Student perceptions of Presence in a Virtual World

Together with Ross McKerlich, Terry Anderson, and Bard Eastmann I have a paper out in the Journal of Online Learning and Technology (JOLT). The paper is entitled Student Perceptions of Teaching Presence, Social Presence and Cognitive Presence in a Virtual World, and is based on research collaboration we started back in 2009. Back in January 2099, I participated in a Master Class on Learning 2.0 and Knowledge Media at Aarhus University, where Terry Anderson (Athabasca University) was one of the guest lecturers. When Terry learned about my research in SL, he invited me to participate in a research project that was aimed at investigating the use of the Community of Inquiry (COI) model in 3D environments.

The COI model was developed in the late 1990’s as framework for evaluating educational experience in text-based online environments by D. Randy Garrison, Terry Anderson, and Walther Archer. Given the COI model’s wide spread use in different educational settings it is by no means coincidental that one of the original founders, Terry, has found it important to explore the applicability of the model in new online environments such as the 3D virtual world, SL. Together with Ross McKerlich, Terry conducted a preliminary, qualitative exploratory study in SL in 2007, and basically confirmed that the model also can be used in assessing educational experience in 3D virtual environments (McKerlich & Anderson. 2007).

As part of our collaboration, Terry & Ross, participated in one of my in-world classes with the MIL09 students – something both the students and I appreciated very much.

Terry explaining about the COI-model in the MIL09 class

Discussing different COI concepts in the MIL09 class

Anyways, after such a long time, it is great to finally see our paper published, and I want to thank Ross, Terry, and Brad for the collaboration – it was a very good experience :-)

Here’s the abstract of our paper:

Presence – or having a sense of active participation – in distance education has increased with the expanding use of and affordances of communications technologies. Virtual worlds have been on the forefront of popular and education technology in the last three years and innovative methods of teaching and learning are emerging in these contexts.  Using the recently validated community of inquiry (COI) instrument, this study focuses on students’ perceptions of teaching, social and cognitive presence in virtual world contexts. The authors examine whether the COI Instrument can effectively be applied to virtual world learning events. The results are exciting: in a diverse sample, virtual world learners perceive teaching presence, social presence and cognitive presence.


Case MIL: preliminary thoughts based on 3 research cycles

The primary case in my PhD project is a course in the Masterprogramme in ICT and Learning (MIL), which I have redesigned and run three times so far. Though the course has been quite different from research cycle to research cycle, there are still some common traits.

  • The course is the first part of a module on ICT and Didactic Design and according to the curriculum the course should focus on theory and analysis, whereas the second course in the module should focus on concept and implementation. Though separate, the two courses should be regarded as connected, in the sense that the learning outcome of the first course should be more or less applied in the second course. In the first course the students usually are provided with 2-3 optional virtual teaching and learning environments between which they are asked to choose one as analytical object. Throughout the MIL programme the students are introduced to different virtual teaching and learning environments covering a wide range of mainly conventional 2D asynchronous and synchronous examples. Therefore the environments chosen for this course always represent the more unconventional trends, since it is our experience that these often provide more rich and radical settings, which can stimulate reflections.
  • For the last three years the students have been able to choose between the 3D virtual game, Global Conflicts or the 3D virtual world, Second Life as their analytical object.
  • Regardless of choice, the students are expected to discuss and analyze the teaching and learning environment on the basis of the 5 following mandatory topics; Didactics and target groups, Orientation and navigation, Interaction, Learning processes and Audio-visuals.
  • The goal of the course is to teach the students to analyze and reflect based on theoretical foundations – not to teach them about the analytical objects per se.
  • Officially the course runs for 6 weeks from November 1st – until approx.  December 15th.  However, the first two weeks are regarded as preparation period, the students finish the previous module in this period, so they are mainly expected to prepare by reading and the period ends with a 2 ½ day f2f seminar where we introduce the upcoming module.

Research cycles – short overview
Regardless of the fact that I ran the first in-world course in the fall 2007 before I started on my PhD project (January ’08), that pilot course provided valuable data and I consider it to be the first research cycle.

The main research purpose of this first research cycle was to explore SL as medium and quite deliberately I chose not to change the existing course design, which meant that by and large the students were expected to explore the environment by themselves with very little teacher facilitation. Even though MIL students are used to self paced learning and in general can be regarded as being quite tech-savvy SL turned out to be too complex and too unfamiliar for this strategy and interventions proved necessary. I arranged 5 optional activities where we explored different educational designs, met some of my in-world colleagues and engaged in didactic discussions. Since these activities were optional only about half of the students participated, but it resulted in a strong community feeling among those who did.

Based on the findings from this research cycle and in particular the ongoing feedback from the students I decided to focus on different pedagogical in-world activities  and a different overall organization in the second research cycle.

In the first research cycle the students chose to work in their regular study groups meaning that these groups would continue in the second course of the module and the design of the asynchronous environment supported this organization. In the second research cycle the students chose more based on their individual interests and since there were significantly less students, I encouraged them to act like one large group or community and changed the design of the asynchronous environment accordingly (for an elaboration on the asynchronous environment have a look at this post).

The emphasis on different activities proved valuable and especially the preliminary meetings focusing on learning basic SL skills, the Didactic Design Discussions and the students’ own tours seemed worth preserving.  Even though the students did a great job in the first research cycle, the quality of the student analysis and reflections in the second research cycle clearly showed a better understanding of the medium and the relation between theory and practice became more nuanced and critical. The activity of the students in the second cycle rose to an unprecedented level (also compared to other MIL courses) and in general the changes in the didactic design seemed to be successful when judging their learning outcome.  Still, the downside was that we were all exhausted afterwards and the activity level just did not seem realistic to keep up in a forthcoming course. Once again the students provided valuable feedback on the course and they pointed to one very important issue that in their opinion needed to be changed; the assessment method.

In these two research cycles I had maintained the assessment method (write a min. of 3 posts in the asynchronous environment) as stated in the curriculum – above all because I believe asynchronous reflection and writing in general to be one of the greatest learning activities, but also because I didn’t want the choice between the two analytical objects to be based on a difference in this. Furthermore the students at MIL are accustomed to working asynchronously for the main part as it is considered to provide the most flexibility, which naturally is very important when you deal with adults in further education. I asked the students in the first cycle if they would have been willing to do some sort of in-world activity instead of writing posts, but they were reluctant. In hindsight, I think the reluctance was closely connected to the little facilitation and the task of doing something in-world probably seemed overwhelming, whereas the students in the second cycle attained a more profound knowledge of the medium itself. As a result of these considerations, I decided to experiment with the assessment method and some of the other pedagogical activities in the third research cycle.

In the second research cycle all scheduled activities were optional except one (of their own choice). In the third cycle I chose to make two in-world activities (one “Newbie Night” and one Didactic Design Discussion – again of their own choice) mandatory. In between the 2nd and the 3rd research cycle I ran another in-world course (in another setting than MIL) and based on that experience, I decided that learning the basic skills should be mandatory and teacher facilitated. In the second cycle the Didactic Design Discussions proved valuable not least in showing how teaching and learning actually can happen in-world, and I wanted to make sure that all students experienced what it was like to participate in activities like this. And then I also decided to give the students the opportunity to do a synchronous in-world presentation of their analysis and reflections on SL as teaching and learning environment instead of doing it asynchronously.

In my experience there are always a few students who struggle very hard with SL (for various reasons – but some due to technical difficulties alone), and I didn’t want to inflict extra pressure on these students, so I chose to make the assessment method optional.  7 out of 8 students chose to do their presentation in-world. Unfortunately one of the students gave up on doing her presentation in-world because her set-up was removed shortly before she was scheduled to present and she ended up doing it asynchronously, but besides this the in-world presentation idea seemed successful.  I’ve  covered these presentations in the following four posts (part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4), and the learning outcome was definitely high both theoretically and practically. Obviously the experience of being in charge of an in-world session (all presentations included learning activities) gave the students some important knowledge on the teaching and learning potential of the medium.

Looking back all three courses have been successful in the sense that the students undoubtedly have learned a lot, but there is an unsolved discrepancy between the huge amount of time both the students and I have been spending and the flexibility that is needed in an educational setting like this. MIL students are used to a workload of 15-20 hrs. pr. week, but in general they control and manage this time on their own, and this changes noticeably when you choose to remediate the majority of the activities into a complex, synchronous medium like SL. And so I’m wondering; is it worth it? Does it make sense to use SL given these particular circumstances (4 effective weeks, a curriculum other than the medium itself, full time employed students and recurring technical challenges)? I honestly can’t say for the time being.

At MIL we have recently rewritten the curriculum and we are currently in the process of implementing the new structure and the new courses. This means that if I choose to run a SL course next fall the conditions will be better (more weeks, more curricular focus on SL), but I will remain concerned with this dilemma of asynchronous vs.  synchronous activities in flexible, distance education …


Case MIL09: Student analysis of SL – part 4


The fourth and final synchronous analysis of SL in the MIL course was done by Flower and the theme for her presentation was that “we learn through experience”. Now, this is one of the rare occasions where the English language doesn’t fully cover the meaning of a Danish expression. In Danish we have two different words for “experience” – briefly explained one which deals with the more rational type of experience and the other which deals more with the emotional type – the latter – and the one Flower referred to – is perhaps best known in the Anglo-American sphere through the concept of “Experience economy”.  The two words are however not mutually exclusive and I’m afraid  the nuances are a bit more subtle than I’m able to explain … Anyway, the important point for Flower was that we learn through engaging experience and to illustrate this, she started out by taking us to Phantasy Acres, where we received Christmas gifts and went ice-skating.

Fitting objects can be tricky – and may change your appearance  radically .. especially if you’re a cat ;-)

It was highly interesting to observe how the majority of the students actually seemed to enjoy the ice-skating activity – especially since this kind of experience adds no value for me personally.  Activities like dancing, car-racing, paragliding, surfing and the like are quite popular in-world. Feel free to accuse me of being unimaginative, but animating the avatar never really appealed to me.  In my own defense, I think this has to do with the augmentation-immersion problem, and I think Flower nailed it, when she later in her presentation showed a photo of me and my co-facilitator, Mew as examples of an augmentationist vs. an immersionist.

Next stop was Pax Island, where Flower asked us to explore the beauty of the landscape and finish off by jumping into a waterfall before returning to the sandbox on The MIL Island. This experience also included Mew and one of the students trying out a kissing pose – something definitely NpIRL!

Back in the sandbox on the MIL Island it became quite obvious why Flower had put so much emphasis on “experience” as vehicle for learning. RL Flower is a speech therapist and works with clients/patients who have been diagnosed with ALS. My knowledge of ALS is very limited, but Flower explained that her clients slowly deteriorate,  the disease affects their motor skills, and some lose the ability to speak/communicate. Consequently all clients end up in wheel chairs and become more and more isolated from the world. Theoretically Flower is inspired by especially Peter Jarvis, who has (among other things) accentuated the relation between sensory input and learning. The optimal outcome for Flower, if she should chose to use SL, would be to provide her clients with different types of experiences of being “somewhere” literally NpIRL in a social setting also enabling her clients to communicate without oral language in real time.

Flower was one of the MIL students who really had a difficult time learning how to master SL and in the beginning of the course when I strongly encouraged all the students to do their analysis based on their work practice target groups, Flower was very skeptical. But much to my admiration she kept on coming in-world, fought to overcome the initial barriers and never gave up no matter the technical difficulties and personal frustrations and feelings of being incompetent. Her presentation was flawless, well founded theoretically and very sober with regard to the disadvantages of using SL, and as I told her I was really impressed and proud on her behalf. It is experiences like this that really highlights the joy and satisfaction of teaching!

Judging from Flower’s own reflections on the course the most important lessons that she learned came from her own experience as a “newbie” which in many ways placed her in the powerless and uncontrollable situation that her clients often must find themselves in.  And this is something I recognize from all of the four courses I’ve run in-world so far. Those students who are teachers RL benefit greatly from being newbies – from being learners …


Case MIL09: Student analysis of SL – part 3


The third student analysis of SL was conducted by PerSecond and he had asked us to meet him at our regular meeting place in front of the fireplace on MIL’s island, but was otherwise very secretive about his presentation. As we were waiting for the other students to turn up we small talked about our avatars’ clothes – a topic that seems quite popular for both gender in-world. While it doesn’t make much sense to discuss the in-world weather, I do think the interest in the avatar appearance stems from a deeper need to figure out and find your way with the new identity.

PerSecond was actually reluctant to change his appearance from the default look, when he first entered SL, because he didn’t want to put emphasis on that part, but as he learned that caring for your avatar’s appearance signals that you care for the world and are willing to make an effort to learn how to master the medium, he changed his mind. PerSecond told us that had recently received a t-shirt with his company logo, which enabled him to identify more with his otherwise estranged avatar, and as we shall see identity was part of the theme for PerSecond’s presentation. We then headed off to what turned out to be PerSecond’s own home on the Innovative Learning Island.  RL PerSecond works at VIA University College that offers a combination of vocational, higher and further education and they’ve had a presence in SL for quite some time, but it wasn’t until PerSecond entered the MIL course and thus was forced to spend time in-world that he became convinced of the teaching and learning potential of virtual worlds. For his presentation PerSecond had prepared an interesting set-up with a video screen on one wall and a slide presenter on another – a challenging set-up if you don’t master the camera:

Like Perlo & Francine, PerSecond also chose to use the Didactic Relation Model (showed above on the slide presenter) as basis for his presentation and analysis, but he also pointed to other relevant models and theoretical foundations and combined it with video clippings from a couple of other worlds most notably Blue Mars and Hipihi. PerSecond’s primary target group would be building construction students, and one of the main reasons as to why he has been hesitant with the use of SL, is the lack of possibility to integrate other 3D modeling apps in SL – something which Blue Mars offers e.g. through support of content creation tools like 3DSMax.

PerSecond showing another important tool: Revit

As part of the presentation we also went on a short tour to see part of the construction site that recently won the annual Danish e-learning award. It is one of the rare sites that also make use of relevant audio – as you enter the building you hear a lot of very loud background noise that would be normal at a construction site.

Be careful not to step on any of the dangerous cords on the floor!

Using SL for work place training is obviously what appealed to PerSecond and he also envisioned different types of role play to enhance the professional identity of the students.  There are already different outfits for the avatars to wear near the construction site, so that the students could enact different professional roles, but as another example of role playing PerSecond had prepared a little surprise for us in the shape of a second avatar, Per Memo. Per shifted between the two avatars and we were asked to comment on the presentation on IM with Memo.

PerSecond pointed to another interesting advantage of using SL as part of this training which had to do with time and flexibility. Here in Denmark it is unfortunately often difficult to find sufficient internships for our students in the vocational sector and SL could provide an excellent supplement and enable the “school part” of the education to be closer to RL practice – something which most students undoubtedly would appreciate. The ability to leave the setting and return at any time convenient for the students also would provide more flexibility.

Given the fact that PerSecond was reluctant to use SL just a few weeks ago, I was quite impressed by his presentation and not least his willingness to explore and try out the many affordances of the medium. Per will continue his work with SL as part of his Master Thesis in the spring where he may be looking into the possibility of using SL as platform for work they are doing at VIA with Chinese collaborators.


Case MIL09: Student analysis of SL – part 2

Lizzie & Jorn

Lizzie & Jorn, who were in charge of the second didactic analysis in the MIL course, had decided that we should start out by exploring a particular design which then would form the basis for their discussion and reflections, so we went to Teaching 4 – Iowa State University, CELT, where Thursday Xu has created a model of Wenger’s Community of Practice (CoP):

The model has been created as a kind of spiral shaped staircase and as you move up floating text with key concepts central to the theory appears. Other than that there seems to be no apparent interaction possibilities with the model.

After exploring the model we all went to Media Learning, where Lizzie & Jorn had been able to make use of a presentation setting owned by another (first year) MIL student, Inge Qunhua, who is an experienced and award winning SL teacher.

As part of their presentation Lizzie & Jorn started by analyzing the CoP model and I think it is safe to say that none of them or any of the other students was impressed by the model – above all due to the lacking interaction possibilities. My role in these discussions was mainly to listen and observe and it was quite interesting in this case because I did not agree with the students. During the MIL course we have visited other theoretical designs that are based more on interaction between the design and the avatar. Right next to the Cop model, Thursday Xu has created a build of Bloom’s taxonomy, where questions regarding the theory are posed in the local chat as you move your avatar around in the model and we have also been exploring Zotarah Shepherd’s MI build where the avatar can play instruments or solve a mathematical puzzle as examples of the different intelligences and the MIL students clearly preferred these more interactive designs.

In my opinion interaction doesn’t necessarily equal learning. I don’t think my understanding of musical intelligence is enhanced solely because my avatar can be animated to play drums though I recognize that the fun engagement and activity may play an important role in the memorizing process, but there is so much more to learning than just memorizing. In line with Wenger, I believe that negotiation as part of the creation of meaning is essential to the learning process and in this sense my pedagogical foundation obviously is dialogic and I tend to agree with Wegerif. 2006 who finds that one of the goals of education, perhaps even the most important goal, should be dialogue as an end in itself.

Judging the quality of designs for teaching and learning is however very complex and I think that one of the first things you need to clarify is whether the design is intended for single- or multiple-user purposes. In the case of the latter you of course also need to consider the role of other participants and e.g. a facilitator. Lizzie & Jorn found that the CoP model was a “stand-alone” model and therefore they didn’t find it interesting, but as part of their analysis they had also created a suggestion for an alternate CoP model to be used with their particular target group; dental hygienists. This imaginary model was presented as sketches drawn by Lizzie and put emphasis on 3 of the core concepts from the CoP theory;  mutual engagement, shared repertoire and joint enterprise:

By the end of their presentation Lizzie & Jorn also invited us to join them in trying to place the two CoP models within a third model, namely the model created by former MIL student Carsten Storgaard as I’ve referred to earlier in this post. It turned out to be quite difficult, but started an interesting discussion on models and their usability in general.

Afterwards in their reflections in FirstClass, Lizzie & Jorn, mentioned how difficult it is to teach when you’re unable to see the facial expressions and body language in general – the chat (text/voice) becomes crucial in environments like SL in order to get the sense of not talking to an empty space. One of the things Lizzie & Jorn also criticized about the CoP model was the lack of a place for discussion in the model if you’re in a lager group, but in hindsight they concluded that the need to gather (f2f) in order to discuss is more psychological stemming from our RL habits than practical, since there is no other reason to do so in SL where you always can communicate via group chat regardless of distance. They also felt that their presentation had raised more questions than answers, which for someone who believes in the value of unfinished dialogue was good to hear …

Besides the fact that I was really surprised by all of the students’ lacking recognition of dialogue as main means of learning, I do think Lizzie & Jorn did a great job and we all had a very interesting experience. It is, nonetheless difficult not to mention the irony of the situation; the students really criticized the CoP model and its apparent disability to promote learning, but judging from the discussions and the comments during the session it turned out to be an event with both challenging and meaningful negotiation of several of the topics in the course ;-)