Avoiding the Virtual Ghost Town

It can be lonely in a virtual world with no friends and nothing to do.

One common mistake organizations make in designing learning experiences in virtual worlds is failing to have specific learning objectives, either formal or informal, for the intended interactions. Some organizations create a virtual space with only vague learning outcomes and no formal assessment plan. Then, after a few months of inactivity, no visible learning outcomes and frustration, the organization drops the virtual world because it doesn’t seem productive.

The lack of learning in these instances is not a result of a failure of virtual worlds; rather it is a result of poor instructional design. Virtual worlds, like other types of planned learning events require attention to instructional design to meet their desired goals. Even if the goal is to foster informal learning, the virtual world environment must be structured appropriately to encourage and enable interaction between and among learners. If not, the result is a virtual ghost town. No one comes to visit and the place is empty.

When creating virtual learning environment, the basic tenants of instructional design still apply as they do with any new technology that enables learning. Organizations do not need to completely throw away the concepts of aligning objectives, tasks and measurement just because a new technology is available. A systematic process is required to ensure that optimal learning can occur.

Having said that, the development of a 3D learning event is far more complicated than the creation of a few slides and a couple of multiple choice questions. Ultimately the design process for creating a virtual learning world requires a modification of the traditional skill set of an instructional designer—a modification, not a totally new approach.

As a result of the modification, the design and development efforts for 3D learning events require a higher level of effort both in time and resources. The process demands both a careful crafting the learning environment (the context) as well as the mapping of the content to the appropriate Learning Archetype, the creation of learning spaces, activities and planned interactions.

You don’t just “whip up” a virtual learning space or educational event, planning and foresight is required. Once a space is created, various learning events can happen which might be more impromptu but initial work is required to make the space appropriate for the type of learning interactions you envision within the virtual worlds These worlds aren’t a panacea, they are another tool and need to be treated as such.

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Posted in: Second Life 3D worlds

Leave a Comment (5) ↓


  1. Blogger In Middle-earth May 7, 2009

    Kia ora Karl.

    We’d do well to learn from the mistakes of housing developers in the 60s (UK). They pulled down slums that communities tenanted and built ghost towns for the tenants to return to. They remained ghost towns for the designers failed to understand why the old slums worked for the community.

    For them, the mistakes were not so much building design as attention to conduits, entrances and juxtaposition of those – a matter of place and position rather than the construction of four walls. The designers failed to understand that, like a well designed home, a community housing project has to have ease of access that includes line of sight access despite the needs for privacy.

    An active community needs no defined objective for that can be emergent and is not always necessary anyway.

    But . . .

    The builders had a head start on the designers of a virtual world. They had an active community to start with, yet were all the more devastated with the way their construction caused that community to fall apart.

    Creating a virtual world means building the walls for a nonexistent community. It’s a bit like where farming was in the pioneer days of settlers to new lands. They neither knew what grew best nor how to tend it. So their attempts were often suck-it-and-see, but always reliant on growth for success rather than building.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  2. Karl Kapp May 6, 2009


    “You can have specific learning objectives and a ghost town.”

    So true, and also one can have specific learning objectives that are not achieved because of bad instruction or whatever. You can also have objectives mastered that are never envisioned by a designer but achieved on a break “accident.”

    So learning is a bit fluid…but while specific learning objectives may not be the ultimate solution to populating a ghost town, they do, in many cases, focus the virtual learning world effort and provide guidance that otherwise tends to be missing. This guidance can then help draw more people to a place.

    But, people won’t go to a place if there is no one to meet and nothing to do. Much like wikis and forums discussed by Joe. People need a reason to participate and designers need to provide a reason, at least within confines of a corporate learning effort.

  3. Joe Deegan May 6, 2009

    This also extends beyond virtual worlds to many “Web 2.0” type learning solutions such as Wiki’s or Forums. I am currently having a hard time promoting use of a Wiki and Forum that I implemented but have had the greatest success creating activities with specific learning objectives as you mentioned. Unfortunately you can’t just announce this great new tool has been created and expect everyone to jump to it whether it be virtual worlds or something as simple as a forum.

  4. Andy Purviance May 6, 2009

    Part of the problem is the complexity of developing such spaces. Game-like applications take so much time and effort that it’s easy to focus on the daily grind in order to complete the project without taking a big picture snapshot every few iterations, like How do we get people to show up?

  5. Downes May 6, 2009

    You can have specific learning objectives and still have a ghost town. Or have an active online space without having specific learning objectives. So the creation of specific learning objectives is not the solution to the ghost town phenomenon.

Karl Kapp
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