vLearning : Is the future of online education a 3D virtual classroom?
Imagine walking into a college classroom, it's your first class at this new campus, Psychology 101. You choose a desk, sit down next to a friendly looking student and ask them where they're from and a conversation begins. After a few minutes, your professor walks in to start the lecture and you both face her, ready to take notes. There's just one aspect of this classroom that's unusual - it's virtual. Your avatar, an animated character you have created, represents you on a computer screen, appearing within a computer-generated environment. You are talking to other students' avatars and interacting with the professor's avatar. The classroom is a graphic rendering of three-dimensional space in which your avatar can move and gesture, even speak. This is vLearning.
The technology that powers massive multi-player games such as Second Life is becoming a platform for distance education courses. Some educators see taking cues from the video gaming world as a way to increase communication between students and instructors in online courses. "As educators, we've realized the potential power of video games in education," said Leonard Annetta, North Carolina State University professor and co-author of V-Learning: Distance Education in the 21st Century Through 3D Virtual Learning Environments. "Internet synchronicity is one of the most effective ways of learning."
While the technology for Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVEs) has existed in some form for 20 years, it has only recently gained acceptance in postsecondary institutions within the past four to five years. A 2009 study that appeared in the Journal of Further and Higher Education found that the increased interaction between classmates and instructors in virtual classrooms helped students become more involved in the coursework and made it easier for them to comprehend the material and ask for help. The study found this to be particularly true for students who have a difficult time engaging in face-to-face discussions, but who will ask questions freely and contribute to live debates in a virtual classroom. This engagement in class activities not only leads to greater comprehension, it gives students a sense of belonging in the class that contributes to a higher retention rate.
As administrators recognize the potential for MUVEs in education, more schools are beginning to incorporate these immersive 3D worlds, also called "vLearning" platforms, which engage students more fully in the learning process. A 2007 report by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 31 percent of postsecondary schools in the United States used simultaneous and real-time virtual learning platforms either moderately or to a large extent. This is particularly true in public, 4-year institutions, where virtual learning environments are utilized in 42 percent of schools nationwide.
dministrators that wish to implement virtual learning environments in their institutions have the option to create their own vLearning platform, or to utilize an existing platform such as Second Life. However, because many of the virtual words available weren't created specifically for the education sector, they often lack important resources. To address some of these shortcomings, the Great Northern Way Campus in Vancouver, Canada built their own virtual learning environment called Great Northern World.
These customizable experiences include all of the structured classroom activities that students participate in while in the vLearning environment, whether it is a scavenger hunt that explores class concepts or a role-play activity that gives students a chance to practice learned skills in simulated real-world environments. "It is in these areas that customizing virtual environments have the most pedagogical power."
Learning in a Virtual World
In the online meeting space, instructors can give real-time lectures, moderate student discussions and give assignments - just as they would in a brick-and-mortar classroom. The flexibility provided by virtual learning environments makes it possible for instructors to create a plethora of class activities that may not be possible in an on-campus class. In this virtual space, interactive design students can work together to create 3D digital elements, psychology and sociology students can participate in role-play activities to enhance their communication and counseling skills, and planetary science students can work together in virtual space missions. The possibilities for such cyber-activities are virtually endless and are limited only the be instructor's imagination.
In many cases, there is a specific time and place that students attend class - but rather than walking across campus, they need only find an Internet connection where they can login. After class, students can visit the virtual classroom whenever they want to go over lecture notes, re-visit assignments or meet with an instructor for a tutoring session.
In an April 2009 study titled Pedagogy, Education and Innovation in 3-D Virtual Worlds, researchers measured the effectiveness of using a 3D virtual classroom as part of a master's degree course in counseling. The study set out to determine whether the ability to participate in real-time activities would help develop students' communication skills- a critical component of counseling education that is lacking in traditional e-learning platforms. According to the study, "3D virtual environments such as Second Life offer counseling educators the opportunity to provide immersive simulated environments for their students to develop and practice their skills. By using Second Life, instructors are able to create learning activities which emulate learning experiences that students may have otherwise only had by means of face-to-face interaction."
Learning activities included the creation of virtual counseling facilities and avatars acting as mentally-ill patients that students could counsel virtually. The facility had three floors and numerous counseling rooms that were appropriately outfitted with couches, chairs and even decorative art on the walls.
Most of the students participating in the research study believed that the coursework was equal to that of a brick and mortar classroom, and many appreciated the real-time counseling exercises that allowed them to "treat" patients in a virtual classroom setting. Interestingly, many of the participating students did not feel that using the 3D environment dramatically improved their learning experience, yet one participating student stated that "the abilities to gesture, communicate, and to take on a character and simulating the clinical setting were very helpful and have great potential."
The Future of vLearning in Higher Education
As students become more and more technologically advanced and dependent on computers, Annetta predicts that vLearning will become a mainstream method of delivering postsecondary courses and earning degrees. In fact, he believes that those in the millennial generation will prefer vLearning environments to brick and mortar classrooms.