Virtual Environments for Education, Research and Life

Daniel K. Schneider
TECFA, Faculte de Psychologie et des sciences de l'education,
University of Geneva, Email:
and Richard Godard
University of Montreal, Email:

April 17, 1996

A position paper for the
WWW5 workshop on Virtual Environments and the WWW


Virtual Environments for Education, Research and Life are interactive cyberspaces where many users can communicate and collaborate in various way. They also can build virtual like offices, books, blackboards, artificial persons and more. VEs should also provide optimal support for information storage, retrieval and manipulation.

This position paper will focus on education in order to limit its size. However many issues of importance to educational VEs concern research VEs as well. We also shall exclude discussions of the ``life'' aspect, but it has been mentioned in the title for the simple reason that VEs without a social and casual function don't make sense, else they are just Es and not VEs.


A postscript version is available.

1 Background: Text-based social virtual reality (Muds)


Our background in VEs are MUDs. Daniel Schneider is the founder of TecfaMOO, a Virtual Space for Educational Technology, Education, Research & Life at TECFA, School of Psychology & Education, University of Geneva. Richard Godard is its principal technical ``wizard''. We use this environment for a variety of purposes and a few of them have turned into research subjects. MUDs (and specially the MOO variant [Curtis, 1993]) can be be characterized by:

2 VEs for education, research and life


VEs for education, research and life have have been discussed in various disciplines. While advanced multi-user educational VEs are still mostly speculation (e.g. [Loeffler, 1993]), simpler VEs based on standard technologies have ben in existence for some time. (e.g. [Hiltz, 1988], [Hiltz, 1993]) [Scardamalia et al., 1992] ,[Eisenstadt et al., 1995]). With the emergence of new CSCW collaboration tools (e.g. [Kindberg, 1996] , the explosion of Web, renewed interest in collaboration research (computer supported collaborative learning, groupware, etc.), and billions invested into telematics and computer graphics VEs will become fashionable on a larger scale. Many VE researchers stress the importance of collaboration and communication and experiment with currently available communication and information technology. A good example is the study of [Gay et Lentini, 1995] on the use of communication resources in a network collaborative design environment. On the other hand, graphical VR research has mostly focused more on the creation and manipulation of artificial 3-D worlds and the theoretical issue of immersion. Both approaches will probably soon meet on some middle ground but there will without doubt remain a large variety of interests and applications. In any case we argue that VEs have great potential for education and collaborative work, but we also want to point out the high quantity of ``unknowns'' and ``ToDos''.

Our own interests focus mostly on topics like ``communications'', ``collaboration'' but we are also interested in the high potential of 3-D interactive graphics, especially for constructivist learning based on non-symbolic experience ([Winn, 1993] and data visualization. We would like to raise the following questions and/or postulates:

  1. VEs might be productive for several reasons:
  2. VEs should be ``cyberspace desk tops'' with multiple communication and media layers:
  3. VEs must adapt to the users and not the other way round:
  4. VEs need objects that can be manipulated If VEs are to be fully operational people must be able to ``bring in'' as many virtual objects as they need for work and communication.
  5. Navigation Interfaces Navigation interfaces are a crucial issue: (see [Dieberger et Tromp, 1993], [Dieberger, 1994], [Girardin, 1995]).
  6. ``Real'' and ``social VR'' are complementary

    ``Real VR'' presenting the user with the illusion of being in a 3-D world of computer generated objects (e.g. using goggles, gloves) and ``social VR'' (e.g. MUDs) are ``worlds a part'', though new formats such as VRML2 may offer a ``terrain d'entente''. As far as education goes one could qualify the further as inspired by Piaget's physical manipulation of objects and the other by Vygotsky's social construction of meaning. ``Real VR'' tricks you your senses and ``social VR'' operating at the symbolic level tricks you into ``being'' with others. Both aspects are complementary. Both transform computers into extensions of ourselves and have a potential for ``being there'' at several levels. The question now is ``what kind of VE do we really need for various aspects of education and collaborative work''? Could there be an integrating standard ?

3 Practical and technical issues for VEs


  1. VEs and the WWW is one of the question we must address in this workshop Recent MOO/WWW interfaces offer some nice additions to MOO experience. I.e. the ability to look at objects from the www, to use the www for navigation and object manipulation (in the case of WOOs). However command-line integration (MOO-> WWW) or synchronous communication do not work well due to the limits of http. Similar constraints are true for other kinds of VEs including the 3D kind. While the integration of the WWW in both directions is important, full WWW based VEs are not ncessearily a priority in the very near future. However with the evolution of browser standards (incorporation of VRML 2 and various communication tools (via either mobile code, plug-ins or integrated helpers) and the evolution of the HTTP standard, integration will be both feasible and desirable.
  2. VEs should be easy to use and minimize cognitive load The basic functionalities of interfaces should be accessible to everyone and major commands be available in ``GUI'' fashion. E.g. the ``low bandwidth'' argument is no excuse for the current moo (mud) interfaces. Since VEs are more than just multi-channel distributed chat system, dealing with static text, objects, the help system and so forth should be dealt with in different windows / panes. Scrolling back and forth does not help productivity. The quintessence of MOOs are their flexibility and extensibility, but their major drawback is the lack of a generally accepted Moo-client protocol and according clients (now where is the JUPITER system?).
  3. VEs need to be scalable, scalability means distribution of processing load, e.g. most current VEs are not (display a part).
  4. Cyberspace has its costs

    As it has been pointed out on several occasions the use of Virtual Environments for Education and Work is not always cheap:

4 Organizational matters


Contrary to other people working in Telematics, workers in the domain of many-user interactive environments are badly organized. Let's change that. I suggest that at least Europeans form an ``interest group for social virtual environments'' or even better something like a ``European VE Task Force'' in order to prepare research proposals for the next rounds of the European research scene: The forth European framework is divided into 18 specific programs of which TELEMATICS, ATCS, ESPRIT and TMR may be of interest.

Other programs: Multimedia educational software (any more information on this?) - Activities related to the establishment of the Information Society: MPACT, TEDIS, INFO2000, IDA, Community participation in the G-7 pilot projects. - Socrates (where is the on-line information ?) - See also:EC Information Society Project Office Webserver

Last remark: There have been recent other interesting workshops and conferences in the past (though real documentation might be hard to get)


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Daniel K. Schneider
Wed Apr 17 15:08:14 MET DST 1996