Distance Learning for Students with Special Needs through 3D Virtual Learning

Distance Learning for Students with Special Needs through 3D Virtual Learning

James M. Laffey, Janine Stichter, Krista Galyen
DOI: 10.4018/ijvple.2014040102
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iSocial is a 3D Virtual Learning Environment (3D VLE) to develop social competency for students who have been identified with High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders. The motivation for developing a 3D VLE is to improve access to special needs curriculum for students who live in rural or small school districts. The paper first describes a number of innovative features developed to translate a targeted curriculum and to undertake teaching and learning to meet special needs in a 3D Virtual Environment. Secondly the paper describes results from a field test of iSocial at 3 sites with 11 students. The results show promise for improvements in social competence, but also challenges for distance learning delivery of 3D VLE.
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Conceptual Framework

DL technology has great promise for helping sustain small and rural schools by meeting the needs of students for specialized instruction, but there are a number of barriers to effective use that need to be overcome. A first set of barriers is in the availability of “current” technology. Schools may have lots of computers but their computers are unlikely to meet the processing and graphics requirements of applications such as 3D virtual learning. Additionally the US Department of Education (Gray & Lewis, 2009) noted that while 100% of districts were connected to the Internet only 12% had an ISP connection of T3 or DSL3, and that rural communities are 3 times more likely to have lower performance networks than more urban districts.

A second set of barriers can be characterized as logistical and personnel oriented (Hannum et al., 2009) including difficulty in scheduling courses and lack of personnel with necessary technical training. One of the implications of this second type of barrier is that many of the DL technologies employed to date for small and rural schools are simple forms of information distribution with only minimal social interaction. These forms of DL, such as traditional course management systems and one-way video, typically have high incidents of drop out because students feel isolated or unsupported (Frid, 2001; LaPadula, 2003; Hannum et al, 2009). Work by Rice (2006) and Irvin, Hannum, Farmer, de la Varre & Keane (2009) show a need for more attention to social interaction and the affective domain of DL. The need for attention to affect and social interaction is especially important when addressing students for whom social interaction and relationships are problematic and when effective social interaction is part of the curriculum process and/or objectives. In summary, distance-learning technology such as 3D VLE holds potential for addressing the needs of small and rural schools for specialized instructional interventions, but delivering this type of special needs instruction into schools is a new frontier.

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