A striking recent development in education has been the rapid acceptance, mainly in the United States, of the multi-user virtual environment (MUVE). Educational MUVEs are an offshoot of the virtual worlds developed by online gamers for entertainment, such as the hugely popular World of Warcraft (an estimated 11.5 million players) (Blizzard, 2008). Educators use them for more scholarly purposes: to support active, inquiry-based learning and build conceptual understanding. Typically, students are able to enter a context or virtual environment and, through the use of an avatar to represent them, can interact with objects in the environment, including other student avatars and their lecturers. Well-known MUVEs which support ‘substantive teaching and learning’ (Dieterte and Clark, in press) are online spaces such as Second Life, There, Active Worlds and OpenSimulator.
Early adopters, mainly in the United States, have developed a substantial literature lauding the educational benefits of using MUVEs in the sciences (Nelson, 2007), health sciences (Mantovani, Castelnuovo, Gaggioli & Riva, 2003) and the museum industry (Kim, Kesavadas & Paley, 2006). Notable recent examples of research into MUVEs as educational tools are the River City Project (http://muve.gse.harvard.edu/rivercity/) being conducted by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, along with Arizona State University with 100 teachers in 12 states; and Quest Atlantis (http://atlantis.crlt.indiana.edu/). Both these projects are centred on virtual worlds developed for secondary school students, and have been developed to inform university education departments and improve learning outcomes in secondary schools. Quest Atlantis, developed by the Centre for Research on Learning & Technology at Indiana University has been running for over four years and engaged more than 10,000 students worldwide.
Clearly, the multi-user virtual environment is a significant issue in current educational practice and will continue to grow over the next decade and more. MUVEs have the capacity to engage a wide range of students, offering scholars of variable abilities, learning styles and ages an innovative, immersive learning space. In terms of its impact on higher education, in 2006 Professor Christopher Dede from the Harvard Graduate School of Education pointed to MUVEs as being one of three technologies that would determine how learning occurred in higher education in the future (Neal, 2006).
Whilst preliminary research into the development and application of virtual environments has confirmed their current and future significance for the development of contemporary curricula it has also confirmed a need for continued critical study into how these virtual environments are best used in higher education and how they can be most successfully used in fields of study such as Humanities. Moreover, Australia has lagged and continues to lag behind in the uptake of virtual world technology and MUVE concepts and practices in all educational sectors. A quick search on the internet, for example, for sites related to MUVEs and Humanities in Australia yielded only 25 sites. Moving to an unrestricted search found over 1200 sites related to MUVEs and Humanities.
This project’s use of a virtual environment highlights the significance for the development of contemporary curricula of both student and teacher experience. It proposes to evaluate the student experience of the MUVE, in the light of Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956) and the socio-cultural theory of learning. According to the former, lower order learning involves the acquisition of knowledge. In History, for instance, such knowledge would comprise facts and dates and in English the plot of a novel or play. Deeper, or higher order learning is evidenced in the application of knowledge to achieve analysis, synthesis and evaluation. In other words, when students do something with knowledge.
As Bonini recently observed, moreover, ‘cognition enacts when a human being acts within an environment, learning is a process based on action. Thus cognition is seen as embodied and embedded in the context it experiences’ (Bonini, 2008). In other words, students in the Humanities achieve higher order learning outcomes by doing something with, or applying knowledge and theory, within a relevant context. The socio-cultural theory of learning agrees that ‘mental processes are actions that cannot be separated from the environment where they are performed. They need to be situated within the limits of the world with which the learner is more or less familiar’ (Roettger, Roetter, and Walugembe, 2007).
Indeed, this can be a significant issue for disciplines such as History and English because the relevant environment is often located in the past. Technological and cultural developments during the last quarter century make it difficult to envisage life in a world without instant communication by telephone or email, international travel by air and computers. Consequently, this project provides students enrolled in the test courses with a relevant environment: an historically-accurate reconstruction of eighteenth-century London. In this environment students will firstly explore and experience, or familiarise themselves with, the world in which the texts and events they study were created in ways that scholarly books, articles and even videos and DVDs cannot match. Secondly, they will be asked to act within that environment; to apply the knowledge and theory learned in lectures, tutorials and their own research in order to solve problems and answer questions about the period and texts they study to promote higher order learning outcomes.
The project breaks additional ground in proposing to observe and record academic participants’ experience of designing curricula for and teaching in a virtual environment. According to Toohey, the central question in the design of any new course is ‘What is most important for these students to learn and what might be the best ways for them to learn it?’ (Toohey, 1999, p. 25). This is a question without any ‘right’ answer given the variety of ways in which students learn and the variety of content and tasks presented to them. Academics and students, alike, are familiar, however, with traditional learning and teaching spaces, delivery methods and assessment tasks, and how they are best used.
Using a virtual environment presents an additional challenge. Crisp (2004) recently pointed to, ‘a sharp contrast between most current forms of e-learning and the socialconstructivist ideas about learning that emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s’. ‘Forms of e-learning’ he notes that stress the active engagement of learners in rich learning tasks and the active, social construction of knowledge and acquisition of skills are rare’ (Crisp, 2004, 14). Models of curriculum design applicable to learning in such environments are just as rare. The pedagogical value of the MUVE is likely to be evidenced in student assignments.
Therefore, this project will adopt a 4C model for the design of integrated elearning courses because it features ‘a sequence of learning tasks as the backbone of the course or curriculum’(Crisp, 19). The four Cs consist of :
- learning tasks: meaningful assignment tasks which stimulate higher order learning outcomes
- supportive information: provision of supportive information which encourages students’ existing knowledge and the development of problem-solving and reasoning skills
- just-in-time information: units of relevant information presented to students as it is needed in order to perform assessment tasks 4 part-task practice: provides for additional practice for routines for which higher levels of autonomy will be required later.
- Part-task practice: provides for additional practice for routines for which higher levels of autonomy will be required later.