MUVEs: Multi-User Virtual Enviornments

MUVEs, or Multi-User Virtual Environments, are online worlds where simultaneous users can communicate, interact, and exchange information. Users engage in virtual simulations of real-world situations (some versions, like Second Life even invite users to become architects, not only participating in, but creating and building their own virtual worlds). Because this “new breed” of virtual games is “embedded with state standards and analytical and problem-solving opportunities” (Sardone, 2008, p.42), bringing MUVEs into a classroom setting caters to this generation’s technological minds, while delivering educational lessons and thus proving an effective pedagogical tool.

Contextualizing Education: Showing the Applicability of Content Material
Many teachers (especially in the math department) struggle to find ways to get students to care about, to connect with, and to appreciate the material they are presented with in class. Students often ask, “When will I need to know this in real-life?” MUVEs do not tell students (or teachers) the answer to this question—they show them.

With classrooms often feeling like experiments—isolated, contained, and controlled, with no relation to the outside world—MUVEs solve this, offering a way to contextual student learning through real-life simulation; no longer is learning done in a vacuum, as MUVEs encourage students to connect with content material by presenting practical scenarios for application (i.e. the virtual sandbox in Second Life, which allows for hands-on learning) and chances to personalize their learning experience (i.e. the creation of avatars used to navigate their virtual world). This technology does not overwhelm or overshadow a teacher’s educational purposes and aims, but balances real-life elements (familiarity) with creativity and fantasy (novelty) to spark the interest and motivation of students. As Bell notes, it is not teachers’ jobs to “‘smuggle learning into seemingly nonlearning contexts” (Bell, 2009, sp.519),but to present students with a world both familiar and new.

MUVEs thus allow students opportunity to learn material and remember it past the test date.

Overall Benefits of MUVEs:
- expose students to situations never before experienced (i.e. building skyscrapers, interacting with animals, and visiting places around the world).
- students interact with and co-collaborate on projects
- professional networks that allow teachers to reach out to colleagues around the world
- opportunity for “hands-on” learning
- encourage academic (vocabulary-building tutorials, and quizzes), social (co-collaboration), and emotional (walk-in-someone else’s shoes exercises to promote empathy) learning
- deeper immersion into real-life by participating in a virtual world
- connect content material with real-life uses; offer real-life applicability to in-classroom learning
- combining collaborative learning and individual, self-paced education

Solving the Polarity of Education:
Educators are facing the problem of moving learning online (i.e. offering online courses); this arguably comes at the expense of losing the face-to-face interaction between students and teachers achieved in a physical classroom environment. But MUVEs offer teachers a third alternative, a middle world halfway between face-to-face and distance learning. As students and teaching staff involved with Open Habitat, a virtual online world, agreed, it is a “mix of the familiar and the strange, the real and the fantasy, the normal and the abnormal” (Cornu) that will give students the best learning experience—and that MUVEs, like Second Life, offer. Virtual worlds can effectively connect both worlds. It offers fantasy and reality. MUVEs combines collaborative (i.e. guided tours by teachers and participate in teacher-led discussions that encourage reflection and sharing of ideas) and individual, self-paced learning (i.e. quizzes and tutorials).


According to Alison Le Cornu, participant in the Open Habitat virtual world, it is the “immediacy of the spoken word which allows rapid questions, answers and discussions, together with the enjoyment of social interaction, [that] provide[s] a superior educational experience” (Cornu). In other words, educational Multi-User Virtual Environments.

Second Life (a branch of MUVEs):

Unlike many other MUVEs, Second Life differs in the respect that that the virtual world is built by its users—they design, construct, and participate. Users create avatars that roam their virtual world, engaging in educational exercises and communicating with other avatars.

Science and Mathematics

Science and Mathematics curricula can benefit a great deal from the inclusion of different multi user virtual environments. As a whole, MUVE's tend to focus on conceptual understanding and problem solving rather than memorizing processes. Students who use these tools gain increased ability to find solutions, understand that there may be multiple solutions (as there are in the real world) and work together to apply the best solution. These environments also can help students visualize mathematical or scientific phenomena and broaden the connections they can make in the mathematics. As well as this, the virtual physics that are present in most MUVES are the same as the physics that exist in real life, so students can explore what would happen in different situations on earth without any penalty if their experiment is a disaster. Overall, students can engage in learning based on experience, which is arguably the most effective way to learn.

Second Life is regarded as one of the leading MUVES. In mathematics and science it has some distinct advantages and uses for education. It contains a few galleries, one of fractals, and another of important mathematicians and their contributions to mathematics. As well as this, there are a number of virtual colleges where students can learn mathematics. One of the best aspects of mathematics in second life is that students can see the shapes that they are studying, such as parabaloids, in 3-D and have a better understanding of what it actually looks like. They can also manipulate different 3-D objects to see what their intersections look like, and how they interact, since second life gives the viewer the option of looking at things from infinitely many viewpoints. Second life gives students to collaborate and explore and in doing so learn and grow as problem solvers.

Another multi user environment that is geared towards a younger demographic is called Whyville. It is a web based virtual environment, and anyone can log in. Whyville has a number of games that students can play that will help them learn science and mathematics. One such game involves taking your avatar into a virtual vacuum. Students will learn that the only way to move is to throw something the opposite direction that they want to move, which is a direct application of Newtons laws of physics. Whyville contains a virtual reef that users can explore and study the different organisms that grow there. I found this application to be a little less team oriented than Second Life, but collaboration is certainly possible.

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One other MUVE that can be used in mathematics and science classrooms is River City. From the developers website "As visitors to River City, students travel back in time, bringing their 21st century skills and technology to address 19th century problems. Based on authentic historical, sociological, and geographical conditions, River City is a town besieged with health problems. Students work together in small research teams to help the town understand why residents are becoming ill. Students use technology to keep track of clues that hint at causes of illnesses, form and test hypotheses, develop controlled experiments to test their hypotheses, and make recommendations based on the data they collect, all in an online environment." River City is funded by grant money, and therefore less open to the public, but the developers are exploring ways to broaden its distribution.

English Language Arts:

Because MUVEs, like Second Life, “flout rules, conventions and behaviors typical of real life…either by intent or accident, [while also]…bear[ing] sufficient similarity to ‘normal’ real life for the environment to make sense” (Cornu), they pull participants into a world where their imagination and creativity can run free—but are still grounded in reality. MUVEs offer English students the opportunity to explore hypothetical situations, step in the shoes of characters from the literature they are reading, and gain a insight into time periods—like Shakespearean times. In Second Life, a major branch of MUVEs, students can role-play on Renaissance Island, entering into a Shakespearean play and interacting with other characters (while also dressing in appropriate costumes). Students can also go on scavenger hunts, searching for objects that have definitions attached to them—a unique, fun way to build vocabulary. Second Life can also aid students’ understanding of literary elements, like setting and characterization. Teachers can take students on guided tours to places all around the world via Second Life. Students can enter U. C. Davis’ Virtual Hallucination Site to gain knowledge of what it is like for a character suffering from schizophrenia. Students will thus be able to look at a character from a new, more informed perspective. Collaboration with peers is also possible with Second Life, so students are not restricted to intrapersonal ELA learning, but can engage and interact with classmates in activities (i.e. co-creation). Second Life offers students a way to become interested ad invested in the literature they read—gaining empathy for characters, learning about a book’s setting, and building vocabulary.



MUVES can provide students in history courses with a sense of the place and time period they are studying, transporting them anywhere in the world, into the past or the future—something textbooks cannot do. In Second Life, students can visit Rome, and reenact the gladiator combats of ancient Rome to gain deeper insight into the entertainment of the day. Teachers can also take students on guided tours to locations like the Sistine Chapel. When learning about the Renaissance—the gold age of literature and art—students can enter an art gallery to look at and identify paintings. Second Life makes the historical past students’ present.

Potential Problems:

MUVEs are often complex and time-consuming. Although new visitors in Second Life are dropped on Observational Island to learn the basics of the world, as well as become familiarized with the program, it remains difficult to use to its full potential. Programs like Second Life are also costly. Although a standard membership is free, to create a private island or an online classroom in which all students can participate in requires money to build and additional money to maintain.

But education is being offered a second chance to increase students’ academic and social learning—and it is by giving students a second life.