A virtual insect-collecting expedition has some advantages over a traditional real-world field trip, and study results indicate that student participants experience high levels of presence and immersion in the virtual environment.
People are using a variety of communication technologies to connect with each other easily, informally, and on many levels. Harnessing the education power of these electronic communications is one of the most interesting and challenging issues facing distance-education programs in higher education. Concerns about technology-enhanced communication replacing face-to-face interaction are slowly subsiding due to a nascent recognition that social interaction and interpersonal connections are valuable aspects of technology (New Media Consortium 2005) and indicators of learning (Annetta and Shymansky 2006).
The notion of e-learning has been in the distance educator's vocabulary for many years, but recent developments in technology and the maturation of Net Generation students have brought a new addition: v-learning (Annetta and Holmes 2007). The v in v-learning stands for virtual (as in "virtual learning environment"), which refers to the immersive, three-dimensional space where people can interact in real time online. As the Net Generation (currently the leading population playing online games) reaches college age, the adaptation of a three-dimensional, gamelike environment into a virtual classroom seems to be the natural evolution in online learning. Hence, the focus of this study was to measure virtual presence and immersion in a synchronous, online lab.
For many years, distance-education research has seen no significant difference between achievement in traditional classroom classes and achievement in online classes (Russell 1999). However, with the pervasiveness of synchronous environments and web 2.0, indicators of learning such as engagement, immersion, and presence are shedding light on the relative effectiveness of teaching online. In this study, we hypothesize that 3-D virtual learning environments will provide a high level of presence and immersion regardless of gender.
With some 3.5 million students in the United States taking courses from a distance, it is critical that issues such as common standards and teaching effectiveness be addressed within distance education. Research has indicated that a virtual presence is directly correlated with a student's success and satisfaction (Annetta, Klesath, and Holmes 2008). Barfield and Hendrix (1995) distinguished virtual presence from real-world presence as the extent to which participants believe they are somewhere different than their actual physical location while experiencing a computer-generated simulation. To understand why using 3-D virtual learning environments for teaching online is important, we must first understand the target audience today. Annetta and Holmes (2007) reported that the use of avatars (digital representations of oneself) in a 3-D virtual learning environment seemingly tricks the mind into thinking the user is actually present in the virtual world. Chris Dede, Harvard professor of learning science, explained quite clearly the idea of new-millennial learning styles and how technology is affecting how students learn. According to Dede, "By its nature the Web rewards comparing multiple sources of information, individually incomplete and collectively inconsistent" (2005, p. 7). Therefore, one can conclude that this type of learning, based on seeking, sieving, and synthesizing, differs from learning that focuses on the assimilation of information presented by a single "validated" source of knowledge, such as a textbook or professor.
These ideas were the driving force for the development of a supplemental online 3-D virtual field trip that was integrated into an online college entomology course. This bold new approach to online instruction in the sciences was developed as a trial for the possible incorporation of future virtual environments to supplement online higher education laboratories. What follows is an explanation of the rationale behind creating our virtual experience, the Bug Farm, the method and rationale for assessing virtual presence within this virtual environment, and the results from those measures and discussion on how similar technologies may be applied to enhance additional online and traditional science courses.
The Bug Farm
The virtual Bug Farm was created as an online supplemental lab activity for an entomology course taught at North Carolina State University. Historically delivered through traditional instruction, this course was adapted for online delivery as a part of an internally funded grant. A major laboratory requirement for this online course was the creation of individual student bug collections. Traditionally, students taking this class took a field trip to a local farm to collect specimens. We sought to simulate this experience by designing an online 3-D farm and creating a field trip in which students could "capture" insects online. We developed our virtual farm to include specified insect habitats and modeled its environment after a typical North Carolina farm. This virtual field trip was developed and presented in a multiuser format, similar to that of a video game, using ActiveWorlds software.
Because it was our goal to seamlessly convert this course from traditional instruction to completely online, the student learning outcomes from the traditional class dictated what course materials we needed to provide within the environment. Three major learning objectives were identified for this project:
1. The determination of particular insect species' habitats.
2. The visual identification of insect species commonly found in North Carolina.
3. The taxonomic classification for and among insect species and groups.
These learning outcomes were used as a blueprint for the development of the farm. A list of common North Carolina insect species and their habitat preferences was used to establish the structures and structure locations incorporated into the virtual farm environment. We matched possible habitat selection with regional farm features such as tobacco fields and hog lagoons, providing students with a variety of sites to search for bugs. This ability to manipulate the environment and insect placement was one advantage of the virtual farm. In the real world, one wouldn't be able to search for all potential species of bugs on one farm. However, in the virtual world, we created a farm with various habitats that might be found on distinctly different farms. In our case, the final version of the virtual farm consisted of cattle and horse pastures and barns, hog and chicken houses, a grape arbor, an alfalfa field, an apple orchard, a hay field, a cornfield, a potato field, a bean field, beehives, an animal disposal area, and ponds. Navigational dirt roads and additional props, such as fences, tractors, and various animals, were added to the farm to help immerse students within the environment (Figure 1). The development of the farm, from design to online presentation, took approximately three months and involved individual training in the development of 3-D environments.
Because the farm had been originally designed using the insect/ habitat list, the farm layout was created to ensure a general uniform placement of insects within the environment. An interactive flashing icon represented the location of each insect species within the virtual environment (Figure 2). Students were directed to search for and locate these icons within the environment. Some icons were placed in obvious sites, while others required more exploration on the part of the student. When students clicked on each icon, a new window appeared within the environment that presented the online information prepared for each individual insect species (Figure 3). This information was directly linked to this environment from a specified resource file located on a website maintained by the entomology professor. The information varied slightly among species but always included one or more photos of the insect (sometimes at various stages), habitat/life-cycle information, and taxonomic information.
Students received a table listing insect species found on the farm before entering the world (Appendix A). They were instructed to copy the photo for each insect captured and insert it into the table and to record habitat information for each species. Once students "collected" an insect, the flashing icon changed colors and became solid, indicating that the insect at that location had been captured. It is important to note that students visiting the real farm were given the same insect species list and given clues to common insect habitats.
Additional design concerns included both student availability and student maneuverability. Students were able to select their avatar and could visit the farm either individually or in groups. Students were allowed open access to the farm and were able to enter and exit on their own schedule. Students always entered the world at the marked farm entrance, where they were provided a map of the farm. Each farm region was marked by a flag that, when clicked, teleported students instantaneously to the respective region in the farm (Figure 4). This allowed students quick access to every region of the farm rather than requiring them to "walk" from one area to another. Further, it made it easy for students to revisit a location to double-check their work, either in class or from their residence. Additionally, each region within the farm was fenced off and marked with a sign to help students stay oriented within the environment and to facilitate the collection of habitat information. Each sign was also designated as a teleport, allowing students to transfer back to the farm entrance when clicked. This design gave students quick access to all areas within the farm and allowed them to return and explore specific regions multiple times and at their leisure.
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It was critical in a new experience such as this for students to be provided with clear instructions and support. To help alleviate possible student confusion and provide support, an open web page (www4.ncsu. edu/~mjklesat) was designed that included specific information on the project, the technology used, and contact information for student support. Specifically, students were provided with links to ActiveWorlds as well as written and multimedia instructions. Screen-captured videos were developed and made available online that summarized the assignment, demonstrated how to select avatars, provided instructions on how to move within ActiveWorlds, and instructed students how to collect bugs within the virtual environment. Written student guidelines were provided electronically as a link within the website and included a description of the activity, the goal of the activity, and a table for "insect collection" (Appendix A). Additional supplemental information, such as a map of the farm and contact information, were also available on the site. Since the students' instructor, an entomologist, provided the contextual information for but did not develop the virtual field trip, the contact information for the assignment developer, a biologist and science educator, was available online. The information provided within the website seemed to be sufficient for these students' level of technological skill since no students reported having any technical issues either entering the farm or completing the assignment.
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Information on the project was initially provided to students by their entomology professor through electronic contacts. Specifically, students were provided with the project website URL, developer contact information, and an electronic copy of the assignment, which included a table listing all of the insect species found within the farm. They were instructed to "collect" a specific percentage of these insects, by copying and pasting insect images into their virtual bug collection. Students submitted their digital collection to their instructor to receive homework points. Students were directed to complete a online feedback survey (available through the project website) after creating their collection and prior to receiving their grade. Students were encouraged to keep their completed tables and use them as a reference when going out into the field to create their real insect collection, which was a requirement of the class.
Presence is an anomaly in distance education that has been very difficult to measure. Social presence can be defined as the ability of people to be perceived as real, 3-D beings working in a community of practice despite not communicating face to face. Since the U.S. military is among the leaders in online simulated training, we used the Presence and Immersive Tendency Questionnaire (PITQ) (Whitmer and Singer 1998) to measure presence and immersion. This instrument scores user presence on four factors (control, sensory, distraction, and realism) on a 5-point Likert scale. It also synthesizes the notions of presence with immersion. That is, if people are immersed in a virtual environment, they are in a psychological state where they perceive themselves to be enveloped by, included in, and interacting with the environment and other users. This state provides a continuous stream of stimuli and experiences that tend to minimize outside distractions. Whitmer and Singer suggested that a person with a greater sense of immersion would also have a higher level of presence.
The PITQ was delivered through an online survey that students completed after visiting the Bug Farm. Eighteen students explored the Bug Farm and completed the survey. Table 1 shows inclusive (all 18 students) descriptive statistics for each of the four identified factors.
Table 1 suggests that student responses fell below average on the 5-point items that aligned with the four factors deemed critical by Whitmer and Singer (1998). Of importance is that these factors are later associated with immersion to devise a final score on presence and immersion.
The survey data were sorted by gender (12 males and 6 females participated) and then, due to the small sample size, evaluated with a nonparametric Kruskal-Wallis test. This test is similar to a parametric ANOVA but does not require that data fit a normal distribution. The results of the test showed that males in the class had a higher sense of presence than did females, while three of the four factors were statistically significant (Tables 2 and 3). The more factors that are found to be statistically significant, the higher the level of presence overall.
Finally, the PITQ calls for a correlation between the factors relating to presence and those relating to immersion. Items were collapsed into presence and immersion variables, and a Pearson correlation was calculated. Table 4 shows a significant correlation between immersion and presence, which supports the idea that students felt a sense of presence (albeit males more then females), but also felt a high level of immersion in the 3-D virtual environment.
Implications for practice
The results of this study suggest that students have a high level of presence and immersion in the 3-D virtual environment created for an entomology course. These results imply that students' engagement in 3-D virtual environments may be an effective supplement for online science labs and thus a good indicator for achievement. Although this paper's focus is on the development and use of such environments, further research specifically focusing on student learning and performance is planned and will help validate the effectiveness of this technology. These results will impact not only science education, but also the exponentially expanding field of distance education. This study demonstrates how the cutting-edge delivery structure of 3-D virtual environments can be used within higher-education science courses. This technology has moved past its video-game roots and is technology that educators should take seriously and begin to analyze closely as higher-education science courses continue to be developed for online delivery. The idea that a person entering a 3-D virtual world psychologically believes he or she is actually in that virtual environment takes on a whole new perspective, considering its implications on the development of laboratory simulations supporting or replacing activities completed in traditional science laboratories. It was once thought science could not be delivered via the web as effectively as through traditional means. Although one can argue that there is no replacement for the experiences a student gets in a bench lab, a student might be able to get more from a virtual lab, if it is properly designed and developed, than other online animations or activities that are less immersive. At the very least, this study suggests that students felt comfortable using this innovative approach to science instruction.
As more institutions encourage online courses, science faculties are reluctantly acquiescing to administrative demands. In this project we not only re-created a typical farm experience but merged several potential farm experiences into a single learning environment. It is important to note that although this innovative technology is being used to engage students--hopefully emphasizing the "wow" factor and meeting their needs based on what they do outside of class (such as using social networks and playing video games)--it was the instructor who synthesized the content learned in the environment to ensure students assimilated the content of the experience. Good teaching cannot be replaced by good technology, but the merger of the two holds the promise for truly effective online instruction. This is true for those who insist traditional science classes cannot be replaced online. If the teacher is good online, the student experience will be fruitful.
The model we used in this class can easily be adapted to other classes. In the 3-D world, students can make mistakes without safety hazards or destroying valuable equipment. The technology used does not require computer scientists or graphic artists to create an experience like the Bug Farm; the developer of this online activity had no experience in creating such an environment but managed to develop this virtual environment and supplemental materials in approximately three months. The driving force of such a project is the desire to create a unique educational experience, and some minimal training is required. However, this study demonstrates that these virtual experiences can be developed effectively with reasonable time and monetary commitments. For example, the course lasted one semester, and the ActiveWorlds license was a one-time education fee of $1850 with an annual upkeep of $395. There is a small learning curve associated with development, but once one understands the capabilities of the technology, the experiences that can be built for students are almost endless.
With studies such as these becoming more relevant to science education, it is crucial we continue to push the envelope with immersive communication technologies. We need to consider integrating recorded events much like what is done in serious game evaluation--that is, recording student choices in simulations that can be sent to a database for holistic analyses. Moreover, open-source virtual environments such as Croquet have enormous potential in education settings because they cost nothing and have limited the bandwidth, processor, and memory constraints associated with current 3-D environments.
APPENDIX A Insect Insect location Insect location notes: Farm region/ specific location Insect collection Alfalfa weevil Angoumois grain moth Aquatic insects--variety of species Black soldier fly Blow fly Cabbage butterfly Carrion beetle Cockroach Codling moth Colorado potato beetle Corn earworm Cutworm Darkling beetle Dung beetle European corn borer Grape leafhopper Grasshopper Honey bee Horse bot fly Horsefly Housefly Japanese beetle Lady beetle Lesser grain borer Mexican bean beetle Mosquito Moth fly Plum curculio Rattail maggot Sawtoothed grain beetle Tarnished plant bug Tobacco aphid Tobacco hornworm Wax moth
Annetta, L.A., and S. Holmes. 2006. Creating presence and community in a synchronous virtual learning environment using avatars. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning 3 (8): 27-43.
Annetta, L.A., and S. Holmes. 2007. V-Learning: Redefining community and presence through 3-D virtual learning environments. In Distance Education Issues and Challenges, ed. A.V. Morales, 31-44. New York: Nova Science.
Annetta, L.A., M.J. Klesath, and S. Holmes. 2008. V-Learning: How gaming and avatars are engaging online students. Innovate 4 (3). http://innovateonline. info/index.php ?view=article&id=485&action= synopis.
Annetta, L.A., and J.A. Shymansky. 2006. The effect three distance education strategies have on science learning for rural elementary school teachers in a professional development project. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 43 (10): 1019-39.
Barfield, W., and C. Hendrix. 1995. The effect of update rate on the sense of presence within virtual environments. Journal of the Virtual Reality Society 1 (1): 3-16.
Dede, C. 2005. Planning for neomillennial learning styles. Educause Quarterly 28: 7-13. www.educause. edu/apps/eq/eqm05/eqmo511.
Russell, T.L. 1999. The no significant difference phenomenon. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University.
The New Media Consortium. 2005. The horizon report. Stanford, CA: New Media Consortium and the National Learning Infrastructure Initiative.
Whitmer, B.G., and M.J. Singer. 1998. Measuring presence in virtual environments: A presence questionnaire. Presence 7 (3): 225-40.
Leonard Annetta (len_annetta@ncsu. edu) is an associate professor of science education at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Marta Klesath is an adjunct professor of biology at North Carolina State University and John Meyer is a professor of entomology at North Carolina State University.
TABLE 1 Survey descriptive statistics. Std. Factors N Mean deviation Minimum Maximum Sensory 18 2.2667 .41727 1.50 2.80 Distraction 18 2.2407 .37583 1.67 3.00 Control 18 2.3704 .32240 1.75 2.75 Realism 18 2.000 .46018 1.40 2.80 TABLE 2 Kruskal-Wallis ranks. Factors Gender N Mean rank Sensory Male 12 11.04 Female 6 6.42 Total 18 Distraction Male 12 11.62 Female 6 5.25 Total 18 Control Male 12 11.54 Female 6 5.42 Total 18 Realism Male 12 11.29 Female 6 5.92 Total 118 TABLE 3 Kruckal-Wallis test on presence. Sensory Distraction Control Realism factors factors factors factors Chi-square 3.037 6.310 5.371 4.175 Degrees of 1 1 1 1 freedom Sig. .081 .012 .020 .041 (a.) Grouping variable: gender Table 4 Correlation between presence and immersion. Correlations PQ total ITQ total PQ total Pearson 1.000 0.511 * correlation Sig. (2-tailed) .030 N 18.000 18 ITQ total Pearson 0.511 1.000 correlation Sig. (2-tailed) 0.030 N 18 18.000 * Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level (2-tailed).…