This is the first page of the study
The thing I really like about this concept is that it's NOT just worlds for worlds sake, or education tacked onto a virtual world. The concept, and the learning behind it, couldn't exist but for the world. As virtual worlds proliferate and the novelty wears off, it's going to be increasingly important that they add unique value that can't be provided by other online and offline forms, given how expensive they are to create (let alone create well) and difficult they are to deploy in many environments.
I love this idea for the same reasons Mike does, but I'm wondering where you would start, because I doubt anyone is going to put forth the money to build the whole vision at once and my head hurts to think of everything that would be involved (plus you'd want to leave dollars on the table for organic growth). In version 1, what choice of characters do you give the user, and how many worlds do you have to give them to explore? If you want to get critical mass, my gut says you start with 5-7 character classes (like the original Dungeons & Dragons, which I think had 4-5, but people expect more choice now than they did in the 1980s) and one world to explore. And if you had to choose one world to start with, which one would be it? I'd vote for either "light" or "water"--those two strike me as the two strangest and most complicated simple phenomena in the world, the ones with the most "scope." And when it came time to think about a world that's all about gravity (action at a distance, curved space, black holes, etc.), I think I'd take a look at Sodaplay for inspiration.
This simulation approach is very empowering for students. However, this game as with others is very open ended and needs supporting materials to make the links to formal instruction and assessment. How do we help both teachers and students integrate the learnings from the game into the comprehensive topics of a course or class?
Bobbi is absolutely right. Too often educational games get created with no clear tie-ins back to formal curriculum and assessment; there's usually some after-the-fact hand-waving about correlation to standards, but what teachers really need is hard numerical performance tracking coming out of the game and how it directly shows mastery of key concepts and knowledge. In an ideal world, you'd design the game with assessment so strongly in mind that teachers could use the game as a graded exam (instead of giving a test on the same material). I sometimes wonder if there's something psychological about game-makers' consistent failure to do this--game aficionados tend to have had difficulties with formal education and be especially critical of it; they want to show they can create something educational that explodes formal education and is in no way constrained by formal educational requirements. Too often this means throwing the proverbial baby out--yes, games teach certain key 21st century skills better than the formal education process, but this doesn't mean that, for example, the factual knowledge formal education insists on is no longer important.
I also agree with Bobbi, but have a couple of different takes on it from Portia. First, I think game creators need to do a better job of translating the known benefits of games into acceptable, measurable skills assessments for teachers. For example, if games have been responsible for improvements in kids' performance on the fluid intelligence portions of IQ tests (as authors like Richard Nisbett believe), then tasks that assess fluid intelligence should be built into games or the tasks the game already contains need to be analyzed (by the game's assessment engine) in terms of fluid intelligence. Game creators should band together with assessment and intelligence experts to devise skills assessments and common game tasks with which they can be associated.
Oops I hit submit too fast. The second point I would make is that I wonder if trying to integrate games into the classroom itself is really the best use of them, given that instructional time is so scarce and there are so many demands on it. It seems to me that games are one of the few educational activities that teachers could ask students to do outside of class with some reasonable expectation that the students would actually do them (to proficiency). Furthermore the technological environment in students' homes (or their neighborhoods), even in poor communities, is usually more robust than in their schools (which becomes particularly important when you're talking about the performance requirements of virtual worlds like You Einstein). Perhaps games should be focused on content and concepts that *aren't* being addressed in schools today (e.g. b/c of the demands of NCLB) and assigned rather than integrated? You'd still want the games to track student performance and mastery so that the teachers would be able to confirm (and apply grades) to their students in these areas, but this kind of approach would allow game technology to extend the instructional day rather than compete for instructional resources.
Perhaps I missed this in the case study, but as a game/mission begins are the various scientists limited to the known science of their time, or are their characters defined only by personal characteristics of their known habits of mind? I'm fascinated by the idea of students/players needing to negotiate and exchange principles and knowledge.
David--You raise a very interesting point, one that we hadn't thought about before. Our assumption was that the characters would be defined by their known habits of mind, but there is, of course, a tradition in role-playing games of characters acquiring powers in the form of knowledge as well (e.g. in the form of scrolls, spells, and the like). So in this context, perhaps the characters would gain, through their travels and experience, knowledge of key scientific principles that could be used (like scrolls, spells, and incantations) to help them solve problems, e.g. if they acquired the knowledge that F=ma, they could use this knowledge to illuminate any part of a problem/monster that it applies to. The game could be set up so that the most primitive, early scientific knowledge and principles are easiest to "find"/"acquire," with more advanced principles only attainable at higher levels of the game.
Let me put one other thing out there for the group at this point. I think as we look at it now, what we could use most right now are some scientist-collaborators, people doing real science (and a few historians of science, too) who are intrigued by the potential of games who would be willing to think through with us what a "world of pure light where every property of the world is determined by light" would look like, or what the "special powers" of an Einstein vs. a Marie Curie vs. Henry Ford character would be in a world like this (all in exchange for downstream fame, fortune, and fun of course!). If anyone has any suggestions for individuals to talk to or institutions that might be particularly open to this approach, it would be great to hear about them here (or you can email me privately by clicking on my username below this message)