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Professors become avatars in virtual classroom study

February 9, 2011 : Sarah Wittcop

Dr. Beth Ackerman as an avatar (standing at right) lectures in a virtual classroom. Ackerman, associate dean of the School of Education, is part of a study to show the effectiveness of teaching in the online virtual world.

 

Liberty’s University’s School of Education is exploring new ground by taking classroom instruction into the virtual world.

Using Second Life, a virtual world where people around the globe can connect online, Dr. Randall Dunn and Dr. David Holder have created a virtual classroom to research student motivation, community, technical skills and outcome compared with a traditional classroom.

In the virtual classroom, students and professors create avatars that can interact with others within the room, simulating a traditional classroom experience.

The popularity for virtual classrooms began to emerge over the last few years, but Dunn and Holder recognized the need for research of this revolutionary teaching method.

This virtual seaside classroom was created for a small group setting.

“Everybody said it was the future, but nobody could tell you what you could actually do with it,” said Dunn. “The research community assumed that it’s a motivating tool; therefore students will like it and, therefore, students will do well. We wanted to research that.”

The study places student teachers in their final semester with Liberty in one of three classroom structures: the traditional classroom, the online classroom, and the virtual world classroom. Within each format, the same information was delivered to the students.

“We wanted to simply see if the experience was equitable among the three groups,” said Dunn. “What we found was the lowest rated of the three was the face-to-face, the middle was the online format, and the highest was the virtual format.”

Throughout their research, various professors from the School of Education have tried their hand at teaching in the virtual world. Dr. Beth Ackerman, associate dean of the School of Education, made her debut to the virtual teaching world as a guest lecturer.

“I really enjoyed interacting with students through multiple modalities (visual, auditory, movement),” said Ackerman. “It was overwhelming at first, but I can see how a new generation of learners would enjoy all the activity as they are notorious for multitasking technology.”

Dunn said the students seem to enjoy a change of scenery, and she has experimented with creating different learning environments, from classrooms under water to cabins covered in snow.

“There is no reason that we have to stay restricted to a building conference center or building classroom,” said Dunn. “The students seem to really like it.”

Dunn and Holder plan to present their completed research at education conferences and in distance education journals over the next year.