When we talk about teaching in virtual worlds, we’re not just talking about an extension of classroom practices in a virtual setting, but adopting a completely different paradigm and approach to instruction. One important consideration that can’t be overlooked is how the students react in the virtual setting; the teacher must be aware of and sensitive to their needs.
It can be astonishing to some to learn that accessibility is a very real issue in virtual worlds. The Virtual Ability Island in Second Life illustrates how different people with different disabilities react to the virtual world setting. In some cases, citizens who are wheelchair-bound in real life are not comfortable walking around in the virtual world setting, and may opt to roll around in a modeled wheelchair instead. It’s remarkable how some people identify themselves in certain ways, and these aspects become an integral part of their self-image.
In other cases, virtual worlds are able to break down the barriers some feel in the real world. Those with speech impediments may find it easier to communicate through typing. Different assistive tools available on the computer can ease the transition into a virtual world setting, and provide a level of comfort that facilitates an improved learning experience for the student. Some of these may include speech recognition software, text-to-speech applications, and alternative user interfaces.
Virtual worlds are a fairly new technology for educators. Best practices are constantly being developed, studied, analyzed, evaluated, and revised, and the sophistication of this technology will only increase with time. As with any technology, it is evolving and changing rapidly, and the greatest challenge will likely be trying to keep up with the latest advances. It is ultimately the teacher’s responsibility to be aware of their students’ unique needs and tailor instructional measures to provide the optimal experience for the learners.