A new immersive learning specialist sounds off about the challenges of his post and the future of gaming and MUVEs.
IN AUGUST 2007, SHAWN McCANN JOINED the staff and faculty of McMaster University (Ontario, Canada) as immersive learning (gaming) librarian. Intrigued by this title, Campus Technology recently caught up with McCann to learn more about his job and get the librarian's take on how higher education institutions in the US can move more learning into the world of multi-user virtual environments, or MUVEs.
Games offer problem-solving, but with no consequence for failure. You can formulate your own hypothesis and if you fail, formulate a new one, based upon your failures. In a nutshell, games make learning more fun.
Campus Technology: To begin with, just how did your job come about?
McCann: Quite simply, the university librarian pushed for it. In putting the position together, I think the librarian saw the learning benefits of MUVEs and realized it was something we should be involved with. Many times, libraries are viewed as reactive institutions, especially in the area of technology. With this job, McMaster is trying to be proactive.
What, specifically, are you tasked with doing? It varies. Part of my job entails regular librarian duties such as collections development, reference desk work, and teaching. My other goal is to look at what's out there in terms of MUVEs, to see how the technology impacts education. I'm charged with investigating how people are teaching in virtual worlds, how researchers are studying games, and how games in general affect our culture and society. I also have to keep tabs on how the brain works with video games.
Let's get an 'immersive education' insider's vantage point: What is your average day like? Contrary to popular belief, I certainly don't get to sit in my office and play video games all day! I do, however, spend a lot of time poring through gaming literature, reading blogs, and evaluating news. I also spend a good deal of time reading journals and searching on Google Scholar. I get a lot of leads from different gaming websites such as Joystiq.com, Kotaku.com, and Gamasutra.com. Once I've read through all of this information, I try to distill it and come up with ideas for how we as a library can improve the way we're using MUVEs.
Of course, we also do quite a bit in Second Life. The university was already involved in that before I got here, but we purchased our own island in November 2007, and our teachers have been using it since.
To what extent have you evaluated other immersive learning environments? We've been trying to build our own virtual worlds with the Croquet Project. We're also trying stuff in Metaverse. And I'm always interested in how we can incorporate hardware, especially the Wii. What I like about the Wii is that anyone can pick it up and play the games; it doesn't require any prior gaming experience. That's especially good for educators who are new to embracing this kind of thing.
Is there a true learning benefit in an immersive environment? Simply put, games are just more conducive to learning. With games, you can experiment; they offer problemsolving, but with no consequence for failure. You can formulate your own hypothesis and if you fail, you can formulate a new one, based upon your failures. In a nutshell, games make learning more fun.
What are the challenges to gaming as learning medium? Gaming is not for everyone. There is indeed a question of learning curve; people can't just jump in and use this. There are technical problems, too: Second Life doesn't run well on old hardware, or new hardware that's not geared for rendering three-dimensional images. You need to have a computer that can process a lot of randomizing. Also, Second Life is a bandwidth hog. And there are ethical concerns with MUVEs, too; dropping students into a virtual world where there's gambling, nudity, and violence.
Does McMaster as a whole embrace immersive learning environments? Overall, embracing MUVEs is all pretty new here. Right now, we don't have a specific immersive learning lab, but we're renovating our library, so hopefully a new lab will come out of that. Also, only a handful of faculty members are into MUVEs, but the more faculty members that I get a chance to talk to about embracing this technology, the more people express a curiosity. I get the sense that faculty members are pretty close to asking for this stuff on a regular basis. That's a good sign that we'll be embracing MUVEs more frequently, down the road.
When did you first get into gaming? I've always been a fan of gaming. I'm 30 years old, and I grew up in the US, so I remember having an Atari when I was little. I will say this, though: I definitely didn't go to school for all of the gaming stuff! I have a business degree, and I got my master's degree in library and information science.
Okay, to finish up, let's get personal: What is your Second Life avatar's name? What does the avatar look like? The avatar's name is Zebulon Greenwood. Right now he's human-looking; bald with a tan. At different points in the past, though, I went through phases where my avatar was alternately the Kool-Aid man and a robot. But that's just one more benefit of games-- creativity is a dying art and it's nice to embrace it every now and again.
Matt Villano is senior contributing editor of this publication.