Doing VR Wrong
It reminded me of my experiences about twenty years ago with educational software. I had written a price theory text and some computer programs to go with it, and gave demonstrations of the programs at economics meetings where my publisher was trying to sell the book. One of the standard questions I got was "how many chapters of the book are on the disk?" My response was that the chapters of the book were in the book, where they belonged. What was on the disk were not chapters of the book but computer programs designed to teach ideas in ways that could be done by a program better than they could be done with text and pictures.
My conclusion at the time was that most "educational software" was bogus—doing things on the computer that could be done just about as well in a book. The motivation was that computers back then were supposed to be exciting, sexy, exotic, so the same student who would be bored reading an explanation of supply and demand in a book would be riveted to the same explanation on a computer screen. I have the feeling that the same thing is happening now with University involvement in Second Life.
Two other points struck me. One was that our university had apparently spent a fair amount of money hiring people to construct its virtual campus on its island in Second Life. But part of the beauty of Second Life is that you don't have to be a professional to do stuff in it. It's a decentralized system where, provided you have access to space to work on--your university's island if you are a student--you can build things. The right way to use it is not to try to replicate a real world classroom with a bunch of student avatars but to give students access to what they need to do things in the virtual world. Such as create a virtual campus.
The other was a comment by one of the presenters that someone in physics wanted to set up physics experiments in the virtual world. It struck me as an oddly perverted idea. What is exciting about doing a physics experiment is discovering that the real world, physical reality, actually obeys the equations physicists use to describe it. Doing the experiment in virtual reality, where the physics professor has programmed the pendulum, billiard balls, or whatever, only demonstrates that the equations obey the equations.