|OLOR Series:||ROLE Reviews|
|Original Publication Date:||15 March 2018|
This review was originally published in Research in Online Literacy, vol. 1, no. 1 (2018).
Teaching and Learning in Virtual Environments: Archives, Museums, and Libraries explores the emerging world of virtual reality in the context of education. The book is divided into three sections made up of chapters written by up to three subject-matter experts. A total of 22 librarians, higher-education and museum educators, authors, editors, and a research scientist contributed their experience. Some chapters provide specific, concrete information or instructions on creating an in-world avatar and connecting with virtual conference groups, or specific methodologies for helping students interact with and learn from instructor-created virtual worlds. Other chapters take a more abstract, higher-level approach, discussing the overall implications of two- and three-dimensional augmented and virtual reality programs for educators and students.
The foreword promises that “the book comes alive with stories of real-life people” (xi) living, working, and teaching in virtual worlds, and several chapters in particular succeed admirably. One university professor tasks his students with building augmented reality overlays of 1920s Jazz Age life in Paris, tied to specific locations and landmarks; the students explore the city in both the past and present, and this active participation in their education enriches other users of these augmented reality apps. Two librarians help run a virtual library filled with the standard books and reference materials but also with fantastical creations not possible in the real world: a magic seat cushion to guide patrons around the library when staff is occupied; meeting rooms where people attend “face-to-face” conferences with colleagues from all over the world without leaving their hometowns; and exhibits like UC Davis’s Virtual Hallucinations, which replicated a schizophrenic’s worldview so medical students could better understand their patients. A high school educator working with a library technical director constructed a realistic virtual copy of a New York City neighborhood, filled with apartments and jobs, working public transportation, and simulated dangers, and uses it to teach hundreds of autistic teenagers how to safely function on their own; the students love having a safe place where they can find their way before being thrust into the real world.
Despite a myriad of useful information on the realities of teaching and learning in virtual environments, the book does suffer from some weaknesses. The first is an inescapable issue for any book published on cutting-edge technologies: They quickly find themselves dated by the march of progress. One of the augmented reality technologies mentioned, Google Glass, has already been discontinued. Most contributors focus heavily, even exclusively, on Linden Labs’ Second Life virtual world, which peaked at 1.1 million active users worldwide in 2006 with only about half that many maintaining an active presence today (Maiberg, 2016; Weinberger, 2015) Several contributors even mention this decline and its effect on their funding but fail to address the natural follow-up question: Why should newcomers invest in an apparently dying platform?
Secondly, much of the book is frustratingly repetitive. Many of the authors worked together on the same projects and attended the same conferences, whether virtually or “IRL” (in real life), and these overlapped experiences result in overlapped discussions throughout the book. Nearly every Second Life–based chapter explains what Second Life is and how it works in varying detail, with several mentioning the same educational focuses within Second Life, such as simulations of Tudor-era Britain. While useful for a reader only interested in a single chapter, when one reads the entire book, it feels like so much wasted opportunity. Finally, few of the book’s contributors and chapters actually live up to the foreword’s promise of a lively, engaging tour of an exciting virtual reality. Most buried their fascinating subject matter under stifling, passive prose that struggles to captivate the reader.
Nevertheless, Teaching and Learning in Virtual Environments is recommended for educators unfamiliar with virtual worlds but interested in expanding their skill set. Many specifics in the book may not apply to current systems―with a variety of devices and platforms becoming available from nearly every major player in the tech world―but the overall theme and ideas are valuable.
Maiberg, E. (2016, April 29.) Why is ‘Second Life’ still a thing? Vice.com. Retrieved from https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/why-is-second-life-still-a-thing-gaming-virtual-reality
Weinberger, M. (2015, March 29.) This company was 13 years early to virtual reality—and it’s getting ready to try again. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/second-life-is-still-around-and-getting-ready-to-conquer-virtual-reality-2015-3
Remington Jones is a software developer, professional writer, and avid reader who has over 10 years of experience working in technology-related fields. He will graduate from Western Carolina University in May 2018, with a major in Professional Writing and double-minor in Computer Science and Computer Information Systems.