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Issues and Concerns of K-12 Educators on 3-D MultiUser Virtual Environments in Formal Classroom Settings Greg Jones, University of North Texas, USA Scott Warren, University of North Texas, USA
ABSTRACT This study is a naturalistic inquiry conducted between 2007 and 2009 that presents emergent themes from interviews with fourteen K-12 educators and administrators regarding their issues and concerns about implementing 3-D multi-user virtual environments in formal K-12 classrooms. The major issues and concerns emerging from interviews included instructional effectiveness, security, bandwidth, and technology. The majority of the participants at the end of the study could not overcome one or more of these issues or concerns to use virtual environments in their classrooms. Keywords:
Classroom Integration, K-12, Multi-User Virtual Environments, Technology Adoption, Virtual Learning Environments
INTRODUCTION Three-dimensional (3-D) multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) have the potential to provide students with educational resources that are stimulating, appealing, easy to use, and educationally sound, without the need to develop elaborate technical skills (Jones, Morales, & Knezek, 2005). Proponents suggest that such technologies will appeal to future user populations when used for presentations and to add complexity to learning contexts
(Abram & Luther, 2004; Branston, 2006; Dede, 2005). Examples of 3-D MUVEs include Second Life (Linden Labs, 2003), World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2007; Dickey, 2007), ActiveWorlds (Mauz, 2001), AET Zone (Cox, 2006), Quest Atlantis (Barab, 2009), River City (Dede, 2009), Created Realities Group VXI system (CRG, 2005), and many others. All of these, in one form or another, have been used for instruction or to support learning in both formal and informal K-12 education settings. Such environments when compared to web and text-based methods for instructional content delivery, show improved facilitation of student interactions, increases in student engagement,
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and have been noted to foster deeper learning (Jones, Warren, & Roberston, 2009). Despite the proposed benefits of MUVEs, adoption of this approach or other similar games and simulations technology has been slow (Gilbert, 1996; Prensky, 2006; Taylor & Chyung, 2008). MUVEs can be found in both formal and informal educational settings. Many of the platforms mentioned earlier have published research in one or both educational settings. For example, Quest Atlantis conducted research into informal use with Boys and Girls Clubs (Barab, Thomas, Dodge, Carteaux, & Tuzun, 2005) prior to implementation in formal classrooms settings (Barab et al., 2007). This study focuses on issues and concerns about the use of MUVEs from the perspectives of two sets of primary stakeholders: educators and administrators. The primary purpose of this study was to understand and illuminate the barriers to the use and implementation of 3-D multi-user virtual environments in formal classroom settings. The research presented in this study does not examine the specific issues of informal versus formal learning use, although the reader may draw conclusions from the themes that emerged as they seek to design and implement 3-D environments in educational settings.
MUVES, LEARNING, AND EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGY MUVEs today can be classified into two broad categories: Direct Instruction MUVEs and Social Constructivist MUVEs. As will be discussed, each type has inherent design approaches that impact how it would be used in a classroom or curriculum. It is important to note that nearly all participants in this research were involved or examining what we have defined as social constructivist environments or attempting to use social-based systems to attempt to deliver direct instruction. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, MUVEs that were designed to deliver direct instruction were not common, though some like River City, Quest Atlantis, and the
Genome Project in Second Life were introduced to small populations for pilot research. The inclusion of innovative technologies in schools has long been a challenge in educational spaces with Cuban (1988) noting troubles with teachers having high access to computers and other forms of instruction technology ranging from the 1980s through the early part of the 2000s (Cuban, Kirkpatrick, & Peck, 2001). During this time, a debate simmered between those that believed that media would never influence learning (Clark, 1983, 1994) and those that believed it has the capacity to transform it (Kozma, 1991, 1994).
Direct Instruction MUVEs While for some, the Clark/Kozma debate remains unsettled, the question has myriad implications for multi-user virtual environments. This mainly stems from their heavy dependence on the use of multiple media (e.g. audio, video, text, interactivity) as a means of conveying objective knowledge in designs built from an Empirical/Positivist perspective (Bernstein, 1983). Therefore, if Clark is correct, media can never directly influence learning; instead, it is the instructional method that is always responsible. Any media depictions then simply act as replacements for what normally exists in a face-to-face classroom such as a teacher lecture, independent collaboration amongst students, or other learning activities. Thus, a digital video of a teacher providing instruction is cognitively no different from a teacher in a classroom providing direct instruction, except for the loss of physical presence and rapport that emerges through body language and eye contact. Media act as simulacra of classroom instruction or learning activities; therefore, the digital medium itself does not directly impact learning. From Clark’s argument, an instructional designer’s argument supporting the idea that media can, in any way impact learning, must be made more circuitously. Here, there is not direct impact. Instead, the impact of media is indirect, influencing affective and cognitive components
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that support other constructs tied to learning. Affective components such as extrinsic motivation and engagement emerging from student use of the MUVEs or game indicate that each may be impacted by media as was found by Tuzun with Quest Atlantis (2004), Dede et al. (2006) with River City, Foley et al. (2002) with Whyville and Squire (2008) with the Civilization series. However, these elements alone are insufficient to tie these MUVEs to learning. Therefore, the next question is how motivation and engagement impact learning, leading to questions of time on task and free choice learning activities. If students are motivated and engaged, the argument is then that they will spend more time on learning activities and be willing to engage in additional, non-required free choice learning activities such as reading, writing, problem solving, and knowledge construction tasks as was found with Anytown (Warren, Barab, & Dondlinger, 2008) in which student engagement with a MUVE resulted in statistically significant increases in time-on-task and free choice learning activity when compared with a face-to-face class that did not use the Anytown MUVE game. The argument that the MUVEs had an impact on learning then relies on research that supports the idea that increased student time-ontask improves learning, because it was not the media that influenced the learning. Instead, in the cases of Quest Atlantis, Anytown, Whyville, and River City, it may be conjectured that it was the media that improved student engagement; in turn, student engagement improved timeon-task. According to decades of research on time-on-task, the construct has been linked to improving student learning (Johns, Crowley, & Guetzloe, 2008; Karweit, 1988; Treptow, Burns, & McComas, 2007). Therefore, while not directly influencing student learning, we can see a way for MUVEs to influence other factors that do improve student learning.
those instructional designers and researchers of a contextualist or social constructivist epistemic view often take another approach. They instead design the environments to expose learners to digital and cognitive tools for investigation of problems, to present authentic problems, and to challenge learnersâ€™ perspectives as suggested for the design of face-to-face constructivist learning environments (Jonassen, 1999) and digital CLEs in MUVEs form (Warren, Stein, Dondlinger, & Barab, 2009). The MUVEs are not intended, then, to provide direct instruction; rather, they provide a context to support student learning and opportunities for learners to confront an ill-structured problem, work with peers to solve it, and construct knowledge as a result of those social interactions (Barab, Warren, & IngramGoble, 2008). Further, the environment itself may provide hard and soft scaffolds (Brush & Saye, 2001) to support knowledge construction as well as to have the instructor act to challenge poor knowledge constructions and provide expert feedback (Barab et al., 2009; Warren, Dondlinger, Stein, & Barab, 2009). With these arguments for why we may use learning MUVEs and games for learning still remain somewhat unsettled in the theoretical realm, it is important to understand what practical concerns remain from those that are expected to implement them in K-12 classrooms. While research has been done regarding the efficacy of these digital environments to impact student achievement, identity, and other student learning aspects, little research has investigated the perceptions of practitioners towards the use of MUVEs, games, and other digital media for learning. It is important for instructional designers, theorists, and researchers to understand the concerns, epistemic and institutional systemic limitations that may impact the adoption and use of these digital innovations in K-12 schools from the perspective of teacher and administrators.
Social Constructivist MUVEs
In addition to attempts to build empirically supported virtual environments for learning,
In order to address these questions, this exploratory study, conducted between 2007 and
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2009, examined the following question: “What are the issues and concerns of K-12 educators and administrators on implementing 3-D multiuser virtual environments into K-12 formal classroom settings?” A series of interviews focused on the diverse perceptions of teachers and administrators regarding concerns related to the use of MUVEs in today’s schools.
Participants and Research Setting The research began in 2007 with an e-mail sent out to a list of educators and administrators, members of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), in order to locate individuals wanting to participate in this research. Follow-up e-mails were then sent to those who responded, asking additional details for the purpose of locating participants that a) were using such technology in a formal classroom setting, b) were investigating such technology to be used in a formal classroom setting, and/or c) had investigated or used such technology but were no longer using it in a formal classroom setting. Table 1 shows the breakdown of the fourteen informants who participated in the interviews by stage of use and position. The largest group in this study was investigating the use of the technology in a formal classroom setting. Those using and those that had used represented a much smaller group (35%), but their comments added considerably to themes that emerged to create a rich narrative and understanding of the research questions. The three participants using the technology were involved in established educational environments tied to funded university research projects. Of the two participants that were no
longer using the technology, one had been involved with an existing educational research funded environment and the other had been using a commercial environment. That the technology did not “live up to the hype” was a comment from one of these participants. There was no one reason the participants thought the technology failed in either of their deployments. The reason they stopped using the technology was because of one or more major issues or concerns, of which most are discussed below. As will be discussed later, an important research question that needs more attention is that of writing follow-up analysis for failed projects. Of the nine participants, the majority (6) of them had just recently begun to investigate the technology (during 2007) and the others (3) had been investigating longer (before 2007). By the end of the study, the participants investigating had made a decision on use. The research setting for this study is users, implementers, or investigators of multi-user virtual environments in formal K-12 classroom settings during 2007 that were a) using a MUVE, b) had used a MUVE, or c) were investigate the use of a MUVE in their school.
Data Collection The participants agreed to participate in a series of semi-structured interviews. The purpose of the interviews was for the respondents to answer, describe, and explain in personal terms the primary questions of the study. Additional interviews built upon patterns that emerged from their interviews and interviews with the other participants. The average number of interviews conducted per participant was four, with the minimum being three and the maximum be-
Table 1. Participants by 3-D multi-user virtual environment use stage and position a) Using
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ing six. Interviews lasted between fifteen and forty-five minutes. The researcher administered all interview activities. While there is no way to guarantee full anonymity in descriptive research, all steps were taken to limit the possibility that traceable information might become known (Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p. 155). Before each interview, notes and questions from previous sessions were reviewed to provide better direction during the semi-structured interviews (Stake, 1995). Rigor and trustworthiness were demonstrated by defining, establishing, and showing credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability both during and at the conclusion of the study (Lincoln & Guba 1985). The following questions shaped the interview interactions. Some questions were more relevant to the perspectives and experiences of particular informants than to others. • • • • • •
Have you investigated, used, or are using a 3-D multi-user virtual environment in formal classroom settings? What are your feelings and thoughts about 3-D multi-user virtual environments in formal classroom settings? What are your feelings and thoughts about 3-D multi-user virtual environments in informal educational settings? How does your school feel about 3-D multi-user virtual environments in formal classroom settings? If you are using a 3-D multi-user virtual environment, how do your students feel about it? What issues or concerns are important to you and your school regarding selection, implementation, and ongoing support using a 3-D multi-user virtual environment? What issues or concerns do you have on 3-D multi-user virtual environments in formal classroom settings? What is your level of decision-making regarding technology selection, implementation, and ongoing support?
If you are using a 3-D multi-user virtual environment, does your program actively research the use of the 3-D multi-user virtual environment and its impact?
Data Analysis Constant comparative coding of data (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Lincoln & Guba, 1985) was used for data generated in informant-centered, semi-structured interviews. Interviews were transcribed and then coded by an analysis group of three. Patterns and themes from coded data were derived from a method developed by Glaser and Strauss (1967). The research discovered low inference codes contained within the raw data. Codes, generated independently by the analysts, were constantly compared and either combined or eliminated. Once the transcriptions were fully coded with 100% agreement within the analysis group, codes were again reviewed to identify duplication. These codes were then placed into larger categories by the researchers independently and each was compared until 100% agreement on the categories and those codes that belonged to each were placed. The categories were then independently collapsed into larger themes, which were later compared and adapted until 100% agreement was reached and participant quotes were identified which typified each of these themes. These themes are reported in the next section of the article.
FINDINGS Following is a presentation of the issues and concerns most commonly voiced by the fourteen informants as part of the interview process. The major themes that emerged and will be presented included security and access, insufficient evidence of use in relation to impact and outcomes, two themes regarding technology and its current and future impact, and issues related to the time and the integration of the technology in a classroom environment. Each of these themes will be presented and then discussed.
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Security/Access Security and access deals with the issue of who is in the MUVE and with whom the student can interact. Security and access was the most common issue or concern for all participants in the study. A comment that was repeated by many of the participants was, “This is one of the first questions asked [by higher-level decisions makers] when a proposal is made [to use a MUVE].” For one of the two participants who were using a MUVE at the start of the study but then discontinued its use during the study, this was one of the main reasons. This participant stated, “We were using [a MUVE] in our classroom and the school administration became aware of the issue of our students being in a shared space with others that we could not control for. In the end, we could not overcome this issue and it brought an end to the project.” The majority of the participants in the study felt that an appropriate MUVE would be one they had very close control over access to the environment. For the investigating participants, this was given as a major concern that several could not overcome. One participant said, “The tech[nology] coordinator would not move the proposal forward because of the uncontrolled social interaction.” Another stated, “the inability to know who is in the environment with our students and the need to be able to track their interaction in case something did happen is delaying our implementation.”
Lack of Evidence on Impact/ Effectiveness and High Stakes Testing (NCLB) Informants who were investigating the use of MUVEs were most concerned with the lack of evidence of impact and/or effectiveness of what they considered to be a new educational technology. Participants reported reading about how the technology could be used, but were looking for concrete examples on which to base their integration/deployment plan. One participant stated, “The research that I have
found to support my project is so esoteric and narrowly focused that it is nearly impossible to use.” Another commented, “I found lots of great articles about the future and its great potential and just about nothing on practical integration.” Those that voiced the most concern related to high stakes testing commented that they paid the most attention to practical usability (i.e. impact or outcomes) of the technology as compared to existing approaches; namely, the virtual environment must have a better cost to benefit ratio than traditional classroom approaches. A comment that was similar between several of the participants was summed up by one participant who stated, “I can see where the technology could be very useful for what I am teaching, but I just cannot make the case to the school to change to an unknown technology with uncertain outcomes for the students.” Educators interested in the technology felt proving the feasibility through research was the only way to get approval of its use by decision makers higher up. Administrators in this group felt that grounded research was important in order to be able to justify implementation, especially in terms of financial cost and time spent using the product versus engaging students in other learning activities. As one administrator said, “I find it very hard to justify the return on investment in either money or time with the virtual environment as compared to other instructional approaches we had taken in the past and understand.” While most of this group could discuss some type of evidence or outcomes during the interviews, the lack of specific evidence in one field of study or another or the lack of generalizable evidence was often noted as a major factor preventing administrators from making a decision in favor of using MUVEs or similar technologies. For example, research that was discussed during the interviews tended to be very narrow in scope and would show impact on one or two narrow items. The limited published research was not enough to allow the educator or administrator interested in the technology to make a strong case to invest and deploy. For some, the research was not in a specific enough
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curriculum area that was also aligned enough to show transfer into the content area they planned to use the MUVEs to support. Participants that were currently using a MUVE were less concerned with impact or effectiveness as a decision for use since they had already gotten past this barrier to implementation. A common theme among these participants was that they had other reasons for using a MUVE and standardized testing was not as important as the other issues they were trying to overcome. One of the participants, no longer using a MUVE, stated that the impact on test scores was one of the main reasons for discontinuing its use. As one participant said, “We tried it and it just did not have the impact we required.” This was not the only reason the participant discontinued use, but was given as a primary concern. It is important to note that throughout the interviews, there was no one single reason why the two participant’s schools stopped using the MUVE; instead, it was a combination of concerns that discontinued participant use of the MUVE. One of the currently using participates stated that they were reviewing use of their MUVE because of an issue with test scores. When participants who were concerned about effectiveness were asked further what would be acceptable, the responses were mixed. They ranged from successful case studies at similar or well-known schools, word of mouth (i.e. social networks and conferences), national research projects, or nationally funded grant projects. Only a few mentioned that published research in national or international journals mattered and upon further discussion, most were looking for successful use cases. Unfortunately, for many in the investigating group, the issue of impact that MUVEs have could not be overcome and resulted in abandoning the project or proposal or the participant is still continuing to investigate.
Bandwidth (And Technology Access) Bandwidth and technology access was a common theme among those investigating and had
worked their way up the decision tree to at least a technology coordinator or equivalent. Bandwidth for the purposes of this study is being defined as the amount of information flow during use of the MUVE and also covers updates of the software. It was also a concern for those participants no longer using a MUVE and the reason given by one of the two participants for discontinuing their use. As one participant stated: “Once the proposal got to my technology coordinator and his group began using [the MUVE] and measuring its potential impact on our network connection -- the wheels came off my project. I just didn’t have enough technical depth to counter their arguments.” Another participant commented, “my principal equated the use of [the MUVE] with all my students video conferencing at the same time.” For both of these groups (investigating and discontinued use), the amount of bandwidth a MUVE requires was a concern, as it was perceived that it could or would slow down campus network performance. For the investigating participants, the concern was not their own; however, they stated that it was a concern they had to overcome with their school decision maker during the process of bringing virtual worlds to their school. Most of the participants were at schools where students would use the environment during computer lab time and therefore students would all be accessing the system at the same time. The size of computer labs at the schools of the participants ranged from 18 to 37. Only one of the participants had a one-to-one computer initiative in place at their school (one of the currently using participants). Several participants mentioned specific MUVEs and the amount of download required before each use. One stated, “the daily updates were such that unless someone remembered to get into the lab the morning of our use, the class time would be taken up by the updating of twenty-one computers at the same time.” When asked for further details, it became clear in follow-up interviews that participants in the
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investigating group were testing various virtual environments on their own time. One major challenge reported by teachers was that most of the computers at schools were not saving the updates because of protection software such as Faronic’s Deep Freeze™, which returns the computer to a preset software configuration after it is used. Therefore, each time the MUVE client was run it would have a larger patch/update process each time, which took additional time and bandwidth. Those conducting testing from home normally did not have this problem. For many of the educators, when asked how they would change access to allow the update to work correctly, several explained that the process was not worth the effort or that the school policy would not allow for the change at this time. As one educator stated, “In the computer lab at my school, computer security comes before instructional needs.” By the end of the interview process, the theme of bandwidth became one not only of network bandwidth, but also one of technology access. Technology access is defined here as having both the computer technology to support the use of a MUVE, but more importantly, having the ability for the software to operate properly. This theme also encompassed the specific attitudes of decision makers in charge of technology towards MUVEs. This had impact on whether they felt justified in changing established rules for computer access to allow for the flexibility needed to institute the use of a MUVE. For many in the investigation group, these attitudes could not be overcome. For those using MUVEs, they had been able to overcome this issue. For two of the three in this group, a stakeholder of significant position was involved that could overcome resistance from other stakeholders (i.e. tech coordinator, administration). As one stated, “when the tech[nology] coordinator told me that he would not open up the security to allow the software to update unless he had an e-mail from the superintendent; the superintendent sent over an e-mail and made it happen.” Two of the participants of this group defined their school districts as affluent. Upon further questioning,
all three schools had what the participants termed “high technology and bandwidth access.” Working with new technologies was a priority of the school district and the technology directors involved.
Time Factor All of the participants who had used MUVEs commented on the issue of time. The time factor overlaps several other emergent issues in the study that include impact/effectiveness, high stakes testing, bandwidth, and technology access and deals with the amount of time available for students to be on task in the virtual environment. As one participant stated: Time is critical – it impacts and influences all sorts of things for me in the classroom. If a new application takes to long to use or slows down student learning I am going to move on to something else that is more effective. The common thread that emerged was that those for whom time was the largest factor had used virtual environments based on constructivist principles (Airasian & Walsh, 1997; Jonassen, 1999) and also had limited access to either computer lab time or space. As noted by Jones and Warren (2008) and separately by Warren et al. (2009), constructivist environments require a minimum amount of time in order to be successful and that often differs depending on the individual students. The amount of time required to work in these environments to produce improvements in student achievement was a concern of participants. It was given as the reason that one of the participants who no longer used virtual environments discontinued their use. As she stated: We stopped using [the MUVE] because everything just took to much time. After a while the time with daily downloads (and) the students doing off task learning behaviors (as well as) problems in the computers in the lab every week, it just took to much time from objectives we needed to accomplish that I knew were going to help prepare the students for their testing.
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For the participants currently using the technology, the time factor issue was not something impacting their continued use at this time. As one stated, “We are not worried about test scores at this time, because we have the flexibility at our school to try new things to see what the impact will be and the admin[istration] is interested in promoting new technology.”
Technology Change An issue that emerged, only from those investigating the technology, was the speed at which the technology is changing. For example one participant stated: Each time I look into virtual environments I see the same environments being used by everyone, but I also see new things on the horizon and I keep thinking I just need to wait for something better to show up before investing in something that might not be here in a few years. Some in this group felt that the school should wait for things to stabilize and a clear platform emerge before investing time and effort into a technology. This pattern emerged near the end of the interviews; therefore, in order to better contextualize this finding, additional interviews are needed to fully detail the nature of the issue or concern. Initial indicators are that the issue is related to initial investment with a worry to the cost of later migration to a different system or the loss of investment if a MUVE not controlled by the school is discontinued.
DISCUSSION The purpose of this research was to understand the issues and concerns of educators and administrators on 3-D multi-user virtual environments. Some of the issues were not new and have been cited by other authors while had not yet been examined in sufficient detail to guide instructional designers and researchers by clearly portraying commonality among participants groups. The issue concerning technology selec-
tion, integration, and effectiveness is not new to education. As noted by Roblyer (2005), there is little room in today’s educational climate for methodologies or technologies that do not accelerate student learning. Effectiveness of the technology will be one of the continued barriers for educational use, especially in formal classroom settings where time and effectiveness are highly stressed. More specific issues and concerns related to security/access, bandwidth, technology access, and technology stability can be addressed by future MUVE developers. Additional research and publications should be undertaken to seek remediation addressing these issues and concerns raised by administrators and teachers in K-12 if designers, theorists and researchers are to be successful at bringing MUVEs to elementary and secondary school settings. One particularly useful line of research findings in the area of failed experiments and implementations of MUVEs in K-12 settings as we are likely to learn as much or more from the challenges faced by others as from their successes to avoid and understand how the failed implementation or design came to pass. Our own research will continue with additional participants who had discontinued use or were unable to implement in order to better contextualize the challenges encountered by these educators and develop models of successful implementation by examining those who have successfully implemented MUVEs for learning in schools. By the end of this study, out of the nine investigating participants, only one had been able to move forward to getting a class(es) into a virtual environment (11%), three more were still investigating (33%), and the remaining five had stopped investigating (55%), but planned to keep up to date on the technology in the future. Of the three in the using group, one had discontinued the use in the classroom because of a security or access incident. One of the current using participants was not sure about the future of their MUVE use because of concern over the test scores of students using the MUVE in their class. Of the two not using
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participants, at the end of this study, one was about to try again with a different MUVE.
CONCLUSION The primary issues and concerns that the study discovered reflect the common concerns of any new educational technology at these schools, especially those that connect out to the Internet to a wider audience. These concerns are doubly important when placed into formal classroom settings, where high stakes testing is involved. Overcoming just the issues and concerns that emerged in this study was more than the majority of the participants could deal with. In the end only a few were able to initiate use or continue their use.
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Greg Jones works as an Associate Professor of Learning Technologies at the University of North Texas. His primary research interest is in using technology to further the creation and distribution of knowledge and learning. His research focuses on the combination of visualisation systems, virtual communities, telementoring, games, simulations and 3D online learning environments for teaching and learning. These emerging technologies support learning by distributing interaction and feedback across time and space via interactive forms of multimedia. Teaching and learning relationships are no longer confined by space, but are defined by connectivity. He completed his PhD in Instructional Technology at the University of Texas Austin. Scott Warren works as an Assistant Professor of Learning Technologies at the University of North Texas. His current research examines the use of emerging online technologies such as immersive digital learning environments, educational games and simulations, and open source course management tools in complex systems in K-20 settings. Prior to working in higher education as a Professor, Researcher and Designer, he taught both social studies and English for nearly a decade. He has also worked to the Quest Atlantis project and his current work with The Door and Broken Window alternate reality courses is partly funded with grants from the University of North Texas. He completed his PhD in Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University-Bloomington.