Lectures and Discussions in Semi-Immersive Virtual Reality Learning Environments: The Effect of Communication Modality on Learner Satisfaction and Mental Effort

Lectures and Discussions in Semi-Immersive Virtual Reality Learning Environments: The Effect of Communication Modality on Learner Satisfaction and Mental Effort

Natalie Nussli (University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland, Switzerland), Kevin Oh (University of San Francisco, USA), Nicole Cuadro (University of San Francisco, USA) and Melisa Kaye (University of San Francisco, USA)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 35
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5912-2.ch005


This chapter describes a study that was conducted in a semi-immersive desktop virtual reality environment. The study investigated teacher trainees' perceptions of their mental effort in Second Life, their satisfaction with the communication modalities, and their perceived social behavioral changes. In the first event, only the instructor (host) used voice to communicate while all participants as well as the in-text facilitator (co-host) used text chat only. In the second event, not only did both hosts use voice, but the participants also had the option to use voice rather than text. The majority of teacher trainees appreciated the freedom to choose either modality. The integration of voice was perceived as humanizing the discussion, increasing the flow, and making the conversation more engaging. However, the addition of multiple voices was believed to increase their mental effort. While some teacher trainees felt more relaxed and more open in a virtual discussion, others reported a lack of attention and honesty as well as a tendency to ignore social conventions.
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Semi-Immersive Desktop Virtual Reality

Desktop virtual reality (VR) runs on low-cost personal computers and enables multiple users to work collaboratively in a game, simulation or virtual world (Lee & Wong, 2014). Although desktop VR is less immersive than fully immersive, augmented, and mixed VR (Huang, Rauch, & Liaw, 2010), users of desktop VR still experience a sense of presence and immersion, depending on the degree of representational fidelity and the degree of interaction among users (Dalgarno, Hedberg, & Harper, 2002).

The use of desktop-based VR technologies for educational purposes is widespread. 3D virtual worlds are categorized as semi-immersive VR systems (Virtual Reality Society, 2018) and offer partial immersion without the need for VR gear, such as data gloves or head-mounted displays. The results of a meta-analysis suggest that semi-immersive virtual reality-based instruction is an effective means of enhancing learning outcomes (Merchant, Goetz, Cifuentes, Keeney-Kennicutt, & Davis, 2014). A total of 69 studies was categorized into three forms of desktop-based virtual reality technologies, namely, simulations, games, and virtual worlds. Real-time visualization and interaction emerged as the key factors that make 3D virtual worlds, such as Second Life, a valid alternative to fully immersive VR (Huang et al., 2010; Merchant et al., 2014), without experiencing the potential caveats of motion sickness, nausea, headaches, and fatigue commonly associated with true immersive VR (Herold & Molnar, 2018; Tax’en & Naeve, 2002).

The authors carefully considered which virtual world might be best to host the learning events described in this study. Conrad (2011) suggested evaluating virtual worlds against four dimensions, namely, their contexts, the immersion level, cost, and their persistence. The participants’ level of digital literacy, the available computer equipment, and the participants’ bandwidth needed to be taken into account. As a result, the authors chose to conduct the lecture and discussion events in Second Life due to its popularity among educators and its easy and free access. A review of over 100 articles on educational uses of virtual worlds (Duncan, Miller, & Jiang, 2012) indicates an overwhelming use of Second Life because it is relatively easy to set up and use and allows simulating a real world context in which the users are primarily in control of their interactions with other users and the environment (Richards & Taylor, 2015).

Fully immersive VR systems, in contrast, need a virtual-reality package. Although fully immersive VR has begun to make inroads in education, the educational value of fully immersive VR is not clear. More research is needed to justify why schools should invest in these technologies because “the field has suffered from a dearth of content that has clear educational value beyond simply engaging students” (Herold & Molnar, 2018, p. 10). There are also concerns with regard to the long-term impact on users’ emotions, which is why some equipment, such as Samsung’s GearVR viewer, should not be used by children younger than 13 (Herold & Molnar, 2018).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Asynchronous: Asynchronous communication happens at different times. A typical example of asynchronous communication and interaction is a discussion board where users contribute their posts at different times.

Communication Modality: Refers to the communication channel in a virtual environment.

Synchronous: An example of synchronous communication is a live online group discussion or a video conference where participants either communicate simultaneously or take turns.

Social Cues: Social cues include anything that may humanize communication, that is, make a conversation or discussion more personal and more authentic. Social cues may include smiles, laughs, touch, gestures of politeness, acts of sharing, signs of empathy, etc. Expert communicators are skilled at mediating social cues even in a computer-mediated environment.

Social Presence: Experiencing a sense of presence involves feeling immersed in a computer-mediated environment. The concept of social presence has been associated with satisfaction and a sense of achievement in a virtual learning environment.

Virtual Discussions in 3D: Individuals gather in a virtual environment for the purposes of discussion. Benefits of participating include, for example, a sense of community, the opportunity to gather with like-minded people regardless of their geographical location, a sense of anonymity, and an increased sense of honesty. Potential limitations involve communicative challenges.

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