The Benefits and Challenges Concerning Online Virtual Worlds in Learning Games and Simulations Designed for K-12 Education.

The Benefits and Challenges Concerning Online Virtual Worlds in Learning Games and Simulations Designed for K-12 Education.

A Review of the Literature

Salie Davis

Social and Ethical Issues in the Digital Era


Dr. Diane Gal

April 28, 2017


Various online virtual world platforms are explored for applications of educational games and simulations for K-12 learning,,, and as examples. Other services exist that allow access to the hypergrid which includes private servers all over the globe. Programs also exist such as DreamWorld and Simonastick which allow for virtual world creation and use offline. Prior research is examined to determine the potential benefits and challenges in order to identify where more research needs to be conducted. This will aid educators in determining what is required for successful use of virtual worlds in learning games and simulations designed for youth and identify best practices.

The Benefits and Challenges Concerning Online Virtual Worlds in Learning Games and Simulations Designed for K-12 Education.

A Review of the Literature


Virtual worlds have long been known for adult interactions, technology explorations, meetings, socialization and most recently continued education applications. The majority of online virtual worlds, whether for profit entities such as, or non-profit entities such as, base there foundation on “…interactive entertainment products and services” (Linden Research, Inc., 2017, para 2). Education is a secondary thought for most online virtual world applications. Even with which has expanding beyond a test platform for open source, lists the open source social platform as the primary use. With the use of virtual worlds in educational endeavors being limited in application and geared more towards adult audiences, the consideration of digital games, simulations and learning for K-12 student needs more research and exploration.

Research selection and definitions:

In considering the current literature and research for review it is important to identify leaders in the field of research concerning this topic. Few research papers have been written specifically studying online virtual words for youth. I did find several that address virtual simulations and learning games and their benefits that add to the overall body of knowledge on this subject and have included them as well as the more specific studies of actual online virtual worlds for use with youth.

Groups of professionals and educators often network within these online virtual worlds to offer support, resources and best practices. Though research concerning online virtual worlds specifically for use with younger children and still found lacking concerning older children, have children participate in online virtual worlds is an active and ongoing professional, and personal discussion in the online virtual world platform, companion websites and professional blogs. For this reason I have included several quotes from the server host groups themselves, virtual community partnerships and from virtual educator groups that have researched and discussed this issue.

In addition, it is essential in this discussion of research to determine a historical and definitive understanding of the term, “virtual world” also called “islands” in many online platforms. According to Merchant, Goetz, Cifuentes, Keeney-Kennicutt, & Davis immersive virtual reality has been in existence since the 1960’s. The interest in using virtual reality in professional training increased in the 1980s and by the 1990s was also being used for K-12 education further states Merchant et al (2014). The use of online virtual worlds increased in the first decade of the 21st century with Teen Secondlife and many private and educational institutions contributing to and creating virtual worlds specifically designed for youth. These include many science based applications that covered space exploration, virtual dissection, and virtual museum simulations.

For the purpose of this research literature review the definition of an online virtual world in its application for use with youth is a 3D multi-user environment with user-generated content. It is defined as an online, computer based and browser based virtual reality platform hosted on a “grid” or “hypergrid” which is a grid on a company owned or private server. This research and literature review focus’ specifically on youth under the age of 18, with particular interest in the need for future research concerning youth under the age of 13.

Virtual world classifications and uses:

Types of virtual worlds include public, institutional and private. Public worlds are known best for adult roleplay such as Secondlife. AGEPLAY- having a prepubescent avatar is a highly controversial subject due to social fears of sexual role play. This has resulted in a debate over unrealistic limitations placed non-sexual role plays since the ban of child avatars omit the reality of children in all social applications (Metaversetours, 2015). It is a growing platform for networking, and communication. “Communication in virtual world can take both verbal and nonverbal forms” (Hew & Cheung, 2010, p. 36). Voice, avatar animations and chat are the primary forms of communication live in world, while signs, note cards, video, music, websites and links, animations and visual display of objects are communications used on an individual basis not related to live communication.

Another concern is that the public platform in online virtual worlds is limited when it comes to participation among family and youth. The OSgrid bans anyone under the age of 18 and also bans all child avatars from public spaces with repercussions of account owners being blocked from all but private virtual “islands” or worlds. More than simply stating the rule, OSgrid professionals explain their philosophy as to the appropriate use of virtual worlds when used by youth. “No children, meaning people under the age of 18, are allowed in OSgrid at any time. We believe children belong on closed grids supervised by parents or teachers” (OSgrid, 2017). Secondlife also bans use for anyone under the age of 18. Much of the research concerning online virtual worlds for use in education and youth, Teen Secondlife was often a platform for research and discussion of potential options for educators. However, since 2010 Teen Secondlife was shut down with no public explanation. requires anyone under the age of 13 to be supervised by a legal guardian while using their site and limited to areas rated “general”. Avatars who are 13 years of age to 18 years of age are limited to “moderate” rated worlds. These guides are based on self-regulation and communal governance and peer reporting to enforce. (, 2017, Terms of Service) The positive aspects are that educational exploration is part of the public platform and is open and accessible to family and youth participation.

Institutional organizations such as Linden Labs have always been primary in the creation and use of virtual worlds. These have been technology companies such as linden labs and used for spatial studies or other pre-commercial applications. Colleges are also a primary institution now using virtual worlds online. Research concerning the effectiveness, benefits and challenges and best practices concerning online virtual worlds in education has been increasing over the past ten years. 69% of all research on virtual worlds in education is based on the college level student. 19% on the secondary student and only 12% on the primary student (Hew and Cheung, 2010, p. 40). This shows a need for more research concerning the benefits and challenges of online virtual worlds for youth in order to develop best practices.

Private online virtual worlds is a growing trend. These are online virtual worlds with restricted or no access. It includes private islands on online grids controlled by island owners who rent server space from providers. Private business, educational, or home based servers using opensource grid technology such as dreamworld is also included in private or even public options through hypergrid technology. With this growing trend is the growing debate amongst researches as to whether technology-based learning is beneficial or is it actually detrimental in the overall health of children.

In the Article, “NETS•A Scholarship: A Review of Published Literature” by Richardson, Bathon, Flora and Lewis, the National Educational Technology Standards for Administrators (NETS-A) is analyzed. The authors in this article bring up the importance of research based conclusions and follow up research on an ongoing basis in order to establish proper guidelines for educational technology. This is the strongest point this article makes. NETS-A is relied upon by educators and educational facilities. The limitations however in both articles is that if the same studies are used to draw conclusions on the same topics. When individual researchers are not pulling from the same resources how can it be assured that the individual results or there studies and conclusions are in fact valid when comparing them to each other.

Research studies and pilot programs:

Historically learning based gaming and simulations for youth have been implemented as a hybrid of synchronous and asynchronous meetings. One pilot program completed by Eileen O’Conner involved a ten year old and a thirteen year old home schooled students. The thirteen year old adapted quickly and was able to design the buildings used in the second life science simulation. This was a blended pilot with meetings both online and in person. “The assumption underlying the rapid rise in the use of desktop-based virtual reality technology in instruction is the unique affordances that it offers in enhancing learners’ cognitive skills” (Merchant et al., 2014, para. 6). With online virtual worlds being customizable the benefit exists to tailor the world for specific student needs. Research has shown that “…games show higher learning gains than simulations…” (Merchant et al., 2014, para. 2).

In the paper, “Purposes for Literacy in Children’s Use of Online Virtual World Club Penguin,” by Jackie Marsh, the author studied 26 children aged between 5 and 11 to determine the effects of online virtual worlds on literacy. The virtual world chosen was found to have a motivational and fun factor that encouraged reading and writing. Through this study the author was able to conclude that the use of virtual worlds is part of the digital generation. In spite of challenges that may be involved it is likely that these platforms will continue to grow in popularity. Virtual worlds when guided by responsible adults can offer the opportunity for children to improve upon literacies. The author also concluded that interactions within virtual worlds were as beneficial as offline activities. The interest in virtual world participation by children can be a motivational tool for education. Research on this format is likely to continue as technologies advance. (Marsh, 2014) In addition Undersea Observatory by Justin Reeve uses simonastick as a standalone platform for the distribution of his educational virtual world application designed for youth.

Overview of Benefits and Challenges:

There is a clear distinction of benefits and challenges of online virtual worlds in K-12 education according to the researchers. Negative perceptions from educators is primary in much of the current research. Overcoming these negative perceptions will improve the benefits and success of virtual simulations for youth. Educators have a high concern for security of online virtual worlds. This concern is reflected in the public statement given by OSgrid: “No single issue has been as contentious or as difficult to address as the issue of children and child avatars in OSgrid. It is absolutely necessary for us to address the issue of child abuse and the appearance of child abuse from both a legal and moral standpoint. We believe that children, meaning people under the actual age of 18, belong on closed grids monitored and controlled by or schools” (OSgrid, 2017).

Aside from the legal standpoint and concerns, the idea of morals and ethics appear to be

the real barrier in allowing access to online virtual worlds for the purpose of education in K-12. In the Article, “Identifying and Defining Values in Media Codes of Ethics” by Chris Roberts; Roberts points out, ethics are non-legally binding. Therefore it is the cultural pressures that enforce these codes, not fear of legal repercussions. Society respects the authority of “academies” in assuming that these bodies have conducted thorough and non-bias scientific studies to back there ethical guides. For this particular review research on this topic by professional “academies” is lacking and with the rapid evolution of technology and culture is outdated. It can be debated as well that no scientific study can be fully without bias, and the publication of such studies add a second level of potential cultural influence, further deteriorating the unbiased aspects of published studies.

The ability to control a public space is identified as a primary barrier, however this becomes more of a perceptual barrier since privacy and security controls, avatar ratings and restrictions, virtual world ratings, controls, and restrictions and private spaces are all options currently offered in the virtual environment. Privacy can be controlled in the virtual world. You can restrict your communications from being seen or heard outside your world or limit it to a certain distance inside your world. With so many intricacies in privacy settings and allowances it is very easy for new participants in the technology to be caught off guard and not realize the lack of privacy in this public space. Even when you are on an island alone or with a friend, if you do not own the island or if you are not aware of all the ways to limit and block who sees your information, it is always best to assume you are always being watched either by the island owner or grid administrators. It is essential for educators to learn the technology associated with any platform they use and read the privacy policies. Using as an example, one sentence alone describes the largest security threat to privacy without clearing explaining options you could or should use to protect yourself “Some of your personal identification information may be shared with other users when you interact with them or their proxies using our service” ( Privacy, 2013, par. 6). The terms of service gives a little more information concerning how the world manager can control privacy in the world they manage. “Representations and Warranties of World Managers A World Manager is a User who has created a Virtual World. Each World Manager is responsible for managing his or her Virtual Worlds, and will be put in charge of controlling the activity of the Users who visit her or his Virtual Worlds (“Your Visitors“). A World Manager may designate access restrictions, in order to prevent certain Users from entering or being a part of his or her Virtual Worlds in any way (“Access Restrictions“). You hereby undertake that you shall proactively institute such Access Restrictions to comply with all applicable laws and prevent violations of these Terms by Your Visitors.” ( Terms of Service, 2015, para 5).

According to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), educators, “will have to take some steps to safeguard the identities of any students they bring into a virtual world. Also, while there are likely to be more than one way to be FERPA-compliant, the easiest way is to host your own private grid (or rent private grid space from a hosting service provider) and further, set-up the permissions on the grid to only allow faculty-level avatars to hypergrid jump in or out of the grid (and to prohibit non student avatars from hypergrid jumping into the grid)” (Educator Commons, 2017).

In addition, the lack of technology skills has been identified as a primary barrier for educators themselves. The research has shown “… a significant gap between teachers’ perceptions of the importance of integrating technology and their classroom use of these skills.” (p. 111, Carver, 2016) Though teachers feel technology is important they do not teach or use technology in the classroom. Compared to the often problematic adaptation to new technologies experience by adults, children “…easily adapt to graphic and conceptual abstraction…often have extensive experience in navigating 3D spaces and discovering and exercising interface affordances” (Roussou, 2002, p.1).

Accessibility and cost is seen as another barrier. Some researchers found accessible options for youth in their research, however since the publication of several of these papers that use Secondlife in their studies in 2010 or prior, Secondlife, identified by Michele Dickey in her research as the most accessible platform of virtual world educational applications with youth (Dickey, 2011), has ended their Teen Secondlife grid and bans anyone under the age of 18 on their Secondlife site. Many educators feel the cost is insurmountable. “The cost of both procurement and maintenance of various sophisticated devices to create an immersive environment made mass use of this technology prohibitive” (Merchant et al., 2014, p.30). With current access to the internet widespread and hyper-grids becoming greater in numbers this cost has been reduced. Both Merchant and Dickey cited cost and accessibility as major factors that limited access yet with the increase in widespread internet connectivity acknowledged that online virtual worlds are realistic options for educators.

Time investment was also identified by researchers to be a barrier and challenge to successful implementation. Building environments, creating lessons, and implementation of lessons are a small part of the time investment concern. Getting absorbed into the entertainment aspect and the non-educational applications are cause for greater concern among educators. Education vs entertainment was identified in studies as a major concern. Teachers commented that they themselves were distracted by the immersive environment and individualization options within the virtual world environment. The example given, spending hours adjusting their personal avatars appearance after school hours. The personalization features in virtual worlds may become more of a distraction to learners and ultimately outweigh the educational benefits. (Dickey, 2011, p.12)

Despite these challenges research overwhelmingly supports the benefits of learning in immersive virtual worlds for students of all ages. “The contemporary notion of learning environments recognizes that meaningful, active learning takes place in complex, multi-model environments in which the learner plays an active role in constructing knowledge” (Dickey, 2011, p.2). Research shows that 3d virtual worlds “…supported children’s exploration of identity, community and personal representation” (Dickey, 2011, p.3). In addition, though not fully immersive compared to virtual reality rooms and glasses, “… desktop-based 3D virtual environments … (are) shown to enhance learners’ engagement” (Merchant et al., 2014, p.30). “Research has indicated that technology can increase student motivation, attitude, engagement and self-confidence, while improving organization and study skills” (Carver, 2016, p.110).


Of the virtual world hosts,,, and explored, Teen Secondlife though the primary example used by researchers closed in 2010, and Secondlife itself was difficult to grasp as a beginner, even as an adult and is not accessible to youth. OSgrid though not open to youth is a great resource for educators for networking, resources, and support. appears to have the best ease of access for beginners. The researchers did not explore Osgrid or Kitely as platform options. With advancing technology more and more potential platforms and options should be researchers and studied for ease of use as well as security and privacy. This is an important consideration when deciding upon the best virtual world platforms for youth. is also the only of the three which allow for those under eighteen in there Grid. Adult supervision is required for those under the age of thirteen and recommended for those under the age of eighteen due to the user created content. Hypergrid access can be beneficial for students over the age of thirteen with adult supervision due to the allowance of PG restrictions on the actual avatars. This means that general rated avatars are blocked from hypergriding to islands rated above general. Adult supervision would be required due to the self-regulated nature and user created content of the current hypergrid. As stated, future research should be ongoing with the rapid improvements in technology and should include a wider range of platforms for comparison studies, such as Outworldz and Craftworld. Platform options beyond open and public grids should also be part of this continued research such as Dreamworld which can be used for hypergrid from your own server or kept private. Offline applications remain the best solution for safety and security. Research on using these virtual worlds in K-12 educational games, simulations and learning however has been limited. Simonastick is a standalone offline virtual world that is easily used on any computer and though it has not yet been updated, the potential for other opensource or low cost accessible options should be monitored.


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