The Potential of Virtual Learning Environments
Emerging Issues for Educational Technology Class Professor J.D. Knode Johns Hopkins University August 18, 2004
Introduction This paper examines educational virtual reality gaming technology in three parts: 1) a rationale for using VR technology in education; 2) examples of educational and commercial VR games currently being used; 3) areas for improvement in the technology and pedagogy of VR games for education. The term Virtual Reality is used to describe many types of technology, such as: a 3d computer program, simulation, or role-playing game games for TV-attached consoles like the X-Box, GameCube, and PlayStation computer systems with special input/output devices such as sensor gloves, visual display helmets, multiple screens or large video screens, resistance/feedback devices, etc. computer-controlled machines in which the user is inside of or connected to the machine or simulator such as amusement park VR rides or cockpit flight simulators. For the purposes of this paper, the following definition will suffice: ―A human-computer interface in which the computer creates a sensory-immersing environment that interactively responds to and is controlled by the user‖ (Jog & Withrow, n.d.). I am particularly interested in networked or multiplayer VR environments. I will focus on VR with desktop computers as opposed to helmets or other more immersive technologies, because desktop VR is most accessible to schools. VR computer programs can be divided into several genres including: action/adventure games (e.g. SOCOM or Halo) fantasy/role-playing games (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons or Roma Victor) simulation/strategy games (e.g. Flight Simulator, Madden NFL, or The Sims) non-game environments (e.g. VX Interactive or ActiveWorlds) Although games are by definition fun and non-productive, in an educational setting games should have a productive outcome student learning. I shall refer to these educational VR games as virtual learning environments (VLEs).
Part 1: Rationale for Using VLEs in Education VLEs can promote constructivist learning goals because they are engaging, interactive, self-paced, and student-centered. VLEs can present authentic or real-world tasks, ―messy‖ problems, multiple paths to solution, and connections between content areas. VLEs can also include learning goals traditionally accomplished with direct-instruction teaching methods. Instant feedback, assessment, and assistance avatars provide students with valuable performance feedback. Well-designed VLEs could promote higher-order thinking skills. Whether teaching from a constructivist or instructivist pedagogy, VLEs have great potential. One myth which needs to be dispelled is that learning should be fun. Education is often interesting and engaging, but it is not necessarily fun. Indeed, many learning experiences require great mental and emotional effort. The development of VLEs should be approached with this in mind. There is nothing inherent to VLEs which precludes the possibility of requiring focused and persistent mental effort. For example, Harvard researcher Chris Dede comments on the simulation game River City: ―Video games and the River City course differ in important respects. If video games are ultimately about entertainment and fantasy -- "Slay the dragon and rescue the princess," as Dede put it -- River City is rooted in real science. The curriculum conveys specific, academically targeted content related to biology and ecology. Its aim is to teach what many middle-school teachers say are concepts that are particularly hard to impart to their students: How to pose scientific hypotheses and how to design an experiment (Rosenblum, 2004).‖
My interest in virtual reality games stems from the belief that this technology holds great promise for engaging students in valuable learning exercises. Thinking of this technology as merely fun & games detracts from the possibility of adopting it for educational purposes. As this technology finds its way into schools it will also be necessary for teachers to help students adjust their expectations for interacting in this environment. Most students probably only experience
VR in highly entertaining game settings. Approaching it with an educational intent will require realigning the learners‘ expectations. Empirical research into the use of VR games in education is relatively limited. Albert IP and Roni Linser (2000) evaluated the use of a role-play simulation for assessment purposes in a political science class. Their findings note the following anecdotal evidence: Weaker students participating in the simulation understood the material better than weaker students in a control group. For students with test anxiety the simulation was better than a traditional examination as an assessment tool. Students were highly motivated to participate in the exercises. Other studies have found positive gains due to the visual nature of VLEs, "If the subject matter is complex and/or if learners have low prior knowledge, then visual displays increase comprehension" (Carney and Levin 2002, in Okan 2003, p. 261). Kurt Squire‘s (2004) doctoral thesis ―Replaying History: Learning World History Through Playing Civilization III,‖ also found that students were highly engaged when participating in the program. Garris (2004) in the journal Simulation and Gaming also noted links between motivation and learning outcomes. Teachers‘ anecdotal reports concur… A British teacher describing a VR product from Caspian Learning about the French Revolution writes, ―Students move…round an 18th Century French town. They bump into characters such as the king, bishops etc. who impart information. They use this information to carry out various tasks; the better they perform in the task, the more game features they get access to. The reaction from students has been amazing with fantastic motivation levels and students competing against each other's scores, not even realising the learning that this type of "immersive" learning environment brings. Far from threatening the teacher's role in the session, the games technology has meant that with the students engaged, the teacher can take a true facilitator's role and concentrate on increasing knowledge. The level of interaction between students and the teacher was a joy to watch.‖ (Muzzy Lane, n.d.) Role-play and simulation games are not new to education. Tom Snyder Productions has been producing highly successful role-playing simulation curricula for several years. Their
Prime-Time-Math series is a good example… Students watch video snippets from a CD which sets up a problem solving situation. Then without any computers each student takes a role within a team, and the team must work together to solve the problem. This type of educational product could be replicated in a software product in which all the students were participating virtually. The goal is not to have students participating virtually, but that the software might improve the learning experience by adjusting difficulty level to the learners‘ needs, tracking everyone‘s progress, and enabling greater levels of cooperative participation. The unique capabilities of computer-mediated learning environments add to the potential benefit of VR games for education. Simulations allow students to make mistakes in safe environments (Ip, 2001). Multimedia capabilities can enhance students‘ experience of content by appealing to multiple senses with an immersive environment. Immediate feedback, multiple difficulty levels, and self-paced capabilities create an individualized learning experience. Disney‘s ToonTown, designed to be used by children ages seven and older, is a good example of an immersive desktop VLE that adjusts itself to the participant‘s proficiency level with artificial intelligence algorithms. This VLE contains multiple activities, resources, communications technologies, and assessment within a unified environment. More research is necessary, but initial indications from research into VLEs‘ educational impact are positive. This, combined with motivational gains, and the unique capabilities of computer-mediated environments create a compelling rationale for extending the use of VLEs in education.
Part 2: Examples of VLEs Currently in Use
Virtual learning environments are currently used in many educationally settings such as: The military uses VR in many training situations such as flight simulators, war game simulations, and specialized maintenance training. Desktop VR is used in the architecture industry to assist the design process. Given the complexity of airplane wiring, Boeing Corporation trains electricians using immersive VR. Sim games such as SimCity and Civilization have been used in classrooms to learn about systems analysis and/or historical content. A text-based MUVE named MOOSE Crossing has been used in classrooms to promote creative writing. VR simulators are used in some drivers-ed instruction courses. A professor of legal studies uses a videotape based simulation program to alter trial variables to assess how his students react to different sets of variables. Foreign language programs use role-playing simulations to improve students‘ language skills. A leadership training program, Virtual Leader is used in management training. The military has also developed leadership training for crisis situation. A company named Created Realities Group has developed an Internet technology VX Interactive allowing users to share a virtual classroom space with avatars, audio, chat, and file display. ―Liberty‘s Kids‖ for grades 4-8 from Riverdeep Software uses a VR game environment to teach about the Revolutionary War period. MIT‘s Education Arcade is also developing a product to teach about the Revolutionary War. A company named Muzzy Lane Software is developing networked multi-player role playing games to teach content from various historical periods.
The current level of technology in VR game development includes realistic 3d graphics, multiplayer & ―massively-multiplayer‖ networking, shared audio, and interactive avatars. Input devices are still primarily limited to keyboards for PC games and console controls for game consoles. Sophisticated input devices like sensor gloves/suits, helmets, cockpit machines, etc, haven‘t yet reached a price-point to enter the mass-market. The development of VR game technology is most advanced in the entertainment industry and the US military. Michael Macedonia (2001) in ―Games, Simulation, and the Military Education Dilemma‖ describes the use of VR training in each branch of the military, and their increasing use of this technology. A recent development in the military‘s approach to VR training has focused on increasingly realistic algorithms for game behavior and outcomes. ―Full Spectrum Warrior was created by the Institute for Creative Technologies, with help from the Army, to teach soldiers realistic strategies for surviving what the armed forces call ''military operations in urban terrain.'' As a result, the game is unforgivingly precise. The soldiers you command are programmed to respond the way a real soldier would. There are no magic weapons to bail you out.‖ (Thompson, 2004) This shift to more realistic scenarios indicates a growing awareness of the educational potential of VLEs – they are moving from the domain of entertainment into the domain of education. Another trend worth noting is that some programming architecture allows gamers to contribute to game development by writing plug-ins or code to improve the game. These modifications are referred to as ―mods.‖ Writing in 2001, J.C. Herz noted that until recently in networked first-person-shooter games, players preferred to play against each other, and not the computer‘s artificial intelligence opponent, because the AI programming was too easy to beat; but then…
―…a fiendishly clever and intelligent AI opponent [was] written by a die-hard gamer. The ReaperBot was far-and-away the best Quake opponent anyone had ever seen. The plug-in rapidly disseminated within the million-strong player population, which quickly began hacking away at its bugs even though such modifications were
technically illegal. Needless to say, these improvements in game AI were incorporated into the core technology of first-person shooters to everyone‘s benefit— including the software companies‘. The salient point here is not that Quake has great AI, but that its architecture, enables distributed innovation to occur in a parallel, decentralized fashion.‖ (Herz, 2001, p.176)
This ability—to allow participants to contribute to the very tool they are using should also be considered in the development of educational games, especially since educators are predisposed to modify curricular materials to their needs. Enabling educators (or even students) to enter variables, characters, scenarios, problems, etc into VLEs could result in more richly developed environments. [ActiveWorlds has taken this approach.] Distributed computing in knowledge networking environments takes advantage of the community‘s collective wisdom… ―Through knowledge networking, an emergent intelligence appears in which the virtual community develops a communal memory and wisdom that surpasses the individual contributions of each participant (Dede, n.d., p.25)‖ Game development tools for students such as StageCast Creator, Alice, MediaStage, and MicroWorlds engage students in higher-order thinking as they program their own virtual worlds. 3d modeling tools such as Bryce, SketchUp, and Poser allow the creation of sophisticated characters and environments. VLEs can also allow students to explore situations which they might not otherwise be able to experience. For example, VR sports games have been used with children with physical disabilities. ―The virtual play study allowed the children [with cerebral palsy] to take part in volleyball and soccer, experience swimming in the ocean, play the drums, the guitar, paint, draw or make a dance video. They would stand in front of a video camera and their image would be inserted into a virtual reality situation and projected onto a television screen. …[John Alexander] says virtual play changed his life in three ways: "I became more physically active. I became more confident. And now I have more common ground with my friends. (Rynor, 2004, p.17)‖
Researchers at MIT‘s Education Arcade are on the forefront of VLE development for education. Their current focus is on a game named Revolution being developed to teach social studies content of the Revolutionary War period for middle school or high school. Players‘ avatars interact with characters from that historical period. The Education Arcade also has ties to a commercial development company, Muzzy Lane Software, which has is developing a series of simulation games which also teach historical content for high school. Their current offering, The Calm and the Storm, teaches the history leading up to and including the WWII period through a complex simulation scenario. Although this game does not include VR, its artificial intelligence processing responds to participants‘ decisions allowing them to play out various historical scenarios.
Part 3: Areas for Improvement in the Technology and Pedagogy of VLE Technology Recent technological advances including widespread broadband connectivity, increased desktop processing power, database interoperability, and advances in artificial intelligence programming have made possible the development of sophisticated VLEs. Educational and commercial centers such as MIT‘s Education Arcade, the Institute for Creative Technology, and Harvard‘s River City project, are bringing together game developers, programmers, and academic content area experts to work on the next generation of VLEs. The currently available educational products do not have as sophisticated graphics as the graphics in available entertainment products. This disparity should be addressed. The Muzzy Lane product which has been written up in the press recently does not even include an avatarbased VR interface. As companies develop VLEs, the following areas should be taken under consideration…
In the current educational climate of standards-based learning and high-stakes-testing VLE development will need to prove its worth by teaching targeted academic content with measurable results. VLEs should promote sustained mental effort, the state of ―flow,‖ and deeper cognition, or as Okan (2003) writes, ―The habits of mind (study, analysis, reflection, contemplation, and deliberation) that are associated with logic… Deeper search vs. shallow exploration…as opposed to ‗The Butterfly Defect‘ [the superficial flitting from one item to the next].‖ Student interaction with the computer-mediated environment should be tracked to provide assessment data for the teacher. Meta-data such as time spent on certain tasks, paths taken to solutions, resilience during problem-solving, etc., can be built into the assessment functions of the VLE. Assistance avatars should continue to be developed providing more useful assistance and interactive features. Natural language recognition has huge implications for VLEs. When participants can interact with the software using natural language a new level of interaction will be possible. Advanced input devices, viewing systems, biofeedback, and interactivity should all continue to be developed to provide more immersive environments. The graphic elements could be improved to provide more realistic space, approaching real world video realism. Integration with existing real world data could provide extremely accurate modeling and authentic situational scenarios. (e.g. GIS databases) AI programming should be able to adapt to the evolution of the simulation scenario rather than restricting it to the developer‘s preconceived notions of what might transpire. VLEs should adapt to a participant‘s learning needs/style. VLEs should promote social-educational goals including cooperation, ethical behavior, and civic-mindedness. VLEs should include groupware tools so that participants can view and edit files within the environment.
If implemented, these items would contribute to robust virtual learning environments. When educational products achieve the same level of technical and graphical sophistication as entertainment products, they will be that much more motivating and interactive.
Conclusion Virtual Reality Learning Environments may be the next step in the development of educational courseware and distributed learning. As the Brown University Exploratory web site notes, ―Just as film began by mimicking theater, today's Web-based courses imitate our traditional course models.‖ VLEs open the potential for a new paradigm of e-learning combining elements of constructivist pedagogy, distance-education, knowledge management, and communications technologies. The limited research available on VLEs indicates positive outcomes for weaker students or when the material is complex or highly-visual; as well as positive motivational effects for all students. More empirical research is necessary to evaluate learning outcomes for newer, more sophisticated VLEs. Developers should target specific content and learning outcomes, and include built-in assessment tools. There is great potential for creating engaging and effective learning tools aligned with 21st century learning goals.
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