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Emerging Theories of Learning and Emerging Technologies: Selected Research on

Constructivism and Virtual Worlds


The entries which follow primarily concern the use of virtual worlds (VW) such as
Second Life (SL) for educational purposes, with an emphasis on constructivist learning theory as
a framework for developing, implementing and evaluating learning activities in virtual
environments. While researchers involved in this line of inquiry generally agree that VWs and
constructivist learning theory complement each other well, it must be noted that neither the
theory nor the environment are consistently well-utilized by those venturing into VWs for the
purpose of education. Many factors contribute to this under-utilization of VWs such as the time
needed to learn to navigate, communicate and create in-world, the failure to recognize the unique
affordances of VWs, and the failure to adapt sound instructional design principles to the
environment. Virtual worlds such as SL should be an excellent place to construct virtual clinical
nursing experiences to complement actual clinical experiences within a constructivist framework
employing collaboration, situational learning and authentic assessments, as examples. Therefore,
research dealing with various aspects of educational research was selected in order to provide an
overview of the field and to present some of what is known about how SL has been used as an
educational environment within a constructivist framework.
Cook, M.J. (2012) Design and initial evaluation of a virtual pediatric primary care clinic in
Second Life. Journal of American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, 24, 521-527.
The author describes the process and intent of developing a virtual pediatric clinical
experience for nursing students, and her research adds to what is known about using SL in
nursing education. The virtual clinical experience was developed by a team which included an
instructional designer, instructional technologist and nursing faculty members with the overall
goal of providing a meaningful adjunct experience to existing real life clinical experiences. The
researchers were concerned with both the quality of the experience as well as the framework for
the design and evaluation of the project. To this end they drew from the research of others and
applied the four-dimensional framework developed by de Freitas and Oliver (2006). In addition
to the design considerations the team also incorporated constructivist learning theory into their
design through experiential, collaborative and problem-based learning activities. Scaffolding and
debriefing were also used effectively, though the researchers did recognize the need to balance
educational integrity against the limitations of the technology. Students were pleased with the
experience overall, and most reported learning from the virtual clinical experiences which
contrasts to other research indicating college-level English students were displeased with the
experience even though they felt they learned from it. In this case the research must be examined
to determine what might be at the root of the variance between studies.
Girvan, C., & Savage, T. (2010). Identifying an appropriate pedagogy for virtual worlds: A
communal constructivism case study. Computers & Education, 55, 342-349.
The authors begin their article by pointing out that although previous researchers have
stated that although no one intends to use new technology to simply do what has already been
done in education, just in a different way, the fact is that is exactly what tends to happen. Their
main interest was to examine already defined affordances of VWs and use those to develop
pedagogy appropriate to constructivist education in VWs in order to support educators as they
use VWs for teaching and learning. Their question is not what can the technology replace, but
rather what can it offer? SL offers the opportunity for knowledge building and communal
constructivism, and the authors focus on these ideas in their research project design and
discussion, both of which were well-constructed and relevant. Their findings indicate that a
communal constructivism approach to learning in VWs does make use of the affordances of
VWs and that the evaluation of the learners project artifacts indicates learning has taken place.
The authors do state that this is just one of many valid pedagogies for learning in VWs, but that
this approach works for a number of reasons including the ability of the constructivist framework
to exploit the affordances of the VW.
Huang, H. M., Rauch, U., & Liaw, S.S. (2010). Investigating learners attitudes toward virtual
reality learning environments on a constructivist approach. Computers & Education,
55, 1171-1182.
While this article deals with virtual reality generally rather than VWs only, the link
between virtual reality (VR), virtual worlds and constructivist learning is explained well, and
well-supported connections were made for the reader. Interestingly, the authors mention
presence and transfer, neither of which had been given much space in other articles but which are
significant affordances of virtual reality. As the authors point out, virtual experiences can be both
experimental and experiential for the learner as in role-play, collaborative or problem-solving
learning activities. The article deals primarily with the authors research of particular VR
experiences, the results are relevant to teaching and learning in VWs as well. The first issue the
researchers mention is the fact that the virtual experience may fail to meet expectations if not
designed with the correct pedagogic approach. Virtual learning activities, like all learning
activities, must be designed within an appropriate framework and implemented thoughtfully
rather than depending on the novelty of the activity to support learning. Purpose, not ease of use,
should drive the design of the learning activity. In addition, the authors findings indicate that
novelty can mean a steep learning curve for both educators and learners, and it can also mean
that some learners will resent the virtual environment because it is simply not realistic enough.
These findings are consistent with other research and represent persistent limitations to the use of
virtual reality in any form for educational purposes.
Kamel-Boulos, M.N., Hetherington, L., & Wheeler, S. (2007). Second Life: An overview of the
potential of 3-D virtual worlds in health education, Health Information and Libraries
Journal, 24, 233-245.
Approximately one-half of this article was spent giving an overview of some of the
various health related sites in SL and how those are being used to educate both consumers and
students, and this provides some introduction to the subject for the uninitiated. This overview is
followed by a discussion of the pedagogical potential of SL and talks about the advantages of
using SL for synchronous distance learning, problem-solving and collaboration, but none of
these subjects is discussed in much detail. Still, the mention of discussions during ward rounds in
a virtual hospital or learning to identify heart murmurs may spark a readers imagination about
new ways to use SL in medical or nursing education. While some of the usual limitations are
mentioned, the authors do mention how SL can be used by older adults and people with
disabilities to get out and socialize, but that SL does require a fair amount of manual dexterity to
type and work the mouse or keyboard for navigation and communication. While interesting, this
article does not provide any hard research or new insights into using VWs for education, but it
does provide a solid general overview of how VWs could be and are being used in health
education, and is useful for those who are not well-acquainted with the subject. This research fits
into the larger research interest in that it tends to validate the findings in other more rigorous
research articles.
Mayrath, M.C., Traphagan, T., Heikes, E.J., & Trivedi, A. (2011). Instructional design best
practices for Second Life: A case study from a college-level English course. Interactive
Learning Environments, 19(2), 125-142.
The researchers were primarily concerned with identifying and developing general best
practices for instruction in SL and the identification of best practices for designing educational
role play activities in SL. Unlike other VWs and games SL does not have defined rules, goals or
rewards so users are free to build their environment and meaning, so the environment should
lend itself to constructivist educational theory practices quite easily. However, as all researchers
dealing with issues of pedagogy in SL mention, the environment is not without its challenges
such as technical and bandwidth requirements and the learning curve to familiarize oneself with
SL. Researchers designed the first semester English class activities around building activities and
other tasks intended to help the students learn to navigate and effectively interact with their new
environment. It is worth noting that the students were not overly fond of the building activities,
preferring instead activities like customizing their avatars and chatting, so the second semester
learning activities were changed to accommodate student preferences. While the research results
showed that students felt they learned in SL it also shows that the negative attitudes were largely
due to lack of skills leading to frustration and lack of confidence, and these findings are
consistent with existing literature. The authors go on to present a list of eight best practices for
using SL in instruction and eight best practices for using SL in role-play, and while the good and
bad of the experience are noted, the recommendations may not be specific enough to be of use to
educators who are not familiar with the SL environment themselves. In addition, the researchers
found six factors that affected student attitudes toward the SL experience but only one, taking
advantage of the affordances, applied specifically to SL. The remaining five factors could easily
apply to any learning environment such as making sure the learning activities are tied to the class
objectives; if students have the requisite skills to participate in the learning activity; is the
assessment appropriate for the activity; and is adequate support provided, and is the time allowed
adequate for the task at hand.
Neely, J.C., Bowers, W., & Ragas, M. (2010). Virtual possibilities: A constructivist examination
of the educational applications of Second Life. Journal of Interactive Learning
Research, 21(1), 93-110.
Once one moves past the brief mention of learning styles, the authors outline some of the
elements of constructivist educational theory that should be well-suited to VWs such as authentic
learning context and assessments, cooperative support, and intentional and generative learning
activities. Virtual worlds seem to be particularly well-suited for this educational framework but
are not without their challenges; therefore, the researchers asked two questions. First, To what
extent do the perspectives of post-secondary instructors with experience using Second Life as a
teaching tool reflect the constructivist attributes of a rich environment for active learning
(REAL)? Next they asked, other than constructivist applications, what themes emerge in the
responses of post-secondary instructors regarding their experiences using Second Life as a
teaching tool? The responses to their survey indicate that educators are only partially using
VWs to its best benefit by failing to incorporate major constructivist ideas such as authentic
assessments into their educational activities but that they did use the opportunities the venue
affords in terms of role-play and generative activities. Not surprisingly, some of the same issues,
both positive and negative, mentioned by other researchers were mentioned by respondents and
addressed by the authors. Their findings were presented in detail and discussed in terms of the
practicality of using VWs for educational purposes and in terms of the constructivist learning
theory, which makes the article quite useful to anyone researching similar questions.

Schmidt, B., & Stewart, S. (2010). Implementing the virtual world of second life into community
nursing theory and clinical courses. Nurse Educator, 35(2), 74-78.
This article was designed to be a general report of findings and observations of faculty
members who implemented a series of public health nursing scenarios and clinical experiences
for BSN students who used the SL clinical experiences as part of their online coursework. Some
detail was provided about how the project developed and how the faculty gained their experience
in SL, but the most useful comments concerned how SL was utilized and perceived by the
students, and the results were what anyone familiar with SL would expect so in that sense the
information appears to be credible. Students liked the collaborative nature of SL and appeared to
take advantage of the affordances of the experience. Unfortunately, the one activity the students
did not like was not evaluated well enough to determine if the problem was the activity, the
presentation or SL. In this sense, the article lacked any clear direction for other researchers
regarding how to setup and run clinical scenarios in SL or about the theoretical framework that
guided the project, but the information is useful in terms of supporting the venue as a valuable
addition to nursing education in that the observations presented in this article were consistent
with the findings of other researchers.
Warburton, S. (2009). Second Life in higher education: Assessing the potential for and the
barriers to deploying virtual worlds in learning and teaching. British Journal of
Educational Technology, 40(3), 414-426.
Warburton has written a detailed explanation of how VWs can be used in education,
detailing both the positive and negative aspects of VWs. The author references and builds on
credible resources as well as his own observations and insights to outline the difference between
games and user-created worlds, ego- versus object-centered environments and how VWs can
contribute to the development of communities of interest, for example. This article would work
well for anyone wanting a solid, well-supported explanation of VWs and how they can be used
within a constructivist framework to support education and provide experiences for students that
they would otherwise not have. The author also outlines some of the major, persistent issues
surrounding the use of VWs for education such as the technical expertise and time required to
develop educational experiences. These issues and others are critical to the successful
implementation of any educational experience in a VW and the findings should be useful to
guide other researchers or educators looking for valuable information on the implementation of
VW educational projects.