In-World Behaviors and Learning in a Virtual World

In-World Behaviors and Learning in a Virtual World

Larysa Nadolny, Mark Childs
DOI: 10.4018/IJVPLE.2014100102
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Educational virtual worlds can give students opportunities that would not otherwise be possible in face-to-face settings. The SciEthics Interactive simulations allow learners to conduct scientific research and practice ethical decision-making within a virtual world. This study examined the in-world behaviors that identify students who perceive learning in virtual worlds as effective. Participants include 53 students in higher education coursework. This study indicated that there is a positive relationship between learning and a feeling of presence, specifically with avatar identification. Movement in-world that is explorative and open is also correlated to presence. These findings indicate if learning in virtual worlds is to be perceived as a worthwhile activity by students, then learners require support to develop identification with their avatar and to build a sense of immersion within the virtual world.
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Three-dimensional, virtual worlds can provide students with opportunities for exploration and learning that would not otherwise be possible in traditional classroom settings. They are computer-generated environments in which participants adopt an avatar, i.e. “a graphical representation of a user within the environment which is under his or her direct control” (Allbeck & Badler, 2002, p. 313) and employ this avatar as a point of reference by moving through a three-dimensional, navigable and persistent space (Bell, 2008).

Virtual worlds made their mark in the public realm, as indicated by their location on Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies (2007). Gartner routinely evaluates technologies from an IT research perspective and virtual worlds were at the peak of the chart in 2007. At this time in the popular virtual world Second Life, students were able to experience a tsunami (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization, 2009), train as a paramedic (Conradi et al., 2009), learn how to stay healthy (Boulos, Hetherington, & Wheeler, 2007), and reenact characters within an ancient civilization (Bogdanovych, Rodriguez-Aguilar, Simoff, & Cohen, 2010).

Subsequent reviews of research in the educational use of virtual environments indicated positive outcomes for student motivation, learning, and social behaviors (Hew & Cheung, 2010; Mikropoulos & Natsis, 2011). Studies in K-12 and higher education demonstrated significant learning gains for students participating in virtual activities (Sourin, Sourina, & Prasolova-Førland, 2006; Tüzün, Yılmaz-Soylu, Karakuş, İnal, & Kızılkaya, 2009). Learners also valued the experience as an effective way to engage with content in educational contexts (Jarmon, Traphagan, Mayrath, & Trivedi, 2009; Wiecha, Heyden, Sternthal, & Merialdi, 2010). Innovative educators were designing and developing within immersive environments and finding success.

The 2012 Hype Cycle showed a different picture of virtual worlds with a move to the “trough of disillusionment” (Gartner, 2012; Wired, 2012). Second life was no longer a hub of educational activities, and users were dispersed to smaller and more local servers. Ten years after the development of Second Life, the education community moved away from the hype and towards specific uses and benefits (Yoon & George 2013). Unfortunately, there is still little guidance on what defines an effective learning environment in virtual worlds, and which students benefit the most from these virtual worlds (Inman, Hartman, & Wright, 2010; Warburton, 2009). This study contributes to research literature through the identification of factors associated with student learning and presence in a virtual space, and by offering guidance to educators and developers in virtual environments.

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