Yesterday, I saw a couple of demonstrations where someone had built a virtual world for an environmental science course that students could navigate and interact with a limited number of avatars to complete various assignments (such as investigating the cause of a fishkill). This plus the people who programmed a biology laboratory in second life have gotten me interested in the possibility of creating a physics lab in second lab. This would enable physical science courses to be delivered online. I know that there are already simulations where people can move lab equipment around on a blank screen, but this would be somewhat more realistic and immersive. The big question is: Is it worth it? Do students learn much more in an immersive environment than an artificial one? There is already research showing that students can learn more from a circuits lab enacted on a computer than a real life circuits lab, so this might be a possibility. I need to check out the research on immersive environments. My guess is that no one has really assessed such things for student learning (at least of anything more than recall or enthusiasm).
I was a bit disappointed with Quinn's talk at the conference. All of the educational stuff he talked about was more than 20 years old. Why are we still talking about this? Shouldn't we have moved past this already and be talking about more advanced stuff?
One of my disappointments in general with the conference so far is that there is very little on assessment of student learning in online courses. There a lot of stuff on various things that one should do: how to put your voice and presence in an online class, how to engage students, how to find resources for cool things you can put in your class, etc. But no evidence as to whether or not this actually results in student learning. I suppose online courses have been around for a long time and maybe the research base is out there, but so old that people no longer talk about it. I will have to check that out. I had been expecting more sessions on actual educational research studies, though.
Two things I've noted: (1) The conference presentations are a good case study of how difficult it can be for people to transfer skills from one context to another. Most of the presenters are educators with degrees in some field of education. However, the quality of the presentations is pretty uneven. Some are very good--very organized, with explicit and clear learning objectives for the participants. Others are really not very good at all. (2) When trying to decide if I will find a session useful or not, looking at who the presenter is can be a good guide. If the presenter is an instructor like me, I will often find the presentation more useful than if the presenter is a corporate something or other or an academic administrator. I guess people tend to focus on an audience of people who are like themselves. It took me a while to figure this out because I just came from a conference of physics teachers where everyone was like me, so this was not an issue.
Still, I'm quite interested in this virtual lab thing. Definitely something to look into and possibly the focus of a project for this upcoming year.