3D Virtual Learning Environments for Distance Education

This research paper was written as part of my participation in the graduate course Critical Issues in Distance Education at the George Washington University.


3D Virtual worlds are widely used in gaming and offer richly detailed immersive sensory experiences and, in multi-user scenarios, a means of communication with other users. Used for distance education, these spaces offer a unique context for engaging with content, instructors, and fellow learners through text, audio, and visual representations of people and spaces.

Three-dimensional virtual learning environments (VLEs) present new challenges in access, navigation, instructional design, and design of the virtual space itself. Anecdotal reports and case studies identify several unique affordances of 3D VLEs and research continues to explore ways in which learning is affected. Recent efforts have seen development of design guides to direct future development of virtual learning spaces.

This research paper examines 3D VLEs as context for learning generally, and, by its nature, a context for distance learning in its many manifestations (Allen & Seaman, 2009).

Growing Interest

Through manipulation of an in-world avatar, the user can interact with objects and other avatars in the virtual space. In 2008, more than 300 higher learning institutions established a virtual campus in leading 3D VLE, Second Life (Michels, 2008). Facilitators and participants using virtual learning environments cover a broad range of ages (Delgarno, Lee, Carlson, Gregory, & Tynan, 2011) and the number of subject offerings has increased dramatically since 2008 (Delgarno, Lee, Carlson, Gregory, & Tynan, 2011).


Figure 1:      A display at University of Western Australia's 3D Virtual learning space in Second Life. The space is used variously for synchronous lectures and asynchronous access to resources.

When distance learning moved from paper and pencil tasks exchanged through postal delivery services to digital networked information exchanges, there came an awareness of new possibilities. Access to the internet created the potential for greater independence for the learner and new pedagogies to accommodate new technologies (Peters, 2010) (Gameson, Chen, & Sher, 2002). Similarly, 3D VLEs require new pedagogical approaches that best leverage their unique affordances (Dalgarno & Lee, 2010).


Faster computers and widespread broadband access to the internet has increased capacity for participation in process-heavy 3D virtual worlds. Innovative educators have experimented with 3D virtual learning spaces in various ways documenting experiences and lessons learned in case studies.

Evolution of a Virtual Learning Environment

    image007Figure 2:      UWA's SL rendering of Winthrop Hall, an outdoor classroom, and renderings of interactive geometric figures in virtual space. Images captured from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FDs6AIRBAQ

The University of Western Australia’s presence in Second Life began as a virtual version of the physical campus for no other purpose than to experiment with the virtual space. Over time, collaborations with artists, authors, and academics in many different faculties including education, architecture, physics, and law evolved the virtual space into a real community. (Zifanwe*, 2010). Artists were amongst the first to embrace the creative possibilities of the free, open, interactive spaces in UWA’s campus. Their virtual installations exposed unique opportunities for engaging with the space not merely as a repository of art, but explored the space as art itself (Landay, 2010).

UWA’s Second Life promotional video initially illustrates familiar physical structures and landmarks to help orient the viewer to space and function then gradually transitions to more fantastic, authentic applications of a virtual environment showing molecular models, 3D sound waves, and geometric forms that a user can move within and explore (Dorchester, 2012). Faculty continue to explore meaningful and authentic applications for the virtual space while artists model the possibilities.

Unique Affordances of 3D VLEs

In understanding the unique affordances of 3D VLEs, Understandings of virtual learning environments elucidate three elements of distance learning in virtual spaces: the content or body of knowledge to be learned, the context or space in which the learner encounters the knowledge, and the participants, both learners and facilitators, and pedagogy, the manner in which learners will encounter and engage with the body of knowledge.


Delgarno & Lee (2010) summarize five broad categories of learning tasks authentically enabled within 3d VLEs:

SPATIAL KNOWLEDGE: for understanding that emerges from multi-dimensional manipulation and exploration. For example, experience with mental and virtual rotations of bone models positively contribute to learning anatomy benefiting both high and low-spatially inclined learners (Stull, Hegarty, & Mayer, 2010)

EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING: for making meaning from experience, particularly where tasks that are difficult, dangerous, or impossible in the real world. For example, creating narrative storylines within which learners analyse contextual elements, make decisions, and experience the resulting consequences (Barab, et al., 2007).

MOTIVATION: for fostering curiosity and engagement within a novel context. For example, embedding case studies into a virtual world within which distant learners must explore and gather data as part of a collaborative game (The University of Western Australia, 2013)

image009Figure 3:      languagelab.com offers corporate language learning in virtual contexts that reflect the industry. Image retrieved from corporate.languagelab.com

/  CONTEXTUALIZATION: for encountering and engaging with concepts in environments that reflect real world settings. For example, second language learners can play out scenarios in a virtual setting stocked with objects that reflect the vocabulary for a unit of instruction (Peterson, 2010). The evoked dialogue makes use of learned words in an authentic context thus increasing the likelihood of transference.

COLLABORATION: for enabling interpersonal interactions and engagement with learning tasks. For example, Appalachian State University hosts a 3D VLE within which learners and facilitators can visit informally, and create purpose-driven learning communities (Bronack, et al., 2008). Defining a new instructional model they call Presence Pedagogy, Bronack, et al., (2008) envision a perpetually inhabited virtual world where participants themselves both teach and learn from each other in fluid groupings in a form of social constructivism.

Offering a distance learning program in a 3D VLEs should offer more than traditional direct instruction. Content should be embedded in the environment and open to collaborative exploration and experimentation.


3D VLEs can not only mimic physical learning spaces providing a visually familiar context for learning at a distance, but, because of the innumerable ways in which virtual spaces can be configured, can also offer radically different contexts. While familiar visual elements in a virtual world serve as an anchor for understanding context and function in a virtual world (Jegathesan, 2013) (Reeves & Minocha, 2011) unique settings that best reflect, support, and contextualize knowledge employs 3D VLEs to best advantage (Ibanez, et al., 2011).

image012Figure 4      The blocky world of Minecraft has low representational fidelity while Second Life below has high representational fidelity.

Designing the space includes determining the kind and properties of the objects within the space that will support learning either directly through their manipulation, or indirectly by evoking the desired emotional state from the user (Dalgarno & Lee, 2010). The sensory properties of a space determine the level of immersion or representational fidelity which, in turn, contributes to a user’s presence, or subjective response to the virtual space (Dalgarno & Lee, 2010). Physiological responses can also be elicited by experiences in virtual spaces with virtual objects (Valtchanov, 2010), (Fox, Bailenson, & Ricciardi, 2012).

3D VLE can themselves be the form of communication, not just the context in which it occurs. Reluctant young writers that exhibited a great deal of enthusiasm and engagement in lessons delivered in a 3D VLE were no more willing to engage in writing than they were before (Merchant, 2010). In terms of fostering communication, a learner’s understanding may be expressed using the “inscription system” afforded by 3D environments (Dickey, 2005) appealing to more visual-spatial learners.

3D virtual spaces used for distance learning should be sensitive to a participant’s need to have some contextual elements that suggest function. Familiar starting points can orient users to the virtual space before moving on to less intuitive and more fantastic environments. It is also important to provide supports for both students and faculty that are new to virtual worlds. Training can facilitate a more rapid transition from focusing on world controls to a focus on learning objectives. Capitalizing on the unique forms of spatial communication creates new opportunities for representing concrete and theoretical knowledge


image014Figure 5:      Avatar customization contributes to greater social presence and offers opportunities to explore different identities. Image retrieved from http://becauseilive.hubpages.com/hub/Second-Life-Tips--Tricks--Creating-an-Avatar

Avatars are the agents through which users engage with a virtual world and offer some unique possibilities for education. Users themselves have a sense of presence in the virtual space and, through customization of the avatar, can experience greater psychological immersion (Dalgarno & Lee, 2010). The ability to see avatars of other users fosters interpersonal connections and a sense of co-presence (Dalgarno & Lee, 2010).

Employing anonymity amongst the learners in the virtual world creates opportunities for more free and open interactions while the facilitator, knowing the true identities, can observe for assessment purposes (Barkand & Kush, 2009). The ability to assume different identities offers opportunities to explore social situations as another gender, race, body type, or species (Pfeil, Ang, & Zaphiris, 2009).

Where communities of people congregate in open unrestricted spaces it is likely that groups will establish social norms and, over time, a form of governance, possibly even a political structure (Rafinski, 2013) offering participants to experiment with different systems.

While 3D VLEs create opportunities for serendipitous engagement with others in the virtual space, it is important to consider how participant exchanges will contribute to achieving learning outcomes, what exchanges are required, whether they are synchronous, asynchronous or a blend of the two, and the level of monitoring or moderation required given the age of the participants (Pfeil, Ang, & Zaphiris, 2009).


As mentioned previously, Appalachian State University is exploring a new pedagogical model, Presence Pedagogy, built on social constructivism and elements of connectivism. Their 2008 paper coincides with the emergence of MOOCs and reflects the philosophy and practice of connectivist cMOOCs within a single virtual world (Rodriguez, 2013).

Empirical studies of educators, designers, and students, using 3D VLEs carried out by Reeves & Minocha (2011) described participants’ understandings of the connection between the pedagogy, and how the space was used.

Instructional pedagogy was employed where behaviourist style teachers sought to translate their practice into a virtual, but familiar classroom space.

Constructivist pedagogy was seen by some instructors as a way to leverage the unique affordances of the 3D VLE encouraging students to explore more open spaces and construct meaning in in collaborative learning groups.

/  Other instructors used experiential pedagogy for providing experiments, simulations, and role-play activities. This was also seen as making good use of the virtual learning space.

While it is possible to conduct synchronous lectures to an audience in a virtual space using live audio through an avatar, this form of lesson delivery does not take advantage of the unique characteristics of 3D VLEs. Given these spaces are generally unrestricted, open to exploration, interactive, and social, more constructivist approaches should be employed by designers and facilitators.


3D virtual worlds offer the ability to create and explore rich environments for discovery, engagement, communication, and collaboration for teaching and learning. While 3D VLEs can take any form and serve virtually any function, it is important to provide familiar contexts, metaphors, and cues to the user. As a distance education tool, the virtual learning environment can provide a familiar space that looks and feels like a classroom with the opportunity to embed simulations, games, studies, interactions, and authentic contexts for the topic at hand. Identity options and customization can blur or obscure social conventions allowing learners to interact with anonymity or new identities to serve instructional purposes. These spaces accommodate many instructional approaches but appear best suited to constructivist pedagogies.


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* Zifanwe, J. (2010, June 26). Unexpected   Collaborations - UWAinSL and serendipity. Retrieved June 19, 2013, from   The University of Western Australia in Second Life:   http://uwainsl.blogspot.com.au/2010/06/unexpected-collaborations-uwainsl-and.html

* JayJay Zifanwe is the credited Second Life name for JayJay Jegatheva Jegathesan of the University of Western Australia.


For the next couple of years much of my time will be spent on coursework as I have enrolled in George Washington University's Graduate Certificate in eLearning, the first step toward completing the Masters Degree in Education Technology Leadership. In the spirit of learning in public, I plan to use my blog as a thinking and processing space. I'll use the #GWETL tag here on the blog and the same hashtag when tweets are course related. At the moment, I'm registered in Critical Issues in Distance Education and Computer Interface Design for Learning.


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