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NIU program embraces learning in virtual worlds

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

More K-12 students are getting online every day to shop, play games and connect with friends, but many schools have been hesitant to embrace emerging interactive technologies in the classroom. Northern Illinois University’s HIVE Project is working to generate enthusiasm among K-12 educators and students for learning and creating art in virtual worlds.

Dr. Lilly Lu, assistant professor of art and design education at NIU’s School of Art, and Aline Click, director of eLearning Services and co-director of the Digital Convergence Lab, are collaborating to allay educators’ concerns about interactive online learning and create a strong model for educators to adopt.

HIVE stands for Highly Interactive Virtual Environments. It refers to virtual worlds where students create avatars and virtual works of art that help them express themselves while using technology in a meaningful way.

When they started the HIVE Project, Lu and Click knew that students could benefit from learning in virtual environments, but no strong pedagogy or lesson plans existed as a road map for educators.

“We wondered if we could address the schools’ concerns by providing a secure and private 3D virtual world server and demonstrating how and what students could learn from highly interactive learning environments,” Lu said in a news release. “We wanted to fill the gap between theories and practices.”

The HIVE Project was funded through a 2011 NIU Foundation Venture Grant. In all, 35 middle school students, 21 high school students, 17 undergraduate students and four graduate students participated in the project. Lu and Click took the virtual world and pedagogy that surrounded it to middle and high school students at the DCL’s Summer Camps and to art students at Schaumburg High School.

Results of the program have been overwhelmingly positive. Participating art teachers Jackie Settipani and Gerry James said the students who participated in the HIVE program over two semesters had better concepts of 3D spaces and 3D building skills. The students also were more confident and excited to present and defend their proposals for their HIVE projects than for other classroom projects. Lu observed that during virtual events, students were very confident about articulating their ideas, showcasing their work and responding to the virtual guests’ questions and feedback.

“One day they acted as builders to discuss their building ideas and locations for the virtual land called Future Chicago Land. They didn’t want to leave the table when art club was over,” she said in the release. “They were really committed to this project, which was all based on their own proposals.”

“We are currently expanding the list of our partnering schools,” Click said. “Lilly has some wonderful ties to students who have graduated from her program, and these art teachers have introduced our project to their principals and in turn opened doors to their schools to let us in and work with their students. Without these alumni we would never have had this amazing opportunity.”

Lu and Click hope to expand the project to include another browser-based virtual world program called Jibe. This fall, they plan to provide courses for students at Schaumburg High School on how to develop their own worlds in Jibe.

While the program is more challenging, it offers more possibilities for design quality and exploration. Click hopes that students interested in game design will gain valuable experience and come away with quality portfolio pieces that they can show when applying to universities.

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