Establishing Virtual Learning Worlds (for Archaeology too!)

A blog worth examining, if you are interested in the educational aspect of immersive learning in online worlds, is the aptly named ‘Virtual Learning Worlds‘ Blog. There’s a white paper there by Barton Pursel and Keith Bailey that I’m about to read, abstract below:


Video games in today’s society have moved from a cult phenomenon to a mainstream leisure activity. One reason for this is the emergence of online gaming, where people interact, socialize, and learn in online environments. While online game populations rapidly increase, the attrition in online courses remains to be an issue. Based on the needs of today’s students, along with the level of interactivity and other traits of online game worlds, educators need to look into incorporating elements of online gaming into online learning environments, creating Virtual Learning Worlds (VLW).

And since it seems an appropriate moment to introduce, below follows the draft of an essay that I’m writing (sorry that there are no click-throughs in the text):

Why should archaeologists care about online worlds?

PDQ Submission

Something to think about:

  • Archaeology is “the science that studies human cultures through the recovery, documentation and analysis of material remains and environmental data, including architecture, artifacts, features, biofacts, and landscapes”[i]
  • Students learn to become archaeologists through a combination of lectures and hands-on training;
  • To excavate something is to destroy it.

This last consideration guides how we teach archaeology to undergraduates (and I confine my comments for the most part to the undergraduate experience). We are loath to allow students to really get their hands on real archaeology because it is a limited resource and there isn’t the time, money, or resource to allow our students to make mistakes. There is of course more to archaeology than simply field work, but even in those cases, there is a reluctance to allow students to actually work with the materials, to make mistakes. We compensate for that by adding ever more lecture hours to a student’s course load. In some institutions, it is entirely possible to graduate with a degree in archaeology without ever having spent more than two weeks doing field work. Yet, by some estimations, the typical student only ever takes in about 10% of a lecture – a 5000 word lecture distills in the student’s notes to a mere 500 words (Oblinger and Maruyama 1996; Johnstone and Su 1994). This kind of teaching/learning has been disparaged as “One tape recorder talking to another” (Foreman et al. 2004: 53)

So: we have a subject, about the human past, especially its material culture, that we teach not by letting our students work with that material, but by giving lectures, of which only a tiny fraction may actually sink in. This despite the broader changes in educational practice that have been taking place over the last decade or so, from what might be called ‘teacher-centric’ to ‘learner-centric’ approaches. Broadly, a learner-centred approach recognises that students learn in different styles. Some may learn perfectly well by listening to a lecture; others might find that the discipline of writing a paper makes for a better learning experience, while others again find that they need to actually be working with the material culture in question, to achieve a successful learning outcome. A learner-centred approach does not aim to transfer knowledge from the teacher to the student, but to give the student the appropriate tools to create knowledge themselves (Barr and Tagg 1995). In a Roman history class, this might translate to, instead of lecturing about the political scheming of the late Republic, to showing students how to actively criticise the source materials and construct their own interpretations of that period’s political turmoil.

There is another significant problem that now faces us, as educators of the next generation of archaeologists. Essentially, our students think in fundamentally different pathways than previous generations. Any student under 25 years of age today can be considered a ‘digital native’, one who has grown up surrounded by, and bombarded by, computers, video games, and digital media. We their teachers on the other hand are ‘digital immigrants’, who grew up in a different land, surrounded by books (Prensky 2001a). A book requires sustained patience and attention; an argument can be built slowly on the assumption that the reader has the ability to maintain the thread. If we want to create good archaeologists, we need to recognise that how we have taught in the past might not be good enough any more simply because our students learn differently than we did (Prensky 2001b).

In recognising that our students are ‘digital natives’ there is an enormous opportunity for us as educators to deal with one of the perennial difficulties of teaching archaeology: to excavate, and/or to handle inexpertly, is to destroy our subject matter. Our digital natives that we hope to turn into archaeologists are at home in online, multi-user simulations, virtual worlds like Second Life, The Croquet Project, Multiverse Project, There, Ancient Spaces. Therein lays our opportunity. Online worlds for us ‘digital immigrants’ are for immersing our students in the material. I mean that literally. These worlds can be used to simulate ancient architecture, material culture, and/or the methodologies of field archaeology. We can use these worlds to provide immersive and engaging learning experiences that will prepare the students to be professional when they do encounter the real-world materials. The user or visitor to these worlds is embodied in an avatar, which can be fully customised to reflect the user’s persona. More importantly, being embodied in the world makes for a richer learning experience. Players of these games never say, ‘My character made it all the way to level 33!’ They say, ‘I made it to level 33’. These are rich 3D worlds, and they provide an extremely strong sensation of ‘being there’ in a way that ‘flat’ modes of educational delivery cannot match (cf Castronova 2005).

Educators using these worlds for teaching are using them to create simulations of places (replicating real-world geography, literary places, interior places like the structure of DNA, and extra-terrestrial geography as on Mars), for prototyping (urban designers and architects are early adopters here), for understanding disease (one simulation drops the user –medical students- into the world of a schizophrenic, Yellowlees and Burrage 2005) . Artists are using the media to explore new forms of expression. Users tend to identify with their avatar to a high degree; one humanities professor has used this phenomenon to explore human-animal relationships by having her students adopt animal avatars and then see what happens to them as they wander through the world (Jeremy Kemp, Second Life Educators List April 2006).

Part of the educational value of online worlds is that they are very game-like, and games are excellent vehicles for creating rich learning experiences.

“Games are… the most ancient and time-honored vehicle for education. They are the original educational technology, the natural one, having received the seal of approval of natural selection. We don’t see mother lions lecturing cubs at the chalkboard; we don’t see senior lions writing their memoirs for posterity. In light of this, the question, ‘Can games have educational value?’ becomes absurd… Game-playing is a vital educational function for any creature capable of learning” (Crawford 1982).

In the field, an archaeologist continuously has to be re-thinking her approach to the problem at hand. New laws, new stakeholders, a changing environment or changing finances continually re-make the ‘rules of the game’. An approach that was working one day may suddenly be inappropriate because the time-line for the road scheme has been accelerated. Archaeologists have to be adaptable, they have to reformulate their knowledge to adapt to circumstance: they have to be able to problematize their knowledge. This is something that games are very good at teaching. Students are often afraid to fail because a new exercise, a new problem, carries penalties for failure. Games encourage failure and learning from failure as part of a cyclical process of hypothesis (“what happens if…?”) testing (“…I’ll try this…”) and revision (“…well, that didn’t work, so…”). This cognitive disequilibrium is the process where the learners readjust their expectations in light of new information (resolution). Feedback in a game world is often immediate, allowing the cycle to begin again. “Games thrive as teaching tools when they create a continuous cycle of cognitive disequilibrium and resolution…while also allowing the player to be successful” (Van Eck 2006:20).

Online worlds and the way games are played in them are also good models for project management, a skill that archaeologists need but are seldom formally trained in. In online games, ad-hoc teams come together for very specific purposes, with different players assuming the mantle of leadership depending on their skill sets, for the duration of the episode. Management schools in the US are beginning to see in this a model for distributed decision making and for allowing leadership to emerge to suit the task, a very different model than traditional hierarchical models (Reeves and Malone 2007:31)

Online multi-user archaeological simulations do exist. The University of North Dakota has created a simulation of the village of Like-a-fishhook; this simulation is currently entirely text-based. In perhaps the most popular online world for educational simulations, Second Life, there are currently no explicitly archaeological simulations; but that is not to say that there are no simulations with archaeological content (Graham 2007). Of all the online worlds currently in existence, Second Life is probably the easiest one to visit and to build in, for every user has the ability to create using simple building tools, based on ‘primitives’ or simple geometric shapes. Perhaps the best example of a use that could have archaeological implications is Vassar College’s recreation of the Sistine Chapel (Taylor 2007). As it happens, users can fly in Second Life, and so a visitor to the Chapel can float up to the ceiling to study the paintings nose-to-Adam’s-nose, a point of view not really possible since Michelangelo tore down his scaffolding. There is a ‘mining’ game in Second Life that sends players into a simulated 1849 California after gold (Nugget Gulch 2007); the mechanics of this game could be adopted to develop a simulated excavation. The Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project (Caraher, Moore, and Pettegrew 2007) uses Second Life as a place to organise the logistics of their excavations, while the ‘Remixing Çatalhöyük’ project (Wei 2007) uses it to understand the architectural layout of that city. And finally, I have argued elsewhere that online virtual worlds exist as the latest in a long line of virtual worlds that have been created by humans, from the Hanging Gardens to Disneyland, and so ought to be considered subjects of archaeological study in their own right (Graham 2007b, 2007c).

The point, then, of online worlds is that they provide us with the opportunity to transform our teaching and learning to better serve our students and ultimately our profession.

Ancient Spaces

BARR, R. B. and J. Tagg, “From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education,” Change, vol. 27, no. 6 (November/December 1995): 12–25. online at

CARAHER, W., R.S. Moore, and D. Pettegrew. 2007. “The Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project Internet Edition – Multimedia”

CASTRONOVA, E. 2005. Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

CRAWFORD, C. 1982. The Art of Computer Game Design. Electronic Version 1997, Washington State University Vancouver. [February 26, 2007]

FOREMAN, J., James Paul Gee, J.C. Herz, Randy Hinrichs, Mark Prensky, Ben Sawyer. 2004. ‘Game-Based Learning: How to Delight and Instruct in the 21st Century’ EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 39, no. 5 (September/October 2004): 50–66.

GRAHAM, S. 2007. ‘Electric Archaeology: Digital Media for Learning and Research’

GRAHAM, S. 2007b. ‘Of Second Lives and Past Lives: Archaeological Thoughts on the Metaverse’

GRAHAM, S. 2007c. ‘Archaeological Clutter and Dumpster Diving’

JOHNSTONE, A. H. and W. Y. Su. 1994. ‘Lectures: A Learning Experience?’ Education in Chemistry, vol. 31, no. 3: 75–79.

KEMP, J. transcript of Wednesday April 12 ‘Teacher’s Lounge, Jen Doolittle’s The Human Animal’

Nugget Gulch

OBLINGER, D., and Mark K. Maruyama.1996. ‘Distributed Learning’, CAUSE Professional Paper Series, #14

PRENSKY, M. 2001a ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon. 9.5 October 2001. online at – Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants – Part1.pdf

PRENSKY, M. 2001b ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Part II: Do They Really Think Differently?’ On the Horizon 9.6 December 2001. online at – Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants – Part2.pdf

REEVES, B. and T. Malone. 2007. Leadership in Games and at Work: Implications for the Enterprise of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games.

Second Life. 2003-7 Linden Research.

TAYLOR, S. ‘Sistine Chapel’ SLURL:

The Croquet Project. 2001-7

The Multiverse Project. 2004-7

There. 1998-2007 Makena Technologies

VAN ECK, R. ‘Digital Game-Based Learning: It’s Not Just the Digital Natives Who Are Restless’. EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 41, no. 2 (March/April 2006): 16–30.

WEI, Daniel 2007. ‘Constructing Knowledge & Virtual Places’.

YELLOWLEES, P. and K. Burrage. 2005 ‘Virtual Hallucinations’. SLURL:

[i] Wikipedia definition, as it stood on November 14th 2007. Since online worlds depend so much on user-created content, it seemed only fitting to begin with a definition posted on one of the most famous sites of user-created content.


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