Homo Virtualis: Virtual Worlds, Learning, and an Ecology of Embodied Interaction

Homo Virtualis: Virtual Worlds, Learning, and an Ecology of Embodied Interaction

Leslie Jarmon
DOI: 10.4018/jvple.2010091704
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This article previews the emergence of homo virtualis. Drawing on data from seven research studies, peerreviewed published research articles, and selected excerpts of 30 months of field notes taken in Second Life, the article examines virtual learning environments and embodiment through the lens of interactions of avatars with other avatars, virtual objects, landscapes, sounds, and spatial constructs. Analysis is grounded in the polyvocal evidence provided by select participants who experienced a sense of embodied co-presence and connection with others across geo-physical distances. The discourse ranges from that of high school girls, professional retirees, toxicology and design undergraduates, interdisciplinary graduate students, to educators and researchers from K-12 through university full professors collaborating in SL. In an ecology of virtual contexts, learners inhabit a broader landscape of their own and others’ making that allows them to be teachers, designers, researchers, communicators, and collaborators.
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A Composite Virtual Social-Learning-Environment Case

Drawing from numerous and already existing learning activities in SL, and for the purposes of concrete illustration, what follows is an example of a complex, multi-party virtual learning experience. Although partially fictional, every element in this case has been crafted from similar virtual learning experiences that are already occurring in SL and are characteristic of homo virtualis.

Julia and the Mars Living Module Station in Second Life

Julia, a sophomore in a civil engineering class in her university in El Paso, Texas, is working with her class team on a homework project to build a mockup of a room in the Mars Living Station module in their ‘sandbox’ area in Second Life (SL). Julia (her avatar’s name is Julieta Canta) and her team are applying the stress equations they’ve been studying in class. She’s at home working from her laptop while her team members are dispersed, with 2 at a campus computer lab, 1 at the public library, and 1 at Starbucks). They IM (instant message) two friends from NASA’s CoLab community in SL to review their structure-in-progress and to give feedback, and the two experts teleport over to the team’s sandbox (one is on a computer in Houston, the other in Germany). Because now working in SL they can create visualizations and models so easily, Julia and her teammates can see the impact immediately when their equations are not accurate.

Over time, through trial and error, and with everyone pitching in ideas from their class notes, Julia’s student team is finally pleased with their homework project and are ready to give a ‘virtual tour’ of their module to their classmates to demonstrate just how their equations are working. Joining the virtual tour will be 15 students from a State University TeleCampus Health Services Technology class who will be taking a ‘field trip’ in SL to collect data on how health issues are being addressed in diverse environments; their data collection is part of an IRB-approved faculty research project and part of the statewide Undergraduate Research Initiative.

Julia is especially proud because, on the one hand, she is very confident that she really understands the homework because she had to actually build an important structure and test it. On the other hand, she knows that pictures of their Mars module will be used by a SL non-profit organization whose mission is to inspire young women to take engineering and other STEM courses (her younger sister, Angela, went to a virtual STEM summer camp on the Teen Grid in SL led by non-profits Girlstart and the Educators Coop).

Because it’s so easy to collaborate in the virtual world, Julia’s engineering professor decided to also connect with a medical science class at the University Health Science Center in San Antonio and with an undergraduate design class in the United Kingdom, taking advantage of the distributed knowledge dimension of SL. Julia enjoys hearing those students’ different accents when they visit and ask questions or offer ideas.

Although Julia is feeling a bit tired, she’s also feeling a sense of accomplishment. She takes a few final snapshots in SL of herself (Julieta) and her teammates learning and building the module. Then she opens up her class blog, reflects on her learning experiences, and shares insights with her class about how these days she feels like she’s connecting to people and systems of knowledge that actually matter. She uploads the photos from her team’s work-and-learning-in-progress for the final Class Report. Her class will be submitting a paper to an international virtual engineering conference with participation by undergraduates and sponsored by Engineers Without Borders in SL. She thinks, “School’s not what it used to be. I feel like I’m part of something important.”


Brief Description Of Seven Research Sources

In this examination of embodiment and homo virtualis, exemplars presented in the rest of the article are drawn from selected data from seven research studies (some are on-going), from peer-reviewed published research papers, and from 30 months of field notes taken in SL (excerpts marked as Field Notes). This section briefly describes the seven studies, the subjects, and the students’ level of participation in SL for each.

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