A 3-Dimensional World Builds Community Across Countries and Continents

from Educators' eZine

Avatars, representing individuals logged into the AETZone, or Appalachian Education Technology Zone, gather on the Plaza. The AETZone clock approaches 7 PM Tuesday in North Carolina, USA, 6 PM Tuesday in Puebla, Mexico, 4 PM in Vancouver, Canada, and 10 AM Wednesday in Queensland, Australia.

A professor's avatar uses text to announce to all present that the presentation in Australia is beginning in Classroom A and the avatars move quickly toward this locale. All are anxious to attend a live presentation on the integration of technology into classroom instruction by Kristine Kopel, a middle grades teacher and graduate student at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, and Director of Staff Development for her district in Cairns, Australia. Her audience in the AETZone consists of graduate students in Appalachian State University's graduate Instructional Technology program along with others using the AETZone. Most are physically located in the US, with others joining from Mexico, Canada and Australia, all present together in a 3D Web-based immersive world. They are chatting with each other using text and audio, can see each other's avatars and are located in the same virtual scene.

More than 40 of the 150 graduate students in the online graduate program at Appalachian State University interacted with other students and faculty from Griffith University as they reviewed resources, lessons and successes by a middle grade teacher and students who have created flash Website presentations for various grade levels studying content via authentic problem solving lessons. These graduate students are mostly mid-career K-12 teachers employed full time while pursuing their master's degree outside of school hours.

While only one person could speak at a time using an audio chat, there was much text chat was occurring on a side bar in conjunction with the presentation. Many comments, questions and requests for additional information as well as future collaborations were occurring along with the presentation.

For more than five years, the faculty of the graduate Instructional Technology program at Appalachian State University has been exploring the use of a 3D immersive Web-based world as the delivery tool for courses, meetings and other student experiences. The primary reason for pursuing the use of the 3D immersive environment was an attempt to develop a stronger sense of online community and a deeper engagement in the learning process among our students than was possible in more traditional forms of Web-based learning platforms. This sense of community was clearly evident on October 18, 2006, in the scenario described above.

The learning community represented in the AETZone involves all courses in the graduate Instructional Technology program as well as additional graduate courses in Library Science, Curriculum & Instruction, and Educational Administration. The community of learners present that evening was not unique. The participants were regulars in the AETZone, entering the Zone to work on assignments, explore content, and to collaborate with others. Participants actively cross class sections, cohorts, programs, and levels of graduate study, to teach and to learn in a social constructivist environment. The students enter through a common portal and move from there into one of nine course sets or scenes. Each scene is designed specifically for a particular course with content, activities, resources and Web tools available for student use.

The Virtual World at Appalachian State University

AETZone is the name of a virtual world that is running on Appalachian State University's ActiveWorlds 4.1 Universe Server, which comes with a customized ActiveWorlds browser connected directly to AppEdTech. The browser presents the user with four distinct areas.

A central 3D view of the world, either in first person view or third person view.

  1. A text-based chat space below the 3D view allowing users to interact with other users either as "General Broadcast" (to all) or "Private Whisper" (just one other).
  2. A Web space to the right of the 3D view that presents the user with Web pages linked to objects in the 3D world.
  3. A utilities space to the left of the 3D view providing the user with access to help files; telegrams sent by other users; teleports – similar to Web bookmarks, but these allow the user to go directly to a place in the 3D environment; contacts – a listing of people with whom the user wishes to interact; and contact resources, such as the ability to send telegrams or join others in the 3D world).

There are additional tools available for small group shared work spaces, Web page and document sharing, audio chats and group formation and record keeping. There is also an asynchronous tool available for reflective writing, asynchronous discussions, collaborative writing and other means of communication.

As students enroll in the program, they get usernames and passwords. A Web site provides a download link for the AppEdTech browser. Users can select first person or third person, their avatar, and whether to use mouse or keyboard to control their movements.

All classes have online support components (Web pages with resources that have class activities on them and that connect to readings, discussion boards, chat rooms, etc.) that have served our purposes well. Web pages can be brought up in the space to the right of the 3D view by clicking on objects that are associated with Web pages or by entering areas that trigger a Web page. Video, podcasts and other forms of informational resources can also be linked to the objects within the world for student use.

Chatting may be by audio or text, and can be as simple as typing in the special space below the 3D view and pressing the enter key. Chat entries go to all users located within a certain distance of the avatar initiating the comment. There is a whisper option for communicating with one other person rather than with a group. The whisper part of the chat space lists all users within a certain distance. The user wishing to communicate with a single person simply selects that person's name and types the message into the whisper area.

Synchronous audio Web conferencing is utilized through Talking Communities software with full MP3 record features. During the presentation mentioned above, Kristine displayed the Web pages created by her students and Web-related resources for participants. These Web pages appeared on each participant's local computer screen but Kristine in Australia controlled them. There are also synchronous tools for threaded discussions.

Community in AET Zone

There has been much written about the importance of developing a sense of community among learners in distance education. Web-based discussions and chats, plus other online tools, provide participants opportunities to interact and share, creating a sense of community. In addition, 3D worlds enable a sense of presence. A 3D world creates a sense of place; as you move, you actually see a change in perspective and sense the movement. Participants find that they are also aware of the presence of others in the 3D world: a sense of co-presence. This sense of presence has a dynamic effect on the building deeper and more engaged communities.

Most current distance education environments afford little chance for those serendipitous interactions that are an important part of community. In a non-3D environment, where students participate on a Web-based discussion board, reading and reacting to the same message at the same time, they nevertheless remain unaware of each other. Meetings and chats typically have to be prearranged rather than happening as a result of discovering that someone else is online and working on a class or some related activity. The AETZone provides a means for folks to engage in the learning activities present and to also have other kinds of spontaneous conversations.

This program began its development with off-campus cohorts that met regularly face to face and used the 3D world as a resource environment. This tended to develop a very strong sense of community among each cohort but maintained a separation from members of other cohorts. As we moved our classes, and now our program, more completely online, we find that sections of the same class as well as sections of different classes are working together to discuss issues in each other's schools and districts. We find students are much more engaged in authentic conversations, projects and tasks than we had experienced before. We attribute this to the development of wider communities of practitioners working together in the 3D world. We are currently exploring opportunities to develop a more diverse group of students as a means to better educate our teachers about the current transitions taking place in the world and to assist us all in developing a 21st century educational system.

John Tashner
Richard Riedl
Amy Cheney
Regis Gilman
Steve Bronack