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Immersive Learning for Teacher Professional Development

By Mary Burns / April 2012

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One of the most emergent and rapidly mutating forms of online and computer-based learning is "immersive environments." As its name suggests, an immersive environment allows learners to be totally "immersed" in a self-contained artificial or simulated environment while experiencing it as real. Immersive environments can offer learners rich and complex content-based learning while also helping learners hone their technical, creative, and problem-solving skills. Because immersive environments are so rich and visual, users tend to be highly engaged.

For the most part, immersive environments are still used more for student learning than for teacher learning. Though this is changing, immersive environments for teacher pre- and in-service education are most conspicuous by their absence. Immersive environments can offer many of the same learning opportunities for teachers—development of content knowledge, behavioral skills, creativity, higher-order thinking and persistence (all critical characteristics of good teachers)—as they do for students. Though not without their limitations, which will be discussed here, the use of immersive learning for teacher professional learning, at the very least, warrants more investigation or "test driving" than is currently the case.

Types of Immersive Environments

Since immersive environments encompass a number of web-based applications, the term means different things to different people. Indeed, the whole taxonomy of immersive environments can be confusing for the layperson (and even for those involved educational technology). For example, immersive environments include virtual worlds [1], virtual reality programs, Web-based games, multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) and massively multiplayer online games.

To attempt to allay this confusion, Table 1 outlines examples and characteristics of the web-based applications that comprise the term "immersive environments."

Table 1: Categorization of Immersive Environments [1]
Virtual Worlds
  • SmallWorlds
  • Second Life
  • Croquet
  • Project Wonderland
  • OpenSim
  • Non-goal oriented (can be modified to include missions, games, and goal-oriented communities)
  • Share four characteristics:
    1. Persistence: A virtual world exists whether or not a user is logged in.
    2. Multiuser: Must have the potential for population.
    3. Avatars: A user created agent that performs actions in that world.
    4. Wide Area Network: have the potential to be global and large [2]
Web-based Video Games
  • SmallWorlds
  • Fable II
  • The Sims
  • Goal-oriented
  • Can be multi-user
  • Learning specific to game rule set
  • Collaborative
Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG, MMO)
  • Zon
  • World of Warcraft
  • Goal-oriented
  • Emphasize multiplayer game play
  • Players cannot "finish" MMOGs in the typical sense of single-player games
Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVEs)
  • River City
  • Quest Atlantis
  • Goal-oriented
  • Specific learning objectives aimed to transfer across domains
  • Collaborative
Virtual/Augmented Reality
  • SmartBoard
  • Wii
  • Alien Contact!
  • Haptic technology
  • Goal-oriented
  • Sensory/bodily interaction
  • Distributed Observer
  • Google Earth
  • Flight Simulators
  • Simulations or reflections of the "real"
  • The world is a close representation of the physical world and governed by the same rules
  • No avatars—you are yourself [3]

What the above sub-categories of immersive environments have in common is that they submerse or engage large numbers of concurrent learners in situated, game-like, content-related scenarios, typically in real-world situations that prompt learners to think like or adopt the mindset of an engineer or some assumed role. Experiences can be synchronous or asynchronous, persistent, community based, and carried out via avatars (with the exception of simulations) over networked computers.

While all of the immersive environments outlined in Table 1 possess innate characteristics that make them potentially effective teacher-education tools, discussion is confined to two examples—chosen randomly from Table 1—virtual worlds and MUVEs.

Teaching Teachers Virtually

Virtual worlds are three-dimensional spaces inhabited by virtual representations of users who interact synchronously via their avatars [4]. Second Life is the most popular and mature multi-user virtual world platform used in education. The three-dimensional "world" of Second Life is inhabited by people, content and experiences. Users create avatars to represent themselves and thereby interact with content—which they often create-and with a range of educational and social experiences. A number of educational organizations use Second Life to enhance face-to-face and online learning opportunities for pre- and in-service teacher instruction. For example, many universities schedule adjunct classes, discussion groups, lectures and office hours in Second Life [5, 6]. Educational organizations with teacher training responsibilities, such as the Foundations for the Future (F3) project of the Georgia Tech Research Institute, use Second Life as well as a number of other virtual worlds to develop ongoing professional learning networks of innovative educators (See Foundations for the Future at the GTRI Island for more information).

Because of its cost and other factors such as its robust technical requirements, Second Life has fallen short of its original promise as a professional development "solution" and has seen its market share give way to other virtual worlds such as Open Sim and Active Worlds. Yet the immersive, highly synchronous attributes of Second Life and other virtual worlds make them a potentially powerful teacher education tool that can enhance teacher interaction with content and users and allow teachers to be "tele-present" at learning events that would otherwise be unavailable. As one example, the University of Texas Digital Writing Research Lab (within the Department of Rhetoric and Composition) employs Second Life as part of its writing program. Undergraduates (many of whom are studying to be teachers) are organized in teams within Second Life and together their avatars must solve some problem, which serves as the topic for their writing assignments. Students share drafts of their writing and provide one another with feedback in Second Life [7].

Virtual worlds, such as Second Life, are not without very real "entry-point" drawbacks. They are highly graphics intensive, demanding very high bandwidth and computers with robust video cards. Navigating through Second Life can be disorienting, difficult, and distracting. Finally, individuals and organizations must buy classroom real estate in a virtual currency, which involves outlaying real money [7].

For educators interested in learning more using virtual worlds visit RezEd Hub. The site offers free access to the educational resources about virtual worlds, research in the field, and a network of educators using virtual worlds for learning.

Using Immersive Environments for Colloboration

Like virtual worlds, MUVEs focus on online immersive experiences with multiple simultaneous users via the use of avatars. However, though overlapping, MUVEs do differ slightly from virtual worlds. First, while in virtual worlds users create their worlds, in MUVEs, users interact with and within a specifically designed virtual context (such as outer space or 18th century America) and, as part of this context, users interact with digital artifacts and tools (such as digitized images and virtual microscopes). Next, within MUVEs, users collaborate with other participants and "agents" (personalities simulated by a computer) in collaborative learning activities of various types that have specific learning objectives [1], [8]. Thus, many educational MUVEs allow users to "become" a scientist, epidemiologist, Roman general, or physician and address and solve complex problems and issues associated with a certain domain.

There are numerous educational MUVEs that allow learners to address cultural and environmental issues (Quest Atlantis) or recreate key events in European history in three-dimensional worlds (Learning@Europe), for instance. One of the most well-known is the River City Project, a science-based MUVE designed by the Harvard Graduate School of Education that is used in school systems across several states, the project is accompanied by fairly rigorous research showing its effectiveness.

Incrementally, but increasingly, immersive environments are also being utilized for teacher training. In SimSchool pre-service and novice teachers can interact with a simulated classroom, carrying out the same activities as real teachers but receiving real-time feedback from the simulation program (and presumably from their education instructors). TeachMe is an immersive environment developed by the University of Central Florida that helps new teachers and pre-service teachers develop classroom management and discipline skills by teaching a classroom full of student avatars [9]. The teacher stands in front of a screen of student avatars. The experience is live and spontaneous because of "actors" who are connected via audio or video and respond to the teachers as students would. There is some exploratory research on TeachMe pointing to its "potentialities" for deepening pre-service teachers' content knowledge and behavior management strategies [10]. The paucity of research notwithstanding, the program has been extremely popular with pre-service teachers since it allows them to make mistakes in a fail-safe environment, receive feedback from their education instructors, and virtually prepares them for live interactions with real students [9].

Obstacles to Implementing Immersive Environments

Immersive environments suffer from a number of weaknesses. The first is perceptual. They may be seen as "games" or "fantasy" and therefore not serious modes of professional development. This is compounded by their lack of a teacher professional development research base, though this should change over time.

A second, larger, drawback is technical and financial. Immersive environments are graphics intensive and full of user-created content that places great stress on graphics capabilities and bandwidth at the user end. They are expensive to create and are often not aligned with pre-service or in-service teacher education curriculum. Yet because they are "locked" systems, they are impossible to modify. This is beginning to change as there are several moves afoot to allow modification of immersive environments. Increasingly, there is an "opening up" to allow interactions between third party developers and proprietary systems [11]. Sun Microsystems created Project Wonderland, an open-source, Java-based kit that allows users to create their own virtual three-dimensional world [12]. Linden Labs, maker of Second Life, has released much of its code as open source.

Third, immersive environments may not be culturally appropriate in many parts of the globe. In many countries and regions, female teachers using immersive environments for their own professional learning may meet with resistance from husbands, fathers, brothers, and school principals who may consider inappropriate the notion or practice of female teachers communicating with mixed-gender teacher groups, and who may find objectionable the idea of female avatars engaged in traditionally male behaviors and roles.

Fourth, decisions to employ immersive environments must be made with consideration toward gendered uses of immersive environments. Women and men interact with immersive environments in very different ways. There is also evidence, some of it controversial, that girls and boys prefer certain types of immersive experiences and have different attitudes and proclivities toward individual Web-based games and massively multiplayer online game. For instance, Lucas and Sherry report that boys prefer virtual environments that emphasize physical enactment, strategy and role playing [13]. These patterns of preference and use have clear design implications for educational institutions that wish to use or incorporate immersive environments into existing teacher education programs.

Finally, the somewhat initial "disorienting" introduction to immersive environments most likely means that many teachers will need scaffolding and technical support (especially initially) to navigate any virtual environment. Globally, it may be extremely difficult for teachers, particularly in some national school systems, who have never before been asked to think critically or independently, to do so, especially in an environment as "different" as a virtual world. It may be difficult for teachers to interact with complex simulation software; without on-site support and scaffolding, teachers who lack persistence may simply give up when faced with technical problems or with the open-ended nature of many immersive environments. Some immersive environments, like some digital learning games, may involve the use of avatars, tasks, and behaviors that may not be to the teacher's liking.

Learning Benefits of Immersive Environments

Though all of these issues raise questions about the viability of using virtual worlds and immersive environments for large-scale teacher professional development [11], they do not override the potential learning benefits of immersive environments.

First, the task-oriented, collaborative, and communal qualities of immersive environments may "mirror much of what we know to be good models of learning, in that they are collaborative and encourage active participatory roles for users" [14]. Virtual worlds, such as OpenSim, offer a range of specific learning opportunities in what is a "personalizable" and differentiated immersive social space. As a participation-based network, immersive environments may help learners build communities of practice, collaborate with peers in group work, and create and share content. In addition, learning is facilitated in multiple ways, "from the community-managed etiquette of the various chat channels, to the didactic tutorials offered by the software" [15].

Next, as students can benefit from interacting with virtual experiences that increase their domain knowledge (for example, science and scientific inquiry), so too could teachers. As digital games and simulations do for students, MUVEs might also help teachers develop problem-solving, decision-making, inquiry, creativity, and technology skills. Participating in a highly immersive, engaging, and challenging environment could help teachers understand learning from the point of view of a student and understand the importance of motivation, fun, and play in learning. Such a cognitively and affectively empathetic understanding of student learning might impact how teachers structure classroom learning opportunities and provide opportunities for teacher collaboration around ideas, strategies, resources, and rich media [12].

Third, as the technology improves and as high speed Internet access becomes more prevalent, immersive environments should begin to play more of a role as a supplement to or major component of teacher professional learning. This may be particularly welcoming to younger teachers and future teachers, many of who are enthusiastic participants in immersive, particularly games.

Fourth, immersive professional development for teachers could provide a ladder of increasingly "real" and complex learning opportunities. For example, a teacher could practice teaching strategies in a virtual world before doing it online and practice online before carrying it out with students in a school-based practicum.

Finally, immersive environments have the potential to function as a professional learning "sweet spot." Immersive environments blend the worlds of leisure and work or informal and formal learning. This nexus of "leisure/play" and "work" represents a major source of knowledge acquisition and skills building for professionals in all areas. Thus, unlike traditional modes of professional development, immersive environments may offer teachers learning opportunities where control of learning rests primarily in the hands of the teacher [16] and where learning may accrue from opportunities to engage and collaborate in socially connected networks of peers and online services, allowing teachers to take control of their own experiential learning [15] in a space, time and with colleagues of their choosing.

Because immersive environments are such new phenomena—and rapidly mutating ones at that-their use is piecemeal versus systemic in teacher education. Yet, as discussed in this article, their impact on learning, and the more procedural and conceptual types of knowledge they can help to cultivate, suggest further exploration of immersive environments for teacher learning using well-designed pilots or proof-of-concept programs.

About the Author

Mary Burns ([email protected]) is a senior technology specialist at Education Development Center who studies and designs technology-based professional learning opportunities for teachers across the globe. This article is adapted from her most recent book, Distance Education for Teacher Training: Modes, Models and Methods (Education Development Center, 2011).


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© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/04 $10.00

DOI: 10.1145/2181207.2181208


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