Instructional Simulation - Virtual Worlds in Instructional Simulation - Uses in Education

Uses in Education

In education, virtual learning environments are simulated experiences which utilize the pedagogical strategies of instructional modeling and role playing for the teaching of new concepts. The environment in which the experiences are presented is a virtual one often accessed via a computer or other video projection interface. Immersive virtual environment headsets have been used with younger children and students with special needs. The advantages of using instructional simulators via VLEs include: students are motivated when they are able to use computers and other technology; VLEs allow for interaction, exploration, and experimentation with locations, objects, and environments that would otherwise be unavailable in the absence of the VLE; instructors can adapt programs and parameters of the virtual learning experience to meet individual learner needs; when multi-user virtual environments are used collaborative and cooperative learning is encouraged; VLEs relate to students the real-world relevance of their learning by extending concepts and skills to application in the simulated environment; and learning can occur in an emotionally and physically safe environment without detrimental consequence.

The use of instructional simulation with individuals with special needs is gaining more attention. Mitchell, Parsons, and Leonard (2007) created a "Virtual Café" program designed to teach social interaction skills to adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The program provides feedback to guide, or scaffold, the user toward making appropriate social behavior decisions. Virtual learning environments are also beginning to be used to teach children with ASD how to respond in potentially dangerous situations such as crossing the street and evacuating a building on fire (Strickland, McAllister, Coles, and Osborne 2007). The instructional simulation provides a safe environment within which to practice appropriate response skills.

Distance learning is growing. The importance of a physical classroom is being reduced as the technology of distance learning develops (Sanders, 2006). Sanders (2006) present a warning that students may do well in distance learning environments, however they need to have engaging moments within the course. He also warns students to critically assess a new technology before adopting it as a learning tool. The virtual learning environment needs to simulate the learning process, using goals and objectives to measure the learners’ achievement. Sanders (2006) uses movies like Terminator 2, The Matrix, and I, Robot as callbacks to allegorical warnings of potential mishaps of relying too much on technology. He presents possible ways to balance a distance course so that it can effectively simulate a learning environment.

Barney, Bishop, Adlong, and Bedgood (2009) studied the use of a 3D virtual laboratory as a tool to familiarize distance learning chemistry students with an actual chemistry laboratory. While it was not incorporated into the initial study, the researchers suggest including instructional scaffolding experiences to help alleviate students’ anxieties with applying mathematics and chemistry concepts in the actual laboratory setting (Barney, Bishop, Adlong, and Bedgood 2009). The virtual laboratory does not replace the real-world experience, rather it helps to enhance the student's schema of a chemistry laboratory and prepare them for performance expectations in the actual environment. Web-based virtual science laboratories are also used with elementary school students. In their study, Sun, Lin, and Yu (2008) found that students who used a web-based virtual science laboratory in conjunction with traditional teaching methods not only found the learning experience more enjoyable, they also performed better academically and received higher grades.

Baker (2009) suggests multi-user virtual environments or MUVEs have the potential to engage students. Second Life holds more of a purpose in interaction (Baker, 2009). Instructors can hold lectures; students can collaborate through chat in Second Life. When compared to a discussion board, Second Life is a viable alternative for distance learning students to develop group work skills. At Chesapeake High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, students explore the ecological environment surrounding Mt. St. Helens via a 3D virtual learning environment (Curriculum Review 2009). Students navigate through the environment with a virtual unmanned vehicle and work collaboratively to solve ecological and environmental problems that are built into the program for instructional purposes. Engaging in the VLE provides many opportunities for application, data collection, and problem solving.

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