VIRTUAL WORLDS IN DISTANCE EDUCATION: A Content Analysis Study

By Wang, Feihong; Lockee, Barbara B. | Quarterly Review of Distance Education, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

VIRTUAL WORLDS IN DISTANCE EDUCATION: A Content Analysis Study


Wang, Feihong, Lockee, Barbara B., Quarterly Review of Distance Education


INTRODUCTION

The three-dimensional (3D) virtual world is one of the current innovations that has been discussed extensively as the potential medium for online distance education (e.g., Ballenson, Yee, Merget, & Schroeder, 2006; Minocha & Roberts, 2008; Oliver & Carr, 2009). Despite the heated discussion on the possible applications of 3D virtual worlds for distance education, empirical studies were hard to locate, and little has been written about how these studies were conducted and what was found in general. The purpose of this content analysis was to investigate studies on integrating 3D virtual worlds into distance education and how these studies were conducted.

REVIEW OF THE LITERA TURE

Distance Education and Virtual Worlds

Distance education has been growing rapidly in United States since late 1990s (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009). Today most colleges and universities offer some form of distance education. Most modern distance courses use Internet-based technologies as the primary mode of instruction (Jones, 2005; Wood, Solomon, & Allan, 2008), in which at least 80% of the course content is delivered online (Simonson et al., 2009). Online distance education offers various advantages including anywhere, anytime access to the learning content and unconstrained access to archived learning materials.

Other than its widely accepted advantages, online education is not without its pitfalls. The most notable one is the limited amount of interaction (Wood et al., 2008). Researchers have been exploring different current technologies to compensate shortcomings of distance education. The 3D virtual world is a new interesting contender of technologies for supporting online distance education (Simonson et al., 2009).

A 3D virtual world is a networked desktop, multimedia, immersive environment in which users move and interact in simulated 3D space (Dickey, 2005; Minocha & Roberts, 2008). Typically, 3D virtual worlds provide users with text-based chat or audio chat. Within the 3D environment, users can use their virtual self-representations, known as "avatars," to interact with objects and other avatars in the environment.

Social Presence

Researchers suggested that the perception of presence lies at the center of all mediated experiences (Lee, 2004). In distance education, social presence generally indicates the degree to which a distance learner can sense the availability, connectedness, and authenticity of interactions (Feldon & Kafai, 2008; Shin, 2003). Social presence has been a research focus in distance education (Edirisingha, Nie, Pluciennik, & Young, 2009) because feelings of being connected to one another are very important for distance learners who are separated geographically (Brown & Duguid, 2002).

Purpose Statement and Research Questions

Three-dimensional virtual worlds have caught more and more researchers' attention for being a possible medium of distance education. Researchers have conceptually rationalized the applicability of using 3D virtual worlds for distance education (e.g., Ballenson, et al., 2006; Minocha & Roberts, 2008; Oliver & Carr, 2009). However, the empirical research on using 3D virtual worlds for distance education is limited. No single study has been conducted to review these empirical studies to obtain an overview on how 3D virtual worlds were used for distance education and how these studies were conducted. The purpose of this study was to bridge this research gap.

METHODOLOGY

The researchers used the EBSCOhost Education Databases as the search engine to locate the target articles from Academic Search Complete, Education Research Complete, ERIC, PsycARTICLES, Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection, and PsycINFO databases. The researchers used the following logic operator and terms [distance education OR distance learning] and [virtual world OR virtual environment].

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