Real Learning in Artificial Worlds

By Ed Frauenheim

Jan. 25, 2007

To make his learning software product more appealing to Asian customers, Ron Burns had to get rid of the birds

    Burns’ company, ProtonMedia, sells technology that creates a three-dimensional computer environment, complete with classrooms, buildings and the occasional passing bird. That virtual world is designed to mimic reality in a compelling way so workers will want to spend time there and engage in learning activities. But some Asians regard birds flying by as a bad omen, so Burns cut them out of a customer’s environment.

    It’s all part of getting corporations comfortable with investing learning dollars in virtual computer worlds. “The challenge is it requires a little culture change,” Burns says. “A lot of organizations don’t have a ‘virtual reality’ line item in the budget.”

    Use of virtual reality and other game-like learning tools for employee training got a boost recently when computer giant IBM said it would tap virtual worlds for employee development purposes. Some see game technologies as holding great promise for corporate learning.

    For now, such products remain on the margin. Yankee Group analyst Jason Corsello is not sure virtual environments will ever move into the mainstream. He questions whether the companies dabbling with learning in virtual world Second Life—a place where people can choose to appear as fairies or monsters besides humans—will continue doing so.

    “I’d be interested to see if they’re still doing it in three years’ time,” Corsello says, adding that virtual environments might be useful for younger workers’ learning. But, he adds, “I couldn’t envision the baby boomers using a tool like this.”

    Games and virtual reality worlds have long been associated with teenage boys glued to joysticks and dungeon exploration. But for several years, advocates have pushed for games to be taken seriously as a learning tool. Industry conferences have emerged to showcase and debate the use of games in corporations and government. Games or simulations are now available for topics ranging from sexual harassment prevention to the training of pharmaceutical industry workers in aseptic techniques.

    Second Life has plenty of non-serious aspects, including discos and “adult” environments. But corporations are experimenting with the way it can be used for learning. IBM plans to use both Second Life and another Internet virtual world, PlaneShift, in its new IBM@Play program. The computer giant says it wants to tap into the power of video game play to make people more willing to take risks and be more flexible in their thinking.

    Colleen Carmean, director of research at the Applied Learning Technologies Institute at Arizona State University, says Second Life’s growing popularity—it now has more than 2 million “residents”—has a lot to do with a superficial reason. People’s avatars, or representations, are typically young and beautiful, she notes.

    Even so, she says, Second Life may be encouraging valuable employee development. “If you can find an environment where a worker is willing to spend time and contribute, then part of your problem is solved,” she says.

    Burns of ProtonMedia appreciates the way Second Life has put virtual worlds on the map. But he says it isn’t ideal for corporate training for reasons including a lack of security features and a lack of decorum. In contrast, his ProtoSphere software is designed to create for clients a highly secure private virtual world in which far-out avatars are off-limits.

    What’s more, ProtoSphere was built to encourage informal learning, the peer-to-peer sharing of knowledge that some experts say is vital yet neglected by organizations. Employees are asked to create a ProtoSphere profile and to pose questions when logging in. ProtoSphere then matches the employee with other live users logged on as well as relevant content such as traditional e-learning courses and blog postings.

    Workers also can arrange to meet one another in ProtoSphere and do such things as draw on a virtual whiteboard.

    “We think of this as the first true built-from-the-ground-up informal learning system,” Burns says.

    ProtoSphere typically will cost a company at least $100,000, with the price depending in part on the number of simultaneous users. The product has been available in some form for several years. So far, ProtonMedia has signed up about a dozen customers for it. Several pharmaceutical firms are clients, including Johnson & Johnson.

    Burns says he’s seeing growing interest from organizations. But customers are making him work before they invest in the still-novel technology. Besides the bird removal, Burns and his team have had to toil over the look of their avatars.

    “If you get too real, it’s creepy,” he says. “And if you get too cartoon-y, it’s not serious enough.”

Ed Frauenheim is a former Associate Editorial Director at Human Capital Media and currently works as Senior Director of Content at Great Place to Work. He is a co-author of A Great Place to Work For All.

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