Issues in Digital Technology in Education/Virtual Learning Environments

What is a Virtual Environment And How did it come to be?

A virtual learning environment (VLE) or virtual world, can be defined as an interactive simulated environment accessed by multiple users through an online interface. In order to fully appreciate he capacity of a VLE one must go back to the inception of the Internet. In 1969 The United States Defense Department created ARPANET a precursor to the Internet. Fifteen years later Islands of Kesmai, the first commercial MMORPG (massive, multiplayer, role play games) was launched on Compuserve. This is an example of early "coming together" on the Internet. At this time William Gibson publishes Neuromancer. In this work Gibson explores artificial intelligence, virtual reality, genetic engineering, and multinational overpowering corporations long before these ideas entered popular culture. By using words like "cyber speak" and "cyberspace," Gibson provided the vernacular for an emerging technology and a generation. By 1992 Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash is published and in this work, a new vision of virtual worlds is created, contenting ideas about history, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, religion, computer science, politics, cryptography and philosophy. In the late nineties most virtual worlds fade because the hardware and bandwidth requirements are too stringent and dot-com funding dries up at the end of the millennium.

7 Commonalities to all Virtual Environments/Worlds

1. All virtual environments are populated by avatars. An avatar is a computer user's representation of himself or herself, whether in the form of a 3D model or a 2D icon. In English, the word avatar has come to mean "an embodiment or an bodily manifestation of the Divine." However, the Sanskrit word Avatara mean "The descent of God" or simply "incarnation."

2. All virtual environments provide a shared space. A place that allows many users from around the world to interact at once.

3. All virtual environments host a graphical user interface. The world depicts space visually, ranging in style from 2D "cartoon" imagery to more immersive 3D environments.

4. All the action in virtual environments takes place in real time.

5. All virtual environments are interactive, and users can alter, develop and build with the environment.

6. All virtual environments will continue if the user is not logged in.

7. All virtual environments allow and encourage the formation of in-world social groups, teams, guilds, clubs, cliques, housemates, neighborhoods, etc.

Why are Virtual Environments created?

Virtual environments have also been built for purposes other than gaming. The following section summarizes a few ways in which virtual environments are currently being used:

Commercial Gaming: Tends to focus on a singular fictional theme and consistently follows formal conventions such as character-focused avatars, progression through an interactive narrative storyline, and a series of competitive events. These environments are strongly influenced by fantasy, science fiction, and anime genres of literature and film. The majority of virtual environments in existence today are commercial gaming world. •

Socializing/ Online community building: These environments emphasize socializing rather than gaming. This environment offers a more open-ended experience and is strongly influenced by the cultures of text-based chat rooms. Although small-scale, casual games may be incorporated into a social world, participants are not necessarily there to win or play a game, but rather to socialize with other and in many cases create and decorate a personal space such as a home, room, or apartment. Social worlds tend to use settings based on idealized versions of reality. Most provide some basic building tools and the ability to host activities and events that revolve around a wide variety of topics.

Education: In most cases, educational worlds are sponsored by academic institutions or nonprofit organizations, although some educational worlds are sponsored by corporations. Educational worlds come in a wide variety of forms, including 3D recreations of museum and gallery spaces, computer programming tutorials, virtual libraries, and meeting spaces for online university courses.

Military Training: Governments are using virtual environments to train their troops. Soldiers can practice high-risk combat situations in a safe, affordable environment. A variety of situations can be programmed, and depending on human interaction, different outcomes can be explored and addressed.

Virtual Environments: Second Life

Second Life: Introduction

One of the virtual environments that has been popularized recently is Second Life. Second Life was launched on June 23, 2003 by Linden Labs. It is widely popular with individuals in their early 30s (Generation X), and, according to the Kzero research group, it has 13 million registered accounts, which makes it one of the largest virtual environments. To understand Second Life, it is important to make the distinction between virtual environments and Massively Mulitplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG). Whereas MMORPG are games where content is designed by developers and consumed by players, virtual environments are places where residents co-construct physical and social content through socialization and collaboration. The content of many virtual environments and in this case Second Life is co-constructed collaboratively by residents through creativity, invention, taking on identities, and experimentation. “Practices of the participants, their actions, conversations, movements, and exchanges come to define the world and continually infuse it with new meanings” (Thomas & Brown, 2007).

Second Life: Environment’s Characteristics

Distributed Networks

Second Life is a complex visual and audio-based 3D environment which is characterized by distributed networks as its residents are geographically, demographically, and generationally dispersed. Thomas & Brown (2007) also suggest that the distributed networks are, at the same time, co-present as, for any interaction to take place, residents’ avatars are in the same space.

Participatory Culture and Interaction

According to Ondrejka (2008), another characteristic that makes Second Life unique is its participatory culture (culture of interacting, sharing, and collaborating) characterized by innovation and creativity. Participatory culture is integral for Second Life to function as the social and physical content of the environment is collaboratively authored, preserved, modified, and maintained by its residents (Robbins quoted in Arreguin, 2007) through the process of what Yowell (Yowell quoted in Arreguin, 2007) and Thomas & Brown (2007) call networked imagination. To explain this further, it is the collective or network imagination of Second Life residents that leads to the creation of urban and natural spaces where the residents congregate, and it is the collective imagination of the residents that results in defining the purpose to meet in those spaces. These purposes can range from social gatherings to educational initiatives such as lectures or workshops. Because it is the residents of Second Life who are the creators and developers of the physical and social content, the quality and complexity of this virtual environment depend entirely on residents’ agency, that is, their willingness, frequency, and quality of interactions.

It is up to the residents to decide to what degree they become involved in this space. This, according to Ondrejka (2008), largely depends on residents’ needs, desires, and constraints. It is also worthy to point out that, in contrast to interaction in other Web 2.0 applications such as blogging, wikis, or microblogging which is sequential, the interaction in Second Life and other similar virtual environments is always synchronous.

Learning as Social Practice

Because the content is co-constructed by its residents, Second Life is an environment where learning occurs through social interaction. Ondrejka (2008) labels it as peer-to-peer pedagogy, learning which is modeled on the apprenticeship model put forward by Vygotsky (Vygotsky, 1978) and which takes place in communities of practice created by learners (Wenger, 1998). “Rather than requiring learners to become proficient in all Second Life skills, students are encouraged to become dependent on each other’s talents and strengths to the point of leading and teaching each other” (Arreguin, 2007). Learning in Second Life is predominantly driven by the needs of the individual. Ondrejka (2008) points out that there is no pre-set curriculum and that learning is regulated primarily by the needs of the learners. According to Robbins (Robbins quoted in Arreguin, 2007) knowledge is pulled by the learners rather than pushed at a student. Robbins also stresses that the roles of the learner and instructor change as a result of this; the learner becomes an instructor and the instructor becomes a learner. Learning in Second Life occurs through formal and informal instances that include conventions, conferences, workshops and demonstrations organized and led by more experienced residents or through informal peer-to-peer synchronous voice or text chats. Learning in Second Life is also supported by exchange of knowledge, expertise, and information through a mush-up of technologies that are adjacent to Second Life. Thus, Second Life residents continue to learn by interacting outside of Second Life by writing blogs, collaborating on wikis, joining facebook groups, exchanging twits on twitter or other microblogging applications, or participating in conversations on listservs, sharing images on flickr, and sharing resources on delicious or other social networking sites.

Second Life: New Learner/Shift in Learning

Researchers who are exploring virtual environments point out that these environments are important to analyze for educators to understand what the characteristics of the 21st century learners are and how learning is changing as a result of these learners’ participating in these environments. Thomas & Brown (2007) argue that virtual environments exemplify a new type of learner and a significant shift in learning. Because residents can create new identities and take on new roles, the concept of identity expands. According to Thomas & Brown (2007), learner’s identity cannot be considered binary anymore (real life vs. virtual reality identity), rather, they argue, an individual’s virtual reality identity is supplemental to real world identity. Because of the semiotic characteristics of virtual environments, knowledge acquisition is also conceptualized differently. According to Thomas & Brown (2007), residents learn to BE rather than learn ABOUT concepts and ideas as it is done via traditional models of learning. Furthermore, they argue that knowledge gained in/required to function in virtual environments should not be treated in binary terms (virtual reality knowledge vs. real world knowledge) but it is supplemental to real life knowledge. Thus, virtual world residents construct their identity and knowledge both/and (not either outside/either inside the world) (Thomas & Brown, 2007). This new conceptualization of learner’s identity and the purpose of knowledge acquisition has led Thomas & Brown to believe that virtual environments such as Second Life and other spaces are important spaces to study as they are making a significant impact on today’s learners and their learning.


Arreguin, C. (2007). Best practices from the Second Life Community Convention Education Track 2007. Retrieved on June 15, 2008 from

Ondrejka, C. (2008). Education unleashed: Participatory culture, education, and I=innovation in Second Life. Retrieved on June 18, 2008 from

Thomas, D. & J.S. Brown (2007). Why virtual worlds can matter. Working Paper. Retrieved on June 11, 2007 from

Virtual Worlds Total Registered Accounts. Kzero Research. Retrieved on June 6, 2008 from

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge University Press.