Project-Based Learning | Feature

A NOBLE Experiment in the Virtual World

New Opportunities for Better Learning Environments Virtual World, or NOBLE, is a 3D virtual learning environment specifically designed for project-based learning. The OpenSimulator application is a reverse-engineered, open-source Second Life hosted by Dreamland Metaverse.

Elementary school students in Forsyth County, GA, built the traditional dwellings of Native American tribes and stocked them with all the implements that they used hundreds of years ago. Then the students formed tribal councils to address issues relevant to that period in history. Only they didn't take over their schools' parking lots or green spaces. The schools didn't have to worry about building permits or the implications of minors handling ancient weaponry because this all happened in a virtual world, in the cloud.

New Opportunities for Better Learning Environments Virtual World, or NOBLE, is a 3D virtual learning environment specifically designed for project-based learning. The OpenSimulator application is a reverse-engineered, open-source simulator based on Second Life, hosted by Dreamland Metaverse, according to Steve Mashburn, coordinator of online education and the NOBLE grid master for Forsyth County Schools.

"We can't afford to have all of our French students go on a field trip to Paris, but we can in the virtual world," Mashburn says. "There's no way we can visit the signing of the Magna Carta, but we can in the virtual world. We can use the virtual world for simulations, historical reenactments, demonstrations, 3D modeling…the list just goes on and on and on. There's no physical constraint on what we can do with it."

Available to the 3,300 teachers in the 35 schools in the district 30 miles north of Atlanta, use of NOBLE is not mandated. It started out as a resource for high school and middle school teachers. Now all teachers can use it how and when they choose.

The theory behind NOBLE is that kids who have grown up with handhelds and video games will be more engaged in their learning when using the technology they enjoy. This will lead to deeper learning. So far, the theory has proven true for Tracey Abercrombie, a fifth-grade teacher at Coal Mountain Elementary School. A onetime technophobe who considered quitting her job when the district instituted a Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) policy because it was "too much change," Abercrombie decided to embrace the trend instead. She became such a believer that she pushed the coordinators of the NOBLE pilot project to include elementary students--her students.

"I asked my students, 'Is this something you'd be interested in? Have you ever heard of a virtual world?'" Abercrombie said. "Every single hand in my fifth-grade classroom went up, and they were absolutely excited.

For her, at first, not so much. "It was really complicated for me," she said. "I didn't grow up with technology. These kids learned in 15 minutes what took me eight hours. It's what they know. So, how dare us not change and meet them where they are?"

Teachers work with Mashburn and each school's instructional technology specialist to build the virtual environment for each lesson. Abercrombie--like all the teachers involved--was required to take a two-hour course provided by the district on how to incorporate the technology into her teaching. All the teachers involved with NOBLE create avatars, as do their students. The teacher meets her class in the completed world to give lessons, or the students can help build the world as part of their project work.

"We actually built the Berlin Wall and then investigated ways to escape over the Berlin Wall, to understand the difference between society in East Berlin and West Berlin," she said. "They were able to get a virtual look at the way the wall looked on either side, one side being very drab and gray and on the other side the graffiti was very joyous. You could just sense the different attitudes on either side of that wall. That was really good for the kids to experience."

Any student who is "in world" can visit the projects of other students, but they aren't collaborating just yet. Students can only be in NOBLE when the world is "open" (8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays) and only when their teacher is also logged in to monitor activity.

While science and social studies are the subjects most conducive to the project work common in the 3D world, other subjects such as math and language arts are used in the process of executing activities. Math skills are needed to build a set of stairs so that risers and treads have the same dimensions. And the argument that a virtual world limits socialization among students is quickly debunked.

"I've seen more communication and more collaboration since they've been using this than before," said Kelly Moore, the instructional technology specialist at Coal Mountain Elementary.

Moore had the fifth-graders mentor the fourth-graders on how to use NOBLE so that they would be prepared to enter the virtual world when they moved up in the fall. Their project was building and furnishing Native American dwellings for different tribes. In addition to actually building structures, furniture, tools, and implements, the students--using avatars in the world they created--had to talk to each other.

"Once the dwelling was built and stocked with all of the supplies that would be perfect for that tribe, then they had tribal meetings outside to discuss different issues that we brought up," Moore says. "That's one of the things that we're really trying to emphasize, the sense of community and engagement with each other.

"The experiences the kids are having in this world--building and creating--are so much more memorable," she added. "You're actually building a dwelling and stocking it full of items. You're experiencing it in a much different way than if you were to read about it. It's sticking with them much better because they're experiencing it rather than reading about someone else experiencing it."

The cloud provides kids the access not only to the virtual world, but also to the information used within that world, according to Moore and Abercrombie. They see NOBLE as a vehicle for accessing the internet and teaching students to filter and use qualified information to enhance the educational experience.

Forsyth County schools will slowly expand the functionality of NOBLE, including collaborative projects between schools in the district and connecting with schools in other parts of the country and around the world.