Using Smallworlds for Learning

Smallworlds rocks.

A 3d virtual world, Smallworlds addresses a ton of the major drawbacks to its bigger competitors in the space:

– Browser based. No downloads, no installations, no patches, no reinstalls for updates. It launches inside the Web browser and can even be embedded inside Web systems. This makes the transition from, for example, a Web site or forum into out of Smallworlds nearly transparent.

– Flash platform killer graphics. The graphics look terrific. The development team has obviously coded something heavy on top of the Flash engine because the rendering is beautiful, and yet the graphics load very quickly.

– Short learning curve. Sign up for your account, set up an avatar, and push a button. You’re whooshed to the “landing pad,” and from there you take a series of tutorials that provide basic training for Smallworlds. Takes about a half hour or so start to finish (much shorter for kids, I’m sure).

– Easy avatar creation. Point, click, select. You now have an avatar. The selection of possible avatar look ‘n feel options is surprisingly wide, which results in a very diverse avatar population. The avatars are decidedly young looking – not childish, but definitely hankering toward the young set.

– Dead simple navigation. No need to learn lots of complicated gestures or character movement keys. Want your avatar to walk? Click on the place you’d like them to end up, and they’ll just head on over. Want to visit another place? Find it in the places directory, click on “Go There” and, well, you’ll go there.

– Nice Facebook integration. The Facebook app is already live, which makes sense, since it’s an embedded Flash application. This seems like it could have big implications, since users can just use their Facebook accounts to sign in and out of Smallworlds. No need to set up a completely separate logon, which is becoming more of a hassle online, and is a big challenge for people trying to blend systems.

– Challenge or mission orientation. We’ve adopted the “quest” or challenge learning model for the new PlanetGED program. Smallworlds’ essential play factor involves setting up “missions,” interactive challenges that guide players through an experience or knowledge base.

– Community standards. Smallworlds is populated by a young crowd, yet doesn’t seem to have descended into the sleaze haven that Second Life can sometimes seem. There’s plenty of adult language (minimum age to join: 13) and no shortage of gamer-style griefing, but for the most part, it seems like a pretty cool, civilized place.

The Learning Application

For us, Smallworlds creates that sort of “portal” between the Web world and a virtual universe. It lets us present content, games, challenges, sample GED exams, etc. from a Web site. But we can design missions and challenges for students to complete in-world. They pop right into Smallworlds without having to fire up another application, deal with connection or version issues.

While we’re still struggling with the details, it looks like Smallworlds is going to let us pull together our 3 big components: downloadable content (games, audio, video), experiential or challenge-based learning, and a learning management system (for assessment).

At this point, we’re planning to set up “Planet GED” within the Smallworlds environment, and create 5 “island” spaces on which to host learning challenges. We think we’ll also be able to embed Flash-based games within the islands, as well as hosting them on the Web site itself.

Challenges with Smallworlds

I have to confess that the biggest challenge for us in setting up Smallworlds as a learning platform is the learning curve for me. There’s not really a central point of knowledge or information about Smallworlds. There’s no user guide, for example, that provides a 1-2-3 step by step approach to building a Smallworlds presence.

Smallworlds’ support mantra seems to extend to: “Go look at the forums,” whenver a question arises. The internal forums are great. They seem really helpful and friendly. But they’re very scattered and present a major time consuming challenge to an old dog trying to learn a few new tricks.

Maybe that’s a great opportunity for an author with some extra time on their hands.

There are other logistical and conceptual challenges to dealing with Smallworlds – setting up space, embedding assets, etc. But they can all be pretty well summarized in the user guide issue.

Also, Smallworlds is distinctly less open-source than Second Life and other virtual worlds. There is basically no user generated content, and the system isn’t yet real amenable to a professional presence (there are shops, restaurants, clubs, game rooms, etc., but not much in the way of a branded presence).

That’s probably great for keeping a hip vibe, but it seems like the development team would be smart to create some conceptual space for outside organizations to set up their “small worlds.” They don’t seem opposed to it, but not particularly welcoming, either.

For organizations – and individuals – with intellectual property, branding concerns, and stability issues (ie, no particular desire to jump on board a sinking ship), it would be great to have some policy and procedure in place for pro or corporate accoungs. Even if they have to do it secretly.

The Smallworlds Verdict

We’re going to do it. I feel like this is very early stage for Smallworlds, which of course means opportunity as well as risk going forward. But I think they’ve got the right idea. We’re going to bet they’re going in the right direction.

I’ll keep you posted.