Collaborative Virtual Environments for Distance Learning



·         Customer Value Proposition: Connection, Engagement, Active Learning


·         Business Value Proposition: Distance Learning, Virtual Classroom, Customer Education, Brand Loyalty


·         Business Case: By embracing the “space” in cyberspace, we can employ 3D virtual worlds to create spectacular learning environments that feel “real” to participants, thus enabling social scaffolding for learning. These environments allow people from widely dispersed locations to share experiences and collaborate in the active construction of knowledge. Situation in a branded environment allows subtle, but effective, control of participants’ perceptions, leading to greater brand awareness and loyalty.


One of the most promising avenues for delivering digital experience is through Multi-User Collaborative Virtual Environments, or CVE's. A CVE is a virtual, computer-generated, 3D environment that seems in some sense "real" to its participants, who typically are logged on remotely. CVE's do not require expensive and specialized hardware, relying instead on freely distributed software clients that display 3D environments on ordinary computer monitors, using modem-speed connections. Even without the full immersion of classical VR (Virtual Reality), these worlds create an almost visceral sense of "being there”, and this enables and supports activities that affect participants in meaningful ways. Importantly, the community created by such activities provides a social scaffolding for evolving forms of behavior, including learning and teaching.


CVEs possess some unique features that facilitate distance learning:


·         “Meta-geography”- participants can be widely distributed across geographic locales and time zones, yet share a common virtual location.

·         Persistent objects- participants can create and manipulate objects in the world, and share those objects with others.

·         Intelligent objects- software can be attached to objects in order to create interactive simulations.

·         Avatar embodiment- enables a sense of presence, gestural communication, body language, social cues.

·         Software agents (bots)- useful for orientation, guidance, explanations, demonstrations.

·         Teleportation- instantaneous movement within the virtual world, useful for structuring presentation of learning material.

·         Synchronous and asynchronous communication- encourages collaborative behavior.

·         Logging of chat files- useful for assessment.


Using these and other affordances, we can create environments that support learning as an active process, wherein learners are able to create, manipulate and transform their environment. This approach matches well with Constructivist learning practices of learning by doing, as well as the current trend for museums and exhibitions to actively engage visitors, especially by simulating experiences that would be impossible to present in a physical space.


There are several CVE platforms currently available. The ActiveWorlds platform is one of the most versatile and popular, being something of a lingua franca for virtual learning worlds. It uses a proprietary, non-VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) technology, but is able to include VRML objects as well. Communication is primarily text-based, although there are ways to incorporate voice, and 3D navigation is accomplished with simple and intuitive keyboard commands. One interesting feature of this platform is the ease with which one can employ “bots”, or automated software agents, to present and explain information. These bots, which can be configured to look like avatars, are able to present text in multiple languages simultaneously, run slide shows, cause objects to morph into other objects, etc. They make very useful guides for our virtual exhibition, reducing the need for moderation by human experts.


Many groups in the Learning space are beginning to create environments using ActiveWorlds. Here are two that exemplify some of the best features of that platform: The BioLearn Project, based at the U. of California, Santa Cruz, utilizes a large virtual world devoted to issues of ecology and biodiversity. It contains an interesting mix of real-world models, such as an underwater kelp forest and a Japanese garden, along with such innovative ideas as a large, 3d globe with hot spots that bring up real time web cam views of their locations on the planet. The Cornell Theory Center, Cornell University, has created an on-line Science Museum for hands-on activities. This museum, SciCentr, is a work in progress, but it already incorporates such cutting-edge features as Mendelian genetics experiments with virtual plants.


Scenario 1


Here is a proposed scenario, doable now with existing products, for using CVE techniques to create Electric World, a virtual, on-line electric power exhibition. This “hands on” environment employs virtual, 3D models of various parts of the electric power system, including generation, distribution, utilization and conservation of electricity, to give consumers and others a real appreciation for the complexities and benefits of electric power. It is conceived as a branded property for a major Electric Power Client, where that Client can demonstrate its engagement with these complexities and benefits, and showcase its technical achievements, especially in the areas of efficiency and environmental friendliness. This multi-user space can be visited individually or used for classroom purposes by groups, without regard to geographic proximity. Let us now take a brief tour.


For our visit to Electric World, we start our ActiveWorlds browser, opening a window on our desktop that contains two important panes: One pane presents the 3D virtual world as it is navigated and another pane contains web pages that are called up by actions in the 3D pane (see illustration). An advantage of this system is that web pages are always situated in the context of the ActiveWorlds browser window, enabling visitors to remain focused.




We arrive in Electric World at the Visitors’ Center. This is a large, tent-like structure, designed to orient new arrivals. If visitors wish, they can view bot-presented tutorials on using the 3D world and practice their navigation skills. The Center presents overviews of the various exhibits contained in the world, and from these overviews visitors can teleport to discrete, themed areas, each devoted to a different aspect of electric power. Signage, walkways and appropriately labeled teleports are used to guide visitors through the world in a coherent fashion, although they can also move randomly at will, if they choose. We select a silvery transmission tower as our avatar, from a list of avatars reflecting the electric theme of this world. As we look around, we notice several other people in avatar form: a shiny black transformer from Kentucky, a line worker from France and a lightning bolt from Singapore. We wave and exchange greetings, and then wander off to see the sights.




Our first stop is the section presenting a historical overview of electric power. It looks interesting, so we hit the teleport button and immediately jump to the History section of Electric World, which is designed to look like a 19th century exposition hall. As we wander through the space, images on the walls depict such milestones as Benjamin Franklin’s kites, Michael Farraday’s electric generators and Thomas Edison’s light bulbs, among others. We click on a picture of Franklin, which calls up a page in the web pane illustrating some of his electrical experiments. Clicking a picture of Farraday likewise summons explanatory pages in the web pane, detailing his discoveries. In the center of the space, we examine some 3D models of Farraday’s early generators, which we can experiment with. Our new friend from Singapore joins us and suggests that we try substituting different windings in the generator. Upon doing this, we notice immediately that the output current has changed. It is precisely this sort of “learning though doing” in a social setting that can create powerful and lasting impressions on CVE participants.


After delving as much as we care into the history of electric power, we go to the teleport console, where we can travel instantly to areas devoted to Generation, Distribution, Utilization or Conservation of electric power. We decide to visit Generation and tell our friendly lightning bolt to meet us there, if they want.





We arrive in a land of turbines, dynamos and megawatts. The orientation zone in this area employs signage and images to show various types of generating plants, and how they relate on selected indices, such as cost, efficiency and environmental friendliness. There are links to web-cams located at actual generation facilities, as well as links to information on the Client’s web site or other appropriate locations. We see that the list of exhibits includes: dual-stage gas turbines, hydro-power, nuclear and coal power, as well as such “green” technologies as co-generation, geothermal, wind and solar power generation. After reviewing the introductory material, we decide to visit the dual-stage gas turbine exhibit, as the signage indicates this is the Client’s main installed base.


We arrive in a life-size generator building, housing several massive gas turbine generators, which we cannot resist the urge to fly around. Audio conveys the sounds of these impressive machines, and we can click on individual parts to call up details. On the walls of the building are images of various aspects of power generation, e.g. diagrams of electric fields in a generator, animations of gas and steam turbines, etc. Clicking each image brings up detailed information in the web pane. On the far wall, we notice a sort of auditorium, where a guide bot is hosting a lecture in several languages simultaneously. We request our second language, French, and receive an explanation of gas power generation, using a variety of models and images. This automated lecture conveys how the dual-stage process radically increases efficiency over single-stage technologies, and it emphasizes the low emission nature of gas-fired generation. These lessons are further reinforced by experimenting with a model power plant, where we can monitor energy input and output as we switch between single and dual stage operation, all the while viewing such data as sulfates and particulates in the exhaust stream. After taking a quick, “quiz-show style” exam that tests our understanding of the material, we choose another Generation exhibit to visit. We choose to walk, rather than teleport, to the Geothermal area, since it is close.


Our Client is a world leader in Geothermal Energy production, and so has a well-developed exhibit detailing that technology’s environmental advantages and cost effectiveness. We can take a tour through the geological formations that create geothermal heat, as well as examine and experiment with the generating equipment used to covert this heat to power, all in a branded setting emphasizing the Client’s leadership position. This demonstration might be part of a dedicated “green energy” tour, which showcases the Client’s commitment to various alternative generation technologies, including cutting edge technologies they may not have yet implemented in the field.


While viewing the geothermal exhibit, we encounter a light bulb avatar representing a visitor located in California, who suggests that we go to the Distribution section, where an electrical engineer from Stanford is giving a “live” lecture about the power grid. The light bulb gives us the world coordinates of the lecture location, so we teleport directly there.




Upon arrival, we see that the light bulb has joined us, and that our Singaporean lightning bolt friend is here as well. The lecturer is using a transmission tower avatar like ours, but golden. She has already begun her presentation, and a group of avatars has gathered around a sort of three-dimensional diagram of an electric power grid, which occupies a few square meters of floor space. Using color-coded models and animations, she is able to give us a feel for the complexities and interdependicies of the grid, by showing how excessive demand or equipment failures can cause changes that resonate throughout the system. She has a volunteer from the audience “crash” a transformer substation, and we watch and ask questions as the system tries to re-route power around the missing substation.


After her lecture, she encourages us to try our hands at building our own power grids, using intelligent objects that represent transmission lines, transformer substations and terminal substations. If the objects are properly connected, a functioning electric power grid results. Mistakes like insufficient transformer capacity or too small wire, however, are highlighted in the resulting model as weak links that must be changed.  This exercise reinforces the information we have just received from the engineer’s lecture, so we are more likely to retain our new knowledge about the power grid.


Although we are really enjoying our exploration of Electric World, we have a meeting back at the office, so we decide to save the Utilization and Conservation sections for a later date. We say goodbye and exchange email addresses with our new friends. Our Singaporean lightning bolt later turns out to be involved in a Chinese hydropower project, and invites our company to participate.


Scenario 2


Another Learning World we can visit is the Energy Museum. This world is conceived as an introduction to the ways that energy of various kinds is produced, utilized and conserved. It could be a branded experience, although it is not considered as such in this proposal.


After choosing the Energy Museum from a list of available worlds, we arrive in virtual space at the center of the Energy Dome, a large hemispherical space divided into pie shaped sectors, each devoted to a different form of energy. We are represented in this world by an avatar consonant with the energy theme, perhaps a figure in a lab coat or work suit. If we wish, we can change from this default to another avatar chosen from a list. A greeter bot introduces us to the museum in our choice of several languages; we choose English. As we look around, we notice other avatars representing visitors from California, Venezuela, Kansas and Japan; we wave to them and exchange greetings.


Looking out from the center, we see sectors for Hydro Power, Nuclear Energy, Fossil Fuels, Wind Power, Solar Power, etc. We decide to explore the Fossil Fuels area and head into that sector. As we walk, we pass images depicting various aspects of fossil fuel production and utilization. In particular, one long wall of the sector is devoted to a timeline of the industry, while the other illustrates such technical aspects as petroleum pooling in underground salt domes, pressure regulation in pipelines, etc. The curved end wall is devoted to economic, social and regulatory aspects of the industry. Each area has its own docent bot to explain the material.


We pause on the timeline wall to attend to a bot’s narration about the Spindletop oil field. When we click on a photo image of one of the wooden derricks, a web page comes up in the web pane, detailing the kind of equipment used for oil drilling at the turn of the century. Back in the 3D world, clicking on a “gusher” image brings up a web page explaining how petroleum becomes sufficiently pressurized to shoot from a drill hole. Other images link to web pages explaining the economic and social impact of Spindletop.


Wandering into the open area between the sector walls, we encounter a variety of 3D models illustrating various aspects of fossil fuel production and utilization. We examine a refinery model and discover it is a teleport to an interactive simulation in another location. We click on the model and we are instantly transported to a large, 3D Distillation Tower, where we can fly around in space to examine the multitude of pipes and tubes surrounding and attached to it. Bots, using visuals arrayed in space around the tower, explain what the various parts accomplish. In an exhibit nearby, another bot sequentially displays 3D models of the various stages in building such a structure.


This virtual artifact is more than a simple model, however. It employs sophisticated simulation software, so visitors can experience first hand how hydrocarbons are distilled and cracked. For example, we can choose one of several crude oil compositions going into the distillation process, and also choose different temperatures at which to treat the crude. These choices will then determine the output stream composition registering at various levels on the distillation tower. We choose a low-cost, high-sulfur crude for input, and discover that the output streams we desire to crack for gasoline require costly additional processing to remove that sulfur, in order to meet clean air standards. Both in-world visuals and web page material can be called up to explicate this intersection of technology, economics and public policy. Additional experiments can be performed with different crudes and processing temperatures.


After teleporting back to the Energy Dome, we continue to peruse the Fossil Fuels exhibit, where we encounter more hyperlinks to 3D visualizations and simulations. We visit a drilling platform, where we are able to follow the drill bit as it bores horizontally into pockets of petroleum. We explore a 3D visualization of seismic mapping, which allows us to substitute different kinds of rock and see how that changes the seismic signature.


Our final visit in the Fossil Fuels sector is to a public building area, where we can build a model drilling platform from a set of parts in an "object yard". Before we start building, we stroll around and examine models that previous visitors have built, noting that some do not seem structurally viable for the open ocean. Assisted by our new friend from Venezuela, we build a fairly accurate deep sea platform, with a larger than usual recreation facility to address our conjectures about worker boredom on such structures. We note with satisfaction that our conjectures seem to be supported by some of the web references we have pulled up.


Upon our return to the Energy Dome, our new friend takes us to the Solar Energy sector where a German physics professor is demonstrating an interactive simulation of the Photoelectric Effect. It is now dinner time in the real world, so we say our goodbyes and prepare to leave. Just before we log off and close our session, we see a large group of avatars in the central hub, evidently a 7th grade science class on a virtual field trip. We know they will have a meaningful and fun experience.


Other Possibilities


Any number of on-line virtual museums / classrooms could be created as described above: An Egyptian collection could feature hieroglyphic objects that allow visitors to write hieroglyphs on virtual tomb walls. A paleontological exhibit might have interactive dinosaur skeletons and simulated trilobites. We could examine nerve cells in an on-line human brain. Et cetera. Although I have focused on the museum / educational outreach experience for this proposal, CVE techniques will prove useful for a wide variety of scenarios:


·         Training and communication for widely dispersed work groups

·         Formal or informal classes, associated with schools or other learning entities

·         Role playing games

·         Interest groups formed around products or services

o    Learning

o    Entertainment

o    Commerce

o    Health


At the dawn of the Broadband era, we have the opportunity to move beyond the “hyperlinked newspaper” metaphor of the World Wide Web, into a true 3D cyberspace that will fully engage our perceptual, cognitive and social abilities. Although all popular CVE platforms are currently designed to work with modem speed connections, they will evolve rapidly to take advantage of increased throughput, enabling such improvements as higher resolution graphics, more useful avatars, greater support for voice and video, etc. Such improved affordances will yield a greater sense of reality for participants, further solidifying the social scaffolding for digital experience.




·      ActiveWorlds- a widely-distributed, proprietary CVE platform that allows users to build persistent objects. Text-based communication.

·      Avatar- an object that represents a human user in a computer simulated environment. An avatar typically moves about and interacts with the environment and other avatars, under control of a user.

·      Bot- short for robot, in this context a software program that performs a useful function in a virtual world, often made to look like an object or avatar.

·      Constructivism- a learning theory that proposes learning is best accomplished when learners are actively engaged with the learning environment.

·      Social Scaffolding- a network of relationships and interactions among people that enables evolved forms of behavior and communication.

·      Teleport- a facility for launching an avatar to an arbitrary point in a virtual world.

·      Virtual Reality (VR)- a computer generated environment with coherent rules and which can be traversed in such a way that it appears to be in some sense “real” to persons experiencing it. Classical VR uses stereo eyepieces for world display.

·      VRML- acronym for Virtual Reality Modeling Language, a markup-type language for defining 3-dimesional, computer generated spaces that can be shared over the Internet.