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This is the final draft of an article that later appeared in the British Journal of Educational Technology. At the time
of publication of the article, the journal was published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd on behalf of the British
Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta). Please cite as:
Dalgarno, B., & Lee, M. J. W. (2010). What are the learning affordances of 3-D virtual environments?
British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(6), 10–32. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2009.01038.x
What are the learning affordances of 3-D virtual environments?
Barney Dalgarno and Mark J. W. Lee
Barney Dalgarno is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Research in Complex Systems (CRiCS) and an Associate
Professor in the School of Education at Charles Sturt University. Mark J. W. Lee is an Adjunct Senior Lecturer in
the School of Education at Charles Sturt University. Address for correspondence: Mark J. W. Lee, School of
Education, Charles Sturt University, Locked Bag 588, Wagga Wagga, NSW 2678, Australia.
This article explores the potential learning benefits of three-dimensional (3-D) virtual learning
environments (VLEs). Drawing on published research spanning two decades, it identifies a set of
unique characteristics of 3-D VLEs, which includes aspects of their representational fidelity and
aspects of the learner-computer interactivity they facilitate. A review of applications of 3-D VLEs
is presented, leading to the identification of a series of learning affordances of such environments.
These affordances include the facilitation of tasks that lead to enhanced spatial knowledge
representation, greater opportunities for experiential learning, increased motivation/engagement,
improved contextualisation of learning and richer/more effective collaborative learning as
compared to tasks made possible by 2-D alternatives. We contend that the continued development
of and investment in 3-D games, simulations and virtual worlds for educational purposes should be
considered contingent on further investigation into the precise relationships between the unique
characteristics of 3-D VLEs and their potential learning benefits. To this end, we conclude by
proposing an agenda or ‘roadmap’ for future research that encompasses empirical studies aimed at
exploring these relationships, as well as those aimed at deriving principles and guidelines to
inform the design, development and use of 3-D virtual environments for learning.
Three-dimensional (3-D) technologies have become a fundamental element of almost all modern
computer games, including most of the current Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) such
as World of Warcraft. They are also central to the new generation of immersive virtual worlds, such as
Active Worlds and Second Life. Internationally, educators and educational institutions envisage great
potential in the use of 3-D simulations, games and virtual environments for teaching and learning, as
they provide the possibility of rich learner engagement together with the ability to explore, construct
and manipulate virtual objects, structures and metaphorical representations of ideas. Much time,
financial and other resources are therefore being devoted to efforts aimed at harnessing the pedagogic
potential of these technologies, with academia, industry and government working to develop new
platforms, tools and resources to support these endeavours (de Freitas, 2006). However, very few
empirical studies have been conducted that have documented enhanced post-test knowledge and/or
skills of students using desktop-based 3-D environments, over those using equivalent 2-D technologies.
The primary aim of this article is to critically examine the pedagogical benefits of 3-D virtual learning
environments (3-D VLEs), through a review and analysis of a range of potential and actual applications
of such environments.
3-D virtual learning environments
A 3-D virtual environment (3-D VE) can be defined as an environment that ‘capitalizes upon natural
aspects of human perception by extending visual information in three spatial dimensions’, ‘may
supplement this information with other stimuli and temporal changes’ and ‘enables the user to interact
with the displayed data’ (Wann & Mon-Williams, 1996, p. 833). Three-dimensionality, smooth
temporal changes and interactivity are the most important features that distinguish 3-D VLEs from
other types of VLEs, such as those provided by a Learning Management System (LMS) like
Blackboard or Moodle. The present article is primarily concerned with 3-D VLEs that can be explored
using standard personal computer (PC) hardware commonly available in schools and homes, often
termed ‘desktop virtual environments’, although the discussion may also apply to ‘immersive virtual
environments’ such as those requiring the use of specialised hardware like head-mounted displays
(HMDs), multi-wall CAVE automatic virtual environment (CAVE) systems, high-degree of freedom
input devices and video tracking systems.
In his literature review on 3-D virtual and game environments, Jacobson (2006) cites several studies
conducted since the mid-1990s whose results suggest that immersive 3-D VLEs, if appropriately
designed and used, may provide ‘value-added’ learning over 2-D technologies used to deliver
equivalent educational content. However, the costs associated with the equipment and computational
power required for these applications have made them largely prohibitive in mainstream settings. Thus,
the findings of these studies have had little practical impact to date in spite of their theoretical
significance. In recent years, the ubiquity of multimedia and Internet-capable PCs has led to a
resurgence of interest in Web-based virtual reality (VR). The highly interactive and multi-player
engagement afforded by commercially available 3-D games has attracted millions of users worldwide
to use these technologies, and given rise to a sizeable economic market that continues to fuel further
research and development in this area. It is therefore not surprising that large numbers of educators
across the globe are attempting to harness the educational power of these technologies, excited at the
prospect of ‘co-opting’ (Buchanan, 2003) the tools and toys students already use for communication
and entertainment to help them learn better. Commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) 3-D games are being
repurposed and adapted for use in classrooms (Gikas & Van Eck, 2004; Van Eck, 2006; Sandford,
2006), while new, educational games and virtual environments are being developed to address specific
curricular content (see for example, Barab, Thomas, Dodge, Carteaux & Tuzun, 2005; Squire, Barnett,
Grant & Higginbotham, 2004; Jacobson, Kim, Lee, Lim & Low, 2008).
Nevertheless, amidst the current hype surrounding desktop 3-D technologies, a critical look at the
research to date suggests that the case for how these technologies support learning remains equivocal,
with the learning outcomes achieved in projects in this area being discussed in very generic terms
(Jacobson, 2006). Though a number of researchers (for example, Gee, 2003; Steinkuehler, 2004) have
documented educationally-relevant outcomes, there is little conclusive evidence that attests to the
specific learning benefits of 3-D VLEs, that is benefits that emanate particularly from the three-
dimensional aspects of these environments (McFarlane, Sparrowhawk & Heald, 2002; McLellan,
2004). This article seeks to isolate the distinguishing characteristics of 3-D VLEs and the potential
benefits that may accrue from the learning tasks they afford, based on a systematic analysis of research
literature and project reports in this area. Later in the article, the derivation of a list of affordances of 3-
D VLEs for learning will serve as a platform for a proposed research agenda (an affordance of a tool is
essentially an action made possible by the availability of that tool). This agenda will help to establish a
sound theoretical base to support the work of both researchers and practitioners interested in the use of
3-D games, simulations and virtual worlds for learning.
Distinguishing characteristics of 3-D virtual environments
3-D VLEs exhibit a unique set of characteristics from a pedagogical point of view. Hedberg and
Alexander (1994) suggest that their most important defining feature is the ‘transparent interface with
which the user directly controls the objects in the context of the virtual world’ (p. 215). In identifying
the features of virtual environments that make them distinct from interactive multimedia, they name
three aspects of virtual environments that contribute to this transparency and through which such
environments have ‘the potential to offer a superior learning experience’ (p. 218): increased
‘immersion’, increased ‘fidelity’ and a higher level of ‘active learner participation’.
There is some agreement between Hedberg and Alexander’s ideas and those of Whitelock, Brna and
Holland (1996), who propose a theoretical framework in order to explore the relationship between
virtual environments and conceptual learning. Their framework, which extends the work of Zeltzer
(1992), includes the identification of three properties or dimensions of 3-D VLEs, namely
‘representational fidelity’, ‘immediacy of control’ and ‘presence’. ‘Fidelity’ appears as a factor in both
Hedberg and Alexander’s and Whiteberg et al.’s models, and Whitelock et al.’s ‘immediacy of control’
relates very closely to Hedberg and Alexander’s ‘active learner participation’. Hedberg and Alexander
use the term ‘immersion’ to encompass both the physical aspects of the environment and the
psychological sense of being in the environment, while Whitelock et al. use ‘presence’ in a similar
way, that is to include both the objective characteristics of the environment and the user’s subjective
experience. Consequently, Hedberg and Alexander’s property of immersion can be equated with
Whitelock et al.’s presence dimension.
Both Hedberg and Alexander and Whitelock et al. focus on the characteristics of single-user virtual
environments, that is, they are concerned primarily with the way in which an individual interacts with
such an environment on his/her own. Brna (1999), on the other hand, extends his earlier work with
Whitelock and Holland (ie, Whitelock et al., 1996), to propose a framework that incorporates the social
factors involved in the use of multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs). His six-dimensional
framework includes Whitelock et al.’s ‘representational fidelity’, ‘immediacy of control’ and
‘presence’, as well as three additional elements: ‘social fidelity’ (including social familiarity and social
reality), ‘immediacy of discourse’ and ‘social presence’.
Many authors have stressed the importance of immersion and presence, suggesting that these are
critical features distinguishing virtual environments from other types of computer applications
(McLellan, 2004; Mikropoulos & Strouboulis, 2004; Mikropoulos, 2006). In early writings about
virtual environments, there was a tendency to use these terms interchangeably; subsequently, debates
occurred in the literature about the definitions of these terms (see for example, Witmer & Singer, 1998;
Slater, 1999). We concur with Slater (1999, 2003, 2004), who defines presence as the subjective sense
of being in a place, and immersion as the objective and measurable properties of the system or
environment that lead to a sense of presence. In other words, immersion relies on the technical
capabilities of VR technology to render sensory stimuli, whereas presence is context-dependent and
draws on the individual’s subjective psychological response to VR. The latter is dependent on a range
of factors including but not limited to the user’s state of mind (Slater, 2003).
In looking more closely at the immersive properties of an environment, we argue that it is essentially
the fidelity of the representation along with the types of interactivity that are available within the
environment that will lead to a high degree of immersion and consequently a strong sense of presence.
For this reason, we do not believe that immersion is a unique property. The dependency of immersion
on other aspects of the environment is noted by Hedberg and Alexander (1994), who maintain that ‘the
interaction of representational fidelity with sensory, conceptual and motivational immersion needs to
be examined to determine the complexity of sensory input necessary to establish the learning outcome’
(p. 217). Similarly, we do not believe that presence is a unique property because it occurs as a result of
the fidelity and the interactive capabilities of the environment.
While sense of presence in a virtual world or environment has traditionally been used to refer to a
user’s perception of ‘being there’ (Ellis, 1995; Schroeder, 2002), a more recent area of research entails
the examination of co-presence, defined as the sense of ‘being there together’ with other
geographically-dispersed users. The concept of co-presence is considered by many to be an extension
of social presence, which emerged as a topic of interest within the field of human-computer interaction
in the 1970s (Short, Williams & Christie, 1976) and which was included in Brna’s aforementioned
framework (see also Garau, 2003; Biocca, Harms & Burgoon, 2003). It is arguable that many 3-D
MUVEs support high levels of co-presence, due to the fidelity or realism of the environments within
which the shared sensory experiences occur and the facilities available for spatial and other forms of
non-verbal communication. Hence, like sense of presence, co-presence may be said to be a result of the
various characteristics of the environment rather than being a characteristic of virtual environments as
An important aspect of the use of a 3-D virtual environment is the way in which users, through their
embodied actions and social interactions within the environment, construct online identities for
themselves. In many 3-D VEs, each user is depicted by an ‘avatar’ that provides a visual representation
of his/her real or surrogate identity and appearance. The sense that the avatar he/she is controlling is a
portrayal of him/herself (or of an alternative self) that he/she consciously or unconsciously creates
within the environment is important both for supporting a rich sense of psychological immersion in the
performance of tasks, as well as for deep levels of communication, collaboration and relationship
building (de Freitas, 2006, 2008). Riva (1999) examines the psycho-social issues involved in
communication and action in virtual environments, and identifies the relationship between embodiment
and presence as an important issue, along with the relationship between identity construction,
projection and perception. Dickey (2002) identifies three aspects of the user’s experience that
contribute to identity construction: presence (including both the physical state of presence as well as
the social impression one makes), representation (including the visual appearance of the person’s
avatar, along with their identifying name or description) and embodiment (including their physical
actions along with the social positioning of these actions). Importantly, although the ability for the user
to construct and portray an identity within the environment is important, we take the view that rather
than this being a unique characteristic of 3-D VLEs, it is, like presence and co-presence, a consequence
of the representational fidelity and learner interactions facilitated by the environment.
Adopting the perspective that representational fidelity and learner interaction are unique characteristics
of 3-D VLE, whereas construction of identity, sense of presence and co-presence are characteristics of
the learner’s experience as a result of these environment characteristics, Figure 1 depicts an initial
model of learning in 3-D VLEs. In this model, representational fidelity should be taken to incorporate
aspects of both single-user and multi-user environments and to incorporate Brna’s concept of social
fidelity. Similarly, learner interaction should be taken to incorporate individual, collaborative and
communicative actions and consequently to incorporate Brna’s concept of immediacy of discourse.
Figure 1: Initial model of learning in 3-D VLEs
The two broad categories of representational fidelity and learner interaction can be further elaborated
on to identify the specific aspects of 3-D learning environments that distinguish such environments
from other interactive learning resources (Table 1). The two most important visual aspects of the
representational fidelity of a 3-D environment are realistic display of the environment and smooth
display of view changes and object motion. The display of objects using realistic perspective and
occlusion, as well as realistic texture and lighting allows for realism that can approach photographic
quality if the 3-D model is defined with sufficient detail. However, even when the images do not
approach photographic quality, with sufficient frame rates, the image changes that reflect the viewer’s
motion or the motion of objects can appear smooth enough to provide a very realistic experience.
Another aspect of the fidelity of the representation is the consistency of object behaviours, including
the way that they respond to user actions and their autonomous (or modelled) behaviours.
A fourth aspect of representational fidelity is user representation, that is, depiction of the user as an
avatar, through which the user is able, according to Dickey (2002), to develop and project an online
identity. Benford, Bowers, Fahlén, Greenhalgh and Snowdon (1995) illustrate the complexity of user
representation in 3-D VEs, deriving a list of characteristics to be considered in user representation
design. This depiction of users is an important element of the fidelity of the representation because it
helps create a sense of co-presence in the environment, which in turn enriches the social interactions
occurring (Schroeder & Axelsson, 2006).
Traditionally, applied research on 3-D VEs focussed primarily on the visual aspects of the
representation, with research on environments incorporating other sensory information confined to
high-end laboratory systems. More recently, the availability of ‘3-D audio’ technologies (Adler, 1996)
that provide spatial perception of sounds has become almost ubiquitous in mainstream 3-D VE
applications (Bowman, Kruijff, LaViola & Poupyrev, 2004); these technologies can be used to direct
the user’s attention and enhance the realism of the virtual experience by providing various directional
and distance cueing effects (Bormann, 2005). Haptics technologies that allow users to feel force and
pressure while interacting with the environment are also becoming commonplace (Bowman et al.),
particularly as a feature of many popular videogame consoles. For some years, haptics have been
employed as a learning tool for motor skill development in fields such as surgical training (Gunn,
Hutchins, Stevenson, Adcock & Youngblood, 2005; Ström et al., 2006), in which it is used to
reproduce an expert’s skill in the form of tactile and kinaesthetic perceptions using the expert’s
temporal position, velocity and force information; they are now also being applied to the learning of
abstract concepts in 3-D VLEs (Harvey & Gingold, 2000; Jones et al., 2004; Minogue, Jones,
Broadwell & Oppewall, 2006). Consequently, it is now reasonable to include kinaesthetic and tactile
force feedback along with spatial audio as characteristics of the representational fidelity of the
In relation to learner interaction, an important aspect that is unique to 3-D environments is the ability
to undertake embodied actions, including view control, navigation and object manipulation. Dall’Alba
and Barnacle (2005) have argued that traditional (ie, Web-based) online learning environments tend to
be designed to facilitate disembodied ways of learning and knowing, which is at odds with
contemporary epistemological theories that emphasise contextual, embodied knowledge. 3-D VEs have
the potential to address this through user representation (discussed above) and embodied action. Dickey
(2002) also asserts that embodiment is an important element in the construction and portrayal of an
Looking specifically at 3-D environments with multi-user capabilities, these environments provide the
facility for users, through their avatars, to engage in embodied verbal communication through text and
voice, as well as embodied non-verbal communication in the form of gestures and facial expressions.
Though verbal communication per se is not unique to 3-D environments, the embodiment afforded by
3-D MUVEs provides the added ability to align gesture and actions with written and/or spoken words.
An additional interactive characteristic is the way in which the learner can be given control over the
attributes and behaviour of the environment, including, for example, the modification of time and
gravity parameters. Last but not least, much recent attention has been given to the learning benefits that
may arise from enabling learners to construct their own virtual places and/or objects (see for example,
Antonacci & Modress, 2008; Boulos, Hetherington & Wheeler, 2007), by capitalising on the
extensibility of 3-D virtual world and gaming platforms and the ability for the user to undertake
‘modding’ (Hedberg & Brudvik, 2008) and scripting of object behaviours. Table 1 brings together
these four aspects of learner interactivity, along with the six aspects of representational fidelity
identified above, as a set of ten distinguishing characteristics of 3-D VLEs.
Table 1: Distinguishing characteristics of 3-D VLEs
Realistic display of environment
Smooth display of view changes and object motion
Consistency of object behaviour
Kinaesthetic and tactile force feedback
Embodied actions including view control, navigation and object manipulation
Embodied verbal and non-verbal communication
Control of environment attributes and behaviour
Construction of objects and scripting of object behaviours
The learning affordances of 3-D virtual environments
Having identified the unique characteristics of 3-D VLEs, we will now attempt to identify a set of
contributions to learning potentially arising from tasks afforded by such environments. The term
‘affordance’ was first coined by Gibson (1979), who used it to refer to the functional properties that
determine the possible utility of an object or environment (cited in Salomon, 1993). According to
Greeno (1994), ‘an affordance relates attributes of something in the environment to an interactive
activity by an agent who has some ability’ (p. 338). A number of authors have also used ‘affordance’ in
educational contexts to describe the relationships between the properties of an educational intervention
and the characteristics of the learner that enable certain kinds of learning to occur (Kirschner, 2002),
while others stress the importance of analysing how the affordances of ICTs can be used to facilitate
particular approaches to teaching and learning (see for example, Conole & Dyke, 2004). Bower (2008)
proposes a methodology for matching the affordance requirements of learning tasks with the
technological affordances of ICT tools, which can be used to help guide and inform the processes of
technology selection and learning design. We concur with Bower’s implicit conception of affordances,
while acknowledging that the technologies themselves do not directly cause learning to occur but can
afford certain learning tasks which themselves may result in learning or give rise to certain learning
In this section, a range of proposed and actual applications of 3-D VEs for learning are reviewed,
leading to the identification of five learning affordances of such environments. These affordances
represent the theoretical learning benefits of 3-D VLEs explicitly and/or implicitly purported by
authors in the literature; our choice of the term ‘affordances’ in preference over ‘benefits’ or
‘advantages’ is in recognition of the aforementioned view that it is the tasks, activities and
underpinning pedagogical strategies supported or facilitated by the technology rather than the
technology itself that have an impact on learning; additionally, the use of a particular technology or
media form does not guarantee the yield of specific learning outcomes or benefits (see Clark, 1983,
The applications reviewed have been grouped into three broad categories: 3-D simulations and
microworlds, 3-D environments as interfaces to learning resources and 3-D multi-user VLEs. It is
important to note that these categories have been used only to help structure the review—We recognise
that they are not mutually exclusive, as a particular resource could fit into more than one category.
3-D simulations and microworlds
Simulations have been used as part of computer-assisted learning (CAL) materials for at least three
decades, with SimCity (Wright, 1989) being one of the earliest and most popular examples. Simulated
3-D environments modelled on real places and objects have the potential to provide an enhanced sense
of realism and a greater sense of presence as compared to non-3-D environments. Their fidelity is such
that where barriers exist to visiting the real place, immersion in the 3-D VE can be a viable alternative.
For example, Alberti, Marini and Trapani (1998) describe a 3-D VE modelled on a historic theatre in
Italy, while Kontogeorgiou, Bellou and Mikropoulos (2008) describe the exploration of 3-D simulated
microscopic environments in an effort to allow students to experience being inside a quantum atom. In
Virtual Big Beef Creek (Campbell, Collins, Hadaway, Hedley & Stoermer, 2002), a 3-D VE that
recreates a marine and coastal environment to assist in the teaching of Ocean Science, learners can
assume the roles of scientists to collect and analyse geo-scientific data, or alternatively, take on
characters representing creatures that inhabit the environment, which are variously able to walk over
land, swim underwater or fly across the sky. In this way, the learners are able to explore firsthand the
abilities and limitations of the various animals, while simultaneously acquiring knowledge about the
flaura, fauna, ecosystem and ocean environment at large.
The ability to move freely around the 3-D VLE, view it from any position and manipulate objects
within it has the potential to assist in the development of spatial knowledge of the real environment
beyond that which is possible through non 3-D alternatives, including those using photographic or
video material or panoramic photographic technologies (eg, QuickTime VR [Apple, 2008]). This leads
to the first learning affordance of 3-D VLEs:
Affordance 1. 3-D VLEs can be used to facilitate learning tasks that lead to the development
of enhanced spatial knowledge representation of the explored domain.
One of the most important potential benefits of simulations occurs through the learner interacting with
objects in the virtual environment. Any knowledge domain in which the learner is expected to develop
an understanding of entities exhibiting dynamic behaviours may be suited to simulations where he/she
is able to construct a personal knowledge representation and iteratively refine this representation as
he/she undertakes exploration and experimentation, in a manner consistent with cognitive constructivist
learning theories (Piaget, 1973; Jonassen, 1991). For example, physics students are expected to
understand how objects will respond to forces; exploring an environment that allows for specific forces
to be applied to objects and for the resultant object behaviours to be observed and measured may assist
in improving their conceptual understanding (Chee & Hooi, 2002). 3-D technologies are well suited to
such physical simulations because they enable the full physical behaviour of objects to be modelled,
rather than restricting the motion and behaviour to two dimensions. Learning benefits over 2-D
simulations will occur if the use of a 3-D VE like this leads to a 3-D conceptual model of the physical
concepts rather than a simplified 2-D conceptual model, and/or if learners stand to gain from viewing
an object or setting from more than one vantage point (Bricken 1990; Dede, Salzman & Loftin, 1996).
Again, then, the spatial knowledge representation afforded by 3-D VEs provides the potential for
Simulations can also allow learners to practise skills or undertake embodied learning tasks, and this is
particularly appropriate when the tasks involved are expensive, dangerous or risky to undertake in the
real world. For example, 3-D VE-based simulations have been used to train nuclear power plant
workers in Japan (Akiyoshi, Miwa & Nishida, 1996, as cited in Winn & Jackson, 1999), to train
astronauts in how to repair a space telescope (Psotka, 1995; Moore, 1995) and to train forestry machine
operators (Lapointe & Robert, 2000). Chen and Toh (2005) describe a driver education resource
containing interactive 3-D simulations of driver education scenarios; and John (2007) surveys a range
of Web3D-based tools that have been designed to support training for a variety of medical procedures.
This leads to the second affordance of 3-D VLEs:
Affordance 2. 3-D VLEs can be used to facilitate experiential learning tasks that would be
impractical or impossible to undertake in the real world.
In some knowledge domains, the concepts to be learnt are abstract and do not correspond directly to
material objects. The term ‘microworld’ is often used to describe simulations of abstract environments
designed for concept formation (Rieber, 1992). Winn and Jackson (1999) suggest that virtual
environments are ‘most useful when they embody concepts and principles that are not normally
accessible to the senses’ (p. 7). They use the term ‘reification’ to describe the representation of
phenomena that have no natural form. For example, they describe an environment that allows learners
to control greenhouse gas emissions and to view models that metaphorically represent the effects of
global climate change. Ruzic (1999) also notes the potential for the use of metaphorical entities within
virtual environments, suggesting that such environments incorporate two types of objects, ‘tangible
(sensory) objects called sensory transducers, and intangible, cognitive objects called cognitive
transducers’ (p. 189).
Other examples of 3-D microworlds for learning are portrayed by Kaufmann, Schmalstieg and Wagner
(2000) and Yeh and Nason (2004), who describe 3-D environments for developing learners’
understanding of geometry; Bares, Zettlemoyer and Lester (1998), who describe a CPU City
microworld used in the teaching of computer science; and Salzman, Dede, Loftin and Chen (1999),
who describe three immersive environments that provide abstract spatial representations allowing
learners to explore Newtonian mechanics, electrostatic forces and molecular bonding. The simulated
radioactivity laboratory described by Crosier, Cobb and Wilson (2000) allows learners to carry out
tasks and measure the results at the laboratory level and then to zoom in and visualise what is
happening at the atomic level. Furthermore, 3-D microworlds may be used to allow the learner to
construct his/her own 3-D environment as a way of articulating his/her spatial model or ‘externalising’
his/her understanding of particular abstract concepts (Winn, 2002). A number of 3-D concept mapping
tools have been developed for such purposes, examples of which are Nelements (AYAR Software,
2007) and Topicscape (3D-Scape, 2008).
The above examples of 3-D microworlds and abstract simulations have in common the way in which
they help the learner to understand the concepts within the target domain by capitalising on the first
affordance of 3-D VLEs mentioned above, namely their ability to support learning tasks leading to the
formation of spatial knowledge representations.
Another potential learning benefit of simulations and microworlds is that they can be intrinsically
motivating and engaging due to the high degree of personalisation as the learner makes choices in
attempting to achieve individual goals within the environment (Rieber, 2005; Cordova & Lepper,
1996). Game and narrative-based approaches, when used in conjunction with 3-D VEs, can also
contribute to learner motivation and engagement (Garris, Ahlers & Driskell, 2002; Mitchell & Savill-
Smith, 2005). According to Csikszentmihalyi (1990), some activities can be so engaging that our
mental focus is shifted away from our surroundings and from the day-to-day stresses in our lives,
allowing us to focus entirely on the task. He uses the term ‘flow’ to describe the learner’s experience in
these situations. The high degree of fidelity and the natural interface of 3-D VEs may increase the
likelihood that the learner will experience this feeling of flow as they become psychologically
immersed within the environment. This illustrates, then, the third learning affordance of 3-D VEs:
Affordance 3. 3-D VLEs can be used to facilitate learning tasks that lead to increased intrinsic
motivation and engagement.
3-D environments as interfaces to learning resources
A number of studies have found that learners can have difficulty navigating hypermedia environments,
with the problems characterised by the ‘lost in hyperspace’ phenomenon (MacKnight, Dillon &
Richardson, 1991) whereby users lose track of how they arrived at a node and have no clear model of
the overall environment structure. The provision of an interface that allows easy navigation through the
information, while maintaining a sense for the overall structure of the resources and the connections
between ideas, is problematic. 3-D environments offer transparency of knowledge representation,
which allows learners to approach concepts as ‘first-person, non-symbolic’ experiences, unlike most
instances in which information is codified and represented as ‘third-person, symbolic’ experiences
(Winn, 1993, cited in Dickey, 2005a). These applications attempt to capitalise on learners’ well-
developed spatial cognitive abilities to assist them in navigating within the information space (Liang &
Sedig, 2009). Card, Robertson and York’s (1996) description of the use of a 3-D environment as an
interface for navigating through a complex information space and Robertson et al.’s (2000) description
of the use of a 3-D interface for task management on a PC are consistent with this idea. These
applications provide further examples of the first affordance mentioned above, that is the ability of 3-D
VLEs to facilitate learning tasks leading to spatial knowledge representation. The formation of a spatial
cognitive model of the information space as a result of exploring an environment has the potential to
boost exploration efficiency and conceptual understanding of the learning domain.
It can also be argued that there will be more effective real-world application of newly-acquired
knowledge and skills if the learning environment is modelled on the context in which the knowledge is
expected to be applied. Specifically, because 3-D technologies can provide levels of visual or sensory
realism and interactivity consistent with the real world, ideas learnt within a 3-D VE should be more
readily recalled and applied within the corresponding real environment. This is a logical corollary to
the idea that knowledge can be internally anchored to experience. Research carried out by Baddeley
(1993) supports this idea by suggesting that facts learnt by divers under water are better recalled while
diving than facts learnt on land. Ruzic (1999) emphasises the situated nature of learning in virtual
environments, and consequently the potential for application within similar real environments, stating
that ‘the advantages of VR-based teleteaching are individualised, interactive and realistic learning that
makes virtual reality a tool for apprenticeship training, providing a unique opportunity for situated
learning’ (p. 188). Many other authors (for example, McLellan, 2004; Bronack, Riedl & Tashner, 2005;
Chittaro & Ranon, 2007) have similarly noted the potential for 3-D VLEs to situate learning, drawing
on the theoretical foundations laid down by Lave and Wenger (1991) and Brown, Collins and Duguid
This leads to the fourth affordance:
Affordance 4. 3-D VLEs can be used to facilitate learning tasks that lead to improved transfer
of knowledge and skills to real situations through contextualisation of learning.
3-D multi-user virtual learning environments
Dede (1995) discussed the possibility of combining the capabilities of virtual environments with the
capabilities of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) tools to promote collaborative learning
within a distributed virtual environment. Today’s multi-user, distributed 3-D environments, including
MMOGs and virtual worlds, allow geographically-dispersed users to explore an environment
concurrently, with each represented by a surrogate persona or avatar visible to other users, and with
tools allowing text-based or audio communication. At a simple level, such environments can provide a
vehicle for remote support by a teacher or facilitator as a learner undertakes learning tasks, however
they also have great potential as social learning and Computer Supported Collaborative Learning
(CSCL) tools (Edirisingha, Nie, Pluciennik & Young, 2009). According to social constructivist views
of learning, conversation and discourse are the cornerstones of collaboration and social negotiation in
learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Vygotksy, 1978; Jonassen, 1999). Communication within a simulated
environment relevant to the ideas being discussed can provide a greater ‘sense of place’ than other text-
based alternatives such as instant messaging, chat rooms and multi-user dungeons/dimensions (MUDs),
and consequently help foster greater closeness within the group and richer communication due to the
ability to draw on spatial and non-verbal cues. If role-play strategies are used, it is likely that learners
will more easily ‘lose themselves’ as they adopt their role and identify with their avatar, due to the
fidelity of the environment. This ability to self-define and take on alternate personae gives learners
opportunities to adopt multiple perspectives, the importance of which is a key tenet of constructivist
learning (Jonassen, 1991, 1994; Honebein, 1996), while the willed suspension of disbelief and
emotional realism encourage them to engage in exploration, inquiry and risk taking (Dickey, 2005b).
Most importantly, multi-user 3-D environments can allow learners to undertake tasks together rather
than just communicate. It is widely acknowledged that cooperative and collaborative learning strategies
should involve activities and tasks that entail positive interdependence between participants, that is,
require that each group member’s efforts be indispensable for the success of the group in achieving its
goals, and that each member make a unique and valued contribution through his/her resources and/or
role and task responsibilities (Johnson, Johnson and Holubec, 1993; Johnson & Johnson 1994). 3-D
VEs that allow learners to engage simultaneously in shared tasks and/or produce joint artefacts by
operating on the same objects in real time can pave the way for rich and truly collaborative experiences
that foster positive interdependence within a learning group. For example, Mennecke, Hassall and
Triplett (2008) report on how students undertake a scavenger hunt activity in Second Life (SL), in
which they co-experience and explore the virtual world as they embark on a mission to discover
interesting places and practise basic SL skills. To complete the exercise, they must retrieve the relevant
instructions, decipher the embedded hints and ‘teleport’ to the location of the item they are searching
for. The activity requires students to work in teams, communicating and coordinating their activities
and collaborating in the process. Successful completion is achieved when the team leader submits a
note card containing details of the team’s collaboration as outlined in the scavenger hunt instructions.
In another example, Jarmon, Traphagan and Mayrath (2008) describe how students in a graduate
interdisciplinary communication course work together and in collaboration with architecture students at
the same university to create a virtual presence in SL of two green, sustainable, urban housing designs
that are later physically implemented in a low-income neighbourhood in Austin, Texas. Successfully
completing the course assignments and projects calls for the students to interact extensively with
educational and non-academic participants both in real life and in the 3-D virtual world. Positive
interdependence is also evident in that the communication students require the domain knowledge and
expertise of the architects, and vice versa.
These examples demonstrate the fifth learning affordance of 3-D virtual environments:
Affordance 5. 3-D VLEs can be used to facilitate tasks that lead to richer and/or more
effective collaborative learning than is possible with 2-D alternatives.
A model of learning in 3-D virtual learning environments
Taking the results of the above analysis along with the ten distinguishing characteristics of 3-D VLEs
identified earlier in the article allows the initial model shown in Figure 1 to be used as the basis of the
detailed model of learning in 3-D VLEs illustrated in Figure 2. This model presents an overall or big-
picture snapshot of what authors are claiming/asserting and implying about 3-D VLEs, their
characteristics and potential learning benefits, much of which calls for further investigation. It has the
potential to contribute to the conceptualisation of a research agenda for learning in 3-D virtual
environments; the next section presents a preliminary outline or ‘skeleton’ of such an agenda.
Figure 2: Elaborated model of learning in 3-D VLEs, incorporating unique characteristics and learning
Towards a research agenda: conclusion and recommendations
This article has highlighted the unique characteristics of 3-D virtual learning environments, as well as
the potential learning benefits that stem from their affordances, based on an examination of
applications described in the literature. Much that has been published about the educational uses of 3-D
technologies is largely ‘show-and-tell’, presenting only anecdotal evidence or personal impressions that
cannot be usefully generalised beyond the local context. The continually increasing amount of time and
resources being allocated to the development of 3-D games and virtual worlds by institutions and
education systems worldwide, on the premise of improved learning outcomes, calls for a concerted and
systematic effort by researchers to ascertain whether or not, and if so, how, the capabilities and features
of 3-D VLEs can be exploited in pedagogically sound ways. Surprisingly little is known about the
cognitive value of desktop 3-D graphics and virtual reality (Chen, 2006; Lee & Wong, 2008),
notwithstanding the fact that the core technologies supporting these innovations are not new, and have
seen many uses not only in education, but also in diverse areas of commerce, industry, entertainment
and the military since the genesis of the multimedia PC in the early 1990s.
To move ahead, the model of learning in 3-D VLEs derived in this article (Figure 2) may be used as a
basis for defining an agenda for research into the design and use of such environments. First and
foremost, future research needs to include empirical studies to establish the validity of the assumptions
about 3-D VLEs that are implicit within the design of these environments and the associated learning
tasks. Many claims that have been made about the benefits of 3-D virtual environments for education
are couched in a long line of assumptions about technological advancements in computer graphics and
multimedia, each asserting progressively better ways of facilitating cognitive tasks that seem sensible
and obvious at face value (Scaife & Rogers, 1996). It is arguable that the degree to which 3-D VLEs
have the potential to provide learning advantages over non-3-D resources, in particular, is dependent on
a number of underlying, general assumptions about cognition and learning in 3-D environments, along
with assumptions about links or connections between the distinguishing characteristics of 3-D VLEs
and the potential or anticipated learning benefits shown in Figure 2.
For instance, a general assumption that needs empirical exploration is the supposition that learners will
trust their virtual environment-based experiences sufficiently to modify their mental models of the
simulated concepts, thereby correcting any misconceptions held. An example of an assumption about
the connections between characteristics of 3-D VLEs and their learning benefits may be seen in the
notion that when factual information is learnt within a 3-D VLE, there will be greater transfer of
learning to the corresponding real environment. This notion hinges on an additional assumption,
namely the intuition that the greater fidelity of a 3-D VLE leads to a greater sense of presence, and
consequently, greater transfer. A second example is the idea that the interactivity provided by 3-D
VLEs will result in greater spatial learning than would occur when passively viewing an equivalent
animation or video; a third is the assumption that a 3-D MUVE’s representational fidelity and the
embodied actions it facilitates will result in richer online identity construction and a greater sense of
co-presence, and that this in turn will bring about more effective collaborative learning.
In discussing the need for empirical exploration of the validity of the assumptions implicit within the
design of 3-D VLEs, it is important to point out that we are not advocating studies that compare the
learning benefits of equivalent 2-D and 3-D environments using contrived examples in inauthentic
settings. Clark (1983, 1994a, b) has argued coherently against studies that look for a direct connection
between a particular learning media or technology and learning, on the basis that in such studies it is
not possible to separate the learning design from the media. We have argued in this article that 3-D
VLEs afford certain learning tasks, or in other words, well-designed 3-D VLEs can enable learning
tasks that are not possible or not as effective in 2-D environments. Comparisons between 2-D and 3-D
environments that control the learning design across environments would be likely to only demonstrate
the trivial fact that if the unique affordances of 3-D VLEs are not harnessed within the learning design,
there will be minimal unique learning benefits.
Finally, realising the promise of 3-D VLEs to deliver enhanced learning and educational benefits
necessitates applied research that derives design principles that will in turn inform the development of
best practice. Such work is contingent on fulfilling the aforementioned need for empirical studies to
establish the validity or otherwise of the basic assumptions about 3-D VLEs, and to link the unique
characteristics of 3-D VLEs with the potential learning benefits. Currently, design and development
efforts in this field are largely hit-and-miss, driven by intuition and ‘common-sense’ extrapolations
rather than being solidly underpinned by research-informed models and frameworks. More work is
needed to bring the virtual world / games development and education communities closer together (de
Freitas, 2006), and researchers and practitioners must make time for awareness raising, dialogue and
discussion about what works and why, and which combinations of pedagogic strategies and tools best
target the desired outcomes. Teachers and learners require time for up-skilling and development, as
well as guidance on how to plan and implement appropriate activities to use in conjunction with 3-D
VLEs, including both those that are endogenous and exogenous to the virtual environment or world.
Table 2 summarises the proposed agenda and, by way of illustration, lists some of the many possible
research questions to be addressed and hypotheses to be tested within each of the three aforementioned
categories. It is worth noting that there is already an ongoing stream of research that attempts to
address some of these questions; however, a more unified effort is needed to accurately target, validate
and take advantage of the capabilities and features of 3-D virtual environments for learning, working
from the ground up. Once the fundamental questions have been properly addressed, developers of 3-D
VLEs and educators wishing to make use of these tools in their classrooms will have a firm basis for
their design decisions. Even more importantly, when more is known about the aspects of such
environments that are critical for learning, there will be a much greater likelihood that sound
instructional design and pedagogy will prevail over the mere novelty of the technology. It is only then
that the resources developed can truly move beyond simply impressing the learner with technological
‘niftiness’ or visual realism to actually facilitate effective learning.
Table 2: A roadmap for further research into 3-D VLEs
Examples of research questions to be addressed
1. Testing basic
Return to ‘first principles’ by
validating or refuting the
assumptions implicit in the
design and use of 3-D VLEs,
and in particular determining
and defining the relationships
between the unique
characteristics of 3-D VLEs,
the intermediate outcomes
(identity, presence, co-
presence) and the anticipated
learning benefits that arise
from the tasks afforded by
• Will learners trust experiences in a 3-D VLE sufficiently to modify
any misconceptions held?
• Do realistic display, smooth view changes and embodied actions each
contribute independently or together to spatial knowledge
development, when compared to alternative static or animated
• How important are the various aspects of the environment fidelity,
such as visual realism and refresh rate, to the achievement of a sense
of presence in a 3-D VLE?
• Do the use of spatial audio and tactile feedback lead to the
achievement of a greater sense of presence in a 3-D VLE?
• Do the greater fidelity and sense of presence within a 3-D VLE lead
to greater engagement and intrinsic motivation?
• Do the greater fidelity and sense of presence within a 3-D VLE lead
to improved contextualisation of learning, manifested through greater
transfer to a corresponding real environment?
• How do the use of and fidelity of spatial audio and tactile feedback in
3-D VLEs contribute to the learner’s development of spatial
• Does the facilitation of embodied actions and communication within a
3-D MUVE lead to a greater sense of co-presence? Does this, in turn,
afford learning tasks that encourage richer and/or more effective
collaborative learning than is possible with 2-D alternatives?
Identify/derive rules and
principles that will guide and
inform the design and
development of 3-D VLEs
and associated learning tasks.
• What changes to accepted design principles from established theories
(e.g. cognitive load theory, dual coding theory, cognitive theory of
multimedia learning), if any, are needed when instructional elements
are presented within a 3-D VLE?
• How can learning tasks to be carried out within a 3-D VLE be
designed to meet specific, desired educational outcomes (e.g. content
knowledge in particular subject domains, generic skills such as
teamwork and problem solving)?
• What are the essential characteristics of learning tasks within a 3-D
VLE that will make such tasks intrinsically motivating?
• What are the essential characteristics of learning tasks within a 3-D
VLE that will result in a high sense of presence? How important is
suspension of disbelief to the achievement of both cognitive and
affective learning goals?
We would like to acknowledge the contributions of Professor John Hedberg of Macquarie University,
as well as Emeritus Professor Barry Harper and Associate Professor Sue Bennett of the University of
Wollongong, to the initial development of some of the ideas contained in this article.
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