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Project report

Page history last edited by Ashwini Datt 15 years, 2 months ago

Project outcomes

  1. Literature review

The major challenge for the literature review was to decipher all the information available on the web and in written texts around Web 3D/virtual worlds and their use in education. After skimming through a number of papers, it was considered a necessity to differentiate between virtual reality and virtual worlds. Web 3D was a more encompassing term but the term virtual worlds was not the same as virtual reality with the latter including first person experiences and use of sensory technology (haptics) (Brna & Aspin, 1998). A comprehensive review of the use of virtual reality in education was beyond the scope of this project and was eliminated earlier on to focus the literature review on the use of Web 3D/virtual worlds in education. The overall impression was that most of the educational applications of these technologies are still at an experimental stage and inconclusive in terms of either its benefits or drawbacks.


Defining Web 3D/virtual worlds

3D/virtual worlds come with varying features depending on the application used to create them. Typically, they are characterised by 3D graphics that give an ‘illusion of 3D space’, persistence and the capability for multiple simultaneous users (represented visually as avatars) to interact via the internet (Albion, 2008b and Dickey, 2005). Virtual reality deals with virtual environments that enable participants to immerse into such a man-made world. As a result of total immersion, there is cognitive presence and a sense of reality associated with the virtual world (Winn, 1993). Differentiating between virtual worlds and virtual reality, Winn (1993) lists four conditions that are necessary for immersive virtual reality:

  1. head mounted devices with a wide field of view so in world objects can be detected by peripheral (at the sides) and foveal (hollow) vision;
  2. tracking the position and attitude of the participant's body;
  3. transducers that interpret participant's behaviour as commands to the computer; and
  4. negligible delay in the response of the virtual environment to participant's movements and actions.

More recently, virtual reality has become a term applied more widely to desktop applications such as Second life. Winn (1993) argues that these are not truly immersive environments hence do not 'engender presence' but do offer a less costly solution that can be used in education. He goes on further to explicitly distinguish between the first person experience possible in immersive worlds similar to our experiences in the real world to the third person experience in a desktop based virtual environment. He states that first person experiences are "natural, non-reflective, private, and predominate in our everyday interactions with the world" (Winn, 1993, p.3) whereas interacting with a computer through its interface using a keypad or mouse is a third person experience that is objective and includes the intervention of the conscious thought and reflection. The interface is considered a boundary between us (the subjects) and the machine (the object).

In the beginning…

Web 3D/virtual worlds have featured prominently in educational research since the 1990s (Taxén & Naeve, 2002) and with the establishment of Second Life® and other similar desktop based systems, there has been more interest in the application of Web 3D/virtual worlds in education. So much so, that an application (http://www.exitreality.com/about.html) has already been designed to enable any webpage to be viewed in 3D.


The urge to use Web 3D/virtual worlds in education draws on the idea of digital natives; where students of today are considered familiar with gaming technologies that keep them motivated to meet set goals (Prensky, 2001). “The same technology that allows an immersive experience presented in a game context can be harnessed to present learning environments to an ever-growing population of learners that have computers with built-in 3-dimensional graphics capability” (Jones, Morales & Knezek, 2005, p.222). Taxén & Naeve (2002) see this as a major advantage. They claim that such learners (especially younger ones) who are familiar with the gaming environment require much less training and hence ‘master the controls’ in a shorter time.


Teachers are adapting this model in the formal education system where they assume using environments and technologies similar to that used in gaming will help students understand key concepts in different areas of study and equip them to deal more effectively with the real world (Shaffer, 2006 cited in Albion, 2008b). It is also assumed that such an approach would encourage student motivation and goal orientation which would in turn assist them to achieve their learning objectives. The MUVEES project, as described in Jones et al. (2005), found that “…students using 3-dimensional environments had high levels of motivation, increased interactions and improved academic efficacy” (p.223).


Educational potential of Web 3D/virtual worlds

Of the literature reviewed so far, there are two emerging themes around the educational affordances of Web 3D/virtual worlds. These are the principles underlying the constructivist approach to learning and teaching and the importance of interaction. The argument is that “…constructivism is the best basis for building theory of learning in virtual environments” (Winn, 1993, p.1) and that people construct knowledge through a psychological process prompted by their interaction with objects and events (Winn, 1993). This is termed the “fourth generation” of computer-based education where the focus is shifted from prescribing interactions or transactions (Merill, 1993 cited in Winn, 1993) to designing learning environments that enable any kind of interaction, limited only by the capability of the system it is designed with. Such interactions are possible through most, if not all 3D online learning environments. According to Jones et al. (2005), irrespective of the type, all 3D online learning environments “…create a context/scaffolding for interaction using 3-dimensional presentations to engage and/or immerse the student in a situation for learning (situated learning) or entertainment” (p.221). They go on to claim that such engagement is a “natural outcome from the user interface” (p.223).


Probably the most well documented use of the interactive features of Web 3D/virtual environments are in distance education where it is considered an aid to reducing the transactional distance but as Albion (2008a) indicates, it is “…necessary to identify the most appropriate forms of interaction to be included in learning environments using such spaces” (p.1). Johnson (1995) also contends that it is imperative to select an appropriate style of interpersonal interaction.


With its support of multiple modes of interaction (e.g. audio, video, text chat), Web 3D/virtual worlds can create a stronger sense of social presence (Albion, 2008a).  In his bid to prove that “…there is a value in exploring the potential of 3D online spaces for hosting forms of interaction that support learning”, Albion (2008a, p4-5), goes on to describe a tool for mapping such opportunities. He suggests that “[t]here is no reason to presume that 3D online spaces used for education would not manifest the same three dimensions of interaction as other learning environments, with content, instructor and peers” (Albion, 2008a, p. 3). Hence, given below are a number of ways in which Web 3D/virtual worlds can be used to facilitate educational interaction as identified using the mapping tool of Albion (2008a & b):


  1. high interaction with content 
    1. accessing information by browsing in the 3D space
    2. observational field experiences


  1. high interaction with instructor and content
    1. presentations providing a sense of occasion
    2. ‘performance coaching’ for participating in activities in world or in real world with reporting and feedback occurring in the 3D space


  1. high interaction with instructor and peers
    1. ‘Socratic questioning’ with one to one communication
    2. substantive conversation with peers for ‘action learning’ or ‘problem based learning’


  1. high interaction with peers
    1. sharing information through presentations
    2. group work
    3. synchronous communication in appropriate virtual venue


  1. high interaction with peers and content
    1. ‘experiential learning’ with engagement enabled by in world activities and events
    2. virtual field studies and group work


Some possibilities around educational application of Web 3D/virtual worlds identified in the literature reviewed so far include:

  1. facilitating ‘situated learning’ that allows transfer of learning from classroom contexts to real world settings (Jones et al., 2005, Albion, 2008a & b)
  2. better implementing under-utilised forms of pedagogical practice using spontaneous exploration capability (Jones et al., 2005)
  3. effectively reaching learners with different learning styles through the multiple modes of interaction supported in virtual worlds (Jones et al., 2005)
  4. breaking down physical and social barriers with man-made 3D online learning environments (Jones et al., 2005)
  5. exploring complex systems that are not feasibly reproduced in the real world or are impractical to replicate (Dede, 1995 cited in Dickey, 2005)

“Through simulation an environment can impart significant learning in an area that is very difficult to teach using other learning designs” (Jones et al., 2005, p.225). Taxén & Naeve (2002) also claim that virtual reality is an effective way to teach difficult concepts.

  1. role playing as in the gaming environment enabling learners to take on various roles and hence develop a better understanding of others’ viewpoints or perspectives (Johnson & Johnson, 1996 cited in Dickey, 2005)

Games can be an excellent way to teach empathy and encourage team building or enable group dynamics to develop (Johnson, 1995).

  1. encouraging ‘experiential learning’ with the formation of user communities that have an “…increased level of anonymity and “safety”” (Taxén & Naeve, 2002, p.594) encouraging participation from users who usually avoid such situations
  2. demonstrating skills/techniques through object manipulation in world that can be viewed by other users (Dickey, 2005 and Johnson, 1995)


Some examples of existing educational applications

Geology Explorer- a virtual world where learners play the role of a geologist and plan a field-oriented expedition, sample collections and do scientific problem solving to explore the geology of a mythical planet http://oit.ndsu.edu/~mooadmin/PLANET/ (Slator, Juell, McClean, Saini-Eidukat, Schwert & White, 1999).


Virtual Cell- learners navigate through 3D organelles within a giant virtual cell to study the basic physical and chemical features of the cell structure http://vcell.ndsu.edu/ (Slator, Juell, McClean, Saini-Eidukat, Schwert & White, 1999).


ProgrammingLand Museum-learners are introduced to programming concepts and techniques http://www.cs.ndsu.nodak.edu/~slator/html/PLANET/wwwic-pland.html (Slator, Juell, McClean, Saini-Eidukat, Schwert & White, 1999).


Unresolved issues

Despite the recent hype in the use of Web 3D/virtual worlds, there are a number of issues that need to be given due consideration. Firstly, large scale implementation of such Web 3D/virtual worlds in education require a consideration of the return on investment in terms of the technology, many of which are proprietary, and the accompanying expertise/skills set needed in establishing and maintaining such an environment. Furthermore, what types of training is required by (1), staff taking on such initiatives and (2), students expected to learn in these environments and more importantly, who provides this training and when. Brna & Aspin (1998) share similar sentiments by questioning how a user can be expected to write codes for a system they are yet to fully understand.


Dickey (2005) quite rightly points out that “[i]norder for educators to adopt and integrate a technology, it must be accessible both in terms of cost and technical skills required (for both teachers and students)” (p.123). An example of such a training initiative is SimSchool (http://simschool.org) that allows student teachers to ‘analyse student needs and make instructional decisions to meet those and then see the impact of their decisions’ while navigating the 3D environment. Web3D Exchange project/Advanced Learning and Immersive Virtual Environment (ALIVE) (http://web3dexchange.org) is another project that specifically aims to support educators with content expertise to develop 3D educational resources with good designs in both education and the gaming domain (Albion, 2008b).


Secondly, the accessibility issue needs attention. Do all the staff and students involved in a course taught using Web 3D/virtual worlds have access to this technology at home or at the university? Although Jones et al. (2005) suggest that a 3-dimensional rendered environment is highly bandwidth efficient; many researchers still caution users on this issue.  Taxén & Naeve (2002) express concern that the current systems are “…expensive, fragile and can be cumbersome to use… [making] them hard to utilise for larger groups of learners… [and] harder to integrate into existing school environments where resources are limited” (p.594).


Finally and perhaps most importantly, there has to be a reason for setting up such a system and using it effectively to enhance the learning experience. One has to consider whether the environment has been developed for use at a superficial level or is it developed to truly engage the learner. And irrespective of the subject matter or the level at which it is taught, the use of Web 3D/virtual worlds needs to be justified because it may not be the best alternative available for use with an intention to enhance the educational experience of learners.


  1. Endnote references

In addition to the reference list provided at the end of the report, an Endnote library of references is being developed and will be placed in the project wiki http://www.virtualenvironments.pbwiki.com and be updated regularly.


  1. Possible areas of research (PhD)

Are Web 3D/virtual world technologies engaging the students or actually disengaging them? If they do engage students then are there significant measurable contributions to their learning outcomes?


Are learning resources/spaces developed using Web 3D/virtual worlds cost effective? How are these projects managed?


What skills do academic staff and learners require to use such learning environments effectively?



Albion, P. (2008a). Virtual worlds: exploring potential for educational interaction. In: ED-MEDIA 2008: World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications, 30 June - 4 July 2008, Vienna, Austria.

Albion, P. (2008b). 3D online spaces for teacher education: mapping the territory. In: Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education 19th International Conference (SITE 2008), 3-7 March 2008, Las Vegas, NV.


Brna, P. & Aspin, R. (1998). Collaboration in a Virtual World: Support for Conceptual Learning? Education and Information Technologies, 3(3), 247-259.


Dickey, M. D. (2005). Brave new (interactive) worlds: A review of the design affordances and constraints of two 3D virtual worlds as interactive learning environments. Interactive Learning Environments, 13(1), 121 - 137.


Johnson, W. L. (1995). Pedagogical agents for virtual learning environments. Proceedings of the International Conference on Computers in Education, Singapore, 41-48.


Jones, J., Morales, C. & Knezek, G. (2005). 3-Dimensional online learning environments: examining attitudes toward information technology between students in Internet-based 3-dimensional and face-to-face classroom instruction. Educational Media International, 42, 219-236.


Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants Part 2: Do they really think differently? On the Horizon, 9(6), 1-6.


Slator, B. M., Juell, P., McClean, P. E., Saini-Eidukat, B., Schwert, D. P., White, A. R. & Hill, C. (1999). Virtual environments for education. Journal of Network and Computer Applications, 22(3), 161-174.


Taxén, G. and A. Naeve (2002). "A system for exploring open issues in VR-based education." Computers & Graphics, 26(4), 593-598.


 Winn, W. D. (1993). A conceptual basis for educational applications of virtual reality (HITL Report No. R-93-9). Seattle, WA: University of Washington, Human Interface Technology Laboratory.http://www.hitl.washington.edu/publications/r-93-9/ 



Appendix A


Reflections on the mentoring process

While the project work per-se is primarily the efforts of the mentee, the mentor thought that it would be useful to provide some feedback to ASCILITE on their perceptions of the conduct of the community mentoring project.  The international nature of the mentoring project has so far precluded the participants meeting in person, and has meant taking into account time zone differences, but has proceeded well in an ongoing basis throughout the year.  The contribution of Iain Doherty, as the ASCILITE project facilitator, was extremely valuable at key points, especially in assisting in finalising the mentoring agreement and kicking proceedings off with introductions between the parties.


The project has proceeded primarily with communication and document exchange via email, but in the wrap-up phase Skype was used for more extended voice-based interaction to review and finalise project planning issues.  The mentor now realises that Skype could have been put to good use more frequently throughout the duration of the project.  Additionally, at the initiative of the mentee, elements of the project work have been conducted online using a wiki to develop shared resources.  This approach has also allowed interested third parties to access and contribute to the project materials.


The mentor was able to contribute a list of possible reading around the project theme that covered an historical context and developments up to the present day.  For literature items that were not directly available to the mentee, the mentor was able to provide full-text access to these documents.


The project work has prompted the possibility of on-going collaboration between the project members, including the possibility of joint publication.  From the perspective of the mentor, the project topic has taken on an enhanced relevance, as he is now co-supervising a higher degree student on the UK who will be investigating the educational applications of 3D immersive learning environments in the field of engineering education.  In this regard, his involvement in the community mentoring project has already been of value beyond the direct life of the project.


Personally, Stuart has found his involvement in the project as a mentor both enjoyable and productive. These sentiments are shared by the mentee who is considering a PhD in this area of study.


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