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updated 3/14/2011 2:10:34 PM ET 2011-03-14T18:10:34

A virtual classroom that lets students interact with mentors and one another through personalized avatars could help people with disabilities learn math and science.

Located in the virtual world Second Life, this classroom would let students with disabilities — ranging from blindness and low vision to learning challenges — connect with a hand-picked mentor within a digital space.

A group led by Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Georgia is creating the virtual world as part of a project being funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) with $3 million over five years.

“One of the National Science Foundation’s main goals is that we create something with sufficient documentation that it can be replicated and scaled for other places throughout the country, other universities, other high schools even,” said Robert Todd, a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech’s Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access. “We want this to be a model that others can emulate.”

The first avatar-filled classroom is expected to open its doors this fall, and will include an initial virtual class made up 40 high school students, 45 college undergraduates and 20 graduate students.

Lagging behind

Annual reports by the NSF have repeatedly revealed that certain populations, particularly those with disabilities, are underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM topics, according to Todd.

The reason: Students with disabilities aren’t getting the support they need in the public-education system, Todd said. This could be because they don’t know how to advocate for themselves or because they want to hide their problem, say, a learning disability.

The virtual world hopes to give these students the support they need in a way that doesn’t expose them to stigma.

Personalized learning

The students and mentors will have free range to create their own avatar.

“We’ve seen from past projects [that] some students will choose avatars or representations of themselves in the virtual world that are very much like them; so some of them will go into the virtual world with virtual wheelchairs, some of them will go in with virtual guide dogs if they have low vision, for example,” Todd told TechNewsDaily. “Students can dress the way they want, look the way they want, they can style virtually.”

Once logged into the virtual world, students will meet up with their mentors (in avatar form), set up meeting times, and either freely roam around the world together or work in dedicated learning labs designed within the virtual space.

The learning program will take into account the special needs of the students with disabilities. For example, blind students will use special technologies developed by IBM and an unnamed independent company that converts text into sound.

While the 3-D learning space is being developed for students with disabilities, it could be used by anyone who needs extra help in STEM subjects, the researchers say.

 

© 2012 TechNewsDaily

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