An Experiment on Anonymity and Multi-User Virtual Environments: Manipulating Identity to Increase Learning

An Experiment on Anonymity and Multi-User Virtual Environments: Manipulating Identity to Increase Learning

Richard N. Landers (Old Dominion University, USA) and Rachel C. Callan (Old Dominion University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1817-4.ch004
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Little prior research has empirically examined anonymity in learning. In this study, we manipulated learner identity by experimentally assigning learners to participate in online discussion either anonymously or using their actual name, crossed with learning medium (OpenSim/Second Life vs. real-time chat), with the goal of determining if anonymous discussion in multi-user virtual environments (MUVE) provides unique value to learning (a 2x2 between-subjects design). Results from a quantitative hierarchical multiple regression analysis revealed both main effects: participants who were anonymous scored lower (d = -0.46) and participants discussing in a MUVE scored lower (d = -0.47) on the learning measure without interactive effect, suggesting that anonymizing participants during content-related discussion may reduce learning under certain circumstances. We suggest instructors encourage learners to represent themselves authentically in any VEs to maximize learning and also discourage instructors from adopting MUVEs if their only reason to do so is to host synchronous discussion.
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Multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) provide an interactive 3D environment for learners to connect with each other through the Internet, representing themselves as avatars and interacting with each other through text and/or voice chat (Delwiche, 2006). Because MUVEs permit complete customization of the learning environment by the instructional designer, this technology provides several new opportunities to develop instructional content not possible or prohibitively expensive with traditional methods. For example, traditional emergency responder triage training requires the hiring of actors, the rental of space, the building of sets, and a tremendous expenditure of resources; such training is more feasible and less costly in a virtual environment, especially if the training will need to be reproduced regularly. Unfortunately, as MUVEs have increased in popularity, our scientific understanding of the potential benefits of MUVEs and their evaluation has not increased at the same rate (Landers & Callan, 2012). As a result, MUVEs have been deployed in many contexts without much rationale for doing so other than their novelty or media popularity, creating unproductive and confrontational debates about their value among stakeholders (Herold, 2012).

Some researchers have thus called for a change in focus in the study of MUVEs, “moving beyond the ‘if’ of virtual worlds to the ‘when’ and ‘for what reason’” (Cormier, 2009, p. 543). We endorse this view. The barriers to entry for MUVEs (e.g., computing resources, software training) are too high to justify their deployment broadly across learning contexts. Instead, researchers must focus upon identifying the specific value added by the use of MUVEs in a scientific and systematic fashion, to determine where the use of MUVEs provides the most additional value over other instructional settings, especially through experimentation (Kim, Lee & Thomas, 2012). In doing so, a more consistent and practical research literature surrounding MUVEs can be developed. Although MUVEs have a great deal of potential, it will only be through cautious, systematic evaluation of that potential that we will increase our understanding of “when” and “for what reason.” In a review of empirical research on this question, Wang and Lockee (2010) were able to identify only four unique empirical studies of MUVEs in distance education and called for a substantial increase in activity in this area. With this paper, we respond to these calls by empirically investigating a very practical question in this line of inquiry: “Is a MUVE a preferred setting for students holding online discussions?”

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