3-D Environments

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1 3-D Environments

David Locke, Memorial University of Newfoundland

2 Definitions and background

3-D environments are computer-simulated, realistic settings in which users can virtually explore, interact and problem-solve (Wang, 2012). To date, most online teaching and learning has been carried out using 2-D environments in which participants can interact but are generally “limited to text” (Omale, Hung, Luetkehans, & Cooke-Plagwitz, 2009, p. 482) when doing so. 3-D environments are able to remove this limitation by providing each participant with a customizable, virtual character – called an avatar (Lim, Nonis, & Hedberg, 2006) – which can then be used to “interact with other avatars as well as objects within the environment” (Berns, Gonzales-Pardo, & Camacho, 2013, p. 211). Until fairly recently, these 3-D environments were only used by a minority of the population and very few of them were specifically designed with education in mind (Livingstone, Kemp, & Edgar, 2008).


Over the last decade, however, this has begun to change and some educators are taking advantage of both types of environments; Sloodle, for example, combines the immersive 3-D environment of Second Life with the more common 2-D learning environment of Moodle (Livingstone et al., 2008). Developers have also started creating 3-D environments specifically for education, such as Quest Atlantis, which consists of learning quests and unit plans but also has many game-like features (Lim et al., 2006).

3 Affordances

Edirisingha, Nie, Pluciennik, and Young (2009) argued that 3-D environments can afford students a more authentic online social presence via their avatars, through which they can engage in realistic, synchronous conversations and build real relationships with one another. This increased social presence makes students more aware of their fellow learners which, in turn, can lead to increased “information sharing, collaboration, and discussion” (Barkand & Kush, 2009, p. 223).


Collaboration is another affordance provided by 3-D environments; for example, in their study of the effects of 3-D environments on fifth grade Mathematics students, Bouta, Retalis, and Paraskeva (2012) concluded that the students achieved learning outcomes by collaborating with one another and interacting with the environment. In a similar study conducted with doctoral students, Boniolo and Spadaro (2010) reported that the students enjoyed interacting with their peers during collaborative activities and that such collaboration made them feel like part of a community.


Downey, Mohler, Morris, and Sanchez (2012) found that students are better able to follow the flow of online conversations in 3-D environments than in 2-D environments. Students are also better able to recall the actual content of these conversations when they take place in 3-D environments, although this may not be the case for some auditory learners (Downey et al., 2012). This increased learning retention was also observed by Berns et al. (2013) in their study of 85 adult foreign language students; 63% failed a pre-test before completing some applicable activities in a 3-D environment. Subsequently, only 2% of the students failed the post-test (Berns et al., 2013).


3-D environments can afford students opportunities to learn in online settings that are both risk-free and “contextually authentic” (Jones, Squires, & Hicks, 2008, p. 377). Wood and Willems (2012) described how this can be particularly beneficial for students who have various types of learning disabilities because the environments provide “mediated havens where learning can be optimised without the […] consequences found in the physical educational setting” (p. 462).


Finally, 3-D environments can serve as an excellent way to gain experience in dangerous or expensive procedures without needing to put either safety or money at risk (Dalgarno & Lee, 2010). For example, medical students can use 3-D environments to practice medical procedures and astronauts can use them to practice repairing space telescopes (Dalgarno & Lee, 2010).

4 Constraints

The degree to which students are able to fully engage in a 3-D environment can be significantly constrained if they lack the requisite technical skills (Downey et al., 2012). Merchant et al. (2012) asserted that struggling with technical issues within the environment can drain students’ cognitive resources, leaving them unable to fully benefit from the activities themselves. Without the proper amount of technical support, some students may feel disempowered because they’re unable to project their identities and this may cause them to give up on the endeavor altogether (deNoyelles & Seo, 2012). This potential problem can be addressed by developing and providing guidance tools which can then be used to train students in the effective use of 3-D environments in order to facilitate their tasks (Perera, Allison, Ajinomoh, & Miller, 2012).


Student focus and time-on-task are also constrained at times because some students can easily get distracted in 3-D environments (Lim et al., 2006). For example, in their study involving graduate students, Omale et al. (2009) observed that the 3-D environment was “fun and engaging, but it was relatively easy for participants to get off task” (p. 487).


While student collaboration is widely considered to be an affordance of 3-D environments, Hämäläinen, Manninen, Järvelä, and Häkkinen (2006) found that the puzzles in these environments need to be hard – perhaps even frustrating – in order to strongly promote such collaboration. Also, in a gender-concerned study of undergraduate communications majors, deNoyelles and Seo (2012) reported that, when using the 3-D environment, men tended to interact with men and women tended to interact with women, which negatively influenced the level of collaboration. Collaboration can also be considerably constrained if there are too few participants in the environment (Burton & Martin, 2010).


Finally, realism is an affordance offered by 3-D environments but it can also be considered a constraint when one considers that the technology is still essentially in its infancy; for example, Prasolova-Førland and Wyeld (2008) explained that avatars are still limited with respect to their abilities to realistically move, gesture and use facial expressions. As Wang (2012) concluded, a 3-D environment “cannot fully replace traditional instruction at the present stage” (p. 423).

5 Links

Practical examples of using a virtual 3D environment for learning in high school

3D virtual learning environments by eXtension

Will the future of learning be 3D interactive environments?

3D virtual crafting: Creating interactive virtual environments

EON Reality releases new 3D environment creation tool

6 Works Cited

Barkand, J., & Kush, J. (2009). GEARS a 3D virtual learning environment and virtual social and educational world used in online secondary schools. Electronic Journal of e-Learning, 7(3), 215-224. http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ872406


Berns, A., Gonzalez-Pardo, A., & Camacho, D. (2013). Game-like language learning in 3-D virtual environments. Computers & Education, 60(1), 210-220. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2012.07.001


Boniolo, B., & Spadaro, C. (2010). NEMO+3D, an integrated environment for advanced university teaching. Journal of e-Learning and Knowledge Society, 6(1), 93-102. http://www.je-lks.org/ojs/index.php/Je-LKS_EN/article/view/392


Bouta, H., Retalis, S., & Paraskeva, F. (2012). Utilising a collaborative macro-script to enhance student engagement: A mixed method study in a 3D virtual environment. Computers & Education, 58(1), 501-517. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2011.08.031


Burton, B. G., & Martin, B. N. (2010). Learning in 3D virtual environments: Collaboration and knowledge spirals. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 43(2), 259-273. doi: 10.2190/EC.43.2.f


Dalgarno, B., & Lee, M. J. W. (2010). What are the learning affordances of 3-D virtual environments? British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(1), 10-32. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2009.01038.x


deNoyelles, A., & Seo, K. K. (2012). Inspiring equal contribution and opportunity in a 3d multi-user virtual environment: Bringing together men gamers and women non-gamers in Second Life. Computers & Education, 58(1), 21-29. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2011.07.007


Downey, S., Mohler, J., Morris, J., & Sanchez, R. (2012). Learner perceptions and recall of small group discussions within 2D and 3D collaborative environments. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 28(8), 1405-1419. http://ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet28/downey.pdf


Edirisingha, P., Nie, M., Pluciennik, M., & Young, R. (2009). Socialisation for learning at a distance in a 3-D multi-user virtual environment. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(3), 458-479. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2009.00962.x


Hämäläinen, R., Manninen, T., Järvelä, S., & Häkkinen, P. (2006). Learning to collaborate: Designing collaboration in a 3-D game environment. Internet and Higher Education, 9(1), 47-61. doi: 10.1016/j.iheduc.2005.12.004


Jones, G., Squires, T., & Hicks, J. (2008). Combining speech recognition/natural language processing with 3D online learning environments to create distributed authentic and situated spoken language learning. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 36(4), 375-392. doi: 10.2190/ET.36.4.c


Lim, C. P., Nonis, D., & Hedberg, J. (2006). Gaming in a 3D multiuser virtual environment: Engaging students in Science lessons. British Journal of Educational Technology, 37(2), 211-231. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2006.00531.x


Livingstone, D., Kemp, J., & Edgar, E. (2008). From multi-user virtual environment to 3D virtual learning environment. ALT-J: Research in Learning Technology, 16(3), 139-150. doi: 10.1080/09687760802526707


Merchant, Z., Goetz, E. T., Keeney-Kennicutt, W., Kwok, O., Cifuentes, L., & Davis, T. J. (2012). The learner characteristics, features of desktop 3D virtual reality environments, and college chemistry instruction: A structural equation modeling analysis. Computers & Education, 59(2), 551-568. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2012.02.004


Omale, N., Hung, W., Luetkehans, L., & Cooke-Plagwitz, J. (2009). Learning in 3-D multiuser virtual environments: Exploring the use of unique 3-D attributes for online problem-based learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(3), 480-495. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2009.00941.x


Perera, I., Allison, C., Ajinomoh, O., & Miller, A. (2012). Managing 3D multi user learning environments: A case study on training disaster management. International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning, 7(3), 25-34. doi: 10.3991/ijet.v7i3.2046


Prasolova-Førland, E., & Wyeld, T. (2008). The place metaphor in 3D CVEs: A pedagogical case study of the virtual stage. International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning, 3(1), 54-60. http://hdl.handle.net/2328/8014


Wang, S. (2012). Applying a 3D situational virtual learning environment to the real world business: An extended research in marketing. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43(3), 411-427. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2011.01194.x


Wood, D., & Willems, J. (2012). Responding to the widening participation agenda through improved access to and within 3D virtual learning environments. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 28(3), 459-479. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet28/wood.pdf