Virtual environments for education

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  • Journal of Network and Computer Applications (1999) 22, 161174Article No. jnca.1999.0089, available online at on

    Virtual environments for educationBrian M. Slator a , Paul Juell a , Phillip E. McClean b ,Bernhardt Saini-Eidukat c , Donald P. Schwert c , Alan R. White d ,Curt Hill eaDepartments of Computer Science, bPlant Science, cGeosciences,dBotany/Biology, North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND 58105, USA,eMathematics and Computer Science, Valley City State University, Valley City,ND 58072, USA

    WWWIC, the NDSU World Wide Web Instructional Committee, is engaged in developinga range of virtual environments for education. These projects span a range of disciplines,from earth science to anthropology, and from business to biology. However, all ofthese projects share a strategy, a set of assumptions, an approach to assessment, and anemerging tool set, which allows each to leverage from the insights and advances of theothers. 1999 Academic Press

    1. Introduction

    The NDSU World Wide Web Instructional Committee (WWWIC [13, 21, 22,29]) is engaged in several virtual/visual research and development projects:three are NSF-supported, the Geology Explorer [17, 18, 20, 27, 28] the VirtualCell [12, 3133] the Visual Computer Program [10] and the ProgrammingLandMOOseum of Computer Science [7, 24]. These have shared and individual goals.Shared goals include the mission to teach science structure and process: thescientific method, scientific problem solving, deduction, hypothesis formation andtesting, and experimental design. The individual goals are to teach the content ofindividual scientific disciplines: geoscience, cell biology and computer science.

    In addition, WWWIC is applying what has been learned in science education tonew domains: history, microeconomics, and anthropology. Further, WWWIC hasactive research projects in three highly related areas: (1) qualitative assessment ofstudent learning, (2) tools for building virtual educational environments [9, 30],and (3) intelligent software tutoring agents [23, 25].

    The WWWIC programme for designing and developing educational mediaimplements a coherent strategy for all its efforts. This strategy is to deployteaching systems that share critical assumptions and technologies in order toleverage from each others efforts. In particular, systems are designed to employ

    This is an extended and modified version of a paper presented at ED-MEDIA 99, where itreceived a top paper award. The ED-MEDIA conference series is organized by AACE, see

    10848045/99/070161C 14 $30.00/0 1999 Academic Press

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    consistent elements across disciplines and, as a consequence, foster the potentialfor intersecting development plans and common tools for that development.

    2. Geology Explorer

    Geology Explorer is a virtual world where learners assume the role of a geologiston an expedition to explore the geology of a mythical planet. Learners participatein field-oriented expedition planning, sample collection, and hands on scientificproblem solving. The Geology Explorer world is simulated on an Object OrientedMultiuser Domain, the Xerox PARC LambdaMOO [2, 3]. A text-based version ofGeology Explorer was tested in an introductory geology class during the summerof 1998. Results of that test were used to prepare for a larger test in the samegeology class during autumm 1998. A graphical user interface to the GeologyExplorer is in the process of design.

    To play the game, students are transported to the planets surface and acquirea standard set of field instruments. Students are issued an electronic log book torecord their findings and, most importantly, are assigned a sequence of exploratorygoals. These goals are intended to motivate the students to view their surroundingswith a critical eye, as a geologist would. Goals are assigned from a principled set,in order to leverage the role-based elements of the game. The students make theirfield observations, conduct small experiments, take note of the environment, andgenerally act like geologists as they work towards their goal of, say, locating akimberlite deposit. A scoring system has been developed, so students can competewith each other and with themselves.

    The Geology Explorer prototype can be visited at URL:

    3. Virtual Cell

    The Virtual Cell (VCell) is an interactive, three-dimensional visualization of abio-environment. VCell has been prototyped using the Virtual Reality ModelingLanguage (VRML), and is available via the Internet. To the student, the VirtualCell looks like an enormous navigable space populated with 3D organelles. Inthis environment, experimental goals in the form of question-based assignmentspromote deductive reasoning and problem-solving in an authentic visualizedcontext.

    The initial point of entry for the Virtual Cell is a VRML-based laboratory. Herethe learner encounters a scientific mentor and receives a specific assignment. Inthis laboratory, the student performs simple experiments and learns the basicphysical and chemical features of the cell and its components. More notably, ourlaboratory procedures are crafted such that they necessitate a voyage into theVirtual Cell where experimental Science meets virtual reality. As the projectprogresses, students will revisit the laboratory to receive more assignments.

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    Periodically, the student will bring cellular samples back to the virtual lab forexperimentation.

    The implementation of the Virtual Cell depends on coordinating three tech-nologies: (1) VRML visualization, (2) Java client and simulation software, and(3) a text-based MOO server. Students use a standard WWW browser to launcha Java applet. The applet provides a connection to an object-oriented, multi-userdomain where cellular processes are simulated and multi-user viewpoints aresynchronized. The Java applet also controls the agent-based implementation oforganic constituents, and launches an interface to the VRML representation ofthe Virtual Cell, allowing the student to explore and experiment within the 3Drepresentation.

    The Virtual Cell prototype can be visited at URL:

    4. Visual Computer Program and ProgrammingLand MuseumThe goal of the Visual Program project is to provide an environment in whichstudents can study and learn programming techniques. We provide tools tosupport active learning using visualizations of AI programs. These visualizationsinclude animation, fly-through models and more interactive information models.The ProgrammingLand Museum implements an Exploratorium-style museummetaphor to create a hyper-course in computer programming principles aimedat structuring the curriculum as a tour through a virtual museum. Studentvisitors are invited to participate in a self-paced exploration of the exhibit spacewhere they are introduced to the concepts of computer programming, are givendemonstrations of these concepts in action, and are encouraged to manipulate theinteractive exhibits as a way of experiencing the principles being taught.

    ProgrammingLand is being developed on the Valley City State University(VCSU) campus as a Virtual Lecture adjunct to introductory programminglanguage classes. Students peruse the exhibits of the museum, reading explanatorytext that is displayed when they enter a room. A topic may be covered in oneor more connected rooms. In addition to the displayed text there are a numberof interactive demonstration objects in the museum that clarify or demonstratethe concepts. One such object is a code machine. It contains a short portion ofprogramming language code and can perform any of the following functions:display the code; display the code with a line by line explanation of the purposeor syntax of each line; or display an execution of the code on a line by line basis.The goal of ProgrammingLand is to facilitate programming language courses,either locally or at a distance. At the beginning of this course the MOO had fourwings, each incomplete. One of these was an introduction to using a MOO, eachof the other three dealt with the one of the following programming languages:CCC, Java and BASIC.

    The ProgrammingLand Prototype can be visited at URL:

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    5. BlackwoodBlackwood is a virtual environment that simulates a 19th Century WesternAmerican town, circa 1880. The town is populated with a variety of intelligentsoftware agents to simulate an economic environment [8, 34], representative of thetimes. The spatially oriented virtual environment borrows freely from historicalrecords and digital images available on the Internet, with assistance from archivesat the NDSU Institute for Regional Studies.

    The educational game is one where players join the simulation and accepta retailers role in the virtual environment. Rather than everyone vying fora portion of the same economic market, roles are variable and specific. Forexample, in this simulation players are assigned one of eight roles: blacksmith,wheelwright, dry goods merchant, tailor, cartwright, woodlot operator, leathermaker or stable operator. Future plans include extending these roles to things likemortuary services, barber shops, apothocaries, gunsmiths and so forth. Therefore,players will only directly compete against other players with similar roles, orwith software agents in the same profession, but not be in instant competitionwith every other player [26].

    Meanwhile, the economic and cultural life of the simulation is sustained byan array of software agents for saloons and gambling establishments, banks andbankers, messenger services and teamsters, newspaper publishers, an