iSocial is a three dimensional virtual learning environment, developed using the Open Wonderland toolkit for creating virtual worlds, for teaching social competence to youth who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). The goal of iSocial is to provide learners with competencies that make social participation possible in both virtual and natural settings. To this end, iSocial enables social interaction and provides supports for the development of social competence in a safe, completely controlled environment. Because the proximity of families to the location of qualified trainers and the times available for physical meetings restricts access to social competence curricula, such training and instruction can be made accessible to only a small number of the youth who could benefit from it.
Given support from the MU Research Board, the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, AutismSpeaks and an IES award from the U. S. Department of Education we are developing an existing evidenced-based curriculum designed for face to face clinic implementation into a cost-effective school-based model of social competence intervention that can be delivered via a networked, 3D-based virtual learning environment (3D VLE). The ultimate goal is to develop and then test the feasibility and promise of using 3D VLEs to make social competence curricula available in schools to youth with ASD who have no or limited access to high quality face-to-face programs.
A common characteristic of individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is impairment in social interaction skills. The iSocial project, funded by the National Center for Special Education Research, is developing three-dimensional virtual learning environments for youth with ASD to help these young learners develop social competencies that will enable them to participate more easily and fully in school activities and in other settings. iSocial is an adaptation of a school-based curriculum that focuses on improving emotion recognition, theory of mind (i.e., the ability to understand the thoughts, intentions, and feelings of others), and executive functioning (i.e., cognitive abilities necessary for regulation and control of goal-directed behavior). In order to develop social competencies in a virtual learning environment, iSocial provides support to encourage prosocial behavior while students participate in small-group online lesson activities. One of the innovations of the iSocial project has been to develop social scaffolds to help regulate and support self-regulation of online social behavior.
"[...]Carleton discovered iSocial, a groundbreaking, virtual learning program under development at MU's Allen Institute, part of the College of Education. The interactive online experience teaches social skills to children with autism.
Using a 3-D world where users create avatars, the program teaches children to interact with others and practice social rules such as turn taking."
The MU College of Education reports:
MU faculty in the College of Education have developed curricula that uses a virtual world experience, similar to a video game, to help students with autism learn social competency. Faculty hope the project, called iSocial, will change the way kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder are taught.
iSocial researchers Jim Laffey, Matt Schmidt and Xianhui Wang traveled to Denver, Colorado in late April to present one paper and one poster about the methods being used to study participant behavior in the iSocial 3D VLE. The paper, Examining Interaction in 3D VLE, was presented at a session of the SIG on Advanced Technology in Learning. The paper describes how detailed coding of interactions allows researchers to examine learner behavior in 3D VLE. The paper is available for download in Publications. The poster, Interpreting Conditions and Characteristics of Desirable Interaction in a 3D VLE, describes key steps in our process to understand how learning takes place in iSocial.
On March 10 Ken Miller, the CEO of Virtual Learning Labs, announced the formation of the Open Wonderland Foundation and the creation of the Open Wonderland virtual world platform. The Open Wonderland platform is a "fork" of the Project Wonderland toolkit originally developed by Sun Microsystems Laboratories. Miller, who will serve as the Foundation's first President and Chairman of the Board, announced that the non-profit Open Wonderland Foundation will provide direction and governance for Open Wonderland.
On April 24 the Open Wonderland Foundation met for the first time to begin the business of continuing the development of Open Wonderland. Jim Laffey of the iSocial project serves as one of the founding board members.
Originally starting out as an informal conversation between developers, the particle system capability has grown to be widely used for effects such as rain, snow, fire, smoke among many others. The capability allows for the aforementioned effects to be added to any object that can be created in Wonderland. While at first it was created with the simple ambition to see if it could be done, once we saw what we had accomplished we decided to share module with the Open Wonderland (then Project Wonderland) community at large. Currently a second version is in development to include easier usage, added features, bug fixes, and advanced effects. The particle system capability was created by and is currently maintained by Ryan Babiuch, a developer on the iSocial project, known as "jagwire" within the Open Wonderland community.
The Wonderland team has created an 8-part video presentation which provides a technical overview of Project Wonderland, the open source toolkit that iSocial is using for creating 3D virtual worlds. The first video begins with a sampling of virtual worlds created by Wonderland open source community members and showcases the iSocial project.