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What happens if you catch Whypox? Children’s learning experiences of infectious disease in a multi-user virtual environment

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For the thematic area of "Learning to Play: Playing to Learn" Multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) have long been a popular genre for entertainment games. Only recently educational researchers have been investigating educational applications (e.g., Aschbacher, 2003; Barab et al., 2002; Bruckman, 1998; Dede, Ketelhut, & Ruess, 2002). Three structural features of MUVEs afford particular instructional opportunities for learning about infectious disease: (1) the ability of learners to create online representation of themselves, called avatars, who can be immersed in disease experiences without direct physical harm to the participant — an aspect difficult to replicate in real life due to ethical considerations; (2) the ability to simulate the experience of infectious disease spread within a large community since some MUVEs have hundreds of thousands of registered users and thousands of concurrent users; and (3) the ability to simulate the real time duration of disease spread over several weeks unlike some previous participatory simulations (Colella, 2000; Krajcik, Blumenfeld, Marx, Fredricks, & Soloway, 1998). This study investigated the learning about infectious disease within a MUVE, called, which had over 500,000 registered users and about 4,000 concurrent users. In this study 46 sixth grade students became members of Whyville and were able to access the website at home and during science class where they learned about natural infectious diseases. The students created avatars in Whyville, which experienced the outbreak and spread of a virtual disease called Whypox during a four-week period. When an avatar had the disease, two important aspects of online participation were affected – the avatar’s appearance by getting red dots on the virtual face and the ability to chat with other Whyville participants by having online chats interrupted by virtual sneezes. This investigation was guided by the following research questions: What do children understand about Whypox as a virtual disease? How does this understanding relate to children’s understanding of natural infectious diseases? Our results revealed that children understood Whypox in ways similar to how they understood natural infectious diseases. For example, when students were asked how they thought Whypox spread through the community, most students said the disease spread through contact, chat, and sneezing. Similarly, when students were asked how Whypox was like a natural infectious disease, most of the student responses included features such as being contagious, having symptoms, and being like a specific other disease. One drawback of having virtual symptoms of sneezing and red spots was that students tended to think that Whypox was caused by contact rather than by germs multiplying in the body and deteriorating the immune system. These findings provide helpful indicators to game designers interested in educational applications of concepts. First, entertainment through features such as chat and on-site recreational games is an essential factor to sustain children’s engagement in a MUVE. Second, too much similarity to a real-life phenomenon might make children think of the real-life version rather than the virtual one. Third, MUVEs provide a dynamic medium to help children learn about concepts that are hard to learn about through traditional teaching methods. References Aschbacher, P. (2003). Gender differences in the perception and use of an informal science learning website. Grant funded by National Science Foundation, PGE 0086338. Arlington, VA. Barab, S., Thomas, M. K., Dodge, T., Goodrich, T., Carteaux, B., & Tuzun, H. (2002). Empowerment design work: Building participant structures that transform. Paper presented at the International Conference of the Learning Sciences, Seattle, Washington. Bruckman, A. (1998). Community support for constructionist learning. Computer Supported Collaborative Work: The Journal of Collaborative Computing, 7, 47-86. Colella, V. (2000). Participatory simulations: Building collaborative understanding through immersive dynamic modeling. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 9(4), 471-500. Dede, C., Ketelhut, D., & Ruess, K. (2002). Motivation, usability, and learning outcomes in a prototype museum-based multi-user virtual environment. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference of the Learning Sciences, Mahwah, NJ. Krajcik, J., Blumenfeld, P., Marx, R., Fredricks, J., & Soloway, E. (1998). Inquiry in project-based science classrooms: Initial attempts by middle school students. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 7(3-4), 313-350. Soloway, E., Norris, C., Marx, R., Blumenfeld, P., Krajcik, J., & Fishman, B. (2001). Handheld devices are ready at-hand. Communciations of the ACM, 44(6), 15-20.
Contact: Nina Neulight, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies,
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