Taking Science Online: Evaluating Presence and Immersion through a Laboratory Experience in a Virtual Learning Environment for Entomology Students

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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. …