Nakhshon Tsouk's

School of Education - University of Haifa
Haifa 31905 Israel

Fifth International WWW Conference
VEs and the WWW Workshop
Position Paper

VEs as a Tool for Integrating Faculty and Students in a Learning Community


CMC is used as an extension of the common research model, which is generally based on surveying existing knowledge, contemplating and discussing it with others, and then putting one's ideas into writing and distributing them. VEs can enhance usual CMC tools by integrating them inside a new 3D metaphor, which replaces the widely used 'Desktop' 2D metaphor. By giving faculty members & students the opportunity to collaborate within a 3D VE, an opportunity arises to alleviate several known grievances inherent in modern large scale higher education: student alienation, lack of physical research facilities for students, and learning experience based on students aggregation according to class rather then task. CMC VEs can be used to give students research facilities resembling those given to faculty members, when doing so physically is not feasible.

The Academic Research Model

The academic research model hasn't changed much by the wide spread use of CMCs. Tools such as e-mail, Web, IRC, or FTP, resemble to a large extent commonly used research tools such as letters, journal papers and books, colloquiums and conferences, and the parcel service. The change is largely quantitative, turning qualitative only due to the large scales involved.
The main physical research tool was and is the researcher's table, located in his room. This is the hub of operation, from which excursions are made (physically or via CMC) to the library, the class, the discussion room, the publisher, or the academic conference. Unfortunately, students in large scale academic institutions lack the kind of research facilities that are taken for granted by the research community. Thus, they remain for a large part of their studies in the role of passive receivers of knowledge, rather then active researchers. CMC and especially VEs can be used as a tools of change for the two communities. For faculty members, better integrated tools (instead of the aggregate of tools they use now) can make a qualitative change in the mode of operation (the much talked about ability to display or demonstrate a 3D object or model to colleagues in the course of a chat). For the students, VE based research facilities can be supplied, when providing similar physical facilities are not feasible.

The 3D Metaphor

A main hindrance of the existing CMC tools is the adherence to the known 2D 'Desktop' metaphor. It took more then 10 years to make it a widespread one, but now it seems as if it is on the verge of exhausting it's usefulness. Used mainly to display the relationships between planary objects (applications and files), this metaphor collapses when we try to use it to manipulate spatial objects (HyprerLinks, time based communications, intercontinental object moving). VEs can use either the 2D or the 3D metaphor. Textual MOOs and MUDs are 3D, while Web-MOOs are more 2D
inclined. VRML looks like a promising solution. Debates has dealt with the problem of the inability of the usual internet user to create complex visual environments, in comparison with their abilities in 'constructing by describing' as in a textual VE. On the upside, it is quite obvious that the
3D metaphor is much more coherent in using, resembling the familiar spatial environment we all use. Giving a research paper to a colleague, is a much simpler idea to assimilate into the research/student communities then the more complex idea of using FTP. Using 'Look' to see who is near you is easier to explain and comprehend then the mechanisms used to join a channel
in IRC. The technical problem now is of course getting from the current state of simplistic visual environments in which one can text-talk to others, or make a simple object transaction (such as giving a business card), to complex visual environments having the full facilities found in textual

CMC Tools Integration

A visual VE as mentioned should have all the tools found in textual VEs, such as internal/external mail and listservs, web browsers, file transfer (moving and object), and tools for synchronous chat (be it textual now, or sound/video based in the future). The current state of CMC software development makes it impossible to facilitate a free flow of information. You cannot, for example, display web pages from within an IRC channel, or move a web page to others without using a different, purpose dedicated tool. Recent developments let you perform several tasks using the same application, but these are more an effort of aggregating tools rather than of real tool integration. The lack of integration between current CMC tools is a large hindrance in having them make a large scale qualitative change in the research process.

The Importance of Objects

In addition to the mentioned ways of using VEs objects in the CMC process, objects can also be used in a more social orientation. A room can be personalized by hanging GIFs on it's walls, by 'painting' it, or by placing private objects in it, much as done in 'Real Life'. A small indication of
the desirability of such 'presentation of self' can easily be seen in the amount of work invested in Web HomePages construction. Objects within a VE can enhance the process of community building, being used as expressive tools. Objects bring context into the CMC environment, which is otherwise mainly based on performance ability. Utterances in IRC are ephemeral, and the context is built solely on the performance abilities of the participants. An object in a VE is non temporal, it stays there when the creator is not present (much as in the idea of a web page). Combining ephemeral ways of communication (talk and chat), with more permanent entities (objects), makes a VE combined of both synchronous and asynchronous communication modes. This temporal combination, found only in VEs, makes them a unique kind of communication. Having a room, containing all the necessary integrated CMC tools, and customized to one's own preferences, narrows the research facilities gap between faculty and students. Meeting other researchers (faculty and students) inside one's private room, or in a public room, can serve as a tool in the process of academic community building.

Proposed Discussion Subjects:

1. Means of enabling personalization of objects and environments (for example - use of a master 'room' class, which can be 'variable' customized).
2. Ways of distributing the objects database (across the FS or the Net).
3. Ways to achieve integration of CMC tools in a VE.