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The "Virtual Classroom": Education and training in the 90s

Allan Ellis
Southern Cross University

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?

1. Terminology

Throughout this paper the terms "school", "classroom" and "teacher" are used to symbolise education and training institutions and teaching in a range of traditional settings. The typical secondary school teacher in a classroom, the university professor in a lecture theatre, the trainer in a workplace training room, all share a number of common characteristics when it comes to traditional delivery methods and the use of established Educational Technologies. Furthermore each one of us has experienced a number of these educational environments as we have moved through the formal education system.

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.

2. Traditional classrooms

The development of mass education that accompanied the Industrial Revolution developed a classroom environment that can be characterised as one that attracted or collected resources. It was a repository of materials, each of which had a publication date and was not, in general, easy to replicate, even if copyright allowed.

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.

3. Twentieth century classrooms

A number communications and imaging technologies such as the telegraph, telephone and photography that were invented in the 1800s were subsequently refined and found their way into the schools of the 1900s. Photography reached the students in the form of better and more profusely illustrated books but in general the communication technologies did not. While some classrooms of the 1980s might have had a phone line connected its use would have almost certainly been seen as primarily administrative rather then as tools to assist the teaching and learning process.

Figure 1 presents a diagrammatic representation of the traditional classroom[1]. 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
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.

4. Twenty first century classrooms

Sociologists and contemporary historians view the late 1900s as a time of transition. Toffler (1993) refers to the move from the age of the "smokestack" or "rust bucket" technologies to the age to Information Technology. We hear about the building of information superhighways involving vast global computer networks capable of handling massive amounts of data.

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
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)

5. Virtual Reality - what's involved

Very few "new" technologies have captured the imagination of people from all walks of life as much as Virtual Reality (VR). Two complimentary forms of VR exist, "desktop" and "immersive". Desktop VR allows the user to build and interact with virtual worlds using standard personal computer hardware. Keyboard commands or joystick movements provide the mechanisms by which the environment is manipulated and explored.

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.

a. A Virtual University - Diversity University

The Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University have created Diversity University (DU) as an experiment in interactive VR learning through the Internet. The physical theme of the university is realised in a campus consisting of streets and buildings. While this basic layout is fixed (Figure 3) there is theoretically no limit to the number of halls or rooms that can be added to each building. In this university if you are interested in English you don't have to wander all over the MUD or constantly ask people where to go, you simply head straight for the English building. The same applies to those interested in Science, Psychology, or Medicine etc. If you need an office or lab space to further your studies the wizards that created DU will build one for you.

Figure 3

Figure 3: A section of the campus map of Diversity University

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.

b. A "Virtual Language Lab"

Richmond (1993) discusses the feasibility of using digitised speech technology to create computer assisted language learning audio materials suitable for distribution over standard telephone networks. He concludes that by combining the digital sound capabilities of the microcomputer with current voice mail and touch phone technology it is possible to create a genuine electronic classroom without walls - a "virtual language lab".

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.

c. A Virtual Museum

A "concept" CD-ROM bearing this title has been developed by Apple Computer. It consists of an interactive, electronic museum where users can move from room to room, and select any exhibit in a room for more detailed examination. The exhibits in the museum are educational, encompassing topics such as medicine, plant growth, the environment, and space.

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

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

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.

6. Audiographic conferencing - Remote or "virtual" meeting places?

This form of computer mediated communication provides a shared screen facility and teleconferencing voice link between two or more sites. Some writers, for example, Bates (1993), have termed such links remote classrooms although many of those involved in such shared screen interactions frequently regard the classroom as being "out there", as something "virtual" that only exists by the very nature of the shared interaction.

Figure 6

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.

7. Electronic Libraries - Remote resources or the "Virtual Library"?

How do students who accesses library facilities electronically conceptualise their actions? Do they regard the library as remote or "virtual"? With a few key presses or mouse clicks a user can move through a range of services offered by more than one library (eg Figure 7). This movement can be between libraries in the same city or between libraries on different continents. The user frequently has no need to know where the information is physically located and for all intents and purposes is working in a virtual environment created by the search and retrieval software. The resources are "out there" and it's simply a matter of tapping into them.

Screen grab A
- initial screen at SCU
Figure 7a

Screen grab B
- response of keypress A
Figure 7b

Screen grab C
- jump to another library
Figure 7c

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 and path /public/Virtual Reality/* )

8. Advantages and disadvantages for students

VR and telecommunications based learning systems offer students access to a diverse, up to date and rapidly expanding global resource collection of learning materials, learning environments and learner support. In general these can be accessed at any time and from any location that provides basic telephone access. Of course synchronous communication requires some coordinated planning. For the adult learner capable of self paced, independent study, these characteristics are ideal. Disadvantages can include the need for a certain minimum level of computer literacy as well as access to suitable hardware, software and network connection facilities.

9. The new roles of teachers

VR and telecommunications based learning systems moves teachers towards the role of a facilitator and manager of learning and away from the necessity of being the sole subject expert. While some subject knowledge is still appropriate the ability to "call in" other subject experts is made easier by the technology. VR can allow learning and simulated on the job performance to be coordinated. Resource collections that are accessed electronically are usually up to date and duplication and distribution, where no copyright issues exist, is usually only a matter of a few keypresses.

10. Conclusions

VR is poised to become an important technology of the classroom of the twenty first century. Various forms of desktop VR are already available. More powerful immersion VR systems will almost certainly be developed for the education and consumer market.


  1. One area of educational activity that is an exception to this generalisation involves correspondence or distance education schools. These have, by their very nature, been faster to seize and exploit new developments in telecommunications based technologies as a means of complementing existing paper based resources. Telephones, as well radio, satellite TV and audiographics are perceived as tools to assist in the teaching learning process.

11. References

Bates, A. W. (1993). Educational aspects of the telecommunications revolution. In G. Davies and B. Samways (Eds), Teleteaching, IFIPA-29, Elsevier Science Publishers: North Holland.

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.

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

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.

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