Exploiting Virtual Worlds For Teachers Professional Development Education Essay

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Today, the emergence of technologies, such as 3D Virtual Worlds, which provide realistic three-dimensional environments and can offer engaging, interactive and immersive experiences, creates new opportunities for teaching and learning. However, we should take into account that possible use of 3D Virtual Worlds is a major challenge for school teachers, since they introduce new concepts that even teachers who are experienced and keen on using digital technologies are not familiar with. Within this context, in this paper we present our case for school teachers' training activities facilitated by a 3D Virtual Classroom Simulation (designed using SLOODLE), as the means for simulating the familiar "traditional" classroom in the unfamiliar context of 3D Virtual Worlds and thus, by presenting them in a module designed using the Synectics "Making the strange familiar" instructional strategy, we target supporting teachers understand these environments, explore their potential in enhancing their educational practices and acquire competences for teaching in them, within a closed and familiar environment provided by the 3D Virtual Classroom Simulation.

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KEYWORDS

3D Virtual Worlds, Second Life, SLOODLE, Teachers' Continuing Professional Development, Synectics

INTRODUCTION

Today, the emergence of technologies, such as 3D Virtual Worlds (VWs), which provide realistic three-dimensional environments and offer engaging, interactive and immersive experiences, creates new opportunities for teaching and learning. During the past years, several researchers have recognized the educational potential of 3D VWs (Molka-danielsen and Deutschmann, 2009; Wankel and Kingsley, 2009). However, we should take into account that possible use of 3D VWs is a major challenge for teachers, since they introduce new concepts that even teachers who are experienced and keen on using digital technologies are not familiar with. To this end, Bignell and Parson (2010), considering only the technical aspect of 3D VWs, have acknowledged a set of skills that a teacher has to acquire to teach within Second Life (SL). On the other hand, Teachers' Continuing Professional Development (CPD) involves among others enabling school teachers to relate their previous experiences to new concepts, ideas and/or procedures in order to develop their competences (Reimers, 2003). To this end, in this paper we propose a module for Teachers' CPD in the use of 3D VWs for teaching. More specifically, we propose the use of Synectics "Making the strange familiar" instructional strategy to support teachers understand 3D VWs, explore their potential in enhancing their educational practices and acquire competences for teaching in them.

Background

Eshenbenner et al. (2008) state that 3D VWs offer unique learning and teaching opportunities, as they present rich, engaging, immersive, motivating and highly interactive environments, due to the fact that they: (a) recreate the sense of presence, (b) are immediate, (c) are adaptable, (d) offer the possibility to simulate the "real" world, (e) offer the possibility to create new experiences that may not be possible or may be difficult to represent in the "real" world, (f) could be offered for experimentation and (g) allow for synchronous communication and collaboration. These characteristics can be considered as the key concepts that would be useful to be understood by school teachers who want to implement 3D VWs in their educational practices. Furthermore, there are research studies (Esteves et al., 2009; Girvan and Savage, 2010; Jarmon et al. 2009; Konstantinidis et al. 2010; Vasileiou and Paraskeva, 2010) that focus specifically on teachers' experiences either through using 3D VWs in their teaching activities or through their participation in 3D VWs supported CPD. As it is indicated from the above mentioned studies there are a number of issues, such as the extra pressure applied to teachers who teach within 3D VWs and the lack of understanding of the new possibilities offered by 3D VWs in teaching and learning, that should be considered in order to develop modules in Teachers' CPD programs that aim (i) to support teachers understand the concepts related to 3D VWs, (ii) explore the new possibilities that 3D VWs present for teaching and learning and (iii) equip them with useful competences related with teaching within 3D VWs.

On the other hand, the increased interest of exploiting 3D VWs in education, has led to the development of educational tools and applications which aim to integrate existing learning technologies (such as Course Management Systems) in 3D VWs infrastructure (such as SL) (Bignell and Parson, 2010; Livingstone, 2009). A prominent example of those efforts is the SLOODLE (Simulation Linked Object Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment), which enables the integration of SL and Moodle (Livingstone, 2009). Thus, we propose to use the SLOODLE environment in order to design a simulation of a "traditional" classroom in the unfamiliar context of the 3D VWs, so as to enable teachers achieve the above mentioned objectives within a closed and familiar environment and then extent and apply them in the openness of the 3D Virtual World.

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The instructional strategy of "Synectics - Making the Strange Familiar" is defined as "a strategy for making the students understand and internalize new or difficult concepts and ideas, through the use of analogies between concepts or ideas which are familiar to the students to the new concepts or ideas presented" (Joyce et al., 2000, p. 232; Talawar and Sheela, 2004, p. 14). Based on the problem which is targeted by our approach we consider as (a) the "strange" part of the analogy, the concepts and the competences related with teaching in 3D VWs and (b) as the "familiar" part of the analogy the teachers' experiences in a "traditional" classroom. Thus, we support that the use of this strategy can (i) lead teachers to understand the unfamiliar concepts presented in 3D VWs by exploring the similarities and differences between a "traditional" classroom and a 3D Virtual Classroom, and (ii) enable teachers to design simple educational activities by transferring their previous experiences and ideas using the tools presented in the 3D Virtual Classroom.

Proposed Module for Teachers' CPD Design

The potential participants of this module should be selected school teachers, who are experienced in using digital technologies both in their life and in their educational practices. It is also anticipated that they present high motivation and interest in their continuing professional development and appreciate the potential value of innovative digital technologies for education. In Table 1 we present a summary of the targeted competences of the proposed module for Teachers' CPD.

The proposed module consists of seven phases that feature different educational activities. In the first five phases the 3D Virtual Classroom Simulation, will be used to demonstrate the second part of the analogy, that is, the "traditional" classroom to the 3D Virtual Classroom, whereas in the next two phases the teachers will interact within the 3D Virtual Classroom Simulation exploring the analogy on their own and generating their own analogies, that is, educational activities in a "traditional" classroom to educational activities in a 3D Virtual Classroom. More precisely, in the Phase 1 (Substantive Input), the educator presents the main concepts related to 3D VWs and triggers a discussion (targets K1, K4, A1, A2). In Phase 2 (Direct Analogy), the educator presents the analogy of a "traditional" classroom to a 3D Virtual Classroom and triggers a discussion on finding the parts where the analogy is connected (targets K2, K4). In Phase 3 (Personal Analogy), the teachers express how it would have been if they were teaching in a 3D Virtual Classroom (targets K2, K4, A2). In Phase 4 (Comparing Analogies), through brainstorming the teachers find and describe the similarities between the two parts of the analogy (targets K2, K4, A1). In Phase 5 (Explaining Differences), through brainstorming the teachers find the differences between the two parts of the analogy (targets K3, K4, A1). The next two phases namely, Phase 6 (Exploration) and Phase 7 (Generating Analogy) described in Table 2, aim to address (a) how the concepts of 3D VWs can be highlighted using the 3D Virtual Classroom Simulation in this module and (b) what are the tools and functionalities that could be used to support these educational activities.

CONCLUSIONS

As it is indicated in recent research studies 3D VWs is a new digital technology that presents characteristics that are useful to exploit in education. However, the concepts related to 3D VWs may seem "strange" even to teachers who are experienced and keen on using digital technologies. To this end, this paper has proposed a module for Teachers CPD that is based on "Synectics - Making the strange familiar" instructional strategy, that aims to (a) to support school teachers understand the concepts related to 3D VWs, (b) explore the new possibilities that 3D VWs present for teaching and learning and (c) acquire basic competences for teaching within 3D VWs.