Virtual Learning Environments

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All educators can envision learning environments outside of the classroom that would be ideal for their students. For example, as a marketing professor, it would be ideal for me to have my students spend a few days working for a large packaged goods company evaluating new products. However, it is not practical for 70 students to travel 200 miles to the company's location or to expect the company to be able to accommodate so many students. The reality of these ideal learning environments is most often rendered impractical due to cost, time frame or risk. The answer to many educators' dreams is computer generated virtual learning environments.

Many people associate virtual reality as a three-dimensional experience that envelops the user in a fantasy world of computer graphics. This demonstrates the power of virtual reality, but expensive hardware and software limit its widespread application to the field of education. Engaging and exciting learning environments can be created two-dimensionally using pre-recorded video, graphics and animation imbedded in an exploratory program. "Thirst for Knowledge," created at Acadia University, is a virtual learning environment (VLE) that simulates the workplace of the Quaker Oats Company. Students are assigned the VLE midway through a course in Introductory Marketing and their objective is to evaluate the market potential of new Gatorade products.

Typically, students spend 16 hours "going to work for Quaker Oats." While working in this virtual office world, students walk through the building, attend meetings, read reports, receive e-mail, answer the telephone, and use a computer to query a database. At the end of the VLE students write a report recommending a specific course of action, which is then discussed in class during an instructor-led debriefing session.

It is important to note that this program was created using campus resources at a cost of only $10,000. Virtual reality is poised to become the defining educational technology of the next century, as it can be used in any discipline to provide context and experiential learning at a reasonable cost.

Imagine the Possibilities for Virtual Learning Environments

Before outlining some of the educational benefits of this form of learning, I would like you to image the possibilities for virtual learning environments (VLEs) by considering the following examples.

Virtual Science Environments

A virtual laboratory or field setting would allow a student to conduct experiments or make observations that have physical limitations. For example, a Geology student could monitor equipment on an erupting volcano, a Biology student could study a population of animals in their natural habitat, a Psychology student could experience a clinical ethical dilemma, or a Chemical Engineering student could be asked to design a new production facility at an oil refinery.

Virtual Arts Environments

Virtual worlds can be created in any time and any place. For example, a History student could negotiate the Treaty of Versailles, an English student could work as an editor for a Victorian magazine, a Sociology student studying child poverty could design government social programs, or a Fine Art student could authenticate a work of art.

 

Virtual Corporate Training Environments:

A virtual office, plant or store could be developed for any company in the world. In this learning environment, a business student, company or government employee could attend meetings, read documents, operate equipment, access computers, or view an assembly line, all from the comfort of their computer. For example, an Accounting student could conduct an on-site audit, a Finance student could purchase a major capital asset, a Labour Relations student could negotiate a union contract, a Marketing student could negotiate a sales contract, or an Operations Management student could implement a quality control program.

The Benefits of Virtual Learning Environments

What are the benefits aside from being able to place the student into an ideal learning environment:

  1. A VLE provides the student with context for the learning process to take place. Students create cognitive maps of information based on their experiences. Contextualizing content supports the mapping process, making concepts more concrete, thus facilitating understanding, recall and the integration of knowledge. Let me illustrate with an example. Despite my best efforts, students attending my traditional lecture-based marketing course usually think of "competitive analysis" in rather general vague terms and know that it is important in decision making. Even after using application type review questions, the depth of understanding is typically at the level of the textbook. In the Thirst for Knowledge VLE students must gather information about competitors and then determine how this information specifically affects their recommendation. When students are asked about competitive analysis in the debriefing session following the VLE, a lengthy discussion ensues encompassing all the types of competitive information, sources of information, the ethics involved in information collection and use, and how the quality of information can affect the decision-making process. The level of knowledge depth is much greater because the application of information within the context of the VLE creates mental maps and conceptual networks.
  2. A VLE allows the student to control the learning process. Even though a VLE can be goal-oriented, for example, writing a report, the student can select the presentation of information and control the learning process. In Thirst for Knowledge, students must complete a set of tasks and submit a progress report before progressing to new information and tasks. The student has complete control of when a task is completed and the extent to which the task is completed. For example, the student may choose to read a report thoroughly all at once, skim it lightly, or return to it periodically as needed. Self-directed learning increases motivation and helps the student develop goal-setting skills, develop task persistence, and formulate a personal learning strategy. These skills help students become independent lifelong learners.When students control how and when information is used, they are often able to construct their own conceptualizations and knowledge structures. Before students enter the VLE, they are presented with the underlying conceptual model, market segmentation, in a lecture format. Most students think of this model as a series of abstract boxes. In the VLE, students are able to create meaning for these concepts and develop the relationships between them.
  3. A VLE develops an ability to solve high-level problems, especially problems that are ill-structured. Many multimedia products today provide good instructional support for well-structured problem solving. The information, concepts and rules necessary to solve the problem can be presented as needed and the program provides the necessary feedback (coaching, prompts, hints, corrections) until the correct answer is obtained. This type of problem solving has limited transferability to the real world where most problems are highly contextualized and often have a number of alternative solutions. Built into the Thirst for Knowledge VLE is decision uncertainty, incomplete information, and five possible recommendations. If the student thoroughly understands the concepts and model underlying the VLE, she or he should be able to identify the one alternative that is better than the others. This type of problem solving requires the student to integrate a complex knowledge base rather than looking for the solution in the textbook as is often done for well-structured problem solving. The VLE helps the student to construct a problem schema that can be used when confronted with a novel situation or context.
  4. A VLE makes learning a personal experience for the student. Some VLEs incorporate diagnostic testing and then present instruction format and/or content that is specific to the student's needs. Personalization can also be achieved by individualising the experience. For example, in Thirst for Knowledge memos, e-mail and reports are addressed to the student's name.
  5. A VLE models the complexities and uncertainty of working in the real world. There are times when we do students a disservice by presenting knowledge in discreet and isolated boxes. Reality is more often than not quite messy, involving complex trade-offs and compromises. A VLE can present information from multiple perspectives and stakeholders, and force students to use divergent thinking.
  6. A VLE can accommodate a wide range of student learning styles. Traditional lectures are geared for students whose learning styles are sequential, non-active and verbal. As an educational tool, a VLE provides information in a number of different formats (e.g. observation, listening, reading), and it engages the learner in a range of information searching processes. It therefore accommodates a wide range of learning abilities and strategies, thus enhancing the learning outcomes compared to more traditional forms of teaching.
  7. A VLE is the preferred way to learn for many students. Students today are very comfortable with this use of technology and very effective at processing information in this format. When Thirst for Knowledge was initially tested with students, one of the criticisms was that there were too many information cues. In other words, they knew what to do and they were very comfortable doing it. As a result, many of the information cues were incorporated into the help function to be used by students who were less comfortable with the technology. On a negative note, one of the difficulties with the Thirst for Knowledge VLE was that students were treating it as a video game, not as an office environment where you "go to work" for a number of hours at a time. Students were surprised that they could not repeatedly ask the same questions over and over again to their boss or why they couldn't just walk out of a meeting when they felt like it.

Conclusion

Recent developments in computer technology have significantly improved the quality of education. Low level multimedia programs that "thrill and drill" can add excitement to routine memorization-type learning. However, computer technology has now advanced to the point where almost any learning environment can be suitably simulated electronically. These virtual learning environments provide real benefits to both the educator and the student. Context-rich guided learning allows the student to internalise knowledge and develop problem-solving skills that can then be used in the real world. Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of virtual learning environments is that the declining cost of technology and the rising technical knowledge within educational institutions mean that virtual learning environments can be a reality for many educators.

 

 

Dr. Scott B. Follows is assistant professor and director of the Acadia Centre for Virtual Learning Environments at Acadia University. Acadia University is the only university in Canada offering a technologically enhanced academic environment where all students and faculty use computer notebooks, a campus-wide network, and the Internet for teaching and learning. The Acadia Centre for Virtual Learning Environments brings corporate partners, educators and computer programmers together to produce leading-edge learning tools to be used in industry training and university courses.

?E-mail: scott.follows@acadiau.ca

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.

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