Recently, during a discussion on how technology is changing education, I was reminded of the virtual worlds people are setting up. In general, younger generations are growing up accustomed to the benefits of technology, and expect their entertainment to be equally exciting and innovative. Video games just don't cut it anymore. They have to be more interactive, more immersive and more communal. The internet provides a ripe infrastructure for these kinds of developments, taking games from single PC's to networks of users.
As testament to this trend, look no further than the recent release of Disney's Virtual Magic Kingdom (see this review at O'Reilly). It takes the virtual world game to the next level, and it's graphics are far superior too.
In fact, even ocean educators are already going this route. Woods Hole, among others, has partnered with the Whyville site to provide educational content amongst the games and interaction provided by the site.
To my mind, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of these sites. Supposedly, there's lots of evidence that students really get engaged in the community atmosphere of such sites. However, I really question how much they actually learn.
It's clear that students like to use (read: play on) them, spending much of their time designing their avatars and chatting with other users. And despite the best attempts of educators to spread educational content throughout the sites, often within the games that reward students with "money" to use to improve their avatars, I would wager they spend more time on the frills and less on the skills.
Of course, when Disney builds a free virtual environment, it's not about educational value, but marketing and branding.
But when educators start thinking about using new technologies to teach and excite the next generation, I feel we still have a long way to go before we find the right recipe.