The digital generation is taking over cyberspace.
More and more K-12 students are getting online every day to do everything from shopping to playing games to connecting with friends, but many schools have been hesitant to embrace emerging interactive technologies in the classroom.
Northern Illinois University’s HIVE Project is working to change that by generating enthusiasm among K-12 educators and students for learning and creating art in virtual worlds.
Lilly Lu, assistant professor of Art and Design Education at NIU’s School of Art, and Aline Click, director of eLearning Services and co-director of the Digital Convergence Lab, are collaborating to allay educators’ concerns about interactive online learning and create a strong model for educators to adopt.
HIVE stands for Highly Interactive Virtual Environments and refers to the virtual worlds where students are creating avatars and virtual works of art that help them express themselves while using technology in a meaningful way.
This project was a natural fit for the Digital Convergence Lab (DCL), which delivers faculty research support, experiential learning opportunities for NIU students, and community engagement for the northern Illinois region by providing intellectual and creative tools that focus on immerging interactive media.
The DCL has worked on several projects for younger learners, including their youth summer camps on video game development and their interactive video games “Picodroid” and “Literacy in Motion,” which utilize Xbox Kinect technology to teach students physics and literacy concepts respectively. The DCL also collaborated with Lu on the Art Café @ Second Life project, in which Lu’s technology classes created four 3D virtual art spaces in response to social issues and then hosted real-time events where global audiences could explore those spaces.
When they started the HIVE Project, Lu and Click knew that students could benefit from learning in virtual environments, but no strong pedagogy or lesson plans existed that could be used as a road map for educators.
“We wondered if we could address the schools’ concerns by providing a secure and private 3D virtual world server and demonstrating how and what students could learn from highly interactive learning environments,” Lu says. “We wanted to fill the gap between theories and practices.”
The HIVE Project was funded through a 2011 NIU Foundation Venture Grant. These grants are awarded each fiscal year through a competitive application process to support faculty and staff in their pursuit of excellence in teaching, research, and outreach to the larger community.
Lu and Click divided up tasks to make the project a success.
Lu led the Art and Design Education students in developing virtual art curricula, applying pedagogic strategies, and implementing learning activities. Click, along with DCL staff Mike Taylor and Eamon Newman, explored and utilized an open-sourced server application “Opensimulator” and handled all of the technical issues that arose during implementation of virtual world pedagogy and real-time events in the HIVE environment.
Both teams met regularly to brainstorm ideas, explore possibilities and find solutions.
“Without Aline and her great team, Lu says, “we could not take advantage of the 3D virtual environment and engage students to meet our goal.”
In all, 35 middle school students, 21 high school students, 17 undergraduate students and four graduate students participated in this project. Lu and Click took the virtual world and pedagogy that surrounded it to middle and high school students at the DCL’s Summer Camps and to art students at Schaumburg High School.
The Schaumburg students worked in the HIVE environments for two semesters. By customizing their avatars, designing their outfits, and socializing with their avatars, the students explored their public and personal identities. The 3D virtual world environment motivated them to collaborate and communicate ideas for the group project as well as apply their art skills to create virtual art and design spaces with creativity and imagination.
Results of the program have been overwhelmingly positive.
Participating art teachers Jackie Settipani and Gerry James observed that the students who participated in the HIVE program over two semesters had better concepts of 3D spaces and 3D building skills. The students also were more confident and excited to present and defend their proposals for their HIVE projects than for other classroom projects.
Lu also observed that during virtual events, students were very confident about articulating their ideas, showcasing their work and responding to the virtual guests’ questions and feedback.
She saw the students’ enthusiasm for the project first-hand.
“One day they acted as builders to discuss their building ideas and locations for the virtual land called Future Chicago Land,” she says. “They didn’t want to leave the table when art club was over. They were really committed to this project, which was all based on their own proposals.”
Click credits much of the project’s success to Lu’s positive attitude and strong background in teaching and technology. “Lilly is amazing,” Click says. “She pushes me and my team to try new things, try harder when we have given up, and to keep looking ahead. She brings her faculty experience and researcher skills to the team, as well as her background in Art Education.”
Lu’s alumni connections helped the project find support in area schools, Click adds.
“We are currently expanding the list of our partnering schools. Lilly has some wonderful ties to students who have graduated from her program, and these art teachers have introduced our project to their principals and in turn opened doors to their schools to let us in and work with their students. Without these alumni we would never have had this amazing opportunity.”
Lu and Click hope to expand the project to include another browser-based virtual world program called Jibe. They have already provided teacher training on Jibe. This fall, they plan to provide courses for students at Schaumburg High School on how to develop their own worlds in Jibe.
Click says that students will be able to use Jibe to create much more advanced virtual projects. “This type of virtual world uses Unity 3D to build the worlds, which is a professional-level game development tool.”
While the program is more challenging, it offers more possibilities for design quality and exploration. Click hopes that students interested in game design will gain valuable experience and come away with quality portfolio pieces that they can show when applying to universities.
by Gillian King-Cargile