Virtual Learning Environments for Children:
What Does Current Research Tell Us About Their Design and Use?
A Review of the Literature
Professor Hilda Borko
May 14, 2005
Virtual Learning Environments for Children:
What Does Current Research Tell Us About Their Design and Use?
A Review of the Literature
Virtual learning environments are currently being designed as part of educational websites and other types of online “learning spaces.” The number of children using these virtual learning environments is increasing daily, as is the educational importance of their content. The term “virtual learning environment” has various definitions because it is relatively new; however, it is roughly analogous to the way the term “learning environment” is used to represent a school or classroom; it is a structured space where learning is the primary goal of the activities occurring there.
“Virtual” means a place in cyberspace accessed via the Internet (that is, files stored on a computer server somewhere and delivered to another computer elsewhere, plus the data transfer that goes with those files, such as email messages or dynamic database access). Some virtual learning environments are also partially stored on CDs or DVDs, especially if they are media-rich and would be hard to deliver to a computer entirely over the Internet. Virtual learning environments usually have some type of traditional user interface like other computer software, learning content and activities, plus online capabilities that allow users to link to other users in real time (synchronously) and interact with other users of the environment. Some of the older or simpler virtual learning environments only allow asynchronous communication in threaded discussions or email, but there is a way for the learners to confer with other users of the environment and this is a critical element of this type of environment.
In this way, connectedness to other users creates opportunities for these virtual environments to be more like traditional classrooms than older one-on-one computer “tutors,” which is why this term has come into increasing use. Several other terms have been used in the past, such as “computer-supported collaborative learning,” but I consider them to be subsets of virtual learning environments, as I define them in this review. Are online computer games considered virtual learning environments? They can be. If learning is the primary goal of the activities in that game, it is a virtual learning environment. In order to circumscribe this review somewhat, I am reviewing only the research on environments that are designed to help learners learn traditional academic subjects like language arts, mathematics and science, and have some measured outcomes, not just discussions of the possibilities thereof.
By definition, a virtual learning environment is user-directed and learner-centered. (Bransford, 2000) There is no teacher online, unlike Internet-based education that is called “distance learning,” where a teacher directs the activities of distant learners, all connected to the teacher by media. Instead, a virtual learning environment is usually more like a research laboratory that a classroom. Teachers can be a part of a virtual learning environment, but they do not direct the entire environment.
Virtual learning environments can be used by one child or many children when in a classroom, but can also be used outside of classrooms or other school environments. If the environment is completely virtual, the child need only have a computer and access via the Internet to interact with the environment. In fact, one of the promises of virtual learning environments is as “after school academies,” ways for children to supplement their in-class learning in after-school programs or at home because the time spent in school is relatively small: 14% in school, as compared to 33% sleeping, and 53% at home or in community. (Bransford, 2000)
One way educators can support these young virtual learners is by making sure that these new learning environments provide them with the best learning experiences possible. At this time, there is no concise set of criteria against which educators can judge the learning potential of a virtual learning environment. (Hannafin, 1994) For this review, I established a series of questions and reviewed each virtual environment in terms of those questions. (Please see the Selection and Review Methods section)
Virtual learning environments are not only becoming more ubiquitous, but also becoming more complex. They are increasingly 3-dimensional, rather than 2-dimensional, and they can feature “avatars” that represent the learner in the virtual world in ways that are amazing sophisticated and high impact. As one of the designers of the highly creative PUPPET virtual learning environment said:
“One of the main attractions of virtual environments is that they can provide opportunities for new kinds of experience, enabling users to interact with objects and navigate in 3D space in ways not possible in the physical world (e.g. flying a magic carpet through a fantasy world).” (Scaife, 2001)
In addition, virtual environments now offer chances to interact with other learners by voice or video, sometimes from great distances away, and sometimes in very large numbers. Like classrooms, their counterparts in reality, these environments need to be designed to make the learner comfortable, support individual learning, elicit certain behaviors, promote certain cognitive processes, as well as encourage group learning, and mediate social interactions. This review looks at research about the current design of virtual learning environments, as well as other factors that contribute to creating excellent online learning experiences for children.
Selection and Review Methods
For this review, I selected four virtual learning environments to review in depth because brief descriptions of many environments was not illuminating enough ideas of consequence. I based my choices on the following criteria:
1) The environment had to be designed for children, not adults
2) The environment had to have some research reported about both its design and the outcomes of that design (even better was if the environment had research about the learner outcomes of its use, but because two of these environments are so new and the time to publication so great, I decided not to maintain learner outcomes as a selection criteria)
3) The environment had to be an environment primarily designed for learning academic subjects, or in the case of the PUPPET project, preparing for literacy.
I did not make being “100% virtual” a criteria. In fact, three of the environments in this review, have “delivered-in-person” components. If an environment is designed to require human intervention to achieve its learning goals, it is called a “blended” environment. The use of “blended” approaches in technology-based learning has a long history of great success, so I accepted this design aspect in all cases.
For each virtual learning environment I reviewed, I used the same protocol. I reviewed the available research about that project with six questions in mind:
1) What are descriptors of the project?
2) How did the project evolve over time?
3) What pedagogic approaches were used?
4) What key design features were developed to support a learner’s construction of knowledge, construction of meaning, zones of proximal development and/or give formative assessment?
5) What key design features were developed to support the creation of a community of learners? 6) What are the empirical results, if any?
A Brief History of Influencing Ideas
One of the precursors of virtual learning environments was the concept of computer-based microworlds created by Seymour Papert at MIT in the late 1970s. (Papert, 1980) Microworlds included LOGO, a computer-programmed environment in which children created “turtles,” programmed objects that moved according to the programs the children wrote. LOGO provided a very simple interactive experience more than anything else, but it was a way for children to construct knowledge of mathematics by experimenting with command strings that defined movement. Papert defined this activity as “constructional design” (as opposed to “constructivism”) and thereby defined the learning activities as design activities that provided rich opportunities to construct learning in a non-physical environment. (Resnick, 1996) The LOGO project later evolved into StarLogo, a more sophisticated programming environment that helped learners construct knowledge about physics phenomena such as traffic jams and waveforms. Like in the earlier LOGO environment, learners wrote simple rules to control individual turtles and observed large-scale patterns that emerged. As Resnick states:
“Developers of design-oriented learning environments cannot program learning experiences directly. The focus, instead, is to create frameworks from which interesting experiences are likely to emerge…The challenge for constructional designers is to create tools and activities that not only highlight important concepts but also facilitate personal connections.” (Resnick, 1996)
By reporting that learners must make personal connections, Resnick precedes later elements of virtual learning environments that not only encourage construction of knowledge, but deeper engagement through personal meaning in the learner’s activities.
In 1994, Michael Hannafin, spoke of “widespread interest in “unleashing” the capabilities of technologies to create learning systems that differ from traditional directed instruction.” (Hannafin, 1994) He called the result “open-ended environments” based on the “psychological perspectives” of constructivism and situated cognition and the pedagogical approaches of “anchored instruction” and Papert’s microworlds. From the “anchored instruction” approach, the Jasper Project was formed, a problem-based, video-supported environment, and one of the virtual learning environments reviewed here. Based on two theoretical approaches to learning, constructivism and situated cognition, which were vying for supremacy (Cobb and Bowers, 1999) at the time, Hannafin outlined his determination of the learning principles needed for open-ended environments:
Context and experience are critical to understanding
Understanding is individually mediated
Cultivating cognitive processes is often more critical than generating learning products
Understanding is more vital than knowing
Qualitatively different learning processes require qualitatively different methods (Hannafin, 1994)
Almost seven years later, designers working with the principles of constructivism note that it is important to “move away from talking of a single constructivist learning environment, and instead explore the nuances of learning environments based on different theoretical assumptions.” (Hay, 2001)
Two of the issues at the core of the constructivist/situated learning debate were the situated claim that “action is grounded in the concrete situation in which it occurs” and whether knowledge learned in one domain could transfer to another, especially school to real-life situations. (Greeno, 1997) The terminology of “learning environment” itself reflects the influence of the theory of situated cognition; the learner takes in not just the subject matter presented in a classroom, but all the other ideas, dynamics, and social influences that are in the classroom as well, therefore the entire “environment” need be considered when studying how learning occurs. Obviously, the role of the environment itself becomes a greater factor in learning when that environment is removed from physical reality. Can the learning gained in a virtual environment be considered “real learning” and can it transfer to the classroom and other more physical spaces? The some of the research on this question is reported in this review.
In the early 1990s, several “educational media spaces for K-12 and college learning communities” were created, the first virtual learning environments which included “computing and networking support for communities of learners who are distant from one another.” (Gomez, 1993) These “media spaces” were called Learning Through Collaborative Visualization (CoVis), The Global Schoolhouse Project (GSH), and The New York State Learning Network. In a panel discussion in 1993 about these projects, the conclusion reported was that “the next decade will bring widespread, networked multimedia interpersonal computing” and they called upon the “human-computer interaction community” to open a dialog on the “effective use of interpersonal, collaborative multimedia to support pre-college learners.” The stage was now set for virtual learning environments to appear.
As part of this historical briefing, I would like to point out the concurrent research being done in classrooms on the creation of “communities of learners” (Brown and Campione, 1996) because that work would later have a profound effect on the design of virtual learning environments. In a community of learners, expertise in the subject matter being studied is distributed across members of the community, both teachers and learners. Learners are designers of their own learning and teachers act to guide their discovery process. In their “ideal classroom environment,” Brown and Campione identified these essential features:
“Individual responsibility coupled with communal sharing
Ritual, familiar participant structures
A community of discourse
Multiple zones of proximal development
Seeding, migration, and appropriation of ideas”
Brown and Campione offer these ideas to “contribute to a new theory of learning that would capture the richness of the environment and the flexible learning activities it engenders...including first principles of learning.” (Brown & Campione, 1994) In 2003, James Paul Gee wrote a response (indirectly) to their request for a new theory of learning including “first principles” by identifying 36 learning principles he identified that apply to video games and what they “have to teach us about learning and literacy.” (Gee, 2003) In some of Gee’s learning principles are the “essential features” of a community of learners adapted to virtual learning environments, such as #35: Affinity Group Principle, and #36: Insider Principle. This powerful idea had moved in to the consciousness of designers and stayed, becoming one of the mainstays of virtual learning environment design.
To better understand the varied ways these theoretical ideas can be manifested in the design of virtual learning environments, this review will now look at four different environments, each unique in its own way. This review attempts to characterize these designs in practice as opposed to reporting their results as if they had been tested in laboratory settings. (Barab, 2004) The environments reviewed are: the Jasper Project, the PUPPET Virtual Theatre, the GenScope Learning Environment, and the Quest Atlantis Project. They are each presented using the six questions shown in the Selection and Review Method section as content organizers.
The Jasper Project
What are descriptors of the project?
Research group: Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt
Learner age group: Middle School, primarily 11- 14 yrs. When Jasper became part of the SFT project, 1st to 4th grades were included.
Technical description: The Japser project began as “The Adventures of Jasper Woodbury,” video stories that were the “anchors” of activities that were blended with classroom activities. The goal was to solve problems triggered by the “anchors,” by doing activities in classroom with peers (a blended approach). Jasper was expanded to include online creation of tools for problem solving and later became part of SFT (Schools for Thought), then part of STAR.Legacy, (Software Technology for Action and Reflection Legacy) a website and design tool for building learning environments that use the Jasper “anchors” for classroom use. STAR;Legacy is still in use and the environment remains a blended one, but is more virtual than when it began, now that the Internet can be used in most classrooms.
Time in development and use: early 1990s to today.
How did the project evolve over time?
In the mid-90s, the Jasper project became part of the SFT (Schools for Thought) project and collaborated with FCL (Fostering Communities of Learners)(Brown & Campione,1996), CSILE (Computer-Supported Intentional Learning Environments) (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993), and SMART (Scientific and Mathematical Arenas for Refining Thinking) (Barron, Schwartz, et. al., 1998). More recently, it evolved again into the Jasper activities in the STAR.Legacy learning environment.
What pedagogic approaches were used?
Japer began as a largely a constructivist approach which CGTV called “anchored instruction” but also used a situated learning approach in that the problems were situated in meaningful problem-solving environments that “help novices appreciate the significance (connectedness) of the new information they encounter.” (CTGV, 2000) Later, as part of SFT, the design was expanded to include the community of learners ideas. (CGTV, 1997). The learning environment created in this series was designed from the point of view of the learner, the knowledge to be taught, the assessment needed, and the community of teacher, peers, and external experts that could be accessed to help solve problems. CGTV described this as the “four features of effective learning environments: learner-centered, knowledge-centered, assessment-centered, and community-centered. (CGTV, 2000)
In creating the aspects of the learner-centered environment, CTGV used formative assessment practices, based on the work of Vygotsky to assess the amount of help the learner needed to solve the anchored activity problem and provide that help, using the principle of zones of proximal development. (CTGV, 2000)
What key design features were developed to support a learner’s construction of knowledge, construction of meaning, zones of proximal development and/or give formative assessment?
The researchers reported that this major idea behind this project tool and the whole “anchored instruction” approach was “to situate (anchor) learning in meaningful problem-solving environments that invite sustained inquiry about important academic topics.” The environment was designed to help learners to both understand the kinds of problems that experts (mostly in science and math) encounter and to see how experts solve problems and integrate their knowledge by exploring the same situation (anchor) from multiple perspectives ( e.g., as a scientist, mathematician, historian). The result was that the design provided a way to focus simultaneously on content knowledge and problem-solving skills.
The early design features were video stories that had characters with problems to solve. These stories were “anchors” for activities learners did to help the characters in the stories and solve the problem. For example, in Rescue at Boone Meadow, the character Emily needed help rescuing an eagle. In order to do so, the learner had to understand many aspects of the rescue problem, such as the payload the Emily’s ultralight can carry given the fuel needed for the rescue.
As part of its design evolution, (CTGV, 2000, p. 53) the Jasper series was “repurposed” to allow learners to create “smart tools” to solve the problems in the activity. For example, in Rescue at Boone Meadow, learners created a smart tool to determine travel time needed for the rescue.
What key design features were developed to support the creation of a community of learners?
With the help of Brown & Campione’s FCL, the Jasper project became more learner-centered by supporting student participation and leadership. Jasper also developed CSILE ideas to help learners collaborate electronically, reflect more by writing, and access experts electronically. Most importantly, Jasper incorporated FCL ideas to make Jasper and its descendents more community-centered. (CGTV, 2000) The key change was to base the environment on community norms that supported people’s abilities to participate comfortably and learn from one another. Learners learned to work in groups and “pool their insights and expertise.”
Another key design change over time was to link learners and teachers to other members of the community with the result that learners were more able to make connections inside and outside of school, and the community was better able to understand what was going on in their schools.
What are the empirical results, if any?
Because of the length and evolution of the Jasper project, there were various empirical results captured at various points. In the “Jasper 9-state implementation project” (CGTV, 1994a) Jasper adventures were used in 9 states. Results showed higher scores on tests measuring complex problem solving and attitudes toward mathematics, without loss on standardized test scores on state achievement tests. When Jasper became part of the SFT project in 1996-1997, first graders in SFT increased their state achievement test (TCAP) scores in both mathematics and language. (CTGV, 1998a, 1998b) An interesting assessment fact: SFT learners know more about how to use technology and how to use it for learning than non-SFT learners.
Jasper (and its descendents) were included in this review because it was one of the first constructivist learning environments that blended media into classroom activities. Over its evolution, it has continued to be a remarkable example of how media and technology can contribute to learning.
It is interesting to note that over time the project has become more open-ended for its learners; instead of solving problems in certain ways, the environment changed to promote the making of “smart tools” that would then help learners construct multiple solutions. When Jasper anchors were incorporated into STAR.Legacy, the entire environment became even more open-ended1 because teachers could then customize the entire environment to best challenge the learners in their classrooms.
Jasper’s evolution mirrors the evolution of the Internet itself, becoming progressively more connected and used for more diverse endeavors. This was a technically logical evolution and it indicates that Jasper, in its many incarnations, could continue to be one of the leaders of the charge into the “technology-in-the-service-of-learning” battle.
The PUPPET Virtual Theatre
What are descriptors of the project?
Research group: A multidisciplinary team from the School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK, Aalborg University, Denmark, DFKI, Germany. PUPPET is part of the European Union’s i3 ESE (Experimental School Environments) research program.
Learner age group: 4 to 8 years old, mostly pre-literate.
Technical description: PUPPET is a 2D and 3D virtual environment delivered on a desktop computer and described as a “virtual theatre for young children to support learning through playing.”
Time in development and use: Dates not certain, late 1990s to early 2000s.
How did the project evolve over time?
In the latest research available, the focus of the research was still on the design of the environment and no assessment of learners had been made at the time. The design itself evolved in response to studying children’s interactions with it, but it is too early in the implementation cycle for the effort to evolve based on learners’ experiences with the final version of the environment.