Technology Enhanced Learning

Carrie Heeter
Michigan State University
Department of Telecommunication


2.7.2 Virtual Environments for Special-Needs Education

Virtual Reality Applications Research Team (VIRART)

University of Nottingham, UK [11]

Six special needs students between the ages of 7 and 11 participated in this observational pilot study, using three Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs): a virtual grocery store, a virtual house, and a Makaton communication system (using symbols to communicate simple concepts). The VLEs used 486 PCs running Superscape Visualizer to allow users to navigate through 3D worlds and interact with objects. The student and their regular classroom teacher were videotaped and observed using the VLEs together.

The authors note six characteristics of virtual learning environments:

  • VLE use may encourage self-directed activity;
  • VLEs are motivational;
  • VLEs can offer Naturalistic Learning;
  • VLEs can provide a safe space in which the student can experiment;
  • Desktop VLEs offer shared public experiences;
  • VLEs can act as equalizers of physical abilities.

Adapting Jonassen's seven principles of constructivism [7] to use in evaluation, they looked at how well their VLEs:

  • Represent the natural complexity of the real world;
  • Focus knowledge on construction, not reproduction;
  • Present authentic tasks;
  • Use case-based rather than predetermined sequences;
  • Foster reflective practice;
  • Enable context-dependent knowledge; and
  • Support collaboration through social negotiation.

According to the theory, following these guidelines should result in VLEs that enhance and facilitate the learning process. A behavioral coding scheme was developed and applied to the videotapes, counting behaviors related to the seven constructivist principles.

One finding was that individual differences in teaching style of the teacher elicited different results. Like the NICE study, this one concluded that complexity of tasks in VLEs should be increased to the levels experienced in the real world -- but also not any more difficult than the real world.


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