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Virtual World Connections A pre-service teacher study on technology acceptance and adoption by Vanessa Camilleri

The prelude: In 2005 I was introduced to Second Life and like the millions that inhabit it, I got hooked. It was not just the environment. But it was who I became in world. It was the avatar which was an extension of me... not a replacement but an extension of the activities I could do. I've always wanted to see the world, and I will not say that this in any way replaces the world which I want to see but it's a diversion that can do much more than for example a normal daily activity. It is the sense of exploration which got me hooked, the excitement of creating something, the diversion of meeting people, of diving in an underwater world, of talking to people. So then I started thinking that I should share this with others, and that is when I started toying with the ideas of using these worlds to educate, to help people learn. And hence I started reading about it, and what people are doing, and about how people were using these worlds to educate. I found a great deal about them but mostly dealt with the effect these worlds were having on people's learning. I have read about a number of interesting case studies about how these worlds have been used in adult education mostly, for training on the workplace for example. First aid responders, and other health-related jobs were amongst the top categories of jobs that made use of training using simulations and virtual worlds. The military and air traffic controllers were other practice-based case examples of virtual world use. At first I set out on a very ambitious journey - almost ambiguous in its own ambition, but then I realized that a PhD is not about quantity but it is about the rigor and the depth to which I decide to take my studies into. In the years preceding those during which I was undertaking this study, my formation was pretty technical with no flourish for the human end. Most of the studies, most of the papers which were being published were more on the design and the framework of the technology being used rather than the human aspect for which this same technology should be developed. I find that many people coming from the faculty of ICT here in Malta sometimes miss the trees for the forest really. They are very interested in the actual development and the new algorithms which students propose (amongst others of course) rather than an ulterior purpose for that development. But I do guess that they leave that for us, as Educators, or Educational Scientists to work on developing the purpose to help the development of the human. So with those thoughts, I started losing focus from the development side (not that I undermine or underestimate its importance in any way) and refocusing instead on how to purposely and determinedly investigate aspects pertaining to a specific modality and use of technology. It was then, that through my Twitter network, I stumbled across the book by Blaskovich and Bailenson, called 'Infinite Reality' and I came up with so many questions, especially in the area of how learning happens inside the 3D space that I could finally find focus to my PhD


study. During the first year I started out with a specific research question, thinking I could give a measure to the effectiveness of the virtual world itself. Throughout the first year I read a lot and as I continued reading during the second year in 2011, I realized that I had to give my research a slight tangential direction in order to be able to have some answers in return. It was after this second year that I started giving more focus to my research questions - attempting to understand a bit more what I wanted to study. In the summer of 2011 I enrolled in a course given and hosted by the Gronsted group about emergent technologies and Virtual Worlds for Education and Training. This course made use of the AvayaLive Engage Virtual World. Since at that time, the VW platform only ran on Windows, I had to come to work from my office at around 11pm (owing to the time differences between here and New York) to be able to follow the course. Throughout the course duration I was walking into University at around 830pm and walking out at 3am - and it was wonderful! Before I undertook this course, I thought it was going to be a killer really, because of the time. However, it turned out to be such an engaging experience, so user friendly, and it gave me such a strong sense of satisfaction and confidence in what I was doing, that when I was in the process of choosing the VW platform for my own studies, I contacted AvayaLive Engage and told them what I was planning to do. They were very supportive right from the start and throughout they have been quite responsive to my work. I started planning out my research design at the start of the 2012, almost two years after I had submitted my proposal. I knew I had to carry out investigative work inside the world but I also knew that I had to render the people participative into my world. At that point in time my research design was rather fuzzy. I went to the SGI in Coventry at the beginning of February 2012, and there I presented my research proposals to Prof S de Freitas, my supervisor. The turning point however came during a PhD JTEL summer school which I attended in May 2012, and which took place in Estoril,Portugal. The summer school was one of the best learning experiences I have had and the strong sense of community that was built over the week is something which I think I will carry with me. Over there I had the opportunity to meet, talk to and discuss a number of people, coming from diverse backgrounds and aiming at different specialisations. However it was when I spent a full 2 1/2 hours brainstorming with Professor Mike ... and after which we finally concluded to go for a design which was based on a quasiexperimental approach, with a pre-post test method, that took into account the intervention done during the period of habitation inside the world. We went further into specifying post post-test methods that involved the use of focus groups and case observations during the students' teaching experiences in a school some two months after the end of their virtual world residential period. That experience helped me into focusing my energies on designing and populating the virtual world in preparation for the experimentation phase. I had started thinking, sketching and also writing about possible world designs during the previous two years in which I was reading about the 3D immersive spaces designed for enhanced user experiences. I also published two papers about my ideas and thoughts about the design of 3D immersive experience for social collaboration, as well as the design of a 3D experience for Technology Acceptance. In parallel to the design of the 3D space, I also started working on developing the content using pre-service teacher trainers as my target audience. I chose a number of themes to represent the study unit "Integrating Learning technologies" using the course description approved by the University of Malta. I chose the themes of eLearning and Virtual Learning Environments as well as Open Educational Resources and Social Networks in Education as some of the themes to be discussed within the Virtual World. However I also believe that other themes that fall under


the "Integrating Learning Technologies " such as digital literacies and game-based learning should be explored by soon-to-become teachers and thus I decided to include them as part of the course participants' assessment for the study-unit. I designed the course content in a way that it could provide a purpose for the participants inside the virtual world. However I also wanted to make this type of learning as transparent as possible and to incorporate some core game features that would help my participants achieve a sense of flow that balances the level of challenge with their 'comfort-zone' within which they operate the technology-based resources. Research has also shown me that there is a problem amongst the community of teachers in the use of innovative classroom teaching that may require use of novel technologies. Many teachers, despite increase of technology-based resources, find no self-efficacy in using technology in the classroom. Research has revealed that this lack of 'acceptance' and adoption of technology-based 21st century practices in the classroom may have roots lying in a number of factors, including the structure, and delivery of teacher-training programs, use of and access to resources in the schools, as well as lack of initiative in adapting to different tools and emerging technologies. Up at this point, my research questions took a more definite turn. I started asking myself if the residence inside a 3D immersive space that is designed for pre-service teachers (coming from different areas of study), could serve to bring them all together and help modify the participants' attitudes and perceptions with respect to technology. The term 'Protheus' effect which describes the translation of the virtual world avatar behavior into real world actions and behavior is a phenomenon which started making more sense in my head and I wanted to investigate whether this effect holds its place amongst my group of pre-service teachers. The protheus effect triggered by the mechanisms operating in the virtual worlds seems to create a sense of engagement with content, objects and avatars that can persist even after virtual world expires. This then led to the creation of 4 different worlds, serving different scopes. The first world, is the orientation world, where the participants are given 2 weeks to get used to their avatars, the interactions which are possible inside the virtual world, and are also given a teaser of what the course will take into consideration. This world is thoroughly guided, and yet the participants are free to explore different aspects including course logistics, objectives and general descriptions. Screencasts, uploaded on YouTube are also linked from the world, giving them added guidance on the way they can use their avatars and how to interact with the content. A user guidebook is also mailed to the students. The world features a central foyer area with a number of posters, each linked to podcasts, screencasts and also external URLs that aim to give the participants a thorough understanding of the world, its purpose and its content. I, am there, as an avatar, as a researcher and as an observer, and this is my log of my encounters, my interactions and my views and thoughts throughout this journey. The second world will come into existence as soon as one world ends, and the participants will automatically migrate to the new world environment. This world, is the campus world and it aims to present the participants with features which resemble the University. Although there are a series of presentations, screencasts, podcasts and links to external Website, the students will go through the content at their own pace. However in this world the students will have to prepare a series of tasks which need to be accomplished before the two information seminars that are scheduled throughout the 4 week duration of this virtual world. The tasks have been planned in a way that can help students connect with the others and collaborate with other inworld participants. After the duration of this world, a third world has been designed using a futuristic open environment. The in-world residents will also have to meet up and discuss a number of themes and topics in preparation for the other 2 Information Seminars, focusing on two themes - Open Educational Resources and Social Networking in Education. I have also invited guest speakers


to contribute to these two Information Seminars in a way that could render these interesting and exciting for the participants. I have finally designed a fourth world. The scope of this world is to provide a space for the participants to meet in small groups and participate in small group tutorials in a way which can help them finalize their course assignment. My ultimate scope is that of giving my participants guidance, and yet at the same time allow them to be constructive with their thoughts and ideas. Therefore in this world, I am trying to balance challenge with boredom, creating that "optimal sense of flow" as is described by Csikszentmihalyi. I have to try and understand my audience without trying to be too presumptuous however experience teaching previous cohorts of PGCE students has shown me that as students, they are under pressure in trying to catch up with too many different topics within a short period of time. Many are apprehensive about their teaching practices, that are few and yet with not enough time for reflection. Many, as well, normally report that they do not see a connection between technology and the classroom because that is the way they have been taught throughout their lifetimes. The style of teaching many people are used to, and this does not only apply to pre-service teachers, uses a behaviorist approach, that places the teacher as "the sage on the stage" and the students as passive listeners. What happens is that this attitude keeps on propagating in the classroom although some may profess different approaches by inserting alternative resources, and maybe even alternative modalities like role playing, etc. However most often these are very much subject dependent and also dependent on the creativity of the teacher. Many people are not aware of the broad range of helpful tools, resource packs and applications that can apply to all the different subjects, are freely accessible and contribute towards helping the teacher use different modalities to engage the students. I have recently learned that engagement can be considered in three kinds of perspective: there is the traditional or conservative perspective where student engagement is measured in terms of academic achievement or determinate behavioral traits; a linear continuum of achievement that is academically related, there is then the liberal perspective that takes into account the different learning experiences that pertain to the individual learner; a sense of "connectedness" with the school as a result of the relationships and interconnections that are formed between learner, peers, academia and content, as well as with the institution itself. This is also indicative of a sense of community building that leads to an increased sense of belonging. This then is one of the criticisms towards a number of traditional eLearning courses, especially those that create a sense of detachment and isolation that can, according to the liberal theory create a disengagement in students. This perspective takes into account the students' relationships and school communities but fails to give a purpose to a curricular process. The third type of perspective, is based on the critical-democratic view using participatory actions as a way of life. This way of life is based upon the learners' critical inquiry abilities as they go through a maturity level within the knowledge that is acquired going beyond curricular and academic achievements or an extended sense of belonging in the school context. In this way, this student engagement perspective leads learners through a transformation from mere consumers of knowledge and information, that might even be presented in different ways and modalities, to creators of knowledge to which they retain a certain ownership and which arises from participatory action. This creates a teaching and learning dynamic, much on the same terms as I am trying to achieve with my virtual world, which goes beyond the school walls and time, and reaches beyond a temporal and spatial dimension, evolving in a dialogue which empowers both teachers and students with different methods, techniques and approaches towards the acquisition of knowledge. This view has been seen by Portelli & Vibert as the "Curriculum of Life". This curriculum of life is seen as a dynamic process between teachers, students, knowledge and contexts in a continuous exchange of experiences.


Week 1: The Orientation Journey I must admit that I was quite apprehensive in starting out this first week with my student participants. First of all, I had no idea who my students were, what their background was and what sort of emotional baggage they were carrying with them. Would they be receptive to my ideas? Would they accept them or dismiss them straight away? What if they didn't want to participate in my study? And what if they would refuse to cooperate? So all these questions were the source of some worry until I met with them, explained to them what would happen throughout the course and guide them through the initial steps.

Strengths: I think the fact that on the Saturday previous to the meeting which I had with them on the 2nd September 2012, I had published on the MOODLE VLE the relevant course descriptions, screencasts of the Virtual World and the avatar creation process, a detailed course assessment document and a user manual for using the Virtual World helped build up a certain excitement amongst the participants as they waited in anticipation. Since I wanted to gradually introduce them to the world, I opened the Virtual World environment for them on the Saturday after our initial meeting. This means the my participants had 3 days in which to visit the MOODLE VLE, download the attachments, read the course descriptions, view the screencasts, sign and return the consent forms and fill in the pre-course survey. I created the pre-course survey using Survey Monkey, sending requests to all registered students to fill in and submit their views. My worry at this point was that there were still some students who had not yet been registered by University admin and I, thus, had no means of contacting them. On Saturday 6th September 2012 I created all user profiles for those people who had filled in the pre-course survey. During Sunday and the rest of the week there were a few students, who hadn't yet been registered by University admin. They heard about the course and they emailed me directly. As soon as I received their email, I sent them another email with all the course details, and related attachments, I included them in my survey monkey list, and I registered their profile in the Virtual World. I have to say that I was pretty amazed at the immediate response which my participants showed. There were some who logged in right away as soon they received the email with their login and password. By Sunday almost all the registered participants (those who had filled in the pre-course survey and were officially registered as PGCE students at the University of Malta) had managed to log in to the world. I have to say that contrary to the results given by the pilot study, the majority of students experienced no problems in logging in. I had suggested that they avoid using Chrome as their Web Browser, and they used Internet Explorer instead. There were a couple of students who had problems initially. Amongst these problems there was the inability to chat, and the inability to speak over the microphone. These were identified as these problems persisted in using Google Chrome. As soon as they switched browser they didn't have any other problems. Another technical problem was raised by another student who was running the 64-bit version IE and the system wouldn't allow him to launch the Avaya Client unless his PC ran the 32-bit one. Regarding layout, access to tools, the quantity of links, and slides, screencasts, etc. the students seem to be managing well. During this first week they managed to get familiarised


with handling their avatar, talking and chatting in proximity, private as well as globally to all the people inside the world. There were a few suggestions that are quite positive and point towards the students' enthusiasm towards this kind of modality and approach in the course. One participant asked me if it would be possible for me to create a profile for her husband who was really interested in venturing inside the Virtual World. I did try to explain that this was a course about Learning Technologies however she told me that he saw some of the screencasts and listened to some of the podcasts and he was really interested. The same happened with another student who told me that her mother, who was currently a Learning Support Assistant at a school was really interested in the subject and it would be lovely if she could attend. I told both students to send me an email with the email details of the two persons and I would create a profile for them. I want my course to be open for all and I am really interested in the dissemination of information and establishing network connections amongst people in order to offer a richer learning experience - in a critical democratic dimension. One other strength of the design of the virtual world is the amount of information about the course. I have prepared 7 podcasts about the course which include : 1. A welcome introductory note, 2. A course description, 3. Course aims, 4. Course tasks and assesment, 5. Learning outcomes, 6. Course expectations as well as an introductory video uploaded on YouTube where I explain my motivation and what has led me to experiment with such a modality. In addition I have placed various links to blogs, slideshare presentations, and other external sites that give a brief taster of the content which the course content. Above all the major strength of this world lies in its orientation facilities, and the fact that the participants are gradually introduced to the virtual world themes.

Weaknesses: Just as the orientation world is a very important step in leading the students towards a different modality of learning, so the duration of the World could be a weakness. Since most of the students have overcome the initial challenge of mastering the way their avatar communicates and interacts, now this can easily lead to boredom. As in a game which offers no ulterior excitement or a move to the next level my worry is that the initial novelty wears off quickly and their presence inside the world decreases. This has happened to many Second Life worlds for example. Many worlds which started out as being extremely popular, having a high fidelity in the design and offer an overall pleasant environment, but have slowly withered away void of all presence and activity. Therefore one weakness which pertains to many social worlds is the lack of activity that might be present. This weakness needs to be addressed. Another weakness in the orientation world is the lack of game-features that might increase the participants’ excitement towards the 3D environment. This might in itself lead towards a feeling of ‘disassociation’ or lack of immersiveness inside the 3D environment. Such game-features include elements of narrative, missions or quests that also include the time-constraint element.

Opportunities: Since this world is only open for 2 weeks there is the time to fire up the excitement for the participants, with the possibility of incorporating some basic game elements, like timeconstraints in task accomplishment, adding some gamifying components such as scores, or ‘prizes’ to be attained upon the successful accomplishment of a given task. The other opportunity which I find that this world contains is the fact that this can be opened up to a large number of participants. Although this is nowhere near an MOOC it fosters space


and creates the dynamics for collaborations that can be more intimate whilst at the same time, playing on the numbers including people with different interests bound by a common target. In this case, we are offering a virtual world ambience, including immersive features, whilst at the same time keeping into focusing the learning path which an individual chooses to attempt. This is immersive learning at its best, giving the learners enough flexibility, and yet providing an environment, where they don’t necessarily need to filter through much information that might not all be useful for their set targets. Therefore such worlds would give guidance, without setting control, they would provide the space without dictating time-frames by which the individuals have to learn. The opportunity for lifelong learning exists in a manner that individuals can construct what they want to learn, setting their own pathways, within parameters that might be set by the hosting institution. The other opportunity comes in the form of increasing our circle of participants. Throughout this first week I have had two requests coming from two participants. In the first case, one participant asked me if I could create a profile for her husband. It turns out that her husband is abroad and he wanted to find out more about this world. I explained that this world had a purpose and she told me her husband had listened to the podcasts I had created and they really interested him very much. He wanted to learn more! In the second instance, one participant asked me for a profile for her mother, who, as a Learning Support Assistant, was really interested to learn more about these learning technologies that can be used for teaching and learning in class. All this shows me that there is an opportunity to extend this to members of the community out there, who wish not only to socialise, or communicate maybe, but they also wish to learn in their own time and by their own needs, without pressures. The dynamics for learning inside the virtual world, promote project-task based collaborative activities, that can be engaging for students not simply in terms of the fidelity of the graphics or the ‘game-like’ environment, but it also provides a space where they can exercise their critical democratic rights of learners.

Threats I think the greatest threat to this world, is myself, wearing the hat of the Educator. There have been instances during this week where I have willingly distanced myself from the world. I have to admit that my presence might also be slightly disruptive to the balance that my participants might find over there - meeting each other and discussing together. I was noticed that everytime I logged in, even though the participants call me informally with my name (because I asked them to) there is still, rather apparent the division between Educator and participant, even in the way they refer to me or the talks they raise. There was an instance, when it felt, as we were there, at 1030 at night, a group of 5 women avatars discussing, as though we were just simply gossiping. It was a nice feeling and one which I would like to cultivate further. However to be able to do this I need to distance myself and detach myself from the Educator role and start wearing the hat of the participant, whilst retaining some of the research role as I try to observe what goes on keeping a ‘transparent’ presence. The other threat, has also been described as a weakness, and this is the fact that the world, for one reason or another, stops being populated, in which case there is a high risk that the world itself will fail in its scope to immerse and engage participants so much that it becomes an inherent characteristic of their learning experience. All in all this first week proved to be quite positive - beyond my expectations. Further to the experiment which I carried out last year, in which I tried to propose to a similar cohort of PGCE


students, I expected initial resistance. However, as opposed to the other previous year, this year, not only was there no resistance, but there was much enthusiasm which has shown through their continuous logins, at times which go beyond the normal “office� hours to which students are used to. For the second week I have planned a talk which is outside of the learning outcomes set for the course. The scope of this talk is to get all the group together at a specified time and get them thinking about technologies that are not strictly used in the classroom but that are impinging on the way in which we are living on the Web. The talk will be about the Semantic Web and Web2.0. Beside this talk the participants will have the opportunity to talk to me, my guest speaker and themselves. I will also, after the talk, tell them more about the coming Information Seminars, the dates and start disseminating the first leaflet.


PhD Research Journey