Students' Attitudes Towards Educational Virtual Environments

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<ul><li><p>Students' attitudes towards educationalvirtual environments</p><p>TASSOS A. MIKROPOULOS</p><p>Department of Primary Education, University of Ioannina, Ioannina GR-45110,Greece.E-mail: amikrop@cc.uoi.gr</p><p>ANTHIMOS CHALKIDIS</p><p>Department of Primary Education, University of Ioannina, Ioannina GR-45110,Greece.</p><p>APOSTOLOS KATSIKIS</p><p>Department of Primary Education, University of Ioannina, Ioannina GR-45110,Greece.E-mail: akatsiki@cc.uoi.gr</p><p>ANASTASSIOS EMVALOTIS</p><p>Department of Primary Education, University of Ioannina, Ioannina GR-45110,Greece.E-mail: aemvalot@cc.uoi.gr</p><p>This case study reports on an investigation of the attitude of education studentstowards virtual reality (VR) as a tool in the educational process, and towards vir-tual learning environments on specic disciplines. Our results indicate a favour-able attitude towards VR in the educational process. Although immersion was notsupported in this study, half of the students declared immersion experiences. Stu-dents consider the mouse the most effective input device for navigation in virtualenvironments, with a joystick the second one. Because the sampling population issmall, the qualitative results must be regarded as tentative. There is, however, aneed for further investigation, which is currently being undertaken by our group.</p><p>KEYWORDS: Higher education; attitudes; case studies; computer assistedinstruction (CAI); human computer interface (HCI); virtual reality.</p><p>INTRODUCTION</p><p>Virtual reality (VR) is a highly interactive computer-based environment, where theuser participates in a `virtually real' world through multiple sensorial channels.</p><p>Education and Information Technologies 3 137148 (1998)</p><p>13602357# 1998 IFIP, published by Chapman &amp; Hall Ltd</p></li><li><p>Freedom in navigation (exploratory VR) and interaction (interactive VR) is essentialfor a computer environment to be characterized as a VR environment (virtual envir-onment, VE). A virtual environment designed to educate and=or inform the user iscalled a virtual learning environment (Taylor, 1994). A VE should have an educa-tional objective and provide users with experiences they would otherwise not beable to experience in the physical world.</p><p>Research on virtual reality suggests that it could be a powerful tool for education(Pantelidis, 1993; Winn, 1993) based on its main characteristics. These are the rst-person user viewpoint and free navigation, as well as the ability to manipulate thevirtual environment in real time. Although Winn (1993) proposes immersion as thekey point of VR for educational use, we believe that its two main characteristics sta-ted in the previous paragraph are enough for VR to become a powerful educationaltool. Winn concludes that constructivism is the best basis for building a theory oflearning in virtual environments. We start from a more general aspect, that of sen-sory ergonomics (Waterworth, 1995), claiming that computer systems function pri-marily as sensory transducers and experience enhancers and not as cognitiveartifacts. We consider that we cannot help students to think better, but we can al-low them to experience more, exploiting new technologies such as virtual realitysystems. Information as presented in VR is compatible with the different learningstyles of students, and the different ways that people take in information and think.This comes from the exploratory character of the virtual worlds with complete free-dom in navigation using rst-person user viewpoint. This is the approach of openlearning environments and especially empty technologies (Winn, 1993) that doesnot occur in other educational technologies such as multimedia.</p><p>OBJECTIVES</p><p>The purpose of the study described in this paper is to investigate the attitudes ofeducation students towards virtual reality as a tool in the educational procedure,and towards virtual learning environments in specic disciplines.</p><p>As VR is a new technology, its use as an educational tool is quite recent with few re-ports on empirical research. Some articles on VR in specic disciplines have ap-peared and started to be evaluated on Newtonian mechanics (Dede et al., 1994) andenvironmental education (Mikropoulos et al., 1997). There are some empirical re-search papers on the attitudes of users towards VR in education. Merickel (1993) re-ports on the relationship between VR and the ability of elementary school childrento create, manipulate and utilize mental images for spatially related problem solvingusing an immersive VR system. Although children had some difculties in using theperipheral devices, they had become quite procient in the system by the end ofthe study. Byrne and Furness III (1994) conducted a study where 69 students, agednine to 16, created and visited virtual worlds in a fully immersive VR system. Theyreport that students performed well in using VR and enjoyed their experiences.They also note few signicant differences in terms of race or gender, and that VRhas a denite role in education from a merely motivational viewpoint. Concerningthe factor of age, Osberg (1995) reports on the age of users experiencing virtual</p><p>138 Mikropoulos et al.</p></li><li><p>worlds, nding that as students get older (ages 1618), they enjoy their experi-ences, but slightly less than younger students. Schaefer and Wassermann (1995)give preliminary results on adult students' reactions to low-cost VR. They show thatall their demonstrated virtual environments were understood by the users at an in-tuitive level, with some negative observations on the navigating devices and head-sets used. Talkmitt's (1996) results show a general positive attitude of 94 studentsaged 1415. Grove (1996) emphasizes the importance of collaboration for learningin VR. He reports that most of his young classroom children enjoyed their experi-ence of VR, pointing out that VR is useful but not because it looks more like reality.</p><p>Most of the above research has a cognitive approach, and concludes that VR ishighly promising as a learning and teaching tool, and should be explored further.The axes of our research are:</p><p> To investigate the quality of VR applications in education. Our aim is to analysecritically the attitude and feedback concerning the design and integration of vir-tual learning environments.</p><p> To investigate the manmachine interaction concerning different navigationdevices.</p><p>The hypotheses are:</p><p> There is a positive acceptance of VR in the educational process. Students prefer the joystick as the most effective peripheral device for naviga-</p><p>tion in virtual environments.</p><p>METHOD</p><p>The research was undertaken during the academic year 1995 to 1996. The sampleconsisted of 20 students from the Department of Primary Education, University ofIoannina, future teachers in primary schools. Sixteen of the participants were fe-males, in common with all education departments in Greece and elsewhere. The ageof these students was 1826 years old with 70% being 21 years old. All the studentshad prior computer use experience. The present research is part of a more generalexamination of virtual realities in environmental education.</p><p>Participation in the project was voluntary, out of the scope of any course, with noextra credits. An initial questionnaire was given to the students, concerning demo-graphic data, previous experience in information technologies, type of computeruse (kind of applications, peripheral devices), and level and source of informationabout VR. Students read some notes on what VR is and how to navigate in virtualworlds using the different peripheral devices. After that, they visited two virtualworlds.</p><p>The rst one was familiar to the subjects from their everyday lives, a well furnishedofce (Fig. 1). We have modied the interior of a ready-made virtual ofce for thepurposes of our research. Students were guided by notes and exercises on how tonavigate and what to do during their exploration. They had to enter the ofce, navi-</p><p>Educational virtual environments 139</p></li><li><p>gate all around, locate and approach the bookshelf and open one of its drawers.They had to locate the desk and use the calculator, and nally to navigate and inter-act with objects such as lights, pencils, chairs and telephones.</p><p>The second virtual world was designed and developed by our research group. Wehave developed the project LAKE (virtuaL Approach to the Kernel of Eutrophica-tion) for research concerning the use of virtual environments in environmental edu-cation (Mikropoulos et al., 1997). A series of interconnected virtual worlds relatedto the phenomenon of eutrophication in lakes has been designed and developed forinvestigation of the effectiveness of virtual learning environments (Fig. 2). Becauseof the complexity of the phenomenon and the variety of parameters involved to-gether with their relations, the didactic approach is not simple. The virtual environ-ments give a qualitative representation of the phenomenon, spotlighting the basicrelated factors and their relations. In this rst approach, the virtual worlds are ex-ploratory, with the nal plan for them to become fully interactive. Students may na-vigate freely outside or inside the lake, watch objects and facts (swimming three-dimensional sh, dead sh, oxygen, phytoplankton, ora, salts), and investigate the</p><p>Figure 1. A view of the virtual ofce</p><p>Figure 2. An inner view of one of the virtual lakes</p><p>140 Mikropoulos et al.</p></li><li><p>process and the results of eutrophication. Students may also choose one of 15 pre-set viewpoints, to begin their navigation from a different starting point.</p><p>The systems used were desktop VR systems with the SUPERSCAPE VRT softwareproviding a `window on the world' for the virtual representations. Although the sys-tem design supported immersion and exotic peripherals, we used a standard perso-nal computer, affordable and existing in almost every school's computer lab-oratory. The peripherals for navigation were the keyboard, the mouse, a joystick, aspaceball and a space mouse. The two last ones are specially designed for navi-gation in three-dimensional environments. Students had some instructions on howto navigate in three-dimensional space using these peripherals, and on the activitiesthey had to do. They had one hour to interact with each virtual world, but the actualduration of their exploration was from 30 to 45 min for each virtual world. After that,students lled closed and open questionnaires concerning their experiences, and adiscussion followed.</p><p>RESULTS</p><p>General</p><p>Table 1 shows examples of students' previous computer use experiences.</p><p>Concerning the peripheral input device used, most of the students are familiar withmouse or joystick use. This is because of the disk operating system (DOS)=windowsapplications and games they were experienced with. The high percentage of experi-ence in Logo programming (85%) is because of two existing courses in Logo lan-guage at our department. Only two of the subjects had some experience ofmultimedia=hypermedia, multiple representations and information linking. Con-cerning the level of information about VR, 60% of the students had no previous in-formation, the rest of them having a low level of information mainly from massmedia.</p><p>Table 2 shows the attitude of the sample towards information technologies (IT).From the rst three questions, it is clearly shown that all the students have a posi-tive attitude to the use of IT in the classroom. In spite of this, 25% say that IT gener-ates technical problems in classroom use, and 40% feel uncomfortable with usingIT. Concerning the inuence of IT on the natural self-expression of students, opi-nions are diffused.</p><p>Table 1. Students' previous computer use experiences(N 20)Kind of computer experience Number %</p><p>Games 9 45Ofce automation 12 60Multimedia applications 2 10Logo programming 17 85</p><p>Educational virtual environments 141</p></li><li><p>Virtual environments</p><p>Following subjects' experiences with the virtual ofce, we have recorded their atti-tudes (Table 3). Table 4 shows the students' expressions from a more objective ap-proach. It is obvious that there are students expressing themselves in more thanone category appearing in the table. Ten of the students declare enthusiasm and=orimpressiveness. Our rst estimation of attitude is conservative as only three of thestudents (Table 3) express enthusiasm. However, combining these three with theothers declaring novelty of the medium, we have a positive attitude from more thanhalf of the subjects. These feelings of enthusiasm and impressiveness are key pointsfor the activation of the cognitive process through enquiry and search. So, it isworthwhile investigating how a medium provoking such feelings in the educationalprocess can be properly exploited.</p><p>The ease of learning using VEs seems to be ambiguous. Five of the students con-sider that the use of VEs is easy and simple, and ve others consider that there isthe need for training. Even this small number puts some thoughts about the exis-tence of a familiarization stage. This has to do both with navigating peripheral de-vices, and with complete freedom of navigation that virtual environments give. Twoof the students had a more critical attitude. One of them does not wish such an ex-perience with virtual worlds that is not relevant to the educational process, such as</p><p>Table 2. Students' attitudes towards information technologies (N 20)</p><p>AgreeAgree withconditions</p><p>Disagree withconditions Disagree No answer</p><p>Computers are a luxury forschools at any level</p><p>0 0 8 12 0</p><p>I would be glad seeing mystudents using computers</p><p>12 6 1 1 0</p><p>Using ITs, educator improvesteaching quality</p><p>10 10 0 0 0</p><p>The use of IT in the educationalprocess generates technicalproblems</p><p>1 4 10 4 1</p><p>I feel uncomfortable thinking ofme using computers in theclassroom</p><p>4 4 4 8 0</p><p>Computers cramp natural self-expression of students</p><p>0 7 7 1 5</p><p>Table 3. Attitude characterization of the 20 students after experiencing virtual ofce</p><p>Attitude characterization Keen Positive Cautious Negative</p><p>Number of students 3 14 3 0</p><p>142 Mikropoulos et al.</p></li><li><p>an ofce. The other student has a negative attitude towards media in education asexperience enhancers, although he enjoys exploring the virtual worlds.</p><p>It was surprising that half of the students declared that they had immersion experi-ences. Students' expressions are:</p><p>. . . I was feeling like to be there, . . . there are feelings like in the real world, . . . it is likenot to have a body, . . . I was gradually immersed in the world, . . . I had the feeling that Iwas moving in the real world, . . . I had the feeling that my skills were expanding, . . . it isa simulation just like in the real world (twice), . . . I was moving inside an informationworld, . . . I was totally immersed.</p><p>It is clear that students had not forgotten for a moment that they were using an arti-cial environment. It seems that human imagination enhances the receiving stimuliand it is possible to provoke `immersion' in using various media. There are cases of`immersion' without the use of any particular devices, starting from book readingand movie watching (Eddings, 1994). Although our research sample is...</p></li></ul>

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