Virtual Representations in 3D Learning Environments

By Shonfeld, Miri; Kritz, Miki | Interdisciplinary Journal of e-Skills and Lifelong Learning, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

Virtual Representations in 3D Learning Environments


Shonfeld, Miri, Kritz, Miki, Interdisciplinary Journal of e-Skills and Lifelong Learning


Introduction

As broadband Internet access and virtual reality technology rapidly expand, virtual worlds and three-dimensional avatars are being widely adopted (Suh, Kim, & Suh, 2011). Therefore, during their studies, pre-service teachers are exposed to virtual teaching environments that are becoming part of our world (Campbell, 2009). In these environments, students gain their identity through avatars, which can be reshaped.

Avatars enhance social presence, engagement in learning, and interactions with other students (Resta & Shonfeld, 2013). Furthermore, this study shows that virtual representations, which highly resemble the students and reflect their culture, strengthen students' ability to assimilate into a group, collaborate with its members and perform cooperative tasks, and contribute to the learning experience.

Realizing the need to prepare pre-service teachers for advanced teaching environments, undergraduate students from seven teacher training colleges in Israel (two Jewish secular colleges, two Jewish religious colleges, two Arab colleges, and one mixed public college) studied in various online environments including three-dimensional (3D) environments according to the TEC model (Shonfeld, Hoter, & Ganayem, 2013). This was only a unit in the central point of a one year online collaborative course that was aimed to expose students to study in a multicultural environment. The virtual worlds served as a platform to meet visually and by oral communication while there was a possibility to hide the real appearance through Avatars (Hoter, Shonfeld, & Ganayem, 2009).

Graduate students from the Kibbutzim College and Texas University also met in these environments while participating in joint courses (Resta & Shonfeld, 2013). They were trained to use 3D virtual environments such as Second Life (SL). They collaborated in groups, creating educational activities such as role-playing or touring and exploring different countries, museums and archeological sites (e.g., http://www.voutube.com/watch?v=Tbl7m2gJ7zo&feature=voutu.be). In this experience, the whole collaborative project took place in Second life. They were requested to design a learning activity that uses the affordance of a 3D virtual environment. They met their partners from the different countries through virtual worlds and were exposed to the potential benefits and limitations of virtual worlds to support collaborative learning. Similar educational activities were also used by other groups of undergraduate students from Israel and collaborative universities from Texas, Denver, and Arizona to study culture, and by groups of undergraduate students from different countries to study language. These undergraduate and graduate groups of students were the subjects of a study that investigated virtual representations and their contribution to learning (Shonfeld & Raz, 2012).

The study observed how students chose their virtual representations and compared it with existing models that explain this process. According to Suh, Kim and Suh (2011), the more the avatar resembles its user (self-congruity), the more likely the user is to have a positive attitude toward his avatar. Yet, the user will also choose or shape her or his avatar according to its purpose (functional congruity)--thus they propose the dual-congruity perspectives model. Other researchers found a third element relating to the identity of the virtual group (or environment) in which the avatar is being used (group-congruity) (Martey & Consalvo 2011). This research examined these three elements of the Choosing Avatar Model found in the literature and proposes a fourth perspective. In addition to self-congruity (physical similarity of the user to her or his avatar, e.g., skin or hair color, weight, etc.), we assume that a cultural congruity will be found, expressing itself in the avatar's style of dress. That is, religious or conservative users will prefer a conservatively dressed avatar (e. …

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