Virtual Learning Environments for Children: What Does Current Research Tell Us About Their Design and Use? A Review of the Literature

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Virtual Learning Environments
1
















Virtual Learning Environments for Children:

What Does Current Research Tell Us About Their Design and Use?


A Review of the Literature















Susan Maunders







EDUC 8210


Professor Hilda Borko


May 14, 2005


Virtual Learning Environments
2



Virtual Learning Env
ironments

for Children
:

What Does Current Research Tell Us About Their Design and Use?

A Review of the Literature



Introduction


Virtual learning environments are currently being designed as part of educational websites and
other types of online “learnin
g spaces.” The number of children using these virtual learning environments
is increasing daily, as is the educational importance of their content. The term “virtual learning
environment” has various definitions because it is

relatively new; however,

it is

roughly analogous to the
way the term “learning environment”

is used to represent

a
school or classroom
; it is a
structured s
pace

where learning is
the
primary goal of the activities occurring

there.

“Virtual”

means a place in cyberspace accessed via the

Internet (
that is,
files stored on a computer
server somewhere and delivered to another computer

elsewhere
, plus the data transfer that goes with those
files, such as email messages or dynamic database access). Some virtual learning environments are also
partially stored on CD
s

or DVDs, especially if they are media
-
rich and would be hard to deliver to a
computer entirely over the Internet.
Virtual learning environments
usually have some type of traditional
user interface like other computer software,
lear
ning content and activities,
plus online capabilities that
allow users to link to other users in real time (synchronously)

and interact with other users of the
environment. Some of the older or simpler virtual learning environments only allow
asynchronous

communication

in threaded discussions or email
, but there is a way for the learners to confer with other
users of the environment and this is a critical element of this type of environment
.

In this way, connectedness to other users creates opportunities
f
or these virtual environments
to
be more like traditional classrooms than older one
-
on
-
one computer “tutors
,


which is why this term has
come into increasing use. Several other terms have been used in the past, such as “c
omputer
-
supported
collaborative lea
rning
,” b
ut I consider them to be
subset
s

of virtual learning environments, a
s I define
them in this review
.

Are
online
computer games considered virtual learning environments? They can be.
If learning is the primary goal of the activities in that game, it

is a virtual learning environment.
In order
Virtual Learning Environments
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to circumscribe this review somewhat, I am reviewing
only the research on
environments that are
design
ed

to help learners learn traditional academic subjects like language arts, mathematics and science,
and have

some measured outcomes, not just discussions of the possibilities thereof.

By definition, a virtual learning environment is user
-
directed

and learner
-
centered
.

(Bransford,
2000) There is no
teacher online,
un
like Internet
-
based education that is called “
distance learn
ing
,


where
a teacher directs the activities of distant
learners
, all connected to the teacher by media.

Instead, a
virtual
l
earning environment
is

usually
more like a research laboratory that a classroom.

Teachers can be a part
of a virtual
learning environment, but they do not direct the entire environment.

Virtual learning environments can

be used by one child or many

children when in a classroom,
but
can also
be used outside of classrooms or other school environments.
If the environment i
s completely
virtual, t
he child need only have
a computer and
access via the Internet

t
o interact with the environment.
In fact, one of the promises of virtual learning environments is as “after school academies,” ways for
children to supplement their in
-
c
lass learning in after
-
school programs or at home because the time spent
in school is relatively small: 14% in school, as compared to 33% sleeping, and 53% at home or in
community. (Bransford, 2000)


One way educators can support these young virtual learn
ers is by making sure that these

new
learning
environments provide them with the best learning experiences possible. At this time, there is no
concise set of criteria against which educators can judge the learning potential of
a virtual learning
environmen
t.

(Hannafin, 1994)

For this review, I established a series of questions and reviewed each
virtual environment in terms of those questions.
(P
lease see the Selection and

Review Methods section)

Virtual learning environments are not only becoming more ubiq
uitous, but also
becoming
more
complex. They are increasingly 3
-
dimensi
onal, rather than 2
-
dimensional
,

and

they
can
feature “avatars”
that represent the learner in the virtual world

in ways that are amazing sophisticated and
high
impact
.
As
one of the des
igners of the highly creative PUPPET virtual learning environment said:

“One of the main attractions of virtual environments is that they can provide
opportunities for new kinds of experience, enabling users to interact with objects and
Virtual Learning Environments
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navigate in 3D

spac
e in ways not possible in the physical world (e.g. flying a magic
carpet through a fantasy world).” (Scaife, 2001)

In addition, virtual environments

now
offer chances to interact
with other learners by voice or
video,
sometimes from great distances away, a
nd sometimes in very large numbers. Like classrooms,
their counterparts in reality, the
se environments

n
eed to
be designed
to make the learner

comfortable,
support individual learning, elicit certain behaviors, promote certain cognitive processes, as well

as
encourage group learning, and mediate soci
al interactions. This review looks at research
about the current
design of virtual learning environments,

as well as other factors that contribute
to creat
ing

excell
ent
online learning experience
s for children.


Selection and Review Methods

For
this review, I selected four
virtual learning environments
to review in depth because brief
descriptions of many environments was not illuminating enough ideas of consequence. I
based
my
choices
on the following criteria:


1
) T
he environment had to be des
igned for children, not adults

2)
T
he environment had to have some research reported about both its design and the outcomes of
that design (even better was if the environment had research
about

the learner outcomes of its
use, but
because
two of
these environments are so new and the time to publication so great, I decided not to
maintain learner o
utcomes as a selection criteria
)


3)
T
he environment

had to be an environment primarily designed for learning academic subjects,
or in the case of the PUPPET project, preparing for literacy.

I did not make

being


100%
virtual”

a criteria.

In fact,
three

of the

environments
in this review,
have


delivered
-
in
-
person

component
s
. If an environment is designed

to require human interve
ntion to
achieve its learning goals, it is called a “blended” environment.

The use of “blended” approaches
in

technology
-
based learn
ing has a long history of great

success,

so I accepted this design aspect in all cases.


Virtual Learning Environments
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For each
virtual learning environme
nt
I
review
ed
, I
used the same protocol. I reviewed the
available research about that project with
six questions

in mind
:


1)
W
hat

are descriptors of the project
?

2)
H
ow did the project evolve over time
?

3)
Wha
t pedagogic approaches were

used
?

4)
W
hat key
design features were developed to support a learner’s construction of knowledge
,
construction of meaning, z
ones of proximal development and/or
give
formative assessment?

5)
W
hat key design features were developed to support the crea
tion of a community of l
earners
?

6)
W
hat are the empirical results, if any?


A Brief
History

of Influencing Ideas

One of the precursors of virtual learning environments was the
concept of computer
-
based
microworlds
created by Seymour Papert at MIT

in the late 1970s.

(Papert, 1980
)
Microworlds included
LOGO,
a computer
-
programmed environment in which children created “turtles,” programmed objects
that moved according to the p
rograms the children wrote. LOGO provided a very simple interactive
experience

more than anything else, but
it was a way for children to construct knowledge of mathematics
by experimenting with command strings that defined movement. Papert defined this activity as
“constructional design”
(as opposed to “constructivis
m
”)

and thereby defi
ned the learning activitie
s as
design activities that provided rich opportunities
to construct

learning in a non
-
physical envir
onment.
(Resnick, 1996) The LOGO

project later
evolved into

StarLogo, a more sophisticated programming
environment that helped learners construct knowledge

about physics phenomena such as traffic jams and
wav
eforms. Like in the earlier LOGO

environment, learners wrote simple rules to control individual
turtles and observed large
-
scale patterns th
at emerged. As Resnick states:


“Developers of design
-
oriented
learning environments cannot program learning
experiences directly. The focus, instead, is to create frameworks from which interesting
ex
periences are likely to emerge…The challenge for constructional designers is to create
Virtual Learning Environments
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tools and activities that not on
ly highlight important concepts but also faci
litate personal
connections.” (R
esnick, 1996
)


By reporting that learners must make personal connections, Resnick precedes later elements of
virtual learning environments

that
not only
encourage
construction of
knowledge
, but

deeper engagement
through personal meaning in the learner’s activities.

In 1994, Michael Hannafin, spoke of “widespread interest in “unleas
h
ing” the capabilities of
technologies to create learning systems that differ from traditional direct
ed instruction.” (Hannafin,
1
994)
He called the result “open
-
ended environments” based on the “psychological perspectives” of
constructivism and situated cognition and the pedagogical approaches of

anchored instruction


and
Papert’s
microworlds
. From th
e

“anchored instruction


approach, the Jasper

Project was formed, a
problem
-
based, video
-
supported environment,

and

one of the virtual learning environments
reviewed
here
.

B
ased on
two theo
retical approaches to learning,

constructivism and situated cogniti
on
, which were
vying for supremacy

(Cobb and Bowers,
1999)
at the time
,

Hannafin outlined
his determination of
the
learning principles
needed
for open
-
ended environments
:



Context and experience are critical to understanding



Understanding is individually me
diated



Cultivating cognitive processes is
o
ften more critical than generating learning products



Understanding is more vital than knowing



Qualitatively different learning processes require qualitatively different methods

(Hannafin, 1994)

Almost seven

years
later, designers working with the principles of constructivism note that it is
important to “move away from talking of a single constructivist learning environment, and instead
explore the nuances of learning environments based on different theoretical ass
umptions.” (Hay, 2001)

Two of the issues at the core of the constructivist/situated
learning
debate were
the situated claim
that “action is grounded in the concrete situation in which it occurs” and whether knowledge learned in
Virtual Learning Environments
7


one domain could transfer to

another, especially school to real
-
life
situations
.

(Greeno, 1997)

The
terminology of “learning environment” itself reflects the influence of the theory of situated cognition; the
learner takes in not just the subject matter presented in a classroom, but

all the ot
her ideas, dynamics, and
social influence
s that are in the classroom as well, therefore the entire “environment” need be considered
whe
n studying how learning occurs
.
Obviously, the role of the environment itself becomes a greater
factor in lear
ning when that environment is removed from physical reality. Can the learning gained in a
virtual environment be considered “real learning” and can it transfer to the classroom and other more
physical spaces?
The
some of the
research on this question is
re
ported in this review.

In the early 1990s, several “
educational
media spaces for K
-
12 a
nd college learning
communities


were created, the first virtual learning environments which included “computing and
networking support for communities of learners who
are distant from one another.” (Gomez, 1993)

These
“media space
s
” were

called
Learning Through Collaborative Visualization (CoVis), The Global
Schoolhouse Project (GSH), and The New York State Learning Network. In a panel discussion

in 1993

about these pro
jects, the conclusion
reported was that “t
he next decade will bring widespread, networked
multimedia interpersonal computing” and they called upon the “human
-
computer interaction community”
to open a dialog on the “effective use of interpersonal, collabora
tive multimedia to support pre
-
college
learners.” The stage was now set for virtual learning environments to appear.

As part of this historical briefing, I would like to point out the concurrent research being done in
classrooms on the creation of “
commun
ities of learners
” (Brown and Campione, 1996)

because that work
would later have a profound effect on the design of virtual learning environments. In a community of
learners, expertise in the subject matter being studied is distributed across members of th
e community,
both teachers and
learners
.
Learners

are designers of their own learning

and teachers act to guide their
discovery process
. In their “ideal classroom environment,” Brown and Campione identified these
essential features:




Individual responsibil
ity coupled with communal s
haring



Ritual, familiar participant structures

Virtual Learning Environments
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A community of discourse



Multiple zones of proximal development



Seeding, migration, and appropriation of ideas


Brown and Campione offer these ideas to “contribute to a new theory of

learning that would
capture the richness of the environment and the flexible learning activities it engenders
..
.
including first
principles of learning.

(Brown & Cam
pione, 1994
)

In 2003, James Paul Gee wrote a response
(indirectly)
to their request for a

new theory

of learning

including “first principles”

by identifying 36
learning principles
he identified
that apply to video games and what they
“have to
teach
us
about learning

and literacy.”

(Gee, 2003)
In
some of
Gee’s learning principles are the “esse
ntial features” of a
community of learners adapted to virtual learning environments
, such as #35: Affinity Group Principle,
and #36: Insider Principle
. This powerful idea
had
moved in to the consciousness of designers and stayed,
becoming one of the mainst
ays of virtual learning environment design.


To better understand
the varied ways these theoretical ideas can be manifested in the design of
virtual learning environments, this review w
ill now look at four different environments
, each unique in its
own wa
y.
Th
is review
attempts to characterize these designs in practice as opposed to report
ing their
results
as if they
had been
tested in laboratory settings. (Barab, 2004)
The

environments reviewed a
re: the
Jasper Project, the PUPPET Virtual Theatre, the GenS
cope Learning Environment, and the Quest Atlantis
Project. They a
re each presented using the

six

questions
shown

in the Selec
tion and Review Method
section as content organizers.

Virtual Learning Environments
9


The Jasper Project

What are descriptors of the project?


Research group:

Co
gnition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt

Learner age group:

Middle School, primarily 11
-

14 yrs
. When Jasper beca
me part of the
SFT
project, 1
st

to
4
th


grades were included.

Technical description:

The Japser project b
egan as “The Adventures of Jasper Wo
odbury
,
” video
stories that were the

anchors


of activities that were blended with
classroom activities.
The goal was to
solve

problems

triggered by the “anchors,”

by doing
activities in classroom with peers (
a
blended
approach).

Jasper
was
expanded
to i
nclude online creation of tools for problem solving and later became
part of SFT (Schools for Thought)
, then

part of STAR.Legacy, (Software Technology for Action and
Reflection Legacy)

a
website and design tool for building
l
earning environments that use t
he Jasper
“anchors” for classroom use
. STAR;Legacy is still in use and

the environment
remain
s a
blended

one
, but
is
more
virtual than when it began
, now that the
Internet
can be used in most classrooms.

Time in development and use:

early 1990s to today
.

H
ow did the project evolve over time?

In the mid
-
90s, the Jasper project became part of the SFT (Schools for Thought
) project and
collaborated with
FCL (Fostering Communities of Learners)(Brown & Campione,1996)
,
CSILE
(Computer
-
Supported Intentional Learnin
g Environments) (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993)
, and
SMART
(Scientific and Mathematical Arenas for Refining Thinking) (Barron, Schwartz, et. al.
,

1998)
.
More
recently, it evolved again into the Jasper activities in the STAR.Legacy learning environment.

Wha
t pedagogic approaches were used?

Japer b
egan as a largely a constructivist approach which CGTV called “anchored instructio
n” but
also used a situat
ed
learning
approach in that the problems were situated in meaningful problem
-
solving
environments that “hel
p novices appreciate the significance (connectedness) of the new information they
encounter
.
” (CTGV, 2000)


Later, as part of SFT, the d
esign was expanded to include
the
community of
learners ideas. (CGTV
, 1997
)
.
The learning environment created in this se
ries was designed
from the
Virtual Learning Environments
10


point of view of the learner, the knowledge to be taught, the assessment needed, and the community of
teacher, peers, and external experts that could be accessed to help solve problems.
CGTV

described this
as the “four features o
f effective learning environments:

l
earner
-
centered
, k
nowledge
-
centered
,
a
ssessment
-
centered
, and c
ommunity
-
centered
.

(CGTV, 2000)

In creating the aspects of the learner
-
centered environment, CTGV used formative assessment
practices, based on the work of
V
ygotsky
to assess the amount of help the learner needed to solve the
anchored activity problem and provide that help, using the principle of zones of proximal development.
(CTGV, 2000
)

What key design features were developed to support a learner’s constru
ction of knowledge,
construction of meaning, zones of proximal development and/or give formative assessment?

The researchers reported that th
is
major idea behind this
project tool and
the whole
“anchored
instruction” approach

was


to situate (anchor) learn
ing in meaningful problem
-
solving environments that
invite sustained inquiry about important academic topics.”
The environment was designed to help learners
to both
understand the kinds of problems that experts (mostly in science and math) encounter and

to

see
how experts solve problems and i
ntegrate their knowledge by exploring the same situation (anchor) from
multiple perspectives ( e.g., as a scientist, mathematician, historian)
. The r
esult

was that the
design
provided a way to focus simulta
neously on co
ntent knowledge

and problem
-
solving skills.

The early d
esign features

were
video stories that had characters with problems to solve. These
stories were “anchors” for activities learners did to help the characters in the stories and

solve the
problem. For
example,

in
Rescue at Boone Meadow
, the character Emily need
ed

help rescuing an e
agle.
In order to do so, the learner

had to
understand many aspects of the
rescue
problem, such as the payload
the
Emily’s

ultralight can carry given the fuel needed for the r
escue.


As part of its design evolution, (CTGV, 2000, p. 53) the Jasper series was “repurposed” to allow
learners to create “smart tools” to solve the problems in the activity. For example, in
Rescue at Boone
Meadow
,
learners

create
d

a smart tool to determ
ine travel time needed for the rescue.


Virtual Learning Environments
11



What key design features were developed to support the creation of a community of learners?

With the help of Brown & Campione’s FCL, the Jasper project became more learner
-
centered by
supporting student participatio
n and leadership.

Jasper
also
developed CSILE ideas to help learners
collaborate electronically, reflect more by writing, and access experts electronically. Most importantly,
Jasper incorporated FCL ideas to make Jasper and its descendents more community
-
c
entered. (CGTV,
2000) The key change was to base the environment on community norms that supported people’s abilities
to participate comfortably and learn from one another.
Learners

learned to work in groups and “pool their
insights and expertise
.”

Another

key design change over time was to link
learners

and teachers to other members of the
community with the result that
learners

were more able to make connections inside and outside of school,
and the community was better able to understand what was going o
n in their schools.

What are the empirical results, if any?

Because of the length and evolutio
n of the Jasper project, there we
re various empirical results
captured a
t

various points. In the “Jasper 9
-
state implementation project” (CGTV, 1994a) Jasper
adv
entures wer
e used in 9 states. Results showed

higher scores on tests measuring complex problem
solving and attitudes toward mathematics, without loss on standardized test scores on state achievement
tests.

When
Jasper became
part of the SFT project in 1996
-
1997, first graders in SFT increased the
ir

state
achievement test (TCAP) scores in both mathematics and language. (CTGV, 1998a, 1998b)

An
interesting assessment fact: SFT
learners

know more about how to use technology and how to use it for
learning than n
on
-
SFT
learners
.

Reviewer’s Note:


Jasper (and its descendents)
we
re included in this review because it was one of the first
constructivist learning environments that blended media into classroom activities. Over its evolution, it
has continued to be a re
markable example of how media and technology can contribute to learning.

Virtual Learning Environments
12


It is interesting to note that over time the project
has become

more open
-
ended for its learners;
instead of solving problems in certain ways, the environment changed to promote the
making of
“smart
tools


that would then help learners construct multiple solutions. When Jasper
anchors were incorpor
ated
in
to STAR.
Legacy, the entire environment became even more open
-
ended
1

because teachers could then
customize the entire environment to
best challenge the learners in their classrooms.

Jasper’s evolution mirrors the evolution of the Internet itself, becoming progressively more
connected and used fo
r more diverse endeavors. This wa
s a technically logical evolution
and it
indicates
that Jas
per, in its many incarnations, could continue to be one of the
leaders of the charge into the
“technology
-
in
-
the
-
service
-
of
-
learning” battle.


The PUPPET Virtual Theatre

What are descriptors of the project?

Research group:

A multidisciplinary team from the

School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences,
University of Sussex, Brighton, UK, Aalborg University, Denmark, DFKI, Germany. PUPPET is

part of
the European Union’s i3

ESE (Experimental School Environments) research program.

Learner age group:

4 to 8 years

old, mostly pre
-
literate.

Technical description:
PUPPET is a 2D and 3D virtual environment delivered on a desktop computer and
described as a “virtual theatre for young children to support learning through playing.”

Time in development and use:

Dates not
certain, late 1990s to early 2000s.

How did the project evolve over time?

In the latest research available, t
he focus of the research was still on the design of the
environment and no assessment of learners had been made at the time. The design itself evol
ved in
response to studying children’s interactions with it, but it is too early in the implementation cycle for the
effort to evolve based on learners’ experiences with the final version of the environment.




1

See Hannafin’s elements of an open
-
ended environment in the History section of this review for a clearer idea of
what this term means
.

Virtual Learning Environments
13


What pedagogic approaches were used?

The resear
chers began their development efforts with the observation

that
“one of the key
properties of virtual environments is their

ability to captivate.


(Scaife, 2001)
Using a
theoretical model

the researchers call
ed

“external cognition,” the environment support
ed

both individual engagement within
the virtual theatre and reflective thought outside it to “offload cognitive effort” into an external
representation such as writing and editing, as well as discussion among children. (Marshall, 2002)

What key design fea
tures were developed to support a learner’s construction of knowledge,
construction of meaning, zones of proximal development and/or give formative assessment?

This environment was designed for pre
-
literate children as a tool to promote narrative play as
w
ell as reflection about that play. The goal was not direct acquisition of knowledge, but an extending of
learners’ imaginations. The learners constructed stories in the virtual theatre to help them develop their
own sense of narrative. T
he assumption of th
is approach wa
s that it w
ould

contribute both to their
learners’ creativity and future literacy.
The goal, a
s the developers described it
, was
“to provide young
children with a means of extending their existing repertoire of story telling by providing th
em with a new
set of tools they could use to create, edit, direct, and act out plays in a virtual, imaginary setting.


(Scaife,
2001)

One of the features of this d
esign approach is that it allowed

a “stepping out” of the story the
child is immersed in to r
eflect on the story a
s well as
view the story from different characters


points of
view, promoting their understanding of different roles in story development and enactment.

The design
of the environment was greatly a
ffected by the fact that its users cou
ld not read. All
commands in the interface and all directions for use had to be presented visually. This posed a significant
problem for the designers, but later tests with learners of this age indicated tha
t they succeeded. Research
was
also
done in the e
arly stages of the design to understand the competencies of children of this age
group around interacting with both physical and virtual story settings

to inform the designers of their
capacities as storytellers and manipulators of plot, character, and act
ion.


Virtual Learning Environments
14


What key design features were developed to support the creation of a community of learners?

The testing of the product was done in classrooms of children ages 4
-
6 and 7
-
8, usually

in pairs.
T
he developers envision
ed

the environment being used by one

or two children at a time, but not more.

Teachers and adults were involved in the environment to help the child understand how to interact and to
facilitate story development
, but o
therwise, no “greater community” was envisioned.

What are the empirical
results, if any?

The results
of the design studies indicated that their pre
-
literate l
earners could

understand the
different interaction styles and switch between them. For example, they c
ould

choose between different
avatars and
could
understand the diffe
rent point of view that avatar
had.

Their learners did not need the
f
orms of representation for characters, animals,
and
barnyard to be elaborate. In fact, the visually rich
environment
s
that they
tested were

more distracting than inspiring.
Research on th
e design found that t
he
more that is left to the children’s imaginations, the better they respond
ed

creatively.

The children were able to create stories on their own without parts of the story given to them.
Their ability to determine a beginning, middle,

and end to the story was enhanced by switching from first
person “in the play” mode to the third person writing and editing mode. This mode switching also helped
the

children make
the characters behave differently to further the story, and then go back in
to the story
and enact different experiences.


Reviewer’s Note:



As our ability to send and receive data over the Internet increases, virtual learning environments
will become more media rich and interactive
. S
oon we will have more 3D environments like PU
PPET in
which our children can learn. How shall that wealth be used? The PUPPET Virtual Theatre gives us an
excellent example of not only of what is possible, but what is valuable. The value of the PUPPET
environment is two
-
fold (at least). It prepares chi
ldren for literacy, a challenge in which so many children
falter. Secondly, it develops creativity, a rare accomplishment in any learning

environment.
. In many
ways, PUPPET is an example of what may be the highest and best use of technology in
the service
of
learning: to individually prepare children to succeed in school by preparing their minds for the tasks
Virtual Learning Environments
15


ahead. There is a Harvard
-
based game development company that is doing something similar with
children who have learning disabilities. The “get kids a
ddicted to working hard, thinking hard, and
thinking complexly…to develop the habit of creative independent thinking.” (Brittan, 2004)

PUPPET is all about making stories, developing characters
, verbalizing emotion, learning
to see
the world from different
points of view, each of which requires creative thinking. The kind of creative
thinking is different than the “creative problem
-
solving” of Jasper where learners work to achieve a goal
(the problem solution). PUPPET has no goal except the expression of ide
as, the use of the mind. One of
the most exciting features of virtual environments is how they allow the physically impossible to happen
virtually, giving wide range to creative activity. That means that children can have virtual experiences
unlike anythin
g ever done in a classroom. PUPPET serves to remind us to occasionally stop thinking of
“scope and sequence” and do more thinking of human development.


The GenScope Learning Environment

What are descriptors of the project?

Research group:

Genscope Develop
ment Team

had members
from
the
Concord Consortium
,

various
universities such as the University of Georgia
,

and
the
Educational Testing Service
.

Learner age group:

Secondary school science
learners

of multiple ability levels (basic s
cience to honors
)
.

Techn
ical description:

GenScope software initially ran on 33 Mhz Macintosh

computers from the early
1990s

in computer labs, but over time Genscope was used on laptops in classrooms. Genscope presented
different aspects of genetics information in graphic represe
ntations in multiple windows, coordinated with
paper
-
based activities and assessments. GenScope was described as an “open
-
ended exploratory software
tool.” (Hickey, 2003, p. 495)

Time in development and use:
Software development began in 1991, research col
laboration began in 1995
between developers and the assessment team. Research reported in 2003.



Virtual Learning Environments
16


How did the project evolve over time?



The
GenScope
project
had three

phases during which the environment changed from
one
that was
rich in genetics explorat
ory activities to one that was
more
aligned with its summative assessment. During
this evolution, the researchers “narrowed” the scope and refined the activities to inclu
de more formative
assessment

to better
prepare the learners for
the summative assessme
nts that had been developed based on
national standards for genetics content. The phases were:

Year 1: piloting, revisions and formative
a
ssessments
, Years 2 and 3: large
-
s
cale
implementation and e
valuation
, and Year 4: f
ollow
-
up
s
tudy
.

What pedagogic appr
oaches were used?

The primary goal was to help learners develop a cognitive model of genetics based on the way
experts in genetics solve
d

genetics problems. Careful effort was made to align the learning with the
assessment of that learning. To achieve this
, during its evolution, the environment added more formative
assessments to increase transfer from the GenScope environment to the assessment environment because
Phase 1 research showed that
learners

had

not gain
ed

a meaningful domain understanding in gene
tics.
Once this was done, the entire environment worked well and summative assessments showed a significant
gain in genetics domain knowledge and problem
-
solving abilities.

What key design features were developed to support a learner’s construction of kno
wledge,
construction of meaning, zones of proximal development and/or give formative assessment?

Most activities involved dragons. Learners used the windows in which key information about the
organism, its DNA, its pedigree, and its chromosomes were displa
yed. Additional windows showed the
meiosis process and the population showing the genetic trait in question, such as horns and wings.
Learners worked back and forth in the various windows to gain knowledge about the dragons


traits and
heredity to solve pr
oblems posed by the paper
-
based activities.

The
learners

could construct their own knowledge by changing DNA order,
choosing what
genetic traits to look at, and causing the system to randomly trigger mutant traits such as albinism and
double wings.

When t
he initial open
-
ended exploratory environment yielded assessments that indicated
the design had not focused sufficient attention on genetics concepts that could transfer to an assessment
Virtual Learning Environments
17


environment, the researchers used a situative analysis of transfer to

“compare the resources that support
meaningful participation in the learning environment.”

What key design features were developed to support the creation of a community of learners?

In the large scale implementation (Phase 2), there were 31 classes taug
ht by 13 teachers. Many of
the teachers were recruited for the study
because
they
had
independently downloaded the software from
the GenScope website. There is no indication in the research of any attempt made to create a community
of learners in any of t
he phases, but the primary report of this environment focused on its development
and assessment alignment and did not go in
to detail about implementation, so the community aspect may
simply have not been reported.

What are the empirical results, if any?

I
n each phase, learners were assessed and the curriculum was revised to improve it in the areas
shown as weak by the assessments. By the time the follow
-
up study was done
, there were

laptops in the
classrooms and revised “Dragon Investigations” that aided t
ransfer from the colorful interactive
environment of GenScope to the paper
-
based assessments

that were

more like what
learners

would later
e
ncounter in large
-
scale testing. T
he results were truly impressive. The combined gains of the GenScope
classes were
significantly above the gains of a comparison class which followed the traditional genetics
teaching approach with a textbook
.

The scores showed gains of 13.3 for the comparison (traditionally
taught) class and 22.6 and 30.7 for the GenScope classes, with
the lower scoring class using only the
GenScope software but not the “Dragon Investigations” whereas the higher scoring class used the
complete curriculum. The researchers concluded: “We believe it [the results reported above]
demonstrates the potentially

dramatic knowledge gains possible when teacher knowledge, curriculum,
technology, classroom assessment, and external assessment are aligned towards well
-
defined, ambitiou
s
goals.” (Hickey, 2003 p. 527.

Reviewer’s Note:


Research on the GenScope environmen
t was included because it illuminates so many issues. First
is the issue of “teaching to the test.” The developers readily admit that they “narrowed” the rich field of
Virtual Learning Environments
18


exploration they had built to focus their learners and thereby assure better test scores

for them. Obviously,
this issue get
s

to the very heart of the role of education itself. Perhaps one should look at the fact that this
issue is appear
ing in a virtual learning envir
onment as proof that they are “coming of age,” growing up
enough to have th
e same problems as other realms of education. Secondly, in GenScope, it is important to
note the surprising treatment of content: the use of dragons as the objects of study, having wings and
horns appear as dominant and recessive traits, and having gross m
utation cause unicorns. For years,
genetics was taught with barely visible fruit flies as its exemplar. I commend the designers of this
environment for using the “non
-
real” aspects of virtual worlds to full advantage. The result was a more
fun, more creati
ve treatment of genetics that engaged learners in the subject. Their results showed that the
traditionally least engaged types of science students, those in basic or vocational science classes, showed
the most gain when assessed in their genetics knowledge

(scores
comparing
these GenScope students
to
their non
-
GenScope

classmates were 30.7 and 13.3 respectively)
.

Genetics is such a visual science, with
its double helix DNA models and its observational traits,
that
it was a good choice for a virtual learning

environment. The result
s

showed that they succeeded in engaging their learners. For those two
reasons,
the GenScope research wa
s an important addition to understanding what’s really going on in the practice
of virtual learning environments.


The Quest At
lantis Project

What are descriptors of the project?

Research group:

Center for Research on Learning and Technology, Indiana University
.

Learner age group:

C
hildren age 9 to 12
.

Technical description:

Quest Atlantis was

a 3D multi
-
user virtual environment w
ith an online community
blended with real
-
world activities which can be done in classrooms, after
-
school centers
or by the learner
alone. There we
re also unit plans, comic books, trading cards as project artifacts. The developers tr
ied

to
make the distinct
ion of the uniqueness of the design and implementation by describing it as a “distributed
,
Virtual Learning Environments
19


transmedia narrative” which “s
its at the intersection of education, entertainment, and social commitment.”
(Barab, 2005)

Time in development and use:
The e
thnographi
c research period

was two years long.

Beta version was
released in January

of 2003. In less than one year
, it had 3000 registered participants.

How did the project evolve over time?

The project began with the goal of

making learning fun,


but after
30 mo
nths

of ethnographic
research, they changed the focus of the design to include a broader social commitment. It is key to
understanding this and future virtual learning environments to know that it was the children themselves
who wanted more than fun; they
wanted to be engaged in personal, social, ethical, and environmental
issues. (Barab, 2005 p. 87)

What pedagogic approaches were used?

Learners completed “quests” that were connected to the narrative of Atlantis being a world in
trouble. The storyline d
id

n
ot reside in one location or medium,

but ca
me t
ogether as the user participated

in t
he game context and investigated

“relevant personal issues.” (Barab, 2005, p.87)

Quest Atlantis built

on strategies from online role
-
playing games to engage users and blend
ed

them with
constructivist, situated cognition theories of learning which focus on the centrality of activity. They use
d

Vygotsky’s “novel stance toward play” citing his opinion abou
t the role of play in learning as
“…imagination is adolescents and school

children is play without action.” (Vyg
otsky, 1933/1978
)


As part of their approach, the developer
s

intentionally brought in media and game designers to
increase the level of engagement of the environment because the
y felt that the
se designers w
e
re “most
s
uccessful in engaging children.”

What key design features were developed to support a learner’s construction of knowledge,
construction of meaning, zones of proximal development and/or give formative assessment?

The learner worked

with all of the artifacts

plus the environment itself to construct an answer, or
a series of answers
,

to so
lve a quest. The environment had

a participatory framework
including
hands
-
on
action as well as reflection. The general approach to the solution

of the quests wa
s

“inquiry
-
ba
sed
Virtual Learning Environments
20


learning” and was

central to the design of the environment. (Barab, 2001)

In addition to inquiry, l
earners
we
re asked to contribute their expertise and ideas to the environment, as well as engage in social issues
that have local relevance and “report

in” those activities to blend the Atlantian and real worlds.

The developers used the theory of the zone of proximal development as it applies to play
. They
designed the environment to support
unres
tricted, free activity that encourages
children
to
be
have

beyond
their ages. It also li
berated

them
from many of the social constraints of real
-
world play and other forms of
social activity.


The use of the principles of formative assessment
we
re integrated with the learning process by
having learners create por
tfolios of their work that c
ould later

be assess
ed

by teachers and other members
of their learning community.

What key design features were developed to support the creation of a community of learners?

This environment had

a huge em
phasis on community; it
even involved

its learners in their own
commun
ities. Quest Atlantis was

designed with many interactive opportunities based on the designs of
“persistent virtual worlds,” which are universes with their own culture
s

and discourse
s

which they have
adapted to
engage children in learning. The

learners in this environment

learn
ed

from each other, from
teachers, from experts distributed across the environment, and from community members they engage
d
with

on their quests.

What are the empirical results, if any?

In

their studies on the impact of QA on learning,
the researchers found that the
learners

o
ffered
character insights that were “deeper or better supported” than did
learners

in equivalent conditions
, and
they
d
emonstrated statistically significant learning o
ver time in the areas of science, social studies, and
sense of academic efficacy. (Barab, 2005)
They also queried the teachers using Quest Atlantis and th
ose
teachers

said they chose it because of:



Social commitments



Direct connection to academic standards

Virtual Learning Environments
21




Use of technology is engaging to student

(This is shown in the fact that c
hildren in schools and
after
-
school settings have completed hundreds of quests without any mandated requirement.
)

There was concurrent design
-
based research during the initial use o
f the environment, creating largely
qualitative data collected by 10 researchers over a 30
-
month period observing use worldwide. This
research served to inform design improvements in the environments.

Reviewer’s Note:


The latest research report about Ques
t Atlantis (Barab, 2005) was entitled
Making Learning Fun:
Quest Atlantis, a Game Without Guns,

yet the reason Quest Atlantis is in this review is because its 30
months of qualitative research showed that children wanted “more than fun” and the designers e
volved
the environment in response to them. The children in that study wanted to make the world a better place,
they wanted to learn the skills to do that, they wanted to work together with friends to get started, and
they wanted to be part of a community

for action. Whew! It makes fun look trivial, doesn’t it? Of course,
what is being revealed in this data is that the real fun of life, as children told the Quest Atlantis
researchers, is being involved, living with purpose, and working toward a lofty goal.

(Not coincidentally,
these are the same beliefs that the leaders of the human potential movement say work with adults who are
seeking happiness in their lives. (Leider & Shapiro, 2002))


Quest Atlantis may have started out trying to “make learning fun” bu
t it has evolved to so much
more. The fact that Barab is now talking about “sociocultural design,” and has created an environment
that he describes as “at the intersection of education, entertainment, and social commitment” (Barab,
2005) is groundbreaking.



One of the themes of this review has been that virtual learning environments can offer learner
experiences never before available in education. Quest Atlantis may be the bellweather of the rich,
multifaceted offering of virtual learning environments of
the future, taking children farther than we can
perhaps image
.




Virtual Learning Environments
22


Summary:
Common Trends,
One Notable Difference



When I began this review, I did not anticipate that the literature about the various
virtual
learning
environments would indicate that they
had evo
lved to the extent that they ha
d.

Upon further
consideration, it is realistic that they would, but I was surprised to find the trail so long and the changes so
substantial. I think this indicates a responsiveness
from the researchers and developers
of these
environments
to their learners that was

very good

and should be commended
. The design and
implementation of virtual learning environments is still in its infancy and the willingness to re
-
d
esign, to
add major new aspects

like learning communities,

and to assess continually means that these
environments will get better and better over time.
In 1980, Seymour Papert said “We will see how the
presence of computers can enormously expand our freedom of action in creating learning paths into
knowledge
” an
d that is still true
. (Papert, 1980)

We are still only beginning to create those “learning paths
into knowledge” and virtual learning environments are a big and exciting part of that effort


When the theoretical approaches to design are compared, it is cle
ar that
four “big ideas” are very
much
in use:
the first is
the
repeated presence of
constructivism,
having learners construct their own
knowledge within the environment instead of having it presented to them to absorb passively. The second
“big idea” is t
he awareness that learning is situated and, because of that, there may need to be more
conscious efforts to support transfer of knowledge from these sometimes media
-
rich 3D colorful
environments to other demands for that knowledge, such as paper and pencil

assessments. The third
“big
idea


that was present, although sometimes obscured, was the importance of creating multiple zones of
proximal development for learners in the environment. The design challenge
this need presents

is
significant, but
solvable
, e
specially if it is a design priority.

The final “big idea” present in the research about virtual learning

environments was the practice

of expanding the environment to embrace a community of learners.
There wa
s a consensus that the
advantages of creating
a community of learners as part of the design of
an environment added

tremendously to the value of the environment for all its learners. We are truly raising a generation of
“connected” children who share their knowledge and work in teams and the community

of learners idea
Virtual Learning Environments
23


will grow stronger as these virtual worlds expand.
The only environment that didn’t attempt to create a
community was the PUPPET Virtual Theatre. One reason for this was that the virtual theatre was a highly
immersive environment designed

to encourage the creativity of a pre
-
literate child. This environment may
show that there are, indeed, some environments that should not be designed to be expandable to
community involvement. It may be that certain creative efforts are best designed to be

solitary. As the

PUPPET virtual theatre evolves, which it will, it will be interesting to see if the children who use it signal
a desire for more interaction with other learners while working in their virtual theatres.


Some
Thoughts about the Future


Thi
s review indicates that h
ow we design experiences that truly allow children to construct
knowledge is a doubly
-
difficult problem in virtual reality. Missing is the “guide” needed for “guided
discovery”

in many cases,

yet present is the ability to give cons
tant feedback, which if used to guide

efforts to construct knowledge and solve problems

could replace this deficiency somewhat.

Not present in
these virtual environments is a direct “mentoring” aspect that could serve more of the functions of the
t
eacher i
f an environment evolved

from being blended into a classroom to being totally virtual. This
seems like a logical evolution
, done

so that virtual environments could

be used by more l
earners in
different situations; however,

the design efforts to do so need
to be consciously focused in that direction.

The question of transf
er from virtual reality to real school and real
life wa
s
in n
eed of more
research: just
what is learned online
can transfer,
and how does
that transfer

affect schooling success and
life sk
ills?

Can this be done without the “narrowing” of the environment
, like what

that needed to happen
in the GenScope environment to yield good assessment results? (Hickey, 2003)

How a
virtual learning environment
can assess learners and respond
to them by pr
oviding them
with multiple

zones of proximal development wa
s uncertain at best, but probably the area of greatest gain
if solved.
This is
especially critical to investigate
because classrooms are becoming more diverse. For
example, a class may have an incr
easingly wide range of learners’ reading abilities, especially if the class
has second language learners. This diversity of reading levels makes additional demands on the teacher,
Virtual Learning Environments
24


who is already overburdened. A virtual learning environment that can assess
a learner’s reading level and
challeng
e him or her at that level would
attend to the needs of that student, and every student in the class
without making additional demands on the teacher.
With more attention to this important design feature,
it could be p
ossible for v
irtual learning environments
to
teach to all levels of lea
rners in a

virtual
community, wh
ether that learner’s

classroom can do that or not.


How th
e term “community of learners” wa
s
used requires further investigation
. “Communication
among l
earners” is not necessarily the same as
a

“comm
unity of learners.” This point could easily be

missed by
future

developers of virtual learning environments, who
may
think that providing opportunities
for communication
is the same as
caus
ing

a
community

of
learners to happen
. Community requires
learners seeking their own places in a community
,

and understanding the contribution they personally
make to contribute to that comm
unity’s learning goals
,

to have a true “community of learners.”


A final
personal
no
te: T
he research on the Jasper project and Quest Atlantis is presented as
“jigsaws” (Bro
wn & Campione, 1996) themselves.

The expertise about these learning environments was
distributed across multiple research articles, written by different types of expert
s, viewing the same
environment from different perspectives. Although a fascinating way to report results, this “distributed
expertise” did present some problems

for this review, and I suspect, for other readers who would like a
clearer sense of what is go
ing on
. Most notably, I felt I never got the full description of either the
environment or the outcomes

in the Jasper and Quest Atlantis projects
. If key design ideas or reported
results seem to be missing, I do apologize. These environments evolved over t
ime and their investigators
generated many articles during that evolution. I have tried to find the latest research as well as the early
research and include both in this review, but omissions are entirely possible.

Virtual Learning Environments
25


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Virtual Learning Environments
27













Addendum:

Review Tables

Virtual Learning Environments
28




VLE Project Review Tables

For Comparison of VLE Projects



Organizing Question

Project
-
specific Answer (and Reference)


#1: JASPER


What are descriptors of the
project?



Research group:

Cog
nition and Technology Group at
Vanderbilt

Learner age group:

Middle School, primarily 11
-

14 yrs,
when taken into SFT project, 1
-

4 grades were included.


Technical description:

Began as “The Adventures of Jasper
Woodbury”, as video stories that were the a
nchors of
activities that were blended with Ca
J
oom and online
access to tools to solve the problemsI plus activities in
classroom with peers Eblended approachF.


gasper expanded to be part of pcq Epchools for qhoughtF
and now is part of pqAo.iegacyI Epoft
ware qechnology for
Action and oeflection iegacyFwebsite and design tool for
building custom learning environments that use the gasper
“anchors” for classroom use, so remaining blended, but
more online than when it began.


qime in development and useW

敡e
ly 1VV0s to today.


eow did the project evolve over
time?


Project name
s
:

The Jasper Project

to Schools for Thought to
STAR.Legacy


In the mid
-
90s, the Jasper project became part of the SFT
(Schools for Thought) project and collaborated with:



FCL (Fosteri
ng Communities of Learners)(Brown
& Campione,1996)



CSILE (Computer
-
Supported Intentional Learning
Environments) (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993)



SMART (Scientific and Mathematical Arenas for
Refining Thinking) (Barron, Schwartz, et. al. 1998)

What pedagogic

approaches were
used?


Began as a largely a constructivist approach which CGTV
called “anchored instruction” but also used a situative
approach in that the problems were situated in meaningful
problem
J
solving environments that “help novices appreciate
the

significance EconnectednessF of the new information
they encounter”. (CTGV, 2000). Design was expanded to
include community of learners ideas. ECdqs 1VV0 and
ㄹ㤷1


qhe learning environments created in this series were
reviewed from the point of view of t
he learnerI the
knowledge to be taughtI the assessment neededI and the
community of teacherI peersI and external experts that
Virtual Learning Environments
29


could be accessed to help solve problems. They described
this as the “four features of effective learning environments:



Learner
-
ce
ntered



Knowledge
-
centered



Assessment
-
centered



Community
-
centered

In creating the aspects of the learner
-
centered
environment, CTGV used formative assessment practices,
based on the work of Vygotsky and Brown and Campione
(CTGV, 2000 p. 39) to assess the am
ount of help the
learner needed to solve the anchored activity problem and
provide that help, using the principle of zones of proximal
development.


What key design features were
developed to support a learner’s
construction of knowledge?


Situated lear
ning?


Zones of proximal development
and/or formative assessment?


“anchored instruction” approach: “The major idea has been
to situate (anchor) learning in meaningful problem
-
solving
environments that invite sustained inquiry about important
academic topi
cs.” Helps students to:

1)

understand the kinds of problems that experts
(mostly in science and math) encounter and see
how experts solve problems.

2)

Integrate their knowledge by exploring the same
situation (anchor) from multiple perspectives ( e.g.,
as a scie
ntist, mathematician, historian)

Result: design provided a way to focus simultaneously on
content knowledge and and problem
-
solving skills.


Design features: video stories were created that had
characters with problems to solve. These stories were
“anchor
s” for activities learners did to help the characters in
the stories and solve the problem. For example: in
Rescue
at Boone Meadow
, the character Emily needs help rescuing
an eagle. In order to do so, student must understand many
aspects of the problem, su
ch as the payload the ultralight
can carry given the fuel needed for the rescue.


As part of its design evolution, (CTGV, 2000, p. 53) the
Jasper series was “repurposed” to allow learners to create
“smart tools” to solve the problems in the activity. For
e
xample, in
Rescue at Boone Meadow
, students create a
smart tool to determine travel time needed for the rescue.


What key design features were
developed to support the creation
of a community of learners?


With the help of Brown & Campione’s FCL, the Jasp
er
project became more learner
-
centered by supporting
student participation and leadership.


Jasper developed CSILE ideas to help learners collaborate
electronically, reflect more by writing, and access experts
electronically.


Most importantly, Jasper in
corporated FCL ideas to make
Jasper and its descendents more community
-
centered.
(CGTV, 2000). The key change was to base the
environment on community norms that supported people’s
abilities to participate comfortably and learn from one
Virtual Learning Environments
30


another. Students l
earned to work in groups and “pool their
insights and expertise.” (Vye, Goldman, et al, 1997).

Another key design change over time was to link students
and teachers to other members of the community, with the
result that students were more able to make con
nections
between what happens inside and outside of school, and
the community was better able to understand what was
going on in their schools. (CGTV, 2000 p. 72 and 78
respectively).

What are the empirical results, if
any?


Because of the length and evol
ution of the Jasper project,
there are various empirical results captured as various
points.

In the “Jasper 9
-
state implementation project” (CGTV,
1994a) Jasper adventures were used in 9 states. Results
were: higher scores on tests measuring complex probl
em
solving and attitudes toward mathematics, without loss on
standardized test scores on state achievement tests.


In a study of students doing Jasper
-
only activities about
statistics vs. students doing Jasper activites plus SMART
Challenges (extensions of

the program), students who did
both scored higher on an assessment of their statistical
skills. Both groups improved from pre
-

to post
-
test. (CTGV,
2000)


When part of the SFT project in 1996
-
1997, first graders in
SFT increased the state achievement test

(TCAP) scores in
both mathematics and language. (CTGV, 1998a, 1998b)


An interesting assessment fact: SFT students know more
about how to use technology and how to use it for learning
than non
-
SFT students. (Vye, Schwartz, et.al. 1998)





Organizing Que
stion

Project
-
specific Answer (and Reference)


#2: PUPPET


What are descriptors of the project?



Research group:

A multidisciplinary team from the School
of Cognitive and Computing Sciences, University of
Sussex, Brighton, UK, Aalborg University, Denmar
k,
DFKI, Germany. PUPPET is part of the European
Union’s i# ESE (Experimental School Environments)
research program.


Learner age group:

4 to 8 years old, mostly pre
-
literate.


Technical description:

PUPPET is a 2D and 3D virtual
environment delivered on
a desktop computer and
described as a “virtual theatre for young children to
support learning through playing.”


Time in development and use:

Dates not certain, late
Virtual Learning Environments
31


1990s to early 2000s.


How did the project evolve over
time?

Project name:
PUPPET


The fo
cus of the research was still on the design of the
environment and no assessment of learners had been
made at the time. The design itself evolved in response
to studying children’s interactions with it, but it is too early
in the implementation cycle for t
he effort to evolve based
on learners’ experiences with the final version of the
environment.


What pedagogic approaches were
used?


The researchers began their development efforts with the
observation “one of the key properties of virtual
environments i
s their ability to captivate. (Scaife, 2001).


Using a model the researchers call “external cognition,”
the environment supports both individual engagement
within the virtual theatre and reflective thought outside it
to “offload cognitive effort” into an e
xternal representation
such as writing and editing, as well as discussion among
children. (Marshall, 2002)


What key design features were
developed to support a learner’s
construction of knowledge?

Situated learning?


Zones of proximal development
and/or
formative assessment?


This environment was designed for pre
-
literate children
as a tool to promote narrative play as well as reflection
about that play. The goal was not direct acquisition of
knowledge, but an extending of learners’ imaginations.
The lear
ners constructed stories in the virtual theatre to
help them develop their own sense of narrative. The
assumption of this approach is that it will contribute both
to their learners’ creativity and future literacy.


As the developers described it:

“to p
rovide young children with a means of extending
their existing repertoire of story telling by providing them
with a new set of tools they could use to create, edit,
direct, and act out plays in a virtual, imaginary setting.
(Scaife, 2001)


One of the featu
res of this design approach is that it
allows a “stepping out” of the story the child is immersed
in to reflect on the story and view the story from different
characters points of view, promoting their understanding
of different roles in story development
and enactment.


The design of the environment was greatly affected by
the fact that its users could not read. All commands in the
interface and all directions for use had to be presented
visually. This posed a significant problem for the
designers, but la
ter tests with learners of this age
indicated that they succeeded. Research also was done
in the early stages of the design to understand the
competencies of children of this age group around
interacting with both physical and virtual story settings.


Wha
t key design features were
developed to support the creation of
a community of learners?

The testing of the product was done in classrooms of
children ages 4
-
6 and 7
-
8, usually in pairs. This indicates
that the developers envision the environment being us
ed
Virtual Learning Environments
32



by one or two children at a time, but not more.


Teachers and adults were involved in the environment to
help the child understand how to interact and to facilitate
story development. Otherwise, no “greater community”
was envisioned.


What are the em
pirical results, if
any?


The results of the design studies indicated:



Learners can understand the different interaction
styles and switch between them. For example,
they can choose between different avatars and
understand the different point of view that
avatar
will have.



Forms of representation for characters, animals,
barn yard did not have to be elaborate. In fact,
the visually rich environment was more
distracting than inspiring. The more that is left to
the children’s imaginations, the better they
res
pond creatively.



The children were able to create stories on their
own without parts of the story given to them.
Their ability to determine a beginning, middle,
and end to the story was enhanced by switching
from first person “in the play” mode to the thi
rd
person writing and editing mode. This mode
switching also helped them change the
characters to behave differently to further the
story, and then go back into the story and enact
different experiences.





Organizing Question

Project
-
specific Answer (an
d Reference)


#3: GenScope


What are descriptors of the project?



Research group:

Genscope Development Team from
Concord Consortium and various universities such as the
University of Georgia and an assessment team from
Educational Testing Service


Learn
er age group:

Secondary school science students
of multiple ability levels (basic science to honors science
classes)


Technical description:

GenScope software initially ran on
33 Mhz Macintosh computers from the early 1990s, in
computer labs, but over time

Genscope was used on
laptops in classrooms. Genscope presented different
aspects of genetics information in graphic
representations in multiple windows, coordinated with
paper
-
based activities and assessments. GenScope was
described as an “open
-
ended expl
oratory software tool.”
(Hickey, 2003, p. 495)


Virtual Learning Environments
33


Time in development and use:

Software development
began in 1991, research collaboration began in 1995
between developers and the assessment team. Research
reported in 2003.


How did the project evolve over
t
ime?


Project name:

GenScope


GenScope had 3 phases during which the environment
changed from an environment that was rich in genetics
exploratory activities to one that was aligned with its
summative assessment. During this evolution, the
researchers “nar
rowed” the scope and refined the
activities to include more formative assessment and to
better match the summative assessments that had been
developed based on national standards for genetics
content. The phases were:



Year 1: Piloting, Revisions and Format
ive
Assessments



Years 2 and 3: Large
-
Scale Implementation and
Evaluation



Year 4: Follow
-
up Study


What pedagogic approaches were
used?


The primary goal was to help learners develop a
cognitive model of genetics based on the way experts in
genetics solve
genetics problems.


Careful effort was made to align the learning with the
assessment of that learning. To achieve this, during its
evolution, the environment added more formative
assessments to increase transfer from the GenScope
environment to the asses
sment environment because
Phase 1 research showed that students were not gaining
a meaningful domain understanding in genetics. Once
this was done, the entire environment worked well and
summative assessments showed a significant gain in
genetics domain kn
owledge and problem
-
solving abilities.


What key design features were
developed to support a learner’s
construction of knowledge?


Situated learning?


Zones of proximal development
and/or formative assessment?


Most activities involved dragons. Learners
used the
windows in which key information about the organism, its
DNA, its pedigree, and its chromosomes were displayed.
Additional windows showed the meiosis process and the
population showing the genetic trait in question, such as
horns and wings. Learn
ers worked back and forth in the
various windows to gain knowledge about the dragons
traits and heredity to solve problems posed by the paper
-
based activities.


The students could construct their own knowledge by
changing DNA order, genetic traits to look

at, and
causing the system to randomly trigger mutant traits such
as albinism and double wings.


When the initial open
-
ended exploratory environment
yielded assessments that indicated the design had not
focused sufficient attention on genetics concepts th
at
Virtual Learning Environments
34


could transfer to an assessment environment, the
researchers used a situative analysis of transfer to
“compare the resources that support meaningful
participation in the learning environment.” (p.507) based
on Greeno’s work on transfer. (Greeno, Smith,
& Moore,
1993)


What key design features were
developed to support the creation of
a community of learners?


In the large scale implementation (Phase 2), there were
31 classes taught by 13 teachers. Many of the teachers
were recruited for the study after
they independently
downloaded the software from the GenScope website.
There is no indication in the research of any attempt
made to create a community of learners in any of the
phases, but the primary report of this environment
focused on its development
and assessment alignment
and did not go in to detail about implementation.

What are the empirical results, if
any?


In each phase, learners were assessed and the
curriculum was revised to improve it in the areas shown
as weak by the assessments. By the ti
me the follow
-
up
study was done with laptops in the classrooms and
revised “Dragon Investigations” that aided transfer from
the colorful interactive environment of GenScope to the
paper
-
based assessments more like what students will
encounter in large
-
scal
e testing, the results were truly
impressive. The combined gains of the GenScope
classes were significantly above the gains of a
comparison class which followed the traditional genetics
teaching approach with a textbook, showing F(1,43) =
15.7, p< .001 in
pre
-

to post
-
test scores. The scores
showed gains of 13.3 for the comparison (traditionally
taught) class and 22.6 and 30.7 for the GenScope
classes, with the lower scoring class using only the
GenScope software but not the “Dragon Investigations”
whereas
the higher scoring class used the complete
curriculum.


The researchers concluded:

“We believe it [the results reported above] demonstrates
the potentially dramatic knowledge gains possible when
teacher knowledge, curriculum, technology, classroom
asses
sment, and external assessment are aligned
towards well
-
defined, ambitious goals.” (Hickey, 2003 p.
527.)



Organizing Question

Project
-
specific Answer (and Reference)


#4: Quest Atlantis


What are descriptors of the project?



Research group:

Center fo
r Research on Learning and
Technology, Indiana University


Learner age group:

children age 9 to 12


Technical description:

Quest Atlantis is a 3D multi
-
user
Virtual Learning Environments
35


virtual environment with an online community blended
with real
-
world activities which can be done i
n
classrooms, after
-
school centers or by the learner alone.
There are also unit plans, comic books, trading cards as
project artifacts.


The developers try to make the distinction of the
uniqueness of the design and implementation by
describing it as a “d
istributed, transmedia narrative”
which “Sits at the intersection of education,
entertainment, and social commitment.” (Barab, 2005)


Time in development and use:

Ethnographic research
period, 2 years. Beta version was released in January of
2003. In less
than one years, it had 3000 registered
participants.


How did the project evolve over
time?


Project name:

Quest Atlantis


The project began with the goal of making learning fun,
but after 2 years of ethnographic research, they changed
the focus of the d
esign to include a broader social
commitment. It is key to understanding this and future
virtual learning environments to know that it was the
children themselves who wanted more than fun; they
wanted to be engaged in personal, social, ethical, and
environ
mental issues. (Barab, 2005 p. 87)

What pedagogic approaches were
used?


Learners completed “quests” that were connected to the
narrative of Atlantis being a world in trouble. The storyline
does not reside in one location or medium, but come
together as t
he user participates in the game context and
investigates “relevant personal issues.” (Barab, 2005,
p.87)


Quest Atlantis builds on strategies from online role
-
playing games to engage users and blends them with
constructivist, situated cognition theories o
f learning
which focus on the centrality of activity. They use
Vygotsky’s “novel stance toward play” citing his opinion
about the role of play in learning: “…imagination is
adolescents and school children is play without action.”
(Vygotsky, 1933/1978, p. 9
3)


The designer intentionally brought in media and game
designers to increase the level of engagement of the
environment because these are the designers who are
“most successful in engaging children.”


What key design features were
developed to support a

learner’s
construction of knowledge?


Situated learning?


Zones of proximal development
and/or formative assessment?

The learner works with all of the artifacts plus the
environment itself to construct an answer, or a series of
answers to solve a quest.

The environment has a
participatory framework that has hands
-
on action as well
as reflection. The general approach to the solution of the
quests is best described as “inquiry
-
based learning” and
it is central to the design of the environment. (Barab,
200
1)

Virtual Learning Environments
36





Learners are asked to contribute their expertise and
ideas to the environment, as well as engage in social
issues that have local relevance and “report in” those
activities to blend the Atlantian and real worlds.


The developers used the theory of the

zone of proximal
development as it applies to play as an unrestricted, free
activity that lets children behave beyond their ages,
liberated from many of the social constraints of real
-
world
play and other forms of social activity.


The use of the principl
es of formative assessment are
integrated with the learning process by having learners
create portfolios of their work that can be assess by
teachers and other members of their learning community.


What key design features were
developed to support the cr
eation of
a community of learners?


This environment has a huge emphasis on community. It
involves its learners in their own communities and it is
designed with many interactive opportunities based on
the designs of “persistent virtual worlds,” which are
u
niverses with their own culture and discourse which they
have adapted to engage children in learning. They learn
from each other, from teachers, from experts distributed
across the environment, and from community members
they engage on their quests.


Wha
t are the empirical results, if
any?


In their studies on the impact of QA on learning, learners:



Offered character insights that were “deeper or
better supported” than did students in equivalent
conditions



Demonstrated statistically significant learning
o
ver time in the areas of science, social studies,
and sense of academic efficacy. (Barab, 2005)

Teachers have adopted Quest Atlantis because of:



Social commitments



Direct connection to academic standards



Use of technology is engaging to student

Children i
n schools and after
-
school settings have
completed hundreds of quests without any mandated
requirement.


There was concurrent design
-
based research during the
initial use of the environment, creating largely qualitative
data collected by 10 researchers ove
r a 30
-
month period
observing use worldwide. This research served to inform
design improvements in the environments.