Introductory Remarks

We would like to raise a number of questions for reflection on the social dimensions of the learning opportunities enabled through virtual environments such as Active Worlds. Because this is a panel discussion and because we would like to engage with workshop participants throughout the time allotted us, we will post a provocative question, offer some of our own thoughts and then open up the conversation to all participants. We have five questions in all.

What kind of learning experiences does AW potentially provide?

The Human-Computer Interaction Group here at Cornell has found Activity Theory a useful paradigm for understanding how technology mediates experience. Within such a framework, how a person learns in an environment such as AW is shaped by the technology as it is used to achieve particular learning objectives within particular social contexts. Learning through Active Worlds entails of number of simultaneously occurring activities that can all impact upon the actual learning experience and the realization of learning objectives, e.g.,

Facility and ease in navigating and interacting in the learning environment will vary with amount of time spent in-world and one’s level of comfort with the types of communication and interaction that are established. It will also vary with the content and form of learning that has motivated the creation of the space—that is, to manipulate and experiment with objects, to collaboratively construct and explore, or to reflect and analyze. Moreover, the design and decor of learning spaces, and the engagements with artifacts and others that they enable or hinder, will shape levels of comfort and types of engagement.

It is important that the design of the environment "fit" the learning objectives and content. In the use and design of learning experiences, educators must reflect upon how the embodied dimension of the experience contributes to learning, understood as either the transformation of worldviews or as the acquisition of information. The potential of this medium lies in its ability to foster multiple types of learning, not just cognitive—experiential, intuitive, embodied, aesthetic, etc.—through the virtual embodied engagement with a world of virtual objects and landscapes.

Does this sort of environment contribute to "authentic" learning experiences?

Many educational technologies are justified in terms of "authentic learning" – the attempt to make the content and form of educational experiences personally relevant to learners and directly relevant to "real-world" activities. Virtual environments such as AW raise a number of questions regarding the meaning and purpose of authenticity. First, many of the affordances of the virtual environment—the ability to create and manipulate objects, to collaborate with others, to occupy and work with spatial topographies—all seem to be conducive to creating real-world relevant simulations and experiences. However, other affordances such as the ability to creatively engage the surreal and non-real, the imaginary, the fantastic, would allow exploration and creation that transcends the real or the real that is accessible through the senses. Virtual environments might be extremely useful and effective in teaching and visualizing certain abstract scientific concepts or providing powerful vicarious experiences to motivate learning, such as immersing one’s avatar in a human body. Virtual environments can enable learning that emerges from looking- and acting-from-within rather than looking-at. Hence, the limits of the rhetoric of authenticity are highlighted by such an environment. The challenge becomes more one of making or creating real-world relevance for the imaginary and the fantastic constructions and experiences AW enables.

What are the social dynamics at work as persons engage with one another in these virtual environments?

In any social interactions that are sustained over time, norms become established and are maintained formally or informally by interactants. These norms can emerge implicitly and organically through continued engagement, can be imposed by dominating or authoritative figures, or can be consciously, explicitly articulated and negotiated by participants. Because of the significant role of social dynamics in shaping the quality of learning experiences, explicit, open discussion and negotiation, even facilitation, of group norms should occur in AW educational contexts. The world already establishes expectations for individual and group behavior through the notions of "membership" and "citizenship" in the world, and through the expectations of rights and obligations that accrue to those roles. These inclusive metaphors can provide a framework for further negotiating the following features of interaction to meet the demands of particular settings:

It might be particularly useful to raise critical awareness of, and reflection on, how the display of gender or other identities through avatars influences how participants interact; what impact pseudonymity (the assumption of alternative identities) might have on interactions and levels of trust; how differently designed spaces influence interactions; how norms are enforced and deviant actions dealt with in different types of communities and activities.

How can the spatial properties of such an environment facilitate individual and collaborative learning?

The design of learning spaces shapes social interaction and engagement with instructional materials in those spaces. Again, an activity theory model is useful for conceptualizing the relationships between mediating technologies, learning objectives and social contexts/relationships. If learning is expected to be individualistic, then social interactions will be limited to those among the learner, the space and its artifacts (and indirectly with the designers and educators through those artifacts). Decor, color, animation, the juxtapositioning of artifacts in complex relations, all can be used to convey meaning and to highlight the significance of certain objects or activities. The aesthetic sense of a space can be disturbing, disorienting, comfortable or exhilarating for the individual and can foster different types of learning experiences.

If collaboration or cooperation are objectives of the learning experience, space can facilitate such interactions by providing appropriate work spaces, tools and means of communication. The number of participants or the space for interaction can be restricted to foster more effective communication. If mentoring or individualized coaching is needed, appropriate spaces can facilitate mentoring that occurs tangentially to larger group activities. If a conversational style of engagement is desired, avatars can sit at a circular rather than rectangular table. Teleporting, in particular, can be used for various pedagogical purposes—as links to related sites or opportunities for more advanced educational experiences as a form of scaffolded learning. Space and decor should be seriously evaluated in terms of the relationships they enable; however, such an emphasis contrasts with the preoccupation in many virtual environments with the creation and manipulation of objects (and their geometrical relations) independently of the social relationships those objects mediate.

What are the implications of mixing realities or blurring the boundaries of virtuality, entertainment, learning, fantasy, etc., that are made possible through environments such as AW?

Virtual environments, through blurring and dismantling boundaries between the real and the fantastic, learning and playing, entertainment and information, work and leisure, etc., challenge educators to critically reflect on their own assumptions regarding the social functions of such boundaries and the social roles and identities formed by those boundaries. For example, what is the role of imagination or the aesthetic features of a setting on learning? How do the roles of educator and entertainer relate to one another in different learning contexts? How can play and fantasy be used to motivate learning and engagement? How can the suspension of commonsense notions of reality in such environments be used to further pedagogical objectives? How can the navigational metaphor that shapes the world be used to foster exploration and risk-taking, if desired?

A further issue to explore is how experiences and contexts in AW are imbued with "accents" of reality. What features make the interactions and activities engaged in feel real or authentic? Is a feeling of realness or of real-world relevance in a virtual learning experience critical to the actual learning that occurs? How and why do interactions with others feel or seem genuine, foster trust and contribute to the creation of community or to effective collaboration?

Successful and responsible learning in virtual environments requires developing a number of critical multi-media literacies, that is, learning to identify the play among representations of reality, the workings of figurative tropes, how multiple media work together to create meanings and experiences. The ways in which technology mediates experiences should never become transparent or taken-for-granted. Responsible designing, instructing, learning and communicating in such environments requires that we continue to critically question the social, cultural and psychological dynamics that go on within them.