Virtual Learning Environments

By Follows, Scott B. | T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education), November 1999 | Go to article overview

Virtual Learning Environments


Follows, Scott B., T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)


All educators can envision learning environments outside of the classroom that would be ideal for their students. For example, as a marketing professor, it would be ideal for me to have my students spend a few days working for a large packaged goods company evaluating new products. However, it is not practical for 70 students to travel 200 miles to the company's location or to expect the company to be able to accommodate so many students. The reality of these ideal learning environments is most often rendered impractical due to cost, time frame or risk. The answer to many educators' dreams is computer generated virtual learning environments.

Many people associate virtual reality as a three-dimensional experience that envelops the user in a fantasy world of computer graphics. This demonstrates the power of virtual reality, but expensive hardware and software limit its widespread application to the field of education. Engaging and exciting learning environments can be created two-dimensionally using pre-recorded video, graphics and animation imbedded in an exploratory program. "Thirst for Knowledge," created at Acadia University, is a virtual learning environment (VLE) that simulates the workplace of the Quaker Oats Company. Students are assigned the VLE midway through a course in Introductory Marketing and their objective is to evaluate the market potential of new Gatorade products.

Typically, students spend 16 hours "going to work for Quaker Oats." While working in this virtual office world, students walk through the building, attend meetings, read reports, receive e-mail, answer the telephone, and use a computer to query a database. At the end of the VLE students write a report recommending a specific course of action, which is then discussed in class during an instructor-led debriefing session.

It is important to note that this program was created using campus resources at a cost of only $10,000. Virtual reality is poised to become the defining educational technology of the next century, as it can be used in any discipline to provide context and experiential learning at a reasonable cost.

Imagine the Possibilities for Virtual Learning Environments

Before outlining some of the educational benefits of this form of learning, I would like you to image the possibilities for virtual learning environments (VLEs) by considering the following examples.

Virtual Science Environments

A virtual laboratory or field setting would allow a student to conduct experiments or make observations that have physical limitations. For example, a Geology student could monitor equipment on an erupting volcano, a Biology student could study a population of animals in their natural habitat, a Psychology student could experience a clinical ethical dilemma, or a Chemical Engineering student could be asked to design a new production facility at an oil refinery.

Virtual Arts Environments

Virtual worlds can be created in any time and any place. For example, a History student could negotiate the Treaty of Versailles, an English student could work as an editor for a Victorian magazine, a Sociology student studying child poverty could design government social programs, or a Fine Art student could authenticate a work of art.

Virtual Corporate Training Environments:

A virtual office, plant or store could be developed for any company in the world. In this learning environment, a business student, company or government employee could attend meetings, read documents, operate equipment, access computers, or view an assembly line, all from the comfort of their computer. For example, an Accounting student could conduct an on-site audit, a Finance student could purchase a major capital asset, a Labour Relations student could negotiate a union contract, a Marketing student could negotiate a sales contract, or an Operations Management student could implement a quality control program. …

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