Collaborative science learning in three-dimensional immersive virtual worlds: Pre-service teachers' experiences in Second Life

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Abstract
The purpose of this mixed methods study was to enculturate pre-service teachers into Second Life (SL), a three-dimensional immersive virtual world, and to measure their change in attitude towards the potential of SL for education. By completing collaborative assignments in SL, nineteen pre-service general education teachers explored an educational, marine biology island in SL and evaluated its potential for incorporation in general and special education curricula. A pre- and post-survey inquired about the participants’ perception of the usability of virtual worlds for education. Participants collaboratively explored the marine ecosystem of the Abyss Observatory (Nishimura, Lim, & Koyamada, 2012), reflected on its unique affordances, and designed activities for an inclusive classroom, framed by a pedagogical rationale. The difference between the participants’ two attitude scores generated by the pre- and post-survey was calculated and was found to be statistically significant with a large effect size. Results suggest that this 7-Step Virtual Worlds Teacher Training Workshop had a positive impact on the participants’ attitude towards integration of SL into teaching. Five themes emerged with regards to the unique affordances of the Abyss Observatory’s deep-sea area. Finally, the “Teacher-Prep Virtual World Six-Step Model” for effective pre-service teacher preparation for teaching in SL was developed.
Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia (2014) 23(3), 253-284
Collaborative Science Learning in Three-Dimensional
Immersive Virtual Worlds: Pre-Service Teachers’
Experiences in Second Life
NATALIE NUSSLI, KEVIN OH, AND KEVIN MCCANDLESS
University of San Francisco, USA
nnussli@gmail.com
koh2@usfca.edu
kmccandless@dons.usfca.edu
The purpose of this mixed methods study was to help pre-ser-
vice teachers experience and evaluate the potential of Second
Life, a three-dimensional immersive virtual environment, for
potential integration into their future teaching. By complet-
ing collaborative assignments in Second Life, nineteen pre-
service general education teachers explored an educational,
marine biology island in Second Life and evaluated its poten-
tial for incorporation in general and special education curri-
cula. A pre- and post-survey inquired about the participants’
perception of the usability of virtual worlds for education.
Participants collaboratively explored the marine ecosystem
of the Abyss Observatory (Nishimura, Lim, & Koyamada,
2012), reflected on its unique affordances, and designed ac-
tivities for an inclusive classroom, framed by a pedagogi-
cal rationale. The difference between the participants’ two
attitude scores generated by the pre- and post-survey was
calculated and was found to be statistically significant with
a large effect size. Results suggest that the workshop had a
positive impact on the participants’ attitude towards integra-
tion of Second Life into teaching. Five themes emerged from
the journals with regards to the unique affordances of the
deep-sea area. Finally, the “Teacher-prep Virtual World Six
Step Model” for effective pre-service teacher preparation for
teaching in Second Life was developed.
254 Nussli, Oh, and McCandless
INTRODUCTION
There has been a dearth of empirical research in terms of prepar-
ing teachers for the effective incorporation of three-dimensional (3D) im-
mersive virtual worlds in their teaching (Guasch, Alvarez, & Espasa, 2010;
Guzzetti & Stokrocki, 2013; O’Connor & Sakshaug, 2009; Pérez-García,
2009; Storey & Wolf, 2010) and a noticeable lack of publications that give
a full evaluative account of teaching projects in virtual worlds (Good, How-
land, & Thackray, 2008). Virtual worlds have been defined as “persistent,
multi-dimensional, graphical environments consisting of open communities
in which people can establish a sense of presence, learn, socialize, collabo-
rate with others, and express themselves” (p. 63, Downey, 2012). Dalgarno,
Gregory, Carlson, Tee, and Tynan (2013) have recently investigated the use
of virtual worlds in Australia and New Zealand. Of the 62 respondents (out
of 117 respondents) who had already used a virtual world in their teaching,
78% reported using Second Life (SL).
Based on their broad literature search in 2008, Hew and Cheung (2010)
found that only 15 out of 470 articles about teaching and learning in virtual
worlds qualified as empirical research. In a review of the literature, Nussli
and Oh (2014) identified only 21 empirical and theoretical articles with a
focus on teacher education in the use of virtual worlds published between
2002 and 2012. In 2012 and 2013, for instance, only few peer-reviewed
articles were identified that revolve around teacher education in the use of
virtual worlds (e.g., Blankenship & Kim, 2012; Gregory & Masters, 2012;
Guzzetti & Stokrocki, 2013; O’Connor, 2012-2013). Despite the popular-
ity and unique affordances (Dalgarno & Lee, 2010) of virtual worlds among
educators, few systematic attempts have been made to provide virtual
worlds teacher training (Guzzetti & Stokrocki, 2013). One of the goals of
the present study was to contribute to the literature about teacher education
by providing empirical data based on systematic teacher training and a full
evaluative account of the perceptions of pre-service teachers with teaching
experience of the “usability” of virtual worlds for education.
Usability, or classroom applicability, is the degree to which using a
virtual world may enhance learning (Fetscherin & Lattemann, 2008). With
respect to teaching, something may be labeled as usable if it makes learn-
ing more effective, if it is easy to use, and if affordances are provided that
traditional teaching cannot offer. Usability is influenced by many factors,
some of which were addressed by Salmon (2009). Some of these factors in-
clude: (a) how teachers view the potential of virtual worlds for learning and
instruction, (b) the extent of teachers’ awareness of the potential of virtual
Collaborative Science Learning In Three-Dimensional Immersive 255
worlds, (c) if virtual worlds can be adapted to any discipline or context, (d)
how well collaborative learning is supported by virtual worlds, the possibili-
ties and constraints of virtual worlds, (e) if teachers are interested enough
in exploring virtual worlds to spend extra time and efforts in preparation,
(f) if students are interested enough in virtual worlds to get involved, (g)
how to redesign assessment measures, (h) how to facilitate SL sessions, (i)
what influence virtual worlds have on learning, (j) if teachers feel confident
about designing virtual learning activities, (k) if technology requirements
(up-to-date computers) are in place, (l) if support is available, and (m) if the
advantages of a 3D virtual and social environment outweigh the drawbacks
(Salmon, 2009).
A second goal of the present study was to identify the components
of effective teacher preparation, as explored in the 7-Step Virtual Worlds
Teacher Training Workshop. Based on six steps from this workshop, the au-
thors developed the “Teacher-Prep Virtual World 6-Step Model” for effec-
tive teacher preparation in virtual worlds.
BACKGROUND
Digital Teaching and Teacher Education
Providing a smooth transition for any beginning user of 3D technology
may successfully pave the way to a new era of digital culture in education.
Perceptions of instructional time and space, virtual management techniques,
and ways of engaging students through virtual communications require a
paradigm shift (Davis et al., 2007). It has been widely acknowledged that
the transition from traditional to virtual teacher requires stamina, model-
ing, scaffolding, and continuous mentoring (Alvarez, Guasch, & Espasa,
2009; Compton et al., 2010; diPietro, 2010). Neither students nor instructors
have to be experts for enjoyable and effective experiences in virtual worlds
(O’Connor & Sakshaug, 2009). But effective modeling of online technology
is needed to help realize its potential (Compton, Davis, & Correia, 2010).
Traditional educators may better understand and appreciate 3D technologies
by experiencing them first-hand, which will provide them with the skills
needed to provide more effective learning experiences for their students
(Jamison, 2008). Further, “21st century students need knowledge, skills, and
dispositions that can be learned only in an online environment” (NACOL
and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2007, p. 21).
256 Nussli, Oh, and McCandless
Little, however, has been done to prepare teachers to work in this new
environment (Davidson Smith, 2009). Similarly, there is little evidence that
pre-service teachers are being trained in how to use virtual worlds in learn-
ing and instruction. Four years ago, Storey and Wolf (2010) reported being
unable to find a College of Education that was using SL as a pedagogical
tool to deliver course content in teacher preparation. They emphasized that
even though future teachers were strongly encouraged to engage their stu-
dents by using new tools and adopting new strategies, there was little evi-
dence of teacher education colleges practicing what they advocate. Since
then, however, there has been some progress in this respect.
The University of the West of England, Bristol, UK, for instance,
launched an MA Education in Virtual Worlds in August 2012. Their distance
learning program, which focuses on exploring education in virtual worlds,
takes place exclusively in SL. The University of Washington offers a Certifi-
cate in Virtual Worlds for educators, among others, who wish to learn how
to build and evaluate virtual worlds to optimize educational applications.
These are only a few examples of teacher colleges using virtual worlds for
pedagogical training.
There is also an increasing number of platforms for sharing information
about best practices, such as blogs about introducing SL to educators (e.g.,
Ctrl Alt Teach!) or books about introducing educators to the practical and
pedagogical use of virtual worlds (e.g., Nelson & Erlandson, 2012; Savin-
Baden, 2010). Interested educators can join ISTE Special Interest Group for
Virtual Environments (ISTE SigVE, 2013), attend conferences about virtual
worlds best practices in education (e.g., VWBPE, 2013), or learn about pro-
fessional development and collaboration for virtual educators (e.g., SLEEC,
2013). Most of the discussion about best practices, however, is taking place
in discussion forums (Savin-Baden, 2010) rather than through empirical re-
search.
One of the few empirical articles where pre-service teachers used a vir-
tual world as a tool to examine 3D technologies in order to enhance their
pedagogy was described in Campbell (2009). Another example was provid-
ed by Blankenship and Kim (2012) who examined if and how pre-service
teachers (re)shape their pedagogic identities while immersed in professional
development using SL and Skype. Additionally, Kopp and Burkle (2010)
explored the potential of SL as a learning and training space and also ex-
plored the various roles of virtual tutors. Most recently, Guzzetti and Stok-
rocki (2013) offered a model for teacher education in virtual worlds. Similar
to the present study, Guzzetti and Stokrocki designed a systematic 8-step
workshop. One of the objectives was to raise teachers’ awareness of the edu-
cational potential of virtual worlds.
Collaborative Science Learning In Three-Dimensional Immersive 257
The present study contributes to research by providing empirical data
about pre-service teachers’ experiencing a virtual world through the eyes of
a learner. It is based on three premises: (a) If educators receive maximal and
continued support in learning how to navigate and communicate in a virtual
world, (b) if they explore virtual worlds collaboratively, and (c) if they have
repeated opportunities for self-reflection on the usability of SL for educa-
tion, then they will quickly and effectively be able to use SL to their sat-
isfaction (Pérez-García, 2009) and their attitude towards the use of virtual
worlds for education will become more positive.
Collaborative Learning in Virtual Worlds
The present study uses a collaborative learning task in order to chal-
lenge the participants to reflect on whether or not collaborative practices are
transferable to virtual worlds. Social affordances have been widely reported
as one of the key benefits of integrating virtual worlds into learning (Chil-
dress & Braswell, 2006; Dalgarno, 2002; Gamage, Tretiakov, & Crump,
2011; O’Connor, 2009-2010; Pérez-García, 2009; Warburton, 2009). Recent
research (e.g., Deutschmann, Panichi & Molka-Danielsen, 2009) suggests
that virtual worlds are supportive of sociocultural theories of learning, such
as those supported by Vygotsky (1978), and therefore lend themselves to
collaborative, experiential, and inquiry-based learning.
Vygotsky (1978) viewed articulation, conflict, and co-construction as
being instrumental to the cognitive benefits of collaboration. Slavin (2000)
summarized key principles of collaboration derived from Vygotsky’s
ideas. First, Vygotsky’s emphasis on the social nature of learning: learning
through interaction with others. Second, collaboration exposes the thinking
process, that is, everyone’s thinking process is available to all team mem-
bers, which makes the learning process accessible to everyone. Third, col-
laboration forces participants/students to think out loud, which has two
benefits: talking oneself through a problem is a successful problem solv-
ing strategy, and novice peers can learn how successful problem solvers are
thinking through their problems. Fourth, learning is optimized for concepts
in the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which is the “distance be-
tween the actual developmental level as determined by independent prob-
lem solving and the level of potential development as determined through
problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable
peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86). When collaborating, we are likely to have
a peer performing at a slightly higher cognitive level, which helps learners
258 Nussli, Oh, and McCandless
move through their ZPD and ultimately think and perform at a higher level.
Vygotsky also analyzed the concept of the ZPD in terms of more equal sta-
tus partnerships, with each partner in a peer collaboration possessing some
skills, but requiring the peer’s assistance to make progress.
Benefits of collaborative learning according to Johnson, Johnson, and
Holubec (1998) include greater efforts to achieve, that is, the striving for a
higher achievement by all students, better long-term retention, higher intrin-
sic motivation, more time spent on task, and advancement of higher-order
reasoning skills. Establishing more positive relationships among students
includes building a sense of community, social support, acknowledging and
valuing diversity and cohesion. One common finding is that by addressing
conflicting thoughts and contradictory opinions in discussions, team mem-
bers are forced to articulate and reflect on their ideas, which is in line with
Vygotsky (1978) who hypothesized that reflection has to happen on a so-
cial plane first before the fruits of this collaborative reflection can be inter-
nalized on an individual plane. A feeling of camaraderie is established not
only among participants but also with the instructor because hearing an in-
structor talk directly can be perceived as making the course more genuine
(O’Connor, 2009-2010).
Designing virtual tasks that promote collaboration and socialization
requires unique teacher competencies. Warburton and Pérez-García (2009)
identified a set of guidelines that address factors fostering collaboration in
3D environments, all of which were taken into account in the design of the
present study, such as running a social event before the main activity, defin-
ing ground rules for communication, making collaboration intrinsic to the
tasks, guidance and regular briefing in order to scaffold gradually increasing
levels of task complexity, video tutorials, and live mentoring/assistance.
Teacher Training in the Use of Virtual Worlds
Pérez-García (2009) provided an overview of the European MUVEna-
tion program investigating teacher competencies. A teacher training pro-
gram was developed using active learning within multi-user virtual environ-
ments (MUVEs) to promote student motivation. Similar to MUVEnation,
the participants in the present study were offered the opportunity to analyze
learning experiences through the lens of a learner, thereby assisting them
in developing meaningful guidelines for their future teaching. An educator’s
familiarity with virtual worlds, however, is not sufficient to make virtual
learning successful. Storey and Wolf (2010) warned that students might be
Collaborative Science Learning In Three-Dimensional Immersive 259
overwhelmed by a difficult interface and frustrated by hardware problems.
Another reason for a possible rejection of virtual worlds is that students
could perceive virtual spaces as a venue for play rather than a platform for
learning (Cheal, 2009).
The transition into the virtual environment has been frequently men-
tioned as one of the main challenges in virtual research (Dickey, 2011;
DiPietro, 2010; O’Connor, 2009-2010; Storey & Wolf, 2010). Only few
users with little or no experience in emerging technologies overcome the
technological threshold (Warburton, 2008) while those educators who feel
comfortable using technology in their teaching will easily learn the skills
required for functioning in a virtual world. O’Connor (2009-2010) reported
that both a pre-assignment training task and a starter kit with screenshots
had adequately prepared her participants for a virtual experience. Similar to
her study, participants in this study were provided with preliminary virtual
training and received a highly pictorial manual.
Purpose
The purpose of this study was to provide teachers with opportunities to
experience educational environments in SL, to reflect on their usability for
education, and to collaboratively design activities for a hypothetical target
population by means of a systematic 7-Step Virtual Worlds Teacher Training
Workshop. The research questions that guided this investigation are:
1. What impact does a workshop in a virtual world have on participants’ at-
titude towards the usability of virtual worlds for learning and instruction?
2. How can teachers be prepared most effectively to teach in a virtual
world?
3. Do virtual worlds motivate students to participate more actively, to make
efforts more willingly, and to become more involved in learning activities?
4. To what extent do virtual worlds support collaboration?
METHODOLOGY
Research Design
A one-group pre- and post-survey design was used to measure the par-
ticipants’ attitude towards the use of virtual worlds in education before and
after a 7-Step Virtual Worlds Teacher Training Workshop. The process of
260 Nussli, Oh, and McCandless
learning about SL was inquiry-based, with a special emphasis on the ratio-
nale of using virtual worlds for education. Table 1 provides an overview of
each step of the 7-Step Virtual Worlds Teacher Training Workshop (overall,
approximately five hours within three weeks). It also illustrates how each
step aligns with the research questions.
Table 1
Project Overview: 7-Step Virtual Worlds Teacher Training Workshop
#Description of Activity Purpose and
Research Questions addressed
1 Watch demo video about science-related
SL island and complete pre-survey on
Survey Monkey
Raise awareness of 3D technologies and
potential use for education. This step was
the first in a series of steps (1, 3, 4, 6, 7)
to address participant’s attitude towards
incorporation of virtual worlds in learn-
ing and instruction (research question
one)
2 SL start-up kit/manual Technical preparation
3 Individual fieldtrip after watching
7-minute demo video (Media Zoo, Abyss
Observatory, NOAA plus bonus task on
Genome Island)
Demonstrate readiness for core assign-
ment (step 5)
4 Debriefing: In-class discussion of the ra-
tionale behind the workshop and potential
uses of virtual worlds in education
Address participant’s attitude towards in-
corporation of virtual worlds in learning
and instruction (research question one)
5 Core assignment: Group exploration
of the Abyss Observatory, collabora-
tive brainstorming on potential learning
activities for an inclusive classroom
Reflect critically on why and how virtual
worlds can be used where an alternative
platform would not be equally effective in
terms of learning. Reflect on the type of
activities that would be effective for both
general and special education students.
Identify motivating activities (research
question three)
6 Reflective Journal Reflect on questions that will help to
answer research questions two, three,
and four (i.e., components of effective
teacher preparation in the use of virtual
worlds; increased motivation, willingness
to engage and participate actively; and
collaboration)
7 Post-survey Same as step 6
The research methodology reflects that the participants were inexperi-
enced users of virtual worlds. They were provided with clear guidance in
Collaborative Science Learning In Three-Dimensional Immersive 261
steps 1 through 4 of the workshop. Once they were sufficiently familiar with
both the technology and the rationale behind the workshop, that is, develop-
ing the ability to make informed decisions about the educational potential of
virtual worlds, less guidance was offered.
Participants
Nineteen (18 female, 1 male) general education pre-service teachers
with teaching experience were enrolled in a graduate-level special educa-
tion intersession course. The class met three times a week for three weeks,
with each session lasting four hours. One of the projects in this class, the
virtual workshop, was for students to familiarize themselves with virtual
worlds and reflect on their experiences. Almost 90% of the participants re-
ported having no experience using SL, while 10% reported having a little
experience. Thirteen participants were planning to teach multiple subjects in
elementary school, two participants intended to teach mathematics in high
school, and four participants were going to teach English (levels not speci-
fied).
Instruments
Preliminary survey. The purpose of a preliminary survey was to mea-
sure the pre-service teachers’ attitude towards the usability of virtual worlds
for education by means of a 12-item attitude scale. The initial version of
the survey about teachers’ perception of the usability of virtual worlds for
education consisted of 48 items and was pilot-tested on 32 educators in
the Spring of 2012. The items were generated from the key dimensions
that emerged from a review of the literature (Barbour & Reeves, 2009;
Fetscherin & Lattemann, 2008; Verhagen, Feldberg, van den Hooff, Meents,
& Merikivi, 2011; Warburton, 2009), thereby providing construct-related
evidence of validity.
The item analysis revealed an excessive number of non-answers (“don’t
know” and “neutral”), which indicated that pilot testers tended to have dif-
ficulties answering some questions due to a lack of experience with virtual
worlds. Subsequently, 24 items of the original 48-item survey were elimi-
nated due to poor discrimination coefficients, excessive non-answers, or
a lack of supporting construct validity. Twenty-four items were retained,
all of which were constructed using declarative statements on a five-point
262 Nussli, Oh, and McCandless
Likert-type scale (1=strongly disagree, 2=disagree, 3=don’t know, 4=agree,
5=strongly agree). Negatively keyed items were reverse scored so that high-
er scores indicated more agreement, that is, higher perceived usability of
virtual worlds for education. The attitude score, which was calculated for
the present study, was based on the attitude scale, which consisted of twelve
of these items (questions 1 to 12).
Reliability. Reliability analyses for the 12-item attitude scale were re-
peated and the responses to questions 1 through 12 were compared and ana-
lyzed using SPSS. With respect to reliability, Cronbach’s coefficient alpha,
which was obtained from another pilot test on a new sample of 31 educa-
tors, was calculated to be .83. This value indicates a high level of internal
consistency among the test items. Question 13 was a summary question
measuring the participants’ overall rating of the usability of virtual worlds
for education on a 10-point rating scale. Table 2 displays the 13 items.
Table 2
13-Item Preliminary Survey: Content
Item Content
1* I am apprehensive of the thought of having to use SL for teaching.
2 I am confident that I can find someone to support me in facilitating the use of SL.
3 I like the fact that multimedia can be integrated into SL.
4* I fear that students already spend too much time on the computer.
5* I fear that students are already too overwhelmed with other tasks and activities to
want to explore something new.
6 I think that students would enjoy the experience of a virtual learning environment.
7 SL can be used to experience content that would otherwise be inaccessible (e.g.,
because it is historically lost, too distant, too costly, imaginary, futuristic or impos-
sible to see by the human eye.)
8 SL makes learning more interesting.
9* SL is for entertainment only.
10 Working with SL looks like fun.
11* Working with SL looks like so much fun that it will distract students from the
actual learning task.
12 I cannot wait to use SL for teaching.
13 In your opinion, how useful is SL for learning and instruction overall? Please indi-
cate on a scale from 1 (useless) to 10 (extremely useful).
* Negatively keyed items were reverse coded.
Collaborative Science Learning In Three-Dimensional Immersive 263
Reflective journal. Keeping a journal can help educators understand
the problems that their own students will encounter in future explorations
of virtual worlds and to design assignments with these issues in mind. Par-
ticipants thus had an opportunity for deep reflection about their new experi-
ences in an entirely new learning environment.
Post-survey. The 12-item attitude scale, which was incorporated both
into the preliminary and post-survey, measured the pre-service teachers’ at-
titude towards the usability of virtual worlds for education. Table 3 displays
additional post-survey questions, which are briefly described here. Ques-
tions 13 to 23 also inquired about pre-service teachers’ perceptions of the
usability of virtual worlds, but these questions were not asked in the pre-
liminary survey because the participants needed the knowledge conveyed
in the workshop to be able to answer these questions. Question 24 asked
the respondents to choose from 10 educational activities that would be par-
ticularly suitable for delivery in virtual worlds. Question 25 (corresponds
to question 13 in the preliminary survey) measured the perceived usability
of SL for education. Questions 26 to 36 focused on collaborative learning.
Questions 37 and 39 were open-end comment questions. Question 38 asked
about the usefulness of the inquiry-approach to the workshop.
Data Analysis
The study followed a mixed-methods research design. Data triangula-
tion was achieved through analysis of the various instruments used for data
collection, namely the quantitative analysis of the preliminary survey (step
1), the qualitative analysis of both the collaborative development of poten-
tial activities in the Abyss Observatory (step 5) and the reflective journal
(step 6), as well as both quantitative and qualitative analyses of the post-
survey (step 7). From these instruments, data describing participants’ at-
titude towards the use of virtual worlds for education, participants’ ability
to reflect critically on the potential uses of virtual worlds in education, and
their ability to design virtual worlds activities supported by a pedagogical
rationale were synthesized.
Qualitative. Two authors read the reflective journals independently and
each highlighted five to six recurring themes. The text was screened for all
supporting instances. Next, the two authors agreed on five common topics.
To add another level of analysis, the answers to the open-ended questions
and comments in the post-survey were also screened for these five topics. A
selection of both supporting and contradicting quotations was highlighted.
264 Nussli, Oh, and McCandless
Table 3
39-Item Post-Survey: Content
Item Content
13* SL is only suitable for independent learners.
14* SL is only suitable for intrinsically motivated learners.
15* SL is only suitable for learners with high technology skills.
16 I like the fact that I can manipulate objects in SL.
17 Navigation in SL is easy.
18 SL can be used for group work.
19* Students will be distracted by the bells and whistles of the 3D environment (that is, the
visual appeal of the virtual environment).
20 The game style of SL motivates learners.
21 The rich landscape in SL motivates learners.
22 I would be willing to use SL for teaching together with an experienced SL coach, co-
teacher, or facilitator.
23* I would like to use SL for teaching but I lack the necessary technical skills.
24 Which of the following current educational activities in SL would be suitable for your
class? Please check all that apply (followed by ten options).
25 In your opinion, how useful is SL for learning and instruction overall? Please indicate
on a scale from 1 (useless) to 10 (extremely useful) by selecting the appropriate
number.
26 What role in your SL exploration did you have, and what role did your partners have?
27 Do you think that your group’s outcome was better than it would have been if you had
been working alone? Or do you think that you would have met the learning objectives
of the SL assignments better if you had been working alone? Please explain.
28 To what extent did you enjoy working with your partners?
29 To what extent did the collaboration motivate you to put in greater efforts into the
completion of the assignment?
30 To what extent did you feel a sense of community with your partners?
31 To what extent did the social support by your partners improve your achievement in
these assignments?
32 How well were you able to meet the learning objectives of the SL assignments?
33 To what extent did you agree on the goals of what you wanted to achieve in this as-
signment?
34 To what extent did your partners ask critical questions that helped you to reflect on
your understanding?
35 To what extent did you have discussions with your partners that helped you to correct
your understanding?
36 Overall, how well can collaborative learning be satisfied in SL?
37 Optional comments. If you would like to add anything about the collaboration process,
please comment here:
38 How useful was the inquiry process of experiencing SL first-hand in order to learn
how to use it in teaching?
39 Optional comments. If you would like to add anything else about SL or this survey,
please comment here:
* Negatively keyed items were reverse coded.
Collaborative Science Learning In Three-Dimensional Immersive 265
Quantitative. The responses to the pre- and post-surveys were com-
pared and analyzed using SPSS. Each individual participant’s answers to
the 12-item attitude scale in both the preliminary and the post-survey were
summed to obtain pre- and post-total attitude scores (max. = 60) reflecting
their perception of the usability of SL for education. To explore differences
in mean attitude scores between the pre- and post-surveys, a series of Wil-
coxon signed-rank tests were performed. The purpose, question format, and
the type of data analysis for each post-survey question are summarized in
Table 4.
Table 4
Overview of 39-Item Post-Survey: Purpose, Format, and Data Analysis
Question # Purpose Format Data Analysis
1-12 Determine attitude towards
the usability of virtual
worlds for education
5-point Likert-type scale
(1=lowest rating, 5=high-
est rating)
Comparison with
means of preliminary
survey, inferential
statistics, non-
parametric Wilcoxon
signed rank test
13-23 Determine attitude towards
the usability of virtual
worlds for education
5-point Likert-type scale
(1=lowest rating, 5=high-
est rating)
Frequencies
24 Choosing educational activi-
ties in SL from 10 options
Multiple choice
(all that apply)
Frequencies
25 Summary question to
validate questions 1-12
measuring attitude towards
usability
10-point rating scale
(1=lowest rating,
10=highest rating)
Inferential statistics,
non-parametric
Wilcoxon signed-
rank test
26-36 How well can collaborative
learning be satisfied in SL?
The participants’ roles in
the collaborative tasks, their
perceptions of the quality of
the group work, the sense of
community, their perception
of the collaborative outcome,
the process of asking each
other critical questions
10-point rating scale
(1=lowest rating,
10=highest rating)
Average ratings
37 Optional comments about
the collaborative process
Open-ended Qualitative
38 Inquiry process: Usefulness
of the inquiry approach that
framed the workshop
10-point rating scale Average rating
39 Optional comments about
the workshop
Open-ended Qualitative
266 Nussli, Oh, and McCandless
Procedures
Figure 1 provides an overview of the 7-Step Virtual Worlds Teacher
Training Workshop.
Figure 1. Overview of the 7-Step Virtual Worlds Teacher Training Workshop.
Preliminary activities (steps 1-4). The participants’ inquiry started
with an open-ended question for investigation: “How usable is SL for gener-
al and special education purposes?” Students completed seven steps to come
to a conclusion. The purpose of the inquiry approach was to provide the op-
portunity to build knowledge from first-hand collaborative experiences and
reflection. The pre-service teachers’ were repeatedly confronted with the
question of the meaningfulness of virtual worlds for education. After watch-
ing a five-minute video about the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric
Association (NOAA) SL region, participants completed the preliminary sur-
vey. In step 2, the participants created their own SL account, downloaded
Phoenix viewer (i.e., an alternative SL viewer), and learned basic navigation
with the help of a highly pictorial SL manual. Step 3 consisted of a pre-
liminary fieldtrip to three SL islands (Media Zoo, NOAA, and Abyss Obser-
vatory) to ensure that students master the navigation skills required for the
actual assignment (step 5).
Special attention was paid to setting up the learning session properly
(Savin-Baden, 2010), for example by modeling the activities in a 7-min-
ute video in which the avatar of one of the researchers demonstrated what
needed to be done on each island. The pre-service teachers completed these
preliminary tasks in a computer laboratory. One researcher was physically
present and available for assistance while the second researcher was virtu-
ally available for assistance in SL and connected through Skype. In a bonus
task, participants submitted snapshots of their avatars completing hands-on
and experiential tasks on Genome Island (Figure 2), such as breeding cats,
injecting bacterial transformations into mice, flying in a cell, and operating
a microscope. In step 4, as a debriefing measure, the virtual experience and
participants’ first impressions were discussed in class. The instructor en-
sured that everyone understood the rationale behind the workshop, that is,
to increase the participants’ awareness of the potential of virtual worlds to
make informed decisions about their incorporation into education.
Collaborative Science Learning In Three-Dimensional Immersive 267
Figure 2. A hands-on activity on Genome Island.
Core assignment (step 5). Steps 1 through 4 prepared the pre-service
teachers for the actual assignment in step 5, in which groups of four en-
gaged in a 60-minute exploration of the marine eco-system of the Abyss
Observatory. The activity required them to brainstorm on potential activities
(how can they be used?), to reflect on the rationale of using these areas for
education (why would/should they be used?), to rate their potential for spe-
cial education students, and to discuss how to modify the explored virtual
space to accommodate student and teacher needs. Skype was used for voice
communication.
The researchers facilitated the SL sessions to varying degrees, for ex-
ample by teleporting an avatar back who got lost. After leaving the base-
ment aquarium, participants rode on a torpedo to the underwater Tektite
research station where they explored the marine ecosystem both individu-
ally and as a group for 30 minutes. Participants were repeatedly encouraged
to interact with each other during this exploration, to share anything they
discovered, and to think about possible educational activities. Participants
reconvened at the undersea bar and started brainstorming about potential
student activities for 30 minutes. The goal was to design a lesson plan re-
volving around the marine ecosystem for an inclusive classroom (regular
and special needs students), describing activities, the student population,
the objective of the lesson, and the rationale and unique affordances of the
Abyss Observatory to support these goals. The pre-service teachers specifi-
cally had to explain what could be achieved in this virtual environment that
could not be achieved otherwise.
Reflective journal (step 6). Within a week after step 5, participants
wrote a brief reflective journal based on five prompts designed around the
research questions. The prompts are shown in the presentation of the results.
268 Nussli, Oh, and McCandless
Post-survey (step 7). Finally, participants completed the 39-item post-
survey online.
RESULTS
The first research question, “What impact does a virtual worlds work-
shop have on participants’ attitude towards the usability of virtual worlds for
learning and instruction?” was addressed by the preliminary and post-survey
as well as the reflective journal.
Preliminary Survey
Attitude scale. Table 5 displays the means and standard deviations of
questions 1 to 12, which compared the pre-service teachers’ attitude towards
the usability of virtual worlds for education before and after the workshop.
Table 5
Means and Standard Deviations of 12 Items Measuring the Pre-Service
Teachers’ Attitude towards the Usability of virtual worlds
Question #
Preliminary Survey
(Max. 5) SD
Post-Survey
(Max. 5) SD
1 2.16 1.01 3.00 1.15
2 3.21 0.98 3.16 0.96
3 3.95 0.62 4.21 0.71
4 2.21 0.98 2.11 1.05
5 3.79 1.08 4.21 0.42
6 4.05 0.71 4.32 0.48
7 3.89 0.81 4.79 0.42
8 3.47 0.84 4.00 0.67
9 3.84 0.76 3.74 0.81
10 3.05 0.97 3.74 0.87
11 3.37 0.90 3.26 0.87
12 2.53 0.96 2.53 1.02
Collaborative Science Learning In Three-Dimensional Immersive 269
The maximum attitude score regarding the participants’ perception of
the usability of SL for education was 60. The class means in the pre- and
post-surveys were 39.53 (SD = 6.48) and 43.05 (SD = 6.48), respectively.
To explore whether the difference in means was statistically significant, a
Wilcoxon signed-rank test was performed. Given the small sample size and
inability to verify the assumptions required of a parametric test, the Wil-
coxon signed-rank test was applied instead of a dependent-samples t test.
Results suggest that there was a statistically significant increase in mean at-
titude as a result of the training participants received in SL (z = 3.30, p <
.05, r = .54). The effect size estimate of .54 can be interpreted as a large
effect size using thresholds of .1, .3, and .5 for small, medium, and large ef-
fect sizes, respectively.
Usability ratings. As described earlier, question 13 in the preliminary
survey and question 25 in the post-survey measured the participants’ over-
all perceptions of the usability of virtual worlds for education on a 10-point
scale (1 = useless, 10 = extremely useful). The mean ranking at the prelimi-
nary survey was 5.74 (SD = 1.52) and increased by about 10% to 6.32 (SD
= 1.86) at the post-survey. Overall, more participants (74%) rated the us-
ability at 6 or higher in the post-survey than in the post-survey (53%). Fig-
ure 3 displays the number of participants (y-axis) and their usability ratings
on a 10-point rating scale in the pre- and post-survey. These ratings suggest
that the pre-service teachers’ attitude towards the usability of virtual worlds
for education increased as a result of the training received in SL.
Figure 3. Comparison of usability perceptions on a 10-point rating scale.
270 Nussli, Oh, and McCandless
Post-Survey
Usability ratings. Overall, based on the pre-service teachers’ answers
to questions 13 to 23, they had a positive attitude towards the educational
use of virtual worlds. Frequencies are shown in Table 6.
Table 6
Attitude Towards the Educational Potential of Virtual Worlds
Questions Frequencies
(Strongly)
Agree
(Strongly)
Disagree
Don’t
Know
*SL is only suitable for independent learners. 1 (5.3%) 15 (78.9%) 3 (15.8%)
*SL is only suitable for intrinsically motivated
learners.
2 (10.5%) 14 (73.7%) 3 (15.8%)
*SL is only suitable for learners with high
technology skills.
6 (31.6%) 13 (68.4%) -
I like the fact that I can manipulate objects in SL.
14 (73.7%) 3 (15.8%) 2 (10.5%)
Navigation in SL is easy. 8 (42.1%) 11 (57.9%) -
SL can be used for group work. 17 (89.5%) 2 (10.5%) -
Students will be distracted by the bells and
whistles of the 3D environment (that is, the
visual appeal of the virtual environment).
7 (36.8%) 8 (42.1%) 4 (21.1%)
The game style of SL motivates learners. 15 (78.9%) 1 (5.3%) 3 (15.8%)
The rich landscape in SL motivates learners. 14 (73.7%) 1 (5.3%) 4 (21.1%)
I would be willing to use SL for teaching
with an experienced SL coach, co-teacher, or
facilitator.
16 (84.2%) 1 (5.3%) 2 (10.5%)
I would like to use SL for teaching but I lack
the necessary technical skills.
6 (31.6%) 8 (42.1%) 5 (26.3%)
* negatively keyed questions
(Percentages in Table 6 have been rounded and may not total to 100%.)
In terms of suitable educational activities (question 24), all participants,
but three, (84%) chose cultural immersion (visiting virtual islands outside
the U.S., for example virtual Morocco). The following three of the ten giv-
en options were each chosen by 14 (74%) respondents: treasure hunts, dis-
plays/exhibits, and historical recreations (e.g., Atlantis, Land of Lincoln or
Paris in 1900). Language learning, immersive exhibits (e.g., an exhibit that
leads visitors through the minds of schizophrenic patients), creative writing,
Collaborative Science Learning In Three-Dimensional Immersive 271
and self-paced tutorials were each chosen by 9 (47%). Data visualizations (a
ball and stick model of a lactose molecule; DNA; the Pythagorean theorem,
etc.) were least popular and only chosen by half (42%) of the respondents.
Collaborative learning. The fourth research question inquired about
how well collaborative learning could be satisfied in SL. This question was
addressed by the post-survey questions 26 through 37, using a 10-point rat-
ing scale (1 = lowest rating, 10 = highest rating). Average ratings are in-
dicated in parentheses. The majority of respondents chose high ratings
throughout. They had enjoyed working with their partners (9.11) and the
collaboration had motivated them to put in greater efforts into completing
the assignment (9.11). They had felt a sense of community with their part-
ners (8.47) and stated that the social support by their partners had improved
their achievement (8.79).
I liked discussing the lesson plan idea with the group and
also enjoyed the camaraderie that we experienced as we
bumbled through the virtual world together. Since we
were all in the same boat feeling apprehensive about SL
(I think), we were able to bounce off each other and felt a
sense of community.
They had been able to meet the learning objectives of the SL assignment
(9.21). Critical questions asked by their partners had helped them to reflect
on their understanding (7.95) and discussions with their partners had helped
them to correct their understanding (7.84).
I probably would have met the same learning objectives of the SL
assignments had I been working alone, though the group work
made it more fun and engaging. I enjoyed the collaborative aspect
of our discussion and lesson planning. My group was quick to
offer assistance when I needed help navigating and vice versa. In
this way, it helped show me that group learning is possible in this
environment and added another layer to my education on virtual
worlds and their potential for use in the classroom. Additionally, I
was able to interact with some classmates that I normally don’t in
the classroom - because of time, seating arrangement, etc. It was
nice to speak with others in the program, in a small group setting.
Overall, the pre-service teachers stated that SL supports collaborative learn-
ing quite well (8.32).
I think working together made the experience much better. Since
we were all very new to SL, coming up with ideas and bouncing
272 Nussli, Oh, and McCandless
them off of each other helped us to see the potential that SL has in
the classroom. I would not have been so inspired to think of ideas
if I was working alone. I may have gotten frustrated and not seen
the value in the activity. Discussing with my peers motivated me
and got me excited to think of potential uses for SL with students.
Some of the collaborative activities, however, could very well have taken
place outside of SL. For example, one respondent wrote, “We were just
‘sitting’ at a [virtual] ‘bar’ while having a conversation over Skype.” In re-
sponse to question 38, the inquiry process of experiencing SL first-hand as
very useful (8.63).
Core Assignment
Sample lesson plan. After exploring the shallow water ecosystem on
the Abyss Observatory (Figure 4), the pre-service teachers gathered at the
undersea bar to plan a lesson. They decided on the objective, student popu-
lation, brainstormed on activities, and discussed the rationale and unique af-
fordances of both their lesson plan and this ecosystem, concentrating on the
question: “What can our students learn here that they cannot elsewhere?”
Figure 4. Group discussions and underwater explorations in the Abyss Ob-
servatory.
The four groups formulated different objectives for their lessons. “Iden-
tify organisms in the ecosystem and describe how they exchange energy
and nutrients in the environment”, for example, is the objective that one of
the four groups designed for a 6th grade inclusive class. Their lesson plan
included the following steps: read about food chains before launching into
their virtual exploration at the basement aquarium in the Abyss Observatory.
Watch a few videos in the aquarium, then dive around outside the aquarium
and try to find the animals from the video, and engage in a group scavenger
hunt. While completing these activities, students communicate, navigate as
a group, and make sure everyone gets through together. Fun things would
Collaborative Science Learning In Three-Dimensional Immersive 273
be included, such as riding on the whale, walking inside a school of fish or
floating above corals. As part of the scavenger hunt, students have to locate
five organisms: decomposer, producer, herbivore, carnivore, and second-
ary carnivore. Once the scavenger hunt is completed, students identify one
animal they would like to explore in greater depth. To conclude this hypo-
thetical lesson, students explore outside websites for additional research and
summarize their findings in a research paper.
Affordances. As participants were designing their lesson plans, they
were asked to reflect on the unique affordances of SL and how they sup-
port their lesson objectives. One group identified a greater sense of real-
ism: “3D, experiential, spatial representation, getting a feel for the scale and
movement of ocean life.” They also pointed out that students with autistic
spectrum disorder might feel more comfortable collaborating in this envi-
ronment. Finally, the environment was perceived as more motivating than a
textbook. Another group perceived the hands-on aspect as particularly valu-
able. Other affordances included encountering animals that are very danger-
ous and/or very expensive to interact with, experiencing a more profound
sense of exploration than in a 2D environment, collaboration through group
activity, learning about technology by using it, and beginning a social inter-
action for those who are averse to it.
Usability of the Abyss Observatory for education. Participants were
asked to comment on the marine ecosystem of the Abyss Observatory in
terms of its usability for education. They were concerned that links, post-
ers, and information might be difficult to comprehend for English language
learners and elementary-school students. They were also concerned that ex-
ternal websites linked from the aquarium might be too academic for young-
er or special education students. The environment, however, was found to
allow students to experience an environment they would otherwise be un-
able to visit. It might also be suitable for students with motor difficulties
since they can just type and use arrow keys. The environment was consid-
ered to be beneficial for students who may have a physical disability.
Concerns about SL in general. SL was not perceived as user-friendly.
Furthermore, it was felt that standard avatars offered few people of color
and few avatars that were not “gendered”. They would have liked an option
to go back in time and that SL worlds be actual places in the world. Several
students would have liked a world designed just for educators and students.
Overall, the core assignment was reported as being very worthwhile
because it provided a glimpse of what virtual worlds offer for educational
purposes. Most appreciated were the discussions about the rationale of in-
corporating virtual worlds and learning more about unique affordances and
challenges.
274 Nussli, Oh, and McCandless
Reflective Journals
Five themes, which overlap with the five affordances suggested by
Dalgarno and Lee (2010), emerged from the reflective journals (Table 7):
(a) great potential for education, (b) collaboration and interactivity, (c) ex-
ploratory learning, (d) novelty and engagement, and (e) multi-sensory ex-
perience. The themes address research questions three and four. Reflection
prompts (b) and (c) reflect the second and third research question, respec-
tively.
Table 7
Reflective Journals: Six Themes
Theme Content and Examples
Great potential for
education:
Virtual worlds are a
valuable educational tool
with great potential.
Most participants agreed that virtual worlds have great potential
for education, which would increase exponentially if it were
redesigned with education in mind.
Collaboration and
interactivity:
Collaborative benefits
and interactivity enhance
learning and motivation.
Virtual worlds offer social affordances and support social inter-
action and collaboration:
“Because SL was new to all of us, we were still in the early
stages of learning to navigate and familiarize ourselves with the
SL world. I think the collaborative process absolutely helped us
in those efforts as well as the objectives of the lesson.
Exploratory learning:
Affords exploration of
new environments (e.g.,
historic places).
Experiencing in SL what is impossible or impractical in real life:
“I think I would definitely use SL to teach marine biology. I
have a passion for the ocean and would be able to educate my
students on fascinating information that they can experience
hands on through exploring this program. They are able to see
how marine mammals swim around in the ocean as well as
learn facts about sea life through certain rooms located under-
water in SL. This program provides so many facts about science
that is extremely important for students to understand.
Novelty and engagement:
Novel, engaging medium
to teach students.
Participants were intrigued by the novelty of the environment
and wished to learn more about how virtual worlds have been
implemented in other teachers’ classes by analyzing lesson
plans, by learning to locate other educational islands or by locat-
ing an overview of content-specific islands.
Multi-sensory experience:
Sight, sound, motion,
touch.
SL offers an ideal platform for multi-sensory learning:
“It could also be used for art and music if there were virtual
museums or concert halls where students could visit to learn
about artists, musicians or musical genres. Because SL allows
for a multi-sensory experience, I feel that it could be used for
almost any subject once students are developmentally ready to
navigate the learning environment.
Collaborative Science Learning In Three-Dimensional Immersive 275
(a) Do you think that training in using virtual learning environments, such
as SL, should be incorporated in teacher education programs? Twelve re-
spondents (63%) agreed that virtual worlds teacher training should be ad-
dressed in teacher education to some extent, while the remaining respon-
dents were either undecided or against it. Experiential and exploratory
learning and the enhancement of imagination and creative learning were
indicated as benefits. Experiencing different ways of communication, bring-
ing the outside world to the classroom, and the use of virtual worlds as a
collaborative platform were mentioned as unique affordances. Experiencing
virtual worlds first-hand could help open one’s mind to possibilities within
the realms of technology and education. Any training, however small, in-
troducing teachers to virtual worlds was regarded as being valuable even
if only to increase the teacher’s comfort level with technology and help to
make informed choices about the implementation of technology in the class-
room. One student, however, was critical of virtual worlds due to a lack of
evidence validating them in terms of learning gains and stated that if virtual
worlds were to be used with special education students, the teacher training
should focus on how to do this rather than why.
(b) In your opinion, what SL-preparation approaches prepare teachers
most effectively for this new learning environment? The workshop described
in this study was described as very helpful, logically structured, and fun.
Talking about ideas during the brainstorming task, where participants cre-
ated tentative lesson plans and discussed the unique affordances, was par-
ticularly appreciated. This hands-on experience was considered superior to
reading about virtual worlds. The additional fieldtrip to Genome Island (for
extra credit) was appreciated because it offered more practice opportunities
in the privacy of one’s home. Participants were introduced from the simple
(i.e., learning to navigate, completing tasks in a computer laboratory with
the assistance of the teacher) to the more complex issues (i.e., exploring a
virtual space from the perspective of a teacher, brainstorming on potential
activities for an inclusive classroom, and discussing the rationale and unique
affordances). Having been guided by both the teacher and the facilitator was
found to be helpful as well.
Several suggestions for improvement were made. For example, intro-
ducing a variety of virtual worlds, including technically more advanced ver-
sions for younger teachers and possibly simpler versions for more mature
teachers. Reading about how virtual worlds have been implemented by oth-
er teachers would have been appreciated as well, for example, by analyzing
existing lesson plans. In the same vein, reading journal articles providing
information about the affordances and limitations would have also been de-
sirable. A recurring issue was how to locate valuable SL islands in terms of
276 Nussli, Oh, and McCandless
educational potential, such as content-specific directories. Participants also
mentioned that a very solid understanding of this technology was essential
for potential troubleshooting. Specific training on how to use a virtual world
with small children would have been appreciated too. In a similar vein, it
was suggested that a list of age-appropriate educational virtual locations be
shared, that teachers should be explicitly shown how to use virtual worlds
for students with social skills challenges, and which were the best behaviors
to target within virtual worlds.
(c) Overall, do you think SL will motivate students to participate more
actively, to make efforts more willingly, and to become more involved
in learning activities? Overall, all participants but one found that SL had
the potential to motivate students who might otherwise be unmotivated to
engage in learning activities. One of the reasons mentioned was that stu-
dents generally enjoy technology. Special potential was identified for spe-
cial needs students. While SL was generally found to enhance imagination
and collaboration, it was also highlighted that its effectiveness as a mediator
of learning depended strongly on how the activity was designed and imple-
mented, and how the teacher decides to use it. The platform was thought
to encourage shy students in particular because less confrontational means
were used for communication. Even though the environment was reported
to take some time to get used to, participants appreciated it as a novel and
fun way to meet. If, for instance, students had trouble understanding what
they are learning about, using SL might motivate them to continue making
an effort. Even though participants did see the potential of SL as a motivator
for learning, nine (47%) had concerns.
Overall I believe that this could be a great tool to initially engage
students’ interest in learning activities. However, I fear the reper-
cussions of introducing this kind of technology to a generation that
I fear is already moving rapidly away from literacy and towards
image and spectacle. I imagine many will think me doe-eyed, naive
and idealistic, but I find anything that has the potential to incapaci-
tate young people needs to be held under the light of critique, if not
removed from education entirely. If as Sir Ken Robinson argues,
creativity requires we not be anaesthetized, I find that using SL as a
“Plan B” of sorts while organizing to ensure all students get access
to an aesthetic education is acceptable. But it must not be the end
all be all.
(d) What are some practical ways to use SL for learning and instruction
in your field?
Collaborative Science Learning In Three-Dimensional Immersive 277
Participants mentioned hands-on experiences in the natural sciences,
social sciences, literature excursions, and explorations of historical and real
places. Concerns about safety in terms of limited access to other islands
were voiced frequently. Looking at materials in SL was considered to be
easier than textbook reading. Similarly, it was suggested that teachers could
jointly plan lessons in virtual worlds because the visualization would facili-
tate planning and enhance creativity. Especially for multisensory learning,
SL was believed to have benefits: Seeing a whale before embarking on a
lesson or hearing dolphin sounds could help engage auditory learners. Cost-
effectiveness was mentioned as a further benefit. Generally, SL was consid-
ered inappropriate for younger learners, which was why several participants
suggested projecting SL on a wall rather than having learners log in them-
selves. Participants came to the conclusion that using it sparingly and stra-
tegically for certain learning outcomes might be the best way to incorporate
SL into a classroom.
(e) Overall, in your own words, how would you rate the potential of
SL for learning and instruction? Overall, 9 participants (47%) described the
potential as high. Seven respondents (37%), while acknowledging its poten-
tial, were also concerned about some limitations (e.g., age restriction, age
inappropriateness, lack of technology at their school). The remaining 3 re-
spondents (16%) were either undecided or did not see any potential. The po-
tential of virtual worlds for distance learners and special needs students was
frequently highlighted.
I can also see how it has the potential to be especially effective
with special needs students. For students with ADHD who might
easily get distracted or bored in class, SL gives them an end-
less world to move around and learn in, while almost feeling like
they’re playing a video game. For students with Autism, or other
disabilities that make them uncomfortable with social interactions,
SL can potentially make them more comfortable and willing to
communicate with their peers.
DISCUSSION
This study contributes empirical data about general education pre-ser-
vice teachers’ perceptions of the usability of virtual worlds, such as SL, for
education as well as their willingness and ability to incorporate these vir-
tual environments into their future teaching. The findings of Gamage et al.
(2011) suggested that the skepticism of teachers without virtual world expe-
rience is due to both a lack of information about the learning affordances of
278 Nussli, Oh, and McCandless
virtual worlds and a lack of self-efficacy. Teachers’ perceptions were expect-
ed to grow more positive with increasing experience (Gamage et al.), which
agrees with the findings of this study. The results suggest that the workshop
offered in this study positively changed the pre-service teachers’ attitude to-
wards the usability of virtual worlds for learning and instruction.
Similar to the pre-service teachers participating in Storey and Wolf
(2010), the participants in this study perceived virtual worlds as an addi-
tional tool in an educator’s pedagogical toolbox. As opposed to the partici-
pants in Gamage et al. (2011), however, these pre-service teachers, albeit
inexperienced in virtual worlds, had no difficulties in suggesting how to cre-
ate experiences in virtual worlds that would prompt learning and would be
impossible in real life. Almost all participants reported seeing educational
potential of virtual worlds if used strategically.
Figure 5 illustrates the key components of effective teacher training in
the use of virtual worlds that were extrapolated from the study’s findings.
Steps 1 through 5 of the Teacher-Prep Virtual World 6-Step Model were
synthesized from the workshop. In their reflective journals, the pre-service
teachers validated these steps and reported finding them effective, logical,
and well-structured. Step 6 of the model is based on the pre-service teach-
ers’ suggestions for improvement. Effective virtual worlds teacher training
would ideally require additional elements, namely learning how to locate
specific islands that would align with subject matter content (e.g., islands
devoted to the learning of mathematics), more extensive exploration, and
learning how to offer troubleshooting.
Figure 5. Teacher-Prep Virtual World 6-Step Model.
Collaborative Science Learning In Three-Dimensional Immersive 279
The pre-service teachers agreed that virtual worlds could be motivating
where other pedagogical techniques or other technologies might fail, espe-
cially in the context of students with learning challenges. The collaborative
exploration of virtual worlds encouraged participants to become more in-
volved in the activity and to perceive their experiences in a novel, unstruc-
tured environment as more satisfying. In order to appreciate the potential
difficulties students might have in exploring virtual worlds, teachers must
experience virtual worlds themselves. The lack of safety and the risk of be-
ing exposed to adult content and unsavory behavior, for instance, should be
addressed in teacher training.
Above all, it is recommended that educators learn to support their
teaching in virtual worlds with sound pedagogical rationales. School admin-
istrators might become increasingly accepting of the incorporation of virtual
worlds into teaching if they are confronted with compelling evidence of pur-
poseful and pedagogically sensible virtual teaching. Increasing popularity
of virtual teaching will boost the demand for teacher training in the use of
virtual worlds, which should be based on empirically tested best practices.
Limitations
The submission of the assignments and surveys required students to
identify themselves, and combined with the fact that students were graded
on their participation, this may have influenced the honesty of their com-
ments. Additionally, the assumption that tech-savvy people will have no dif-
ficulties using virtual worlds is not always true (Savin-Baden, 2010). There-
fore, it would have been useful to include questions examining the partici-
pants’ specific technological background, similar to Campbell (2009), which
would have afforded a distinction between digital immigrants and digital
natives and a correlation between the participants’ technology use and their
attitude towards virtual worlds. Finally, the only virtual world that partici-
pants explored in this workshop was SL. Therefore, the findings cannot nec-
essarily be generalized to other virtual worlds.
CONCLUSIONS
The purpose of this study was to understand the impact of virtual
worlds training on pre-service teachers’ perception of the usability of virtual
worlds for education. The tasks were designed in a way that they could only
280 Nussli, Oh, and McCandless
be accomplished if participants collaborated closely and if they negotiated
their understanding of the unique affordances of virtual worlds. The col-
laboration prompted the pre-service teachers to put in greater efforts than if
they had been working alone. A sense of community and the social support
by their partners improved their achievement, and the discussions helped to
correct potential misconceptions. Discussions were based on prompts that
propelled deep reflection, which may not have been stimulated without a
partner’s input. According to the results, the participants’ attitudes toward
the use of virtual worlds in future teaching assignments had increased af-
ter the workshop, which indicates a reconceptualization of their beliefs
(Vygotsky, 1978). At the beginning of the workshop, they had reservations
about the use of the virtual worlds for education, but after being immersed
in the environment, they had a positive change in attitude.
The findings suggest that there is a need to provide future teachers with
thorough virtual world experiences in teacher education programs. Instead
of simply explaining a teaching tool, a fully immersive experience is recom-
mended to recognize the capability of 3D virtual worlds. In this sense, it is
proposed that teacher educators explicitly develop trainings that provide the
following experiences described in the Teacher-Prep Virtual World 6-Step
Model: (1) scaffolded introduction to a virtual world, (2) collaborative ex-
plorations framed by a pedagogical rationale and self-reflection, (3) identi-
fication of unique affordances, (4) having students design learning activities
framed by a pedagogical rationale, (5) assistance of a more experienced in-
world facilitator, and (6) learning how to locate subject matter directories
in-world.
Transitioning newcomers into the virtual environment has been fre-
quently mentioned as one of the main challenges in virtual research (Dick-
ey, 2011; DiPietro, 2010; O’Connor, 2009-2010; Storey & Wolf, 2010).
Participants might be overwhelmed by a difficult interface and frustrated
by hardware problems (Storey & Wolf, 2010) or they might reject virtual
worlds because they see them as a venue for play rather than as a platform
for learning (Cheal, 2009). The combination of modeling, scaffolding, and
mentoring (Alvarez et al., 2009) in the 7-Step Virtual Worlds Teacher Train-
ing Workshop eased the pre-service teachers’ transition into 3D virtual
teaching by providing appropriate preliminary virtual training and a step-
by-step introduction to virtual worlds. This procedure was chosen to mini-
mize potential frustrations over technical issues and contribute to an overall
positive experience that will be reflected in the pre-service teachers’ attitude
towards virtual worlds.
The pre-service teachers in this study identified the following five
unique affordances: (a) Virtual worlds are a valuable educational tool with
Collaborative Science Learning In Three-Dimensional Immersive 281
great potential; (b) collaborative benefits and interactivity enhance learning
and motivation; (c) virtual worlds support exploratory learning and (d) rep-
resent a novel, engaging medium to teach students. Finally, a unique affor-
dance is (e) the multi-sensory experience (sight, sound, motion, and touch).
More research is needed to show if and how virtual worlds provide advan-
tages over other pedagogical techniques and how to exploit their potential
(Dalgarno & Lee, 2010). Once 3D teaching becomes more popular, it is rec-
ommended that teacher educators develop the ability to model effective uses
of virtual worlds to pre-service teachers while sharing best practices with
the teaching and research community.
The participants in the proposed study analyzed learning experiences
through the lens of a learner, which helped them to develop meaningful
guidelines for their future teaching. When looking at current teacher edu-
cation, virtual worlds are still used sparingly. But once in-world teaching
becomes more popular, teacher educators will develop the ability to model
effective uses of virtual worlds to pre-service teachers while sharing best
practices as they continue to experiment. The findings of this study will in-
form effective teacher training.
Future Research
In a separate research project, the authors focused on inquiry-based,
collaborative learning in SL (Oh & Nussli, 2014). Twelve special educa-
tion teachers enrolled in a graduate teacher education course explored the
usability of SL in an 11-Step Virtual Worlds Teacher Training Workshop
and completed a full inquiry cycle in order to develop the ability to make
an informed decision about the affordances and drawbacks of incorporating
SL into their teaching. The suggestions made by participants’ in the present
study were taken into account in the new research design, in which more
than ten SL islands addressing different subject matters were explored from
an educational perspective. The study will contribute to the research about
virtual worlds teacher training in the field of special education and the po-
tential of virtual worlds for special education students.
282 Nussli, Oh, and McCandless
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