Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Literacy and identity in virtual Worlds

How we see childhood, education and “growing up” depends on our theoretical lens. Guy discusses the rise of the sociocultural view of children and the increasing attention to the significance of interaction and networking.

There are at least two options available to us in terms of thinking about the internet and everyday life: To go the route of security—lock-stepped curriculum, filters etc. The other option is distributed learning that is open, fluid and interactive. This second position shapes Guy’s own position.

Guy shows us Google’s new Lively virtual world, and speaks about how identity is tied up with what the producers make

A virtual world is "an online space you feel as if you're there" (Schroeder 2002). Markham, in "Life Online", talks about the internet in three ways: the internet as a tool, the internet as a place, and the internet as a way of being. An online space, usually with the look of three dimensions, where you can move about and some sense of "network effect" (i.e., to interact in different ways with others). Some virtual worlds allow you to customize spaces, too (e.g., upload videos, build things).

Guy talks about a range of popular virtual worlds:

These are examples of the "tools to hand for meaning making". A large percentage of school students are inhabiting these kinds of virtual worlds.

A brief history of virtual worlds for children:

1993 - CitySpace
1995 - Neopets
2000 - Habbo Hotel
2004 - Ketnetkick
2005 - Virtual Magic Kingdom
2005 - WebKinz
2007 - Club Penguin
2007 - Nicktropolis
2008 - Moshi Monsters
2008 - Adventure Rock
2008 - My Tiny Planets
2009 - Lego World

Market research strongly suggests that 10 year-olds are the fastest growing "markets" for virtual worlds.

Guy presents an analysis from a study that categorises child users into a range of types:

Guy asks, given all this, what use of these virtual worlds can or should we make with these virtual worlds?

Guy introduces us to his case study of "Barnsborough"--a virtual world project involving students, children and programmers. The world itself is located within "Active Worlds". The aims of this study include:

Participants included at the start 10 schools (now 15) and students aged 9-11 years. the planning group comprised local literacy and drama specialists, ICT advisory staff, primary school teachers and myself as consultant and researcher. The development company was virtually Learning, which is based in Finland.


The "brief" upon entering this world is that the previous inhabitants of Barnsborough have disappeared and your task is to work out why.

The interface includes rich media, tool-tip clues (e.g., "The room apepars to have been trashed"), hyperlinked and downloadable texts. Different possible scanerios are hinted at: major bio-hazard issue (barrels lying around and polluting a local lake), alien abduction scenario, a political or big business disaster, or suggest something more mysterious (e.g., Big Brother).

In all, Barnsborough comprises a "constellation of literacy practices" -- chat functions, clues posted around the world, videos etc.

Research issues

Guy displays some of his conversation/interview data and discusses some of the conventions they use that signals their understanding of how conventional print literacy works (the students are typing their speech).


  • truancy online - the teachers were upset about the kids leaving the town and going up the hill to the castle to explore that, but the teachers wanted them to tay in th town because it matched their curriculum; the town was walled off, but the kids worked out how to escape--and had to be forcibly brought back etc.)

  • finding guns - the kids looked for weapons on the ground to use based on their cultural understanding of how games work

  • discovering secret functions (e.g., flying by tapping the F12 button)

  • hide and seek became a popular game (even some of the teachers joined in)
  • avatar play - changing their appearance etc.

  • The students' and teachers' discussions of their avatar experience proved to be particularly interesting to Guy.

    Overall observations


    Students are well-aware that literacy is being "done to" them in schools. they understand that progress is measured by individual results on test scores. they *also* are aware of the dissonances (e.g., trying to pick up guns as in games, escping from the town). The teachers replicate traditional classroom practices inside this virtual world, but it doesn't have to be that way. Virtual places like Barnsborough offer all sorts of real opportunities for exploring alternatives.


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