Education reforms in recent years have pressured schools to show achievement results through testing and conformity to standards. Problems of low student engagement in the current test-heavy environment have been a serious barrier to learning in schools across the United States, especially in low socioeconomic areas. After years of unsuccessful testing programs, educators and researchers are calling for approaches that enhance student engagement and foster the 21st century competencies that students need to succeed. Researchers have found that engagement, 21st century competencies, and learning can be enhanced using virtual worlds approaches (Arici, 2008; Barab, Dodge, & Ingram-Goble, 2006; Dede, Nelson, Ketelhut, Clarke, & Bowman, 2004; Klopfer, Osterweil, &Salen, 2009; Ludgate, 2008). Research in learning supports socialization and situated experiences in which content is learned in a meaningful, active context such as is provided by virtual worlds (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Gee, 2003; Lave & Wenger, 1991). This mixed-methods study used existing quantitative student data from the Quest Atlantis Project at Indiana University, and qualitative survey data from trained teachers experienced with the Quest Atlantis virtual worlds learning environment. Research questions addressed teacher observations of 21st century competencies, the degree that students were engaged with Quest Atlantis, and looked for other benefits seen by teachers. Findings showed (a) Quest Atlantis fosters 21st century competencies as reported by teachers; (b) Quest Atlantis is highly engaging for students; and (c) Academic content learned in Quest Atlantis transfers to traditional testing formats. Future research is recommended to examine why teachers in this study reported relatively lower levels of student creativity. Additionally, because students of low socioeconomic status showed equal or better results in 21st century competencies, further study of socioeconomic variables relating to learning in virtual worlds is recommended. The National Education Technology Plan (2010) recommends fostering 21st century competencies and new learning approaches such as virtual worlds, games, and other interactive technologies. Continued study of virtual worlds holds potential for innovative solutions for improving student engagement and learning in America's classrooms.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Dissertations (EdD) -- Learning technologies; Virtual reality in education

Date of Award


School Affiliation

Graduate School of Education and Psychology



Degree Type


Degree Name


Faculty Advisor

Sparks, Paul;