Academic journal article Journal of Interactive Learning Research

Credibility of a Simulation-Based Virtual Laboratory: An Exploratory Study of Learner Judgments of Verisimilitude

Academic journal article Journal of Interactive Learning Research

Credibility of a Simulation-Based Virtual Laboratory: An Exploratory Study of Learner Judgments of Verisimilitude

Article excerpt

    Several studies have examined realism and instructional
    effectiveness of physical simulations. However, very few have
    touched on the question of their credibility or verisimilitude, from
    the user's point of view. This article presents an empirical
    exploratory study which investigated the perceptions of potential
    users of a simulation-based virtual physics laboratory (the VPLab).
    In the VPLab, students conduct virtual physics experiments designed
    to promote both acquisition of general experimental skills and
    conceptual learning. The objectives of the study were to uncover (a)
    users' preoccupations and representations related to the VPLab's
    verisimilitude, (b) the cues enabling users to make judgments of
    verisimilitude about the VPLab, and (c) the roles played by these
    cues in the expression of user judgments. Following a qualitative
    and descriptive approach, the study included in-depth interviews
    with 13 first-year university science students. As part of the
    results, the complex and idiosyncratic nature of user verisimilitude
    judgments was highlighted. Furthermore, connections were established
    between these judgments and individual traits of users, such as
    prior use of certain computer applications. The influence of various
    aspects of the environment on its verisimilitude was also
    considered. These aspects included features expected to favor the
    VPLab's credibility, such as video sequences of actual experiments.
    It seems extraordinary that while computer simulations are becoming
    increasingly prevalent, we know so little about users' perceptions,
    expectations and attitudes concerning their credibility. (Hennessy &
    O'Shea, 1993, p. 129)

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Jl. of Interactive Learning Research (2003) 14(4), 439-464

This statement on the importance of simulation credibility seems to have been largely overlooked; as a result, knowledge about users' perceptions of credibility has made very limited progress since the appearance of Hennessy and O'Shea's paper. This is unfortunate considering that, as these authors point out, this issue has "significant implications for simulation designers who want their systems to be of educational value and their interfaces to be designed in a principled way" (p. 130). Indeed, simulation credibility has yet to be addressed systematically, as few researchers--other than those who have studied presence (Lombard & Ditton, 1997) in simulation-based environments--have investigated some form of credibility or perceived realism.

For the most part, the following questions have not been given due consideration. How do users perceive computer simulations of physical systems? How do they perceive metaphors and interfaces that allow interaction with these simulations? To what extent are simulation-based environments real appearing to users? How does credibility affect use and effectiveness of such environments? In which way, if any, does credibility affect the motivation of users?

Our own interest in simulation credibility grew out of the process of designing and usability testing a simulation-based learning environment, Tele-universite's Virtual Physics Lab (VPLab). Our main goal was to create an engaging and effective environment allowing college or university students to acquire not only basic experimental skills, but also a better understanding of physics concepts and laws related to specific experiments. We were convinced that, to reach this goal, the design of the environment should ensure that performing virtual experiments would be seen by students as relevant, useful, and enjoyable.

While previously conducting usability tests of the VPLab, we had found that participants spontaneously brought forward elements of discussion relating to credibility. As for reasons why this would happen, perhaps the very fact that the VPLab was designed with concerns of credibility in mind can at least partially explain why these participants considered credibility (and verisimilitude, often referred to as realism) to be an issue. …

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