Seth Chaiklin:

Educational Applications of VEs
A Position Paper
Seth Chaiklin
University of Aarhus

Interests in VEs

My primary interest in VEs is to explore their use in educational contexts, especially at the university level. I would like to use them as (a) devices to supplement student/teacher interaction and collaboration beyond the face- to-face classroom teaching, (b) devices to present materials that could be used in educational contexts (e.g., museums), and (c) devices to support distance learning or collaboration between remote sites.

A special interest in this context is the "spatial metaphor." I work with a relational theory of knowledge, which fits well with the spatial metaphor. Thus, VEs can be seen as a way to potentially and literally construct knowledge. Conversations and social interaction are important, but in an educational context there is also an interest in capturing, recording, formulating the results of these discussions. To distill out some conclusions. VEs could be a useful device in that process.

An intriguing feature of current VEs is that they are programmable. Unlike many other computer-based programs, the scope of the actions are not so clear. With wordprocessors, spreadsheets, simulators, and composing programs one has an impression of the basic functions and possibilities that are available (even if one never learns to use half of them). With VEs, we have the possibility to create activities, principles, and structures that cannot always be anticipated by the users. Thus, it would be a mistake to view a VE as a more or less delimited domain of action.

An important implication of the preceding point is that a VE is defined primarily by its content, by the meaning of the world and the activities that can be accomplished in it. In other words, the "spatial" metaphor alone is not a defining feature of VEs, the concept of praxis is equally important. VEs are designed as dungeons, offices, natural worlds, museums, and so forth. It is not just "space" that is being used, but also our knowledge of what practices are being carried out in those spaces.

Continuing this line of thought, one can see that discussions of design principles for VEs must also incorporate discussions of the practices that one wants to support in these environments. In educational contexts, learning motivation must be based on the content which one is working with. A critical feature of VEs is that they can be used to support and focus work on the content that brings people together. In an educational context, the ideal would be that the VE is transparent to the user. That is, one does not want to use much time and energy having the user both to learn and to use the system. If there are obstacles or difficulties, then they should be intentionally built into the system. Are there special kinds of designs that would be especially useful in educational contexts?

The best thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose from (attributed to Andy Tannenbaum). The workshop announcement uses "soft" words like guidelines and recommendations, and even softer goals might be appropriate such as "identifying fundamental questions" or "formulating interesting topics for further exploration.

Suggestions for Discussion Items

  1. Conventions for objects
    1. Defining objects. Main idea...are there some standard ways that users can expect to manipulate objects? For example, I have experienced rooms where one must "look" to see a bulletin board, while one must "examine" a blackboard in the same room. Unnatural. Confusing. Wouldn't it be good to have some conventions along these lines? Also, conventions for abbreviations would be helpful.
    2. Manipulating objects. I was shocked one day to discover that I could move someone's portable computer, and when I put it on a chair, it could no longer be "seen" when one came into the room. If VEs are designed for asynchronous collaboration, then what conventions can or should there be so that persons do not come back to find that their objects have disappeared?
    3. Marking objects. Would it be useful to mark generic objects so that their nature could be seen more quickly? For example, objects that could be written on would be shown like this: *blackboard*, *wall*, *notebook*, *paper*. Objects that could be moved: +chair+
  2. Representation/Experience of "spatiality". The fact that VEs are based on a spatial metaphor is often mentioned when the special qualities of VEs are presented. Specific, explicit arguments for the value of this spatiality are not usually advanced, but they can be easily constructed from principles of human psychology (e.g., easier to remember, possibility to use prior knowledge about navigation and object manipulation). Important questions within this theme include:
    1. What are important or valuable features of the spatial metaphor that should be preserved in VEs?
    2. How does one create feelings/effects of spatiality in interface design? (e.g., I am impressed by how "unspatial" the WWW-MOO interface is).
    3. What is the relation between "action" and experiences of spatiality? That is, spatiality is not only visual, but created through action. As one example, does the need to type commands to move create the feeling of effort in moving?
  3. Objects to support collaboration.
    1. Asynchronous communication. Why should blackboards and bulletin boards in virtual reality behave as they do in classroom reality? Should mail and message systems in computer systems be reproduced in VE systems? Given the spatial metaphor and the concepts like threaded messages, perhaps there is a way of designing a "spatial" messaging system in which group discussions are "recorded" in these objects.
    2. Synchronous communication. In group discussions ideas often get formulated with various symbols (e.g., short phrases that refer to complex ideas). Complex ideas get formulated in which several elements become related to each other. Relations are inherently spatial. Is it possible to create objects that represent or maintain ideas that arise in group discussion? Is it possible to develop tools, conventions that make it easier to record, organize, structure the flow of natural conversation in a group discussion?
    3. Maintaining ideas. Along the same lines, there have been ideas around to make "concept maps" in which students develop maps of conceptual relationships. One version was constructed on a Macintosh that enabled (biology) students to develop a drawings of relationships between biological concepts. The idea of being able to "move" through concepts is an intriguing idea. Instead of laying them out on paper, is it possible to develop tools for supporting collaborative construction of ideas.
Present knowledge/experience with webbed VE

My only experience with webbed VEs is limited to the discussion/annotation forum for this workshop. I also have some limited experience with using MOO-based systems, and have presented a 90-minute introduction of the main features of MOO to a group of multimedia researchers. I have about five years experience in using telecommunications in educational and informal projects. Seth Chaiklin Institute of Psychology University of Aarhus Asylvej 4 8240 Risskov DENMARK Tel: +45 89 42 49 78 Fax: +45 89 42 49 01