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2011-2012 Bert Church Thinking - Worlds 3D Learning Environments Findings

Objective - To assess the possibilities and benefits of new educational platforms, particularly in distance education and online instructional design in using an instructional gaming platform.




1.  To use a mobile development platform to develop an online learning environment capable of delivering online instruction in to a class of students.


Goal achieved.  During the research period, I was able to follow a tutorial to complete the building of a learning activity for students that was useable.  While I did not get to the creation of a full original learning activity, the familiarity I gained with the software led me to discoveries with other software options and valuable learning for the project.


2.  To learn and then showcase the possibilities of gaming platforms in transforming educational process and reaching 21st century learning objectives and ISTE standards.


This research findings package will highlight research and learning in this area for RVS, and will serve in meeting this goal.  I believe the interactive portion of this summative report will be the most informative to teachers and other educators in assessing the value of 3D learning environments to the education system.




While I began my research using the Thinking Worlds platform, I quickly realized that this was a detailed design platform that would not necessarily be suitable for the vast majority of teachers to use.  I continued to develop, while concurrently searching out more user-friendly platforms that would be scalable for other teachers to learn with some ease.  What I found were some programs that struck an interesting balance between high functionality and control, and many of the options that would be valuable to teachers such as ease of use, and ability to infuse learning characteristics and outcomes into tasks.  I would like to outline three of the platforms I have researched and used, and the various benefits and drawbacks of each.


Thinking Worlds


What initially attracted me to this platform was it’s educational following for teaching students about game development, and the ability to release completed games for Mac, PC or even mobile platforms.  It is a comprehensive development platform, allowing game creators the ability to add, create or manipulate any variable in the game, including designing objects, and setting near-infinite capabilities for interacting with the gaming world.  Because it is an open platform, teachers with enough knowledge could even create new elements for the game to help meet learning outcomes, or craft their games specifically to the needs of their students or learning community.  It is an exciting platform with an active development community, and great supports in place for learning how to design.  While the platform does cost money in order to publish final worlds, and only runs on Windows for designing games, it is stable software and the basic concepts are simple enough to be taught to students in order to have them program their own games either at their leisure or as part of a programming class.


Overall, Thinking Worlds is a comprehensive platform, but it does have some drawbacks in that the learning curve to create even a basic world is steep.  It is labour intensive, meaning that teachers will have to either give up significant time in developing for it, or be given significant planning time in compensation for designed activities.  I believe the platform will become simpler and more user-friendly in future incarnations, but for now, I believe that most teachers would shy away from using this as any kind of significant design platform.



Gamesculpt 3D


This is a simple platform to use, allowing for creation of objects and surfaces, items to pick up, etc.  Game play is not nearly as fluid as Thinking Worlds, and both development and play are limited to the iOS system. (iPods, iPhones and iPads) This system is a single-user environment, which is limiting to online proliferation of concepts, but does allow for problem-solving and very specific learning activity development.  Students can use a separate app from the development app to enter the code of the game that the teacher has developed, and it will be loaded specifically for them.  This is a much easier platform for teachers to develop on, with simple touch building and designing of the world.  Thinking Worlds is based more on using imported designs from elsewhere, while Gamesculpt allows for creation and manipulation within the app.  This app also allows for the use of sound effects and custom images as textures, enhancing the platform further.  While this platform does not allow the use of external video, it is a fairly flexible platform that teachers may find useful as a first foray into development.



As with Gamesculpt, Minecraft has a simplicity to it that is accessible to even basic users.  As an example, my nine-year old daughter is currently developing a world in Minecraft that she plays on regularly.  It is gender-neutral, flexible and engaging as it is developed around a survival gaming concept.  It is multi-platform, with Windows, Mac and iOS versions available.  The development community for Minecraft is very active, and new features are added nearly daily.  There is a bank of ‘seeds’ which are saved worlds for users to play and create in.  Teachers could use such seeds to ‘set up’ a learning activity for students, and allow them to play in the world to solve problems and interact.  One of the advantages of this platform is that when run as a ‘server’ a teacher could have all students enter the same world to interact with each other.  This can be done in a classroom, or from various locations.  This flexibility could be very useful fro teachers in creating learning activities for students who are unable to be in the classroom, or to bring in students from other schools, districts or even countries.  Again, construction is simple, and movement in the world is fluid and more polished than many of the other platforms.  While the graphics are simple, this is a choice of the developers to keep the design simple and accessible on the broadest range of devices.


Other Platforms


In my research I came across several other 3D learning environment options, though I had little time to test them specifically.  Some of the platforms I believe to have the most promise include:


Second Life

As one of the largest online 3D immersive game environments, Second Life is honed and accessible to millions.  This platform has recently launched an Education section in its ‘world,’  but I have yet to see how segregated it is from some of the darker elements of the original game that may not be appropriate for students and classroom use.


Active Worlds


Another polished platform, but limited to the Windows operating system.  I chose to work with the Thinking Worlds platform as it provided export to mobile devices as well.




At the outset of this research project I was interested in discovering the possibilities for a classroom teacher to begin to offer a 3D immersive learning experience for teachers.  My conclusion is that many teachers will already have the technical capability to develop and manage some of the simpler platforms available to them, and can develop their ability to use those platforms simply by playing and working in those environments.  For the more complex environments, teachers would benefit from tutorials and background learning, but may need to be supported in their learning with release time or training sessions in order to learn the platforms well enough to be successful.  As with any new pedagogical technique, an investment of time and effort is necessary to create benefit with these new platforms, but opportunities in distributed learning, development of problem solving skills and comfort with emerging technologies for both teachers and students are immense benefits to be gained in this learning.  Teachers will have to decide for themselves the amount of control and depth their learning activities require and choose a platform based on the learning goals and distribution methods available in their school.  I would encourage RVS and principals to support teachers in purchasing licenses for the teachers based on their choice of platform instead of supporting one platform division or school-wide, as varying levels of students and technology experience can vastly affect the comfort levels of teachers working with the platform.

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