Monday, 30 July 2007

Virtual worlds aid education and research

There is increasing interest in the educational and research potentials of computer based virtual worlds. These range from experimental virtual hillslopes (e.g. Weiler and McDonnell 2006, J. Hydrology 319, 339-356) to city scale urban hydrology (D'Artisa and Hellweger, 2007, Env. Mod. Soft 22, 1679-1684) to large online vitual worlds e.g. Second life ( Hydrologists are increasingly using virtual hillslopes to enable testing of model based hypotheses in combination with actual field observations. Leading to advances in understanding the primary controls on flow pathways and nutrient transport (Weiler and McDonnell 2006). Computer simulation games enable dynamic interaction between humans and increasingly 'realistic' environmental processes. D'Artisa and Hellweger (2007) reviewed the hydrology in the popular game SimCity 4. The simple hydrological process representations were found to provide a useful educational tool, but limited in their ability to provide a more robust science or planning tool. As computer games include more accurate and detailed representations of social and environmental processes then their value for learning and research will grow.

In recent years there has been a rapid growth in virtual online worlds. These range from 'role playing' orientated games e.g. World of Warcraft to platforms that are more suited to educational and research possibilities e.g. Second life, Rivercity or Quest Atlantis. Interest in the economic and social sciences to make use of these possibilities is growing (Bainbridge, Science 2007, 317 (472-476)). There are over 8 million people registered with Second Life and a burgeoning number of companies e.g. IBM are making use of virtual worlds to host meetings and workshops. Scientists are also exploring the potential to set up virtual laboratories and carry out experiments that are not easily undertaken using more traditional research methologies.
In the UK the rapid growth in access to internet broadband (40% of UK homes in 2006; has increased the bandwidth (amount of information that can be delivered in a given period of time) and latency (packet delivery speed) enabling the use of computer based simulations at home, at school and in the working environment for learning about how human activity influences water and land management. As these tools are further advanced and their use in further and higher education grows, we will find them an increasing part of our daily activities.

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