Developments in educational technology, particularly of the type that involve digital data and microprocessor control, make it possible for education and training activities to be conducted in a "Virtual Classroom". How does the learning environment that is being created by digital convergence differ from the traditional classroom? What advantages and disadvantages does it create for the teacher and the learner?
Today many of us may have moved from the role of student and learner to that of the teacher. Depending upon your present position and experience I'll leave it to you to fill in the details of your particular education or training environment in relation to the general propositions that are discussed in this paper.
The classroom of the early 1800s had its standard collection of resources with the single most important being the teacher. This central figure was frequently the expert in all manner of subjects, the source of other resources such as a small collection of books, and the controller of the timetable. As the manager of learning the teacher monitored not just content but frequently set the student's time and place and of learning.
Figure 1 presents a diagrammatic representation of the traditional classroom. Its most striking characteristic, as indicated by the inward pointing arrows, was its ability to attract and hold resources for use in subsequent teacher/learner interactions. Does it look familiar to you? Can you relate to the T and L symbols? Are you familiar with the various hardware and resources that are in the room?
Figure 1: Elements of the traditional classroom. T= Teacher, L = Learner (A is for an absent learner). Equipment consists of a whiteboard or overhead projector.
Figure 2 is a diagrammatic representation of the type of classroom that is beginning to evolve in the 90s and which may possibly become the model for classrooms of the twenty first century. Its most striking feature is the central position of the learner and the two way connections with "outside" resources including not just the traditional resources of print and pictures etc but connections with other learners and teachers.
The overlapping second learner environment, and more of these could be included, is intended to emphasise the continuing role of face to face social interaction and learning for both teachers and students. Considerable teaching and learning is likely continue to occur without technology and any new classroom model must acknowledge this (Postman, 1 993).
Apart from the move away from a teacher dominated to learner centred environment this classroom also has some new features. C/T, the computer linked to a network and the notion that an element of this link to "outside" resources might involve virtual reality (VR).
Figure 2: The twenty first century classroom. L = Learner, T/F/M = teacher/ facilitator/ manager, R = resources (print, speech, music, pictures, animations video etc, C/T = computer/ telephone (network link), VR = virtual reality (initially the "desktop" variety)
Immersion VR, regarded by purists as the "real thing", involves specialist equipment like head mounted displays, gloves or full body suits that are used to give the experience of actually "being there" and using natural skills such as head and hand movement, vision and speech to interact with the environment.
VR is not new. Stone (1994) reports the birth of VR in the US in the 50s and its development through the 60s, 70s and 80s. Only in the early 90s does it appear to have "come of age" in that the entertainment and manufacturing industries have suddenly discovered its potential. Some recent initiatives are described in Stone's paper.
The type of VR commonly found in today's education and training environments includes several forms of the "desktop" variety. The online form consists of text based virtual communities. These consist of multi-user environments that go by various titles: MOOs, MUDs, MUSEs and MUSHs, and are described and discussed by Rheingold (1994). More elaborate environments involving multi-sensory stimuli consisting of pictures, animations, video, sound, music and speech can be delivered on the desktop via CD-ROM. The current capacity of typical network connections simply does not allow such information rich environments to be delivered in real time. Let's examine some examples.
DU provides more than a space where you can chat with other students and staff. What about attending a class in a virtual physics lab where you can read some theory, make some predictions then carry out an experiment to test your hypothesis. DU's only limitations are the creativity of its teachers and programmers.
At Southern Cross University the Faculty of Business and Computing has created a MUD modelled on its existing R Block building. The foyer is described and several staff have already built and furnished their offices. The objective of this electronic environment is to allow synchronous meetings of external MBA students for both informal discussions and serious course related simulations and exercises. The Faculty of Education, Work and Training is planning to model its office and teaching space, B Block, to allow the students studying its training and development programs, both past and present, to meet and chat with staff and other industry professionals.
Since both programs are offered externally and cater for local, national and international students these virtual environments are likely to provide a real opportunity for many students to participate in ongoing student/student and staff/student interactions apart from very limited telephone contact.
The current limitations of such a system are recognised in that it is seen as being best suited to comprehension activities such as training in listening and in phonetic discrimination. The opportunities for an oral response are limited by the current state of voice recognition software. With further developments in digital sound technology and the full implementation of ISDN telephone systems "virtual language labs" will soon have the capacity to add a video channel and hence provide simultaneous aural and visual stimuli.
To facilitate interaction, the developers of the museum (Miller et. al. 1992), created a new method for navigating through a pre-rendered 3D space and interacting with objects in that space. Termed "virtual navigation", it employed real time video decompression for the display of, and interaction with, high quality computer animation. In addition, a representation for 3D objects in animated sequences was used which permitted pixel accurate, frame accurate object picking, so that a viewer could select any 3D object to trigger movement within the 3D space, to examine an exhibit in animated form, or to play a digital movie or soundtrack.
Figure 4: Shows the floor plan of the Virtual Museum and the simple user instructions. Extensions and additions don't require bricks and mortar and security and maintenance are not a problem.The Virtual Museum provides a simple and fast way to explore an educational and media rich database. It provides a variety of methods for interacting with images and objects. These are both fun and aesthetically pleasing. As a "concept CD-ROM" it will undoubtedly inspire others to develop similar and more comprehensive programs that will allow users to access, in safety and comfort, all manner of virtual environments. I'd expect some such products will be on display at this Conference.
Figure 5: Inside the Virtual Museum - the view from the Atrium looking towards the Astronomy room When viewed on a colour monitor images appear very realistic.
Figure 6: Shows a section of a shared computer screen created in Electronic Classroom. A question has been posed (text on right) and the teacher is about to display the related image. Students at various sites can then be asked to respond to the question.The program illustrated in Figure 6 is Electronic Classroom (D which allows up to 5 Macintosh computers to be simultaneously linked using standard dialup modem connections. Control can easily be passed to any site in the link up and each site has full access to the programs features. The screen becomes a shared contribution or response space to which all participants have access.
|Screen grab A
- initial screen at SCU
|Screen grab B
- response of keypress A
|Screen grab C
- jump to another library
Figure 7: (Screen grabs A, B and C) This series of partial screen grabs illustrates a series of cascading menus generated by keypress responses. The fact that the user has moved out of one library and into another is of little relevance and certainly not related to search effort or time. For all intents and purposes the user is exploring a "virtual" library.
Navigating and searching electronic information resources other than library catalogues requires a "yellow pages" not of phone numbers but of computer addresses - ftp sites and Listserv addresses etc (see Hahn and Stout, 1994 and Gibbs and Smith, 1993). As you might expect there is even an address for information on VR (try ftp.u.washington.edu and path /public/Virtual Reality/* )
Gibbs, M. and Smith, R. (1993). Navigating the Internet. Sams Publishing: Carmel, Indiana.
Hahn, H. and Stout, R. (1994). The Internet Yellow Pages. Osborne McGraw-Hill: New York.
Miller, G. et. al. (1992). The Virtual Museum: Interactive 3D Navigation of a Multimedia Database. Apple Computer.
Postman, N. (1993). Of Luddites, learning and life. Technos: Quarterly for Education and Technology, vol.2, no.4, Winter.
Rheingold, H. (1994). The Virtual Community. Secker and Warburg: London.
Richmond, I. M. (1993). The "Virtual Language Lab"; Remote Foreign - Language Learning Through Digitised Speech Technology. Proceedings of EDMEDIA 93, H. Maurer (ed) Florida, June, Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education.
Stone, R. J. (1994). Virtual reality comes of age. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 608-618. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/qz/stone.html
Toffler, A.(1993). Powershift. Bantam Books: New York.
|Author: Dr Allan Ellis, Faculty of Education, Work and Training, Southern Cross University, PO Box 157, Lismore NSW 2480, Australia. Phone +61 66 203611; Fax +61 66 203990: Email email@example.com
Please cite as: Ellis, A. (1994). The "Virtual Classroom": Education and training in the 90s. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 66-71. Canberra: AJET Publications. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/edtech94/ak/ellis.html