20 October 2011

Learning in Virtual Worlds - 10 year review

Photo credit: Torley
What have we learned in the last ten years about learning in 3D virtual environments?   Are they worth the significant resources required to build them?  Do students learn better in them, and how do teachers feel about them?  Mikropoulos and Natsis conducted a review of the research over the last decade to help us find out.  Here is an informal summary of their findings...

Paper summary
{Paper summaries at designer eLearning aim to precis research papers in education, design and technology in plain English, highlighting those findings that apply specifically to Learning Interface Design.}

Mikropoulos, Tassos A., and Antonis Natsis. 2011. "Educational virtual environments: A ten-year review of empirical research (1999–2009)." Computers & Education 56(3): 769-780. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2010.10.020 [Accessed January 6, 2011].

Mikropoulas et al.  did the hard work: 56 papers over 10 years.  these papers have come from journals, symposia and conference proceedings.
They found that most examples of virtual environments are...
  • in the Maths and Sciences, 
  • exploit only the visual aspects of Virtual Environments (rather than audio for example)
  • run from a desktop computer with a keyboard and mouse (as opposed to with immersive rooms or specialized equipment) 
  • based (explicitly or implicitly) on a constructivist model of learning.  
They cite features of VR that contribute to learning, such as first order experiences, natural semantics, size, transduction, reification, autonomy and presence. (Reification refers to making a perceptible concrete representation out of an otherwise purely abstract idea.)  They also note that there is still much resesarch to be done before we can understand how effective these environments can be longterm for learning.
"The studies present real world, authentic tasks that enable context and content dependent knowledge construction. They also provide multiple representations of reality by representing the natural complexity of the world." 
"Little can yet be concluded regarding the retention of the knowledge acquired in [virtual environments]. Longitudinal studies are necessary, and we believe that the main outcome of this study is the future research perspectives it brings to light."

Virtual Learning Environments defined

Mikropoulos et al. define VR as "a mosaic of technologies that support the creation of synthetic, highly interactive three dimensional (3D) spatial environments that represent real or non-real situations...Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) can be defined as a virtual environment that is based on a certain pedagogical model, incorporates or implies one or more didactic objectives, provides users with experiences they would otherwise not be able to experience in the physical world and redounds specific learning outcomes."

Examples of VLE's

According to the survey's findings, most VLE's are created for Math and Science which the authors suggest is due to the characteristics of these fields that make them particularly well suited.
"In most of the cases, science and mathematics concern space and time scales far from everyday experience, unobservable phenomena, abstract concepts, difficult to understand physical laws and magnitudes. Such topics also have an experimental nature and require spatial abilities and high order thinking skills. All the above make the construction of mental models difficult. Computer-based learning environments and especially dynamic models, simulations and visualizations contribute to conceptual change, development of thinking skills, promotion of cognitive development. All the educational subjects of the reviewed articles are based on the difficulties presented above, where VR seems to be a strong educational tool."   
"Most of the reviewed articles concerning social sciences again exploit inaccessible time and space scales and incorporate their topic in spatial representations. History and culture are popular topics, where authors represent ancient cities and buildings.  Narration, writing, educational drama and various topics are also subjects where spatial representations support the learning environments." 
Examples include navigating inside an atom, inside the solar system, and within a city at another time in history.

Unique advantages of VLE's

The authors propose that the features made possible by the technological characteristics of virtual reality which contribute to positive learning outcomes are:
  • first-order experiences (you can experience things, even dangerous ones, directly/ first hand)
  • natural semantics (you can manipulate real world objects intuitively instead of working with symbolic representations) 
  • size (you can experience things that are out of scale, like an atom or the solar system)
  • transduction 
  • reification (you can take an abstract concept and make it experienceable/perceptable) 
  • autonomy (you can control the action/ narritive) 
  • presence (you get a sense of being present in an authentic experience) 
"The questions that arise are whether researchers take into account the above features for the design of EVEs and whether these features do contribute to positive learning outcomes.  Lee et al. claim that VR characteristics like representational fidelity and immediacy of control 'influence learning outcomes indirectly through the mediation of usability and psychological factors of learning experience such as presence, motivation, cognitive benefits, control and active learning, and reflective thinking'. "

Based on the above characteristics, the authors propose five "learning affordances" of VLEs (or types of learning VLEs are particularly suited to support):
  • spatial knowledge representation 
  • experiential learning 
  • engagement
  • contextual learning 
  • collaborative learning. 
They add that they believe these imply the seven principles of constructivism.


The authors cite the importance of a sense of presnce for learning which VR environments have hte capacity to provide in a more complete and authentic way.  At a general level, they also mention that at least 12 out of the 53 studies they reviewed positively connect presence with learning.
"the sense of presence that students feel in the virtual environments is of major importance in the learning process. This is because the sense of presence enhances 'first hand' experiences and 'first-person psychological activity occurring when people interact directly with worlds, whether real or virtual'."...
However they go on to caution that there is a lack of research on actual VLEs and on whether or not this actually ends up producing better learning results in the Virtual context.
Whitelock, Romano, Jelfs, and Brna (2000) in their early experiments on perfect presence in virtual learning environments suggest that a high degree of presence “is very motivating but could well take up too much of the users’ attention and produce a cognitive overload when it comes to understanding conceptual notions”. In the same article the authors note that social presence enhances a feeling of team work. In 2003, Selverian and Hwang in their review on presence and learning (17 research studies), report that “most of the research has failed to associate spatial and social presence with levels of learning objectives and learning achievement”. 

Multiple Representations

Another well understood educational strategy is the provision of multiple representations of a concept.  The authors found that almost all the VLEs reviewd provide multiple representations of reality in a variety of ways such as via different viewpoints, haptic augmentation and force feedback, multimedia content, and collaborative strategies.  For example, one study provides multiple representations via different viewpoints by giving learners the option to view planetary phenomena from a spaceship and from the Sun.


 Engagement is ever a focus of discussion when it comes to learning with technology.  The paper reports that most studies found engagement to be high with students using VLEs. Where there were exceptions,  distractions due to difficulty with language used in the environment, lack of computer competency for the tasks required, were given as reasons for this.

They also noted that a student could be engaged in the VLE by exploring the different worlds, avatars, and quests but fail to engage in the learning tasks.  So there is evidence students find interaction in VLEs engaging, but it is noted that it is not necessarily the learning tasks in the VLEs that they are finding engaging.

Social environments - the presence of others

The authors did find evidence in the research that the presence of others in the virtual space had an impact on learning.  These virtual others could be other participants or they could be computer-generated avatars that live in the environment providing new perspectives: "Findings show that collaboration and social negotiation are not only limited to the participants of an EVE, but exist between participants and avatars, offering a new dimension to computer assisted learning."

Interfaces to Virtual Worlds

The survey found a preference for keyboard and mouse interfaces over specialised devices like gloves (that aim for more intuitive and real-world interaction).  The authors conclude from this that "carefully designed learning activities are more important than an exotic interface that contributes to intuitive interaction" in a VLE.  As an interface designer, I would propose a clarification to this conclusion.

It is familiarity with the interaction and with the interface that is more important than aiming at closer to real-world interaction.  While users may have found things like interaction with the use of a glove detrimentally novel in these studies, it is because they had never used one before, and its important to remember that times are continually changing.  With the advent of interaction models made familiar by systems like the Nintendo Wii and the Xbox Kinect, these research results will most certainly begin to vary.  The familiarity principle will still apply, but the results may show preference changes to different types of interface controllers, which again would probably vary by age group.

The authors note that there is a predictable exception to the preference for the mouse and keyboard when it comes to health and physical education.
"games with standard interfaces such as keyboard, mouse and joysticks are effective in favouring knowledge acquisition, whereas games with exertion interfaces such as motion platforms, motion tracking cameras and haptic devices are appealing, motivational and effective in producing fitness and health benefits. "
With regards to Virtual Environments that inhabit an immersive space like a CAVE (rather than a computer screen), the authors report that head mounted displays combined with an egocentric representation model were more effective than a wall projection system. 
"Three studies surveyed  have concluded that immersion compared to a desktop system has a great advantage only when the content to be learned is complex, 3D and dynamic, on the condition that students do not need to communicate with the “outside” world."


The authors found that most of the VLEs they surveyed were built to support learning activities that are expliciy or implicitly constructivist.
The authors also applied the seven principles of constructivism as presented by Jonassen (1994):
  1. Provide multiple representations of reality – avoid oversimplification of instruction by representing the natural complexity of the world
  2. Focus on knowledge construction not reproduction
  3. Present authentic tasks (contextualizing rather than abstracting instruction)
  4. Provide real world, case based learning environments, rather than predetermined instructional sequences
  5. Foster reflective practice
  6. Enable context, and content, dependent knowledge construction
  7. Support collaborative construction of knowledge through social negotiation, not competition among learners for recognition.

Unique challenges of VLE's

One of the more obvious challenges posed by using VLEs is how resource intensive they can be.  At the high end, customized interface devices and custom-built worlds can be hundreds of thousands of dollars.  At the low end, however, a desktop mouse and keyboard in a ready-made space like SecondLife or ActiveWorlds has provided the basis for many examples.

A lack of research and the fact that we are still, in amny ways, in the early stages of learning about how to use these worlds most effectively, remains another challenge.  The authors note that it is difficult to do research on the effectiveness of the use of VLEs because there are always so many variables that may effect learning outcomes.

This leads to the design variable.  As an interface designer for education, I would argue that another limitation is the general lack of design expertise on the teams creating educational prototypes.  These worlds often originate in computer science or education departments.  They often have no funding for a professionally designed front-end.  A lack of design matters for all the reasons this blog exists, because it effects the learning experience.


The studies of the last 10 years show VLEs have features that support many learning strategies and that they have the capacity to provide first-order experiences in environments that would otherwise be impossible in the real world, either because they are abstract, dangerous or expensive.  A high level of both presence and engagement have been reported with the use of VLEs.  These are generally supportive of the learning experience.  Much more research is still needed to provide evidence for the effectiveness of VLEs for various scenarios, fields and purposes.

More research needed

VLE's seem to be one of those things people instinctively and anecdotally ensure are a very good thing, but the research has yet to prove their point.  It seems self-evident at least, that in circumstances where
learners can participate in worlds that would be dangerous or impossibke in real life, like navigating an
atom, a disaster site or a solar system, that VLEs are a dream come true.  Also, of the small number of studies that have been published, the vast majority show positive learning outcomes.  But the research is scarce due to the difficulty in isolating the influence of the environment itself from all other vairables.

Much of the information in this survey paper is based on conclusions drawn from what we know about educational theory and how people learn.  They are logical hypotheses about what is likely to work well about VLEs based on how they can technologically support things that we know are good for supprting learning (like multiple representations and first-order experiences).  There is still not a whole lot of evidence, however, to show these hypotheses actually prove true in practice - whether the theory plays out over time in multiple circumstances.    We know first-order experiences are good for learning and we know VLE's support first-order experiences, but do first-order experiences in VLE's support learning effectively?   There is simplly still a lot of research to be done.   
"Few are the studies that incorporate systems promoting intuitive interactivity, and much research is needed"
"Researchers in these first steps of VR educational applications argue on the usefulness of VR as an educational tool, although evaluations of certain EVEs do not exist yet."
“most of the research has failed to associate spatial and social presence with levels of learning objectives and learning achievement”. 
As with any technology, the research on VLEs seems to suggest that the use of  the technology should be lead by the pedagogical design rather than the other way around.  Does the design call for characteristics that only VLEs can provide?  Do students stand to gain from the characteristics that are unique to the 3D world more than they would with a 2D method?  

A need for interface designers to play a part

The survey reveals that it is common for a VLE development team to be without an interface designer.   As with any software, environment or technology, the design of the user interface can make or break the experience.  The success of a VLE in supporting learning goals will be impacted by how the interface is designed so acknowledgement should be given to this critical variable.
If the big advantages of VLEs are the unique features available only in these environments, then, as designers, we should think about how we would enhance and build on these features through the interface design.  

And, of course, as with any technology, the question is more one of how you use it and when you use it rather than broadly is it or isn't it good for learning.

Where to learn more...

This paper is available through your library or via purchase at ScienceDirect.  As stated, it references 56 papers and book chapters, all of which include excellent examples of what's been tried and tested in the Virtual learning department. If you're involved in this area, or looking for inspiration, getting into these details is worth it.