Educational Transfer – Two lessons from Virtual Worlds

In the field of instructional/curriculum design, the notion of transfer is of obvious importance. One of the earliest inquiries into the subject defined transfer as the “influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions” (Thorndike and Woodworth 1901b). Practically speaking, it is the ability for a student to learn a skill, process or other knowledge in one setting, then apply that experience favorably to a novel situation.

The assumption that some form of transfer takes place is foundational to every design of formal learning. If a student was not able to apply classroom knowledge outside the classroom, what good is it? If knowledge and skills could only be utilized in the exact context in which they were acquired there would be no method for learning any subject outside of their most authentic practices. Even then, one situation within the practice may not transfer to another. Along these lines, Thorndike and Woodworth (1901a) conclude that:

For [the] functions [tested in this study being] so similar and for cases so favourable for getting better standards and better habits of judging the amount of improvement gotten by training in an allied function is small. Studies of the influence of the training of similar functions in school and in the ordinary course of life, so far as we have made such, show a similar failure to bring large increases of efficiency in allied functions.
Despite this bleak outlook, it seems safe to conclude that transfer does occur within the human mind simply on casual observation alone. The very notion of innovation requires previous knowledge to be applied in new circumstances and whole fields of study, such as engineering, mathematics and other sciences are founded on the application of generalized principles within new situations.  In many respects, the scientific method is a formalization of one particular process of transfer. For other domains and traditional school subjects, however, the process of transferring learning beyond the context of a classroom may be much more ill-defined.

Leander and Lovvorn (2006) approach two such school subjects, English and History, with a much more mature version of transfer and the practices around it by defining a set of “Dimensions of Displacement” through the lens of literacy studies. These dimensions include: identity translation, movements and positions of texts, rhythms of circulation and network continuity. Through observing class times of what many educators would assess as active and engaging teaching practices, this rubric seems to show that learning is happening in highly segmented and localized fashions. Translation is not happening past that of student identities. The representations are homogeneous save a few of the teacher’s personal stories. The texts are not moving past predefined curriculum, and the knowledge networks are disconnected. In sharp contrast, parallel observations are made of the same student playing a popular MMORPG, Star Wars Galaxies (LucasArts and Sony Entertainment, 2003).

In SWG, the student is engaged in a multi-modal, active process that produces numerous embodied experiences. This embodiment, through a 3-d avatar in the game, leads to a “ongoing construction and hybridization of a textualized self” (Leander and Lovvorn, 2006). Surprisingly, the player was also able to identify directly with a much more abstract representation of self as well, an mouse cursor moving across the map of the virtual world of SWG while narrating a future plan for travel. Instead of relying on textual descriptions and statistics about the different spaces within the game, the player often preferred to physically (virtually) walk around and make first-person observations.

Along the last dimension of displacement, network continuity, the contrast between the game and classroom also yields fascinating differences. In the classroom, teacher and student produced texts, such as note cards, whiteboard markings and lecture notes created engagement and capital only in the sense that they had graded consequences. After the last-minute production of dozens of 3×5” cards for a research project assignment and handing them in, it took weeks before they were returned and then had very little value to the student who produced them as demonstrated by the fact that they remained untouched at the bottom of his locker. Since a tub of single sentence filled note cards have no translation path into more valuable forms, the artifact of work retained no value once a grade had been assigned.

In games such as SWG and virtual worlds such as Second Life (Linden Labs, 2003), players are also able to produce tangible creations, but the value of these productions may be sustained more effectively due to the design of the system itself. For the player of SWG, the work of hunting results in experience points and a harvest of raw materials. XP, by design is a currency for increasing the avatar’s skill set along a set of orthogonal axis which result in new and improved abilities that afford new and hopefully desired actions internal to game system. The materials, through the XP driven skills, are converted into crafted objects which can be exchanged with other players, sold or used directly, all of which are examples of a continuous circulation of value.

Malaby (2006) investigates currency as it relates to virtual worlds by demonstrating how goods and services are transferred across the barrier of the game world into tangible market value of different forms. By defining capitol simply as a “resource for action” (Malaby, 2006) he identifies not only social and material capital in virtual worlds but also introduces a third form, cultural capitol. Star Wars Galaxies, Second Life and other virtual worlds do not simply happen to have these distinct forms of capital motivating players on chance alone as the value of each are networked into the entirety of the design. Capital in these environments requires both player effort as well as the support of the system itself. From the tools and verbs that allow player skill (both virtual and otherwise) to convert in-game assets (which may have their own value) into more valuable forms to the systems that allow these creations to be exchanged and sold to the copyright laws that attribute the ownership of the creation to the player, the game design directly supports the production of capital.  For the continued discussion of transfer, however, it is not the specific form and value of capital created that is relevant as much as the fact that the capital produces and sustains engagement. This is verified by the fact that players continue to play out of choice alone.

Through these studies of currency and literacy it now may be safe to draw a few lessons about what Virtual Worlds have to teach educators and curriculum designers about producing transferable learning experiences:

First, possibilities for embodiment should be designed such that the student’s perspective is shifted outside of the role of only being a student but also an actor within different space times (Leander and Lovvorn, 2006) outside the classroom. Through games we even see continued co-production of identity is possible within certain designed activities.

Second, continued and sustained engagement may be created by designing systems of currency production and transferability that replace traditional homework cycles. If the result of student endeavour retains value as differing forms of liquid capital it is more likely to be utilized outside context it was produced.


Thorndike and Woodworth (1901a) The influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions (I) Psychological Review, 8, 247-261.

Thorndike and Woodworth (1901b) The influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions (II). The estimation of magnitudes. Psychological Review, 8, 384-395.

Malaby (2006) Parlaying Value Capital in and Beyond Virtual Worlds. Games and Culture,1(2)

Leander and Lovvorn (2006). Literacy Networks: Following the Circulation of Texts, Bodies, and Objects in the Schooling and Online Gaming of One Youth. Cognition and Instruction, 24(3), 291-340


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