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Chuck Carney
IU School of Education

Last modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2008

$1.8 million grant to expand IU School of Education immersive learning project

MacArthur Foundation follows half-million dollar grant to professor's Quest Atlantis project in 2006

Feb. 26, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has granted more than $1.8 million to the Indiana University School of Education to expand the immersive learning environment "Quest Atlantis."

Sasha Barab, associate professor and Jacobs Chair in Learning Sciences and Instructional Systems Technology and the director of the Center for Research on Learning and Technology, created the Quest Atlantis project. It is a learning and teaching tool for students ages 9-12 that uses a 3-D, multiuser environment to immerse children in educational tasks.

The new three-year, $1.8 million award is designated to help Barab expand the reach of the program. The MacArthur Foundation awarded Barab $500,000 two years ago to build upon the program originally funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Quest Atlantis is already used in the United States and several other countries, including China, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Malaysia, Turkey and Singapore. At the end of three years, Barab expects that worldwide participation in the program will have grown from five thousand to tens of thousands.

The grant, Barab said, is about wide-scale change in media literacy, an agenda central to the current MacArthur Foundation initiative. It also will push implementation of Quest Atlantis to a new level.

"It's been really exciting to feel like I'm part of this bigger movement," Barab said.

Barab is the principal investigator for the MacArthur-funded project titled, "Scaling Out Virtual Worlds: Growing a 21st Century Curriculum," with co-principal investigator Melissa Gresalfi, assistant professor of Learning Sciences. Also on the grant are associate professor of Learning Sciences Dan Hickey and assistant professor of Learning Sciences Kylie Peppler.

"The MacArthur grants are some of the most prestigious a faculty member can receive. This speaks volumes for the quality of Professor Barab's work and that of his Learning Sciences colleagues," said Gerardo M. Gonzalez, University dean of the IU School of Education. "The Quest Atlantis project has certainly had international impact already and it will only grow with this funding," said Gonzalez.

Quest Atlantis

A screenshot of Quest Atlantis

Print-Quality Photo

Through Quest Atlantis, players use strategies they might also use in commercial games on lessons from educational research on learning and motivation. Users travel to virtual places to perform these educational activities, or "quests." There, they can speak with other users and mentors and build virtual personas. The program supports students in learning academic concepts in a variety of disciplines, including science, art, math, and writing, while at the same time providing children with an engaging way to appreciate the value of these concepts. For example, as part of a virtual storyline, students might use their understanding of water quality indicators to determine why fish are dying in a body of water.

The program is used in the fourth-grade classroom of Lana Cummings, a teacher at Bloomington's Binford Elementary School. She said she was among the first to use the program and initially thought it was a nice tool especially for teaching writing.

"But then after we used the program, we found it's so much more valuable than that," Cummings said. "It cuts across all learning styles, all levels. There's sort of something for everyone."

Barab said the teaching element is vital to the use of the program. During a typical lab session, Cummings will spend much of the hour and a half guiding her students through various parts of their quest. The teacher receives assignments from students through the program and can monitor progress and push students to reflect on and think more deeply about the issues introduced in the game experience. Students can access the program both at school and over the Internet.

The project is starting to add staff to carry out the program expansion, particularly figuring out the needs of teachers and students in various countries.

"What are the challenges we will notice if we go to train teachers in North Carolina as opposed to a group of teachers in Shanghai or a group of teachers in Lagos, Nigeria?" Barab said.

The money will also pay for more computer server capacity, a particular concern since the number of participants will increase dramatically over the next few years.

Among the new parts of the program Barab is developing is a mission that engages players inside the story of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. But, more than readers of the story, players become first-person protagonists making bio-ethical decisions and observing the consequences in the game. So, for example, is it OK to do unethical medical experiments if it means saving a town.

Barab said the worldwide focus on the program makes creating such an environment more challenging, particularly, for example, given the questions of life, creation and ethics presented by some storylines, such as the one mentioned above.

"It's much simpler if I'm just going to my backyard and working with teachers and kids I know and I can go sit down and talk with those parents," he said. "But what happens when I take those issues and a child in China is going to take up this story, or in Bangladesh, or in India?"

The program is also another step for the educational community responding to changing learning styles and the growing popularity of computer games. Barab pointed out that commercial games now generate more revenue than movies.

"Do I really want the storytellers that are educating my children to be Sony, Blizzard and Electronic Arts?" he said. "I think there are a lot of wonderful games out there that have good messages, but I think we as educators need to enter that market and start to develop compelling stories that kids will want to adopt."

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is a private, independent grantmaking institution helping to build a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world. MacArthur's $50 million digital media and learning initiative, launched in 2006, seeks to help determine how digital technologies are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize and participate in civic life. More information is available at or

A video feature on the Quest Atlantis program and the MacArthur Grant is available on the IU School of Education Web site and through the IU Podcast page, Look for the IU School of Education podcast page under the "General" heading.

Media Outlets: The following comments are available as mp3 files on the IU School of Education Web site at Look for this news release under "News" on the home page. The sound bites below will have a clickable link to hear and to save the files.

Barab (pronounced 'bear-ab') says the Quest Atlantis expansion funded by MacArthur can send a big message to commercial gamemakers:

"Do I really want the story tellers that are educating my children to be Sony, Blizzard, Electronic Arts? I think there are a lot of wonderful games out there that have good messages, but I think we as educators need to enter that market and start to develop compelling stories that kids will want to adopt in addition to those commercial ones. What this grant allows us is to kind of enter that game, to bring up the quality of our software, to bring up the quality of our storylines and then ultimately to show to the commercial industry that you can actually develop a space that will not be used by 5 or 600 because no budget's going to allow that, but by 30 to 40,000 kids worldwide."

What games can do, Barab says, is take students into the real world and show them the applications of knowledge:

"So, I think games offer us something that traditional curriculum really is missing and a lot of the way schools are arranged with walls where 'Oh, we go in here and we're going to do mathematics for 45 minutes and the reasons why we do mathematics? Well, that's somewhere outside that's not here, you're going to use it later on so you really should know it.' But with a game, we can bring those worlds into the classroom, make those available to kids, so we can travel to Tanzania or into a Van Gogh painting within that 45 minutes that they have to do science or to do art."

Quest Atlantis does not operate independently of the teacher, Barab says:

"They're collecting data and having to make decisions about how to operate in these worlds. Well, the teacher's role is incredibly necessary; in a lot of the research we looked at 'What is the teacher's role in these spaces?' Because of the big fear of 'Are the games going to replace the teacher?' What we found is exactly the opposite. It's really hard to make a game that a kid can't click on and move through and kind of win with a cheat code. So what the teachers do is, they really get kids to think deeply about what they're submitting, about the questions that are going on in a space, about what science is necessary to make sense of it."

Barab says the expansion of Quest Atlantis to many more students across the globe can help transform methods of learning acquisition:

"What's exciting about being part of MacArthur's views on changing part of media literacy is you feel like you're part of something bigger than your own research. I just got back from a meeting at the MacArthur Foundation and there was a sense that we were on the edge of something really big and they were trying to kind of break out of the box, to expose the world to new types of literacy, to new ways that kids can learn that ultimately could change us from the notion that there's this kind of content that was done by these people who are now dead and your job is to acquire it. To switch us to tools to help kids become producers, to become critical creators, not just simply consumers of information that they're taught not to question."

For more information, contact Chuck Carney at 812-856-8027 or