Digital Space as an Arena for Broadband Educational Opportunities:


Digital Space


Digital space is virtual, computer generated 3D space, which feels in some sense "real" to its users (1). Immersive Virtual Reality (VR) techniques ultimately hold the most promise for realizing the goal of lifelike digital space, but the specialized and expensive nature of their required apparatus argues against any really widespread use for the near future. A more promising avenue is offered by what is known as Desktop VR or Virtual Worlds, wherein a 2D presentation of the 3D environment is displayed on an ordinary computer monitor, obviating the need for special hardware.


Whether a virtual space is presented in immersive or desktop format, certain features are useful to create a sense of “being there" for the user:


·         A movable viewpoint- This is the absolute minimum requirement: a movable viewpoint, under user control, allows navigation of the space(2). It is desirable to have minimal time lag for movements.

·         Synchronous and asynchronous communication- The ability for users to communicate is paramount.

·         Reasonable resolution- A system must be able to present enough polygons and textures to create a plausible representation of the environment. Complete verisimilitude is, however, not required, as other factors contribute to the sense of realism.

·         Embodiment- User representation in the space by an avatar grounds the movable viewpoint in a natural context (3). Some desirable traits for an avatar include

·         A repertoire of gestures and movements

·         Evocative body shapes

·         Lip-synch capability, if voice-based

·         Multi-user- The social phenomena enabled by multiple users are a powerful determinant of a space's realism, even more important than issues of resolution and lag.

·         Voice is ideal for synchronous communication, but requires high bandwidth.

·         Sound effects- Appropriate sounds add greatly to a sense of realism.

·         Hyperlinks- The ability to link to other locations in the 3D world, as well as to the web, creates a larger "meta-reality".


Virtual spaces possessing these attributes will be perceived as real spaces by their users, and this perception enables and supports activities that affect these users in meaningful ways. Frequent visitors come to think of their digital space as home, encouraged in many cases by the ability to customize or extend space, using persistent objects. Most importantly, the community created by these frequent visitors provides the social scaffolding for evolving forms of behavior, including learning and teaching(4).


Early examples of virtual spaces include MUDs (Multiple User Domain) and MOOs (MUD, Object Oriented). These worlds are constructed solely from text descriptions, and all user interaction consists of delivering text messages(5). These messages are either communications with other participants or instructions to modify the space in some way, e.g. “Open the door.” or “Place the helmet on the dancing hare.” The realness of such textual space is analogous to the realness of a novel, since the world is created in each user’s imagination from its description. Nonetheless, the interactive and communicative aspects enable a remarkable sense of place, allowing some users to “live” significant portions of their lives in these text-based worlds(6).


VR environments, whether desktop or full-blown immersive, leverage the realistic qualities of MUDs and MOOs and add to the mix navigable 3D space, with users represented as avatars. In addition, such features as sound, voice and video are also often present. These qualities of enhanced VR enable an almost viscerally real sense of place and community in digital space.


Educational opportunities


Educational programs, especially those conceived within a Constructivist framework, are supported by the "artificial reality" of digital space(7). Here are some features of digital space, which can be useful for creating educational experiences:


·         Meta-Geography- Users distributed across the entire globe can be present simultaneously in a common space.

·         Avatar representation- Can be utilized for role playing, psychodrama. Also can be used like a school uniform- i.e. race, gender, age, etc. become less important in the social and educational milieu.

·         Buildability- It is possible to organize virtual worlds so that the users themselves can create structures- e.g. students might create a cell from a stockpile of objects such as mitochondria, chromosomes, etc.

·         Hyperlinking- This provides a powerful means for explicating subject material. For instance, students could go inside the nucleus of a virtual cell and by clicking on a chromosome, be instantly transported to a strand of DNA, where a similar process could take them to a simulated genetics laboratory.

·         Programmable physical laws- The ability to prescribe, for instance, no gravity or passing through walls enables activities difficult or impossible in real space. Real physical laws, such as Maxwell's electric field equations, can likewise be modeled and experienced from, for instance, an electron's point of view.


Over the past few years, there have been several pioneering virtual learning (V-learning) projects, which point to the effectiveness of this approach(7)(8)(9)(10)(11).  Interestingly, the outcomes of these projects reinforce the centrality of the active learner in crafting V-learning environments. The ability of these environments to actively engage learners is in many cases bolstered by allowing them to actually create objects and spaces.


It is important to realize that digital space offers truly new potentials, rather than simply a new slant on business as usual. For instance, the concepts of virtual embodiment and subjectivity open up to some radical possibilities in the area of multiple and parallel selves(12), which have never been considered in any learning paradigm. Creative use of digital space will likely result in new and unexpected avenues for educational opportunity.


Broad Band


The two main approaches to digital space, immersive VR and desktop VR, are currently separated by their very different bandwidth requirements. Immersive VR uses a stereo visual display to create a true 3D image. Additionally, various methods are employed to locate users in space, and this information is used to update the display as they move about. The resulting data load makes it impractical to network immersive VR over any but the fastest networks, meaning that most projects employing these techniques are limited to participants at a single location, and usually without multiple simultaneous users.


Even within the desktop VR model, such features as voice and video impose a strain on resources. This often means that the number of avatars in a space is limited, or that the voice or video is so degraded as to be of little use.


The advent of the Broad Band era promises to radically ease such restrictions. The fast transfer rates afforded by fiber and wireless will enable widespread integration of voice and video into digital space, tighten the granularity of interactive and visual elements, and allow for sophisticated motion tracking of widely dispersed users. Even without the use of stereo goggles, such improvements will enable remarkably realistic online worlds.


Two of the major areas targeted by the Baylor Broad Band study are Interactive Games and Education(13). The vision of a Digital Learning Space that I am proposing can be considered to live where those areas intersect, although gaming's relentless goal orientation is not really needed to evoke the reality of such a space. Back in the early days of VR, it was touted as a "new ground for being" by psychologists and philosophers—it is most certainly a new ground for learning, and one with great potential.


Scalable experience


Rather than waiting for the kind of full-bore interactive digital space that Broad Band will enable, there is much that can be done now, with existing technologies, to gain valuable, scalable experience. In particular, a large and growing network of educators and technologists is already in place, devoted to the educational application of a particular desktop VR platform, ActiveWorlds.


ActiveWorlds is a non-VRML system for creating on-line 3D virtual worlds, in which visitors are represented by avatars. It is by far the most populous of such systems, with hundreds of individual worlds organized into the ActiveWorlds Universe. Hundreds of thousands of people have at least some experience with this platform, and it is becoming a sort of lingua franca for desktop VR.


Early in the development of ActiveWorlds, many people realized that this technology had important implications for education, and they began putting up worlds to explore different aspects of virtual learning. As a fall-out of the first Conference on Virtual Learning (V-Learn) at Cornell U. in 1999, a separate Universe (the EduVerse) was created, solely for worlds dedicated to educational purposes and accessible only to persons with proven interest in virtual learning(14). Currently, scores of institutions and organizations are represented in the EduVerse.


Some possible scenarios


Any new Learning World in the Eduverse should maintain a commitment to certain core values. In particular, it should keep the learner and the learner’s concerns as its central focus, while employing virtual worlds technologies to expand that focus. Here are some possible scenarios:


(1) A world for health and life science: The increasing focus of our society on health issues makes this a natural subject for virtual learning. A world could be modeled, for example, after a human brain, to whatever level of realism the 3D techniques will allow. Top level will be large enough that a virtual class can be held inside and/or outside the brain structure, allowing the teacher to point out interesting areas as the class progresses. Hyperlinking will allow the level of detail to expand or contract as the situation warrants, such as to examine the myelin sheath on a neuron or PET-scan imagery of brain activity.


Such a world is conceived as a resource for teaching current theories of brain physiology and mental functioning, and also for promoting mental health issues. To this end, it would be desirable to form alliances with institutions, agencies and organizations active in these fields, which could provide content and experts. For example, The National Institute of Mental Health and M.D. Anderson Hospital come to mind as possible partners for a “Brain World”.


There are different kinds of learners who could benefit from such a learning environment, and the experience can be tailored to suit their several needs. One group is those people defined as students, who are enrolled in classes, either for credit or for personal advancement. Such classes can be offered through typical institutions like medical schools, or they might be based entirely in virtual worlds, like the LifeLearn project. These learners will benefit from the most realistic modeling of artifacts and processes and possibly less on the social aspects of the world.


 Another, more informally defined set of learners are those interest groups related to specific aspects of brain or mental health, such as Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, addiction, etc. As affinity groups, such learners will use the embodied, social aspect of the world to great advantage, relying less on its modeling and simulation capabilities.


Of course, there are many ways to organize a health-oriented world. A really ambitious plan would be to have an entire human body, like “The Incredible Journey”, and then hyperlink to various areas and levels of detail.


(2) A world for astronomy and space science: There are a number of objects and scenarios, which could be utilized for educational purposes; one possibility is to use a spiral galaxy as our model. Learners could navigate throughout the galaxy unhampered by relativistic limitations, experiencing the various parts. Hyperlinking can bring individual stars and other objects to the fore, enabling them to be studied in greater detail; e.g. one could “zoom” in on a black hole orbiting a blue giant star and observe their interactions.


The same sorts of observations can be made for any virtual learning worlds as were made for the health science world, as regards partners, potential audience, etc. It is worth noting that the EduVerse currently holds at least one world, “Aries”, which employs imagery and topographic data from Mars orbiting satellites to give visitors a visceral experience of the Martian surface.


(3) A “Wrapper” World: This kind of environment might be similar to a classroom in the real world, or it could take the form of a sphere with no gravity, or many other forms. Its main characteristics are:

·         It is not thematically tied to specific subject matter.

·         It is organized in a way thought to be advantageous for teaching in a virtual environment.

Such a world provides an easily accessible “wrapper” for any subject matter. Hyperlinking is used to teleport as desired from this environment to such thematic environments as listed above, as well as for linking to relevant Web sites.


This can be seen as the general case for a V-Learning world, and it has the greatest flexibility in terms of architecture and curriculum. There are currently many educational worlds of this type, although many of them seem more concerned with copying some real world space than with maximizing the use of virtual space for learning.


I believe that we can create a presence in digital learning space that will extend the state of the art for learning in virtual environments. Although worthwhile in its own right, I see this exercise as valuable training for the kinds of immersive on-line learning environments people will expect with the maturation of Broad Band technologies.






ActiveWorlds Educational Universe-


V-Learn, a SIG for Virtual Learning-


Active Art Design (a leading designer of virtual environments)-





1.     The Performance of Cyberspace: An Exploration Into Computer-Mediated Reality-

Gretchen Barbatsis and Michael Fegan, Michigan State University

Kenneth Hansen, Aalborg University, Denmark


2.     User Embodiment in Collaborative Virtual Environments-

Steve Benford, Department of Computer Science, The University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK

John Bowers. Department of Psychology, The University of Manchester, Manchester, UK
Lennart E. Fahlén, The Swedish Institute of Computer Science,Stockholm, Sweden
Chris Greenhalgh, Department of Computer Science,The University of Nottingham, UK

Dave Snowdon, Department of Computer Science,The University of Nottingham, UK


3.  Lifelike Avatars - Gesture and Narrative Language Group-

Hannes Vilhjalmsson, MIT Media Lab


4.  9 Timeless Principles For Building Community-

Web Techniques, Jan 1998

Amy Jo Kim


5.     MediaMOO-

a MOO by Amy Bruckman


6.      Life on the Screen-

Sherry Turkle


7.  Constructivism in Practice: the Case for Meaning-Making in the Virtual World-

Kimberley M. Osberg, U of Washington, Dept of Education


8.  MOOSE Crossing: Construction, Community, and Learning in a Networked Virtual World for Kids-

Amy Bruckman, MIT Media Lab


9.  Archaeological Virtual Worlds for Public Education-

Donald H. Sanders, Ph.D., President, Learning Sites, Inc.


10.  Collaboration in a Virtual World: Support for Conceptual Learning?-

Paul Brna & Rob Aspin, Computer Based Learning Unit

Leeds University, Leeds, England, UK


11.  The NICE Project: Learning Together in a Virtual World-

Andrew Johnson, Maria Roussos, Jason Leigh,

Christina Vasilakis, Craig Barnes, Thomas Moher

Electronic Visualization Laboratory & Interactive Computing Environments Laboratory

University of Illinois at Chicago


12.  An Introduction to Dissociative Identity Disorder as a Model for Distributed Subjectivity in Cyberspace-

Vernon Reed, BIOAPPARAT; ACTLab, U of Texas


13.  HSA & iTV Report for Human Code-

Institute for Technology Innovation Management, Baylor University


14.    V-Learn Conference May 20-21, 1999

Cornell University, Ithaca NY



Prepared by:


Vernon Reed

*evolving the BIOAPPARATUS*