The Cyberlearning and Future Learning Technologies Program funds efforts that will help envision the next generation of learning technologies and advance what we know about how people learn in technology-rich environments. Epidemics (whether measles, ebola, or the flu) affect youth, but many of the concepts related to how epidemics work (and how to prevent them) are hard to convey to young learners. This project explores how and whether technology can help youth ages 10-14 years learn about how disease epidemics spread and how to prevent them by participating in and experiencing a virtual epidemic outbreak in a massive online community. The project will also provide data to epidemiologists to help understand how educating kids might change the course of epidemics.
This project uses prominent features of virtual worlds--persistence, real time, personal representation, and massive numbers of players--to allow tweens to experience and investigate an epidemic outbreak. A virtual epidemic will be 'unleashed' on a widely used online virtual learning space, Whyville, simulating important aspects of disease including movement of people and contact in social networks, incubation periods, exposure and exposure mitigation, and the utility of presymptomatic testing. Using an innovative combination of observational methods and field experiments, this pilot research will provide insights into how we can design such large-scale online activities to promote individual and community inquiry. The research will explore how public health prevention and protection measures are connected to behavioral changes, conceptual understanding of infection, immunity, and associated social issues. Measures will include youth behaviors online in the virtual world (including chat and logfile analysis, use of the virtual 'protective gear' or 'hand washing' features, and engagement with outbreak-related materials online, including live chats with an epidemiologist.)