper of Second Life, they are not even the only news source of Second Life. There is also Second Life Insider, New World Notes, the Second Life News Network (SLNN), the Metaverse Messenger and the Avastar. Even Reuters has a correspondent permanently embedded in Second Life.

Vicki then goes on to provide videos showing how educational institutions are using Second Life. There are many different educational uses and environments in Second Life and I will be talking more about those in a later post, but for now, here a few of my favourite Second Life videos:

Vicki follows this with some of the potential ways of using 3D environments in education, summarised here:

  • You can overcome stereotypes
  • Student Collaboration
  • Authentic Assessment / Project Based Learning Possibilities
  • Role Playing
  • Potential for group synergies
  • Storage, Legacy, and Global Audience
  • Scenario Simulation
  • Digital Storytelling

I think Vicki does a good job of outlining what is possible.

Bottom line is that we need a 3-D web for educational purposes.

Okay… so there has been an ongoing debate about the merit of this idea on the Second Life Educators’ mailing list (SLED).

Wouldn’t this significantly reduce the value of the experience by denying students access to the rest of the virtual world where much of the interesting (and educational) stuff is happening? Isn’t this just another case of separating education off from the rest of the world, be it the real world, the web or virtual worlds, and corralling students into artificial environments? Isn’t this about separating students from the rest of life and the community?

I understand there is an argument for the need to protect younger students, but we have to be sure we don’t end up preventing students from learning how to safely interact with the rest of the online world – whether it’s the Web or virtual worlds – which they will confront sooner or later.

However, your students can leave and go other places without you.

Apparently it is possible to restrict students to your island, so that they can’t even visit the rest of the PG Teen grid.

Only “PG” but still other places outside of your supervision. I’m not comfortable with that. Period.

This is a tricky one… and the Teen Grid is not my area, nor is working with K-12, but I have some niggling issue here with teachers insisting that their students can’t explore other parts of the grid. Is the concern that because the teacher has introduced their students to this environment they are then responsible if anything bad happens to them? Is it about duty of care? Isn’t this the same argument that keeps the Web itself out of the classroom?

Not having the responsibility of dealing with teens on a daily basis I know I am on shaky ground here, but I put these questions out for consideration. Sheesh, just using computers in the classroom can end up in the possibility of going to jail for 40 years!

I’m also not sure what happens when the avatar you’ve worked on turns 18 — does it move into the adult side and do you take your scripts with you?

You graduate to the main grid. And to the best of my knowledge you take your inventory with you.

I also have some seniors who are 18 and some who are 17, so I’m not sure how that would work!

That is an issue. I’m working in the vocational education sector which has students spanning the age divide, and it could present a problem.

Also, they cannot go to the adult areas (for good reason) but the adult areas is where the incredible simulated environments like the tour of Rome shown above are being built.

Isn’t this exactly the argument against having a separate educational grid?

Not yet ready for prime time

Once again, I’m not so sure about that, and neither is Ryan Bretag from Technologists in Training from the sounds of his response to Vicki’s post. I agree with Ryan that it behoves educators – even K-12 educators – to get involved in Second Life now, and not just wait for the ‘safe’ environment to emerge. Ryan’s post is well worth a read.

There is already one school using Teen Second Life for classes – Suffern Middle School – and I believe others are planned for this year.

There are other non-class projects with K-12 students. For example, Stan Trevena, the Director of Technology for Modesto City Schools, is building a learning environment consisting of several islands on the Teen Grid for a virtual exchange program between his students and those from Kyoto Gakuen High School, Japan.

However, I think it is a given that your students will end up experiencing Second Life in a college class

And the workplace… let’s not forget the workplace.

One of the frustrations I have as someone trying to introduce teachers to emerging technologies is that despite the fact that students already use online tools at home, and will be expected to use these tools in at college and the workplace, they are denied use of them in the school classroom. This doesn’t make sense. You may as well ban pens and books. The Internet and online tools give us access to an amazing wealth of information, resources, expertise and support, not to mention opportunities for students to participate in creating and sharing their own content (along a constructivist model of education). Shouldn’t we be guiding our students in the wise, appropriate, safe and critical use of these tools that they are already using, and will be expected to use in the workplace, rather than sticking our heads in the sand and banning them outright?

so it is worth teachers going in there and understanding the environment.

Indeed. And many of skills gained and lessons learned – working with the interface to negotiate a 3D environment, building, facilitating & teaching, designing 3D learning environments – will be transferable into whatever 3D environment comes next.

But teachers need to do more than just explore and research. You can’t really see what you can do with 3D environments until you do something real.

And remember, it is a video game

This is a common misconception. Second Life is not a game. It can be used to create games, but itself is not a game – it’s a Multi-user Virtual Environment (MUVE). There are no rules, goals or quests like in a game. It’s a free-form environment where you can create just about any thing or any experience you want. I’m not just being a pedant here – it’s important that Second Life is accurately reported as what it is. Calling it a game only makes it harder to get educators and educational institutions to take it seriously and accept it as a serious educational platform.

and Linden Labs is in there to make money.

This is always a funny (and somewhat irritating) criticism of Second Life, especially from someone who uses Blogger. Google aren’t in there to make money? All Web 2.0 companies which are often touted for online learning are out to make money.

Sure, buying a land to build on is pricey, but the cost of an island in Second Life is nothing to an institution. It’s just infrastructure cost, like web hosting or installing new multi-media software in a computer lab. I admit though, that at this stage, convincing them the value of spending that money is another matter!

From a student’s perspective it’s possible to experience the world for free. Basic accounts are free and their are enough freebie avatars, clothing, buildings, vehicles and other functional objects to serve most purposes.

Besides, wouldn’t we want to encourage students to start creating their own avatars, clothing, buildings, vehicles and other functional objects and participate in the world of user-generated content? They can even sell them and make a bit of money to buy those things which aren’t free.

many educators haven’t even come to grips with the social web, Web 2.0.

Although this is true, we can’t entirely blame the teachers. I work with many teachers who want to work with Web 2.0 tools, but their institutions are shutting down all access to these tools.

We need to encourage the development of easy to use, safe, classroom environments that can be controlled by the teacher but also allow students to enter 3D virtual environments.

Linden Lab plan to open source the server software sometime in the next year, so it should be possible to set up our own Second Life-based worlds with our own rules.

Ideally we need 3D virtual environments that are based on open standards and open formats, so that we can all host and have control over our own virtual worlds. I suspect this will happen eventually, but how long this takes may depend on who gets involved in virtual worlds now.

Likewise 3D learning is real learning.

Yes… it’s possible to create a type of experiential learning in Second Life, or ‘virtual experiential learning’, if you like. 🙂 That is, getting students to engage in ‘real world’ activities.

If second life is not there yet, we as educators need to join in the discussions, consortiums, and groups that are figuring out what needs to happen.

I agree… this is important. Otherwise the shape of Second Life and future virtual worlds will be determined by business and commercial interests.

If we do not develop alternatives to second life, we will have to use second life. If we do not advocate for effective classroom measures in second life, we will have to take it as it is. Linden Labs (the developers of second life) will quite literally control our future.

Whilst I’m encouraging educators to get involved in Second Life, and not just for individual research, I do acknowledge that Second Life is plagued with problems, including the fact that it is run by a private company and is essentially a walled garden.

But even with these problems, Second Life is currently the best that we have in online 3D virtual worlds. As long as projects are entered into with eyes wide open and full awareness of its limitations and risks, it’s still a worthwhile environment to explore.

When something better comes along, we will be ready, and will have learned the skills and gained knowledge necessary to operate in 3D environments.

I am not an expert on the 3D web, but I know enough to believe that this is indeed the next evolution of the Web.

Yet Vicki, you have done a remarkable job of summarising the issues and bringing this too educators attention.

How it will look and what it will be will largely be determined by the pioneers and visionaries who are moving into the new frontier: the 3D web.

Yes… exciting times. The metaverse is a-coming!

What do you think?

I believe the future of the web will be 3D. But the future of the web will likely not be Second Life. To be honest, I hope it’s not – I hope it’s something open standards and open source that the whole community has decided on. But the idea that Second Life represents – interacting via an avatar in immersive 3D environments that we can build ourselves and where we can express our creativity – will flourish. I believe it has already captured the public imagination.

The reality is that the upcoming generation will be totally comfortable interacting in 3D immersive environments via avatars, and may even come to expect it. I think educators need to become aware where the online world is heading and start familiarising themselves with 3D environments or the already existing gap between teachers and the students they teach will widen.

Hopefully Vicki’s post will alert the educational community to the coming evolution of the web to 3D and the impact this will have on education in general, and online learning in particular, and as a result lead to more dialogue, exploration and input into this exciting area.

Update: Wow! Shortly after after posting this I was checking my links and came across an anonymous comment on Stephen Downes’ post about Vicki Davis’ post that points to this post from Sumedh Mungee that in turn points to this post by Joi Ito’s from October 2005 about how ‘3D was Web 3.0’.

I’ve been avidly reading blogs about the metaverse, virtual worlds and the 3D web for the last few months, and even with that I didn’t realise this discussion went back that far.

The anonymous commenter on Downes’ posts asks: “The more and more I see the workings of the web…I wonder how truly democratic it is…and then realize, ‘oh, wait, it isn’t democratic afterall.’ It seems like only certain voices are heard and recognized as being innovative….look this gentleman wrote about Web 3.0 and 3D two years ago…why isn’t his post considered?”


As I said before…Vicki’s post has done an important job of bringing the 3D web to the attention of educators, but what all of this tells me is that educators are behind… waaaaaay behind.

Update 2 – 06/03/07: In this post on the Second Life Educators mailing list Claudia Linden has cleared up a few questions raised as a result of this post and the one by Vicki Davis.

To summarise:

  1. Linden Lab offers an educational discount to qualified educational institutions and non-profits of US$980 for the island purchase (not several thousand dollars) with US$150 a month maintenance.
  2. Educators can choose from three models when setting up their islands:
    1. Totally private – students can’t access the rest of the Teen Grid.
    2. Partially open – students can’t leave their own island, but other teens can visit from the Teen Grid. The island can be closed for specific events.
    3. Completely open – students and other Teen Grids residents can come and go as they please.
  3. When a teen turns 18 they take all of their inventory – including scripts – with them to the Main Grid.

(Image by Leonard Low)

8 responses to “Cool Cat Teacher gets it – the future of the Web (and maybe online learning) will be 3D

  1. Pingback: Understanding Virtual Worlds» Blog Archive » CoolCat Blogger and the 3D Web

  2. Sean,

    Are educators waaaay behind…or simply not heard?

    Kind Regards,

  3. Pingback: The Story of My “Second Life” » One Great Post Deserves Another

  4. Mechelle: my answer to that is getting quite long and worthy of a post on its own, so stay tuned.

  5. Excellent post about the discussion. I am in Second Life now and am using it to learn. I do not have the funding to “take in my students” on a private island and some of this information is great that you’ve gleaned — I wish they would post some of it on the original post, but I’ll have to take the time to go back and do that.

    This is about conversation but we also must remember — some things that happen in second life are not OK for teenagers to watch. I want to take them to Rome, that is on the adult grid and I’d hate for them to meet a temple prostitute doing what temple prostitutes do!

    So, that being said, we do agree that the potential is there. I also have an expert that has stated the problem with Linden dollars, I couldn’t quote her because she does a lot of work with the FBI and CIA, but she has told me that a lot of money laundering is happening. So, I trust her to know because she is privy to some very top level investigations happening. She says that Linden dollars are virtually (pardon the pun) untraceable.

    These are exciting times, thanks for discussing it!

  6. Pingback: Web3D « the wee librarian

  7. Vicki: thanks for your comment.

    I know you’ve done some groundbreaking work with blogs and other Web 2.0 tools with your students, so I look forward to seeing what you do with virtual worlds once you find an environment you feel safe enough to work in.

    Perhaps out of all this you will get some funding for an island on the Teen grid! 🙂

  8. join either the public lists or the consortium to see where MU is heading now. Things are picking up there for sure.