Monday, February 22, 2010

5.3.4: Affordances of 3D learning environments

Article: Dalgarno, B., & Lee, M.J.W. (2010). What are the learning affordances of 3-D virtual environments? [Full text PDF] British Journal of Educational Technology 41(1), 10-32.

As I read this article (which is the subject of a Webinar this afternoon NZT through ascilite), something occured to me: of course 3-D environments have a critical contribution to make to formal education. However, as with most techological interventions, it is not a comprehensive contribution. The five affordances proposed by Dalgarno & Lee make this point implicitly.

After a very useful discussion about immersion and presence, the authors present their affordances:
  1. 3-D VLEs can be used to facilitate learning tasks that lead to the development of enhanced spatial knowledge representation of the explored domain.
  2. 3-D VLEs can be used to facilitate experiential learning tasks that would be impractical or impossible to undertake in the real world.
  3. 3-D VLEs can be used to facilitate learning tasks that lead to increased intrinsic motivation and engagement.
  4. 3-D VLEs can be used to facilitate learning tasks that lead to improved transfer of knowledge and skills to real situations through contextualisation of learning.
  5. 3-D VLEs can be used to facilitate tasks that lead to richer and/or more effective collaborative learning than is possible with 2-D alternatives.
These are all well and good (I particularly like the honest use of the word 'can') - however there is much left unsaid that helps to further legitimise (and contextualise) these affordances. Firstly, not all of these advantages apply to everything that is taught in higher education. Take philosophy, for example - 'spatial knowledge representation of the explored domain', facilitating 'experiential learning tasks' and applying 'transfer of knowledge and skills to real situations through contextualisation' are, well, not directly relevant. Even 'increased intrinsic motivation and engagement' and 'more effective collaborative learning' are questionable affordances for this type of subject. Here, then, is my point - the affordances are not comprehensive or universally applicable. They are inherent in the technology only insofar as the subject area itself stands to benefit from them.

The examples cited by Dalgarno & Lee illustrate my point above. In support of affordance 5, they cite a study by Jarmon, Traphagan and Mayrath (2008), who:
tell of how students in a graduate-level communication course work together and in collaboration with architecture students at the same university. The communication and architecture students are tasked with creating a virtual presence in SL of two green, sustainable, urban housing designs, that are later physically implemented in a low-income neighbourhood in Austin, Texas. Successful completion of the course assignments and projects is contingent on the students in both disciplines interacting extensively with educational and non-academic participants, both in real life and in the 3-D virtual world. Positive interdependence is also evident in that the communication students are reliant upon the domain knowledge and expertise of the architects, and vice versa (2010, pp.22-23).
Now, that just makes sense. I wonder the extent to which this example also applies to more abstract or theoretical collaboration, where there may be only a concpetual outcome. After all, this is what much of formal education is concerned with.

Lest my perspective here be misconstrued, I see an exciting future for 3D learning environments - and, as an aside, for m-learning - but it is vital that we place these technologies in the context of teaching and learning outcomes, and not try to hawk them as complete solutions that ought to be applied in all educational circumstances. Yes, there are real affordances. But there are also real contexts in which they apply.

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