A stroll across campus without leaving home

3D 'presence' forges friendships, builds communities.

Ruiz, a teacher in Puebla, Mexico, is attending Appalachian State University's Reich College of Education through a 3-D online world called Applied Education Technology Zone, or AET Zone.

Margarita Ruiz is running late for her meeting with fellow graduate students at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. Ruiz is enrolled in ASU's master's program in educational media.

She catches up with the students in the plaza and they head for a conference room where they continue a discussion on questions posed by a professor. Later, she stops one of her professors and quizzes him about the internship she's planning. She visits the library to check on recent periodicals. Finally, she chats with two students about their postgraduate plans.

Then she logs off her computer to make supper at her home in Puebla, Mexico.

Ruiz, a private-school teacher in Puebla, is attending ASU's Reich College of Education through a 3-D online world called Applied Education Technology Zone, or AET Zone. Through the Zone, hundreds of students in the college's instructional technology programs communicate, socialize and learn. Many of the students live miles from the actual campus, and there is a growing number from other countries, including Mexico and Finland.

The Zone is built on the Active Worlds 3-D server and tool kit from Activeworlds in Newburyport, Mass. The software, tracing its roots to 1995, uses various techniques to minimize bandwidth. Many students log on, work and interact in the Zone over dial-up connections. The 3-D software runs on a dual-CPU Dell PowerEdge 2850 server, which also hosts the college's main Web site and is part of a compute cluster for redundancy and storage.

A suite of communications tools, including text chat, VoIP, discussion threads and file sharing, and a custom course management system built specifically for the 3-D world round out the Zone's basic functions. The course management application lets students form teams to work collaboratively on research and assignments.

But it's what students and faculty do with these tools as they meet in the 3-D space that makes AET Zone so intriguing.

The need for presence

The Zone is the brainchild of the three faculty members in the College's Department of Leadership and Educational Studies: Stephen Bronack, Richard Riedl and John Tashner. The project launched in 2001 for grad students in the instructional technology program, which looks at how to use computers, software and networks for learning. AET Zone recently won an Innovators Award from Campus Technology, a monthly publication about technology for higher education.

The trio had been exploring distance learning and the Web. "A lot of these Web programs were starting, but they were missing something in our view," Tashner says. "There was no sense of presence. They just seemed to throw out a bunch of information [onto Web pages] and see what stuck. The real guts of interaction, which is the essence of course work, wasn't there."

Three-dimensional interfaces, as many computer gamers have discovered, create presence: a user logs on; adopts an identity and a distinctive icon called an avatar; and can then move around inside a custom-built 3-D world, encountering and interacting with other avatars.

The three 3-Ders began testing the concept in 2000, and expanded in 2001 with a larger Active Worlds server that can support numerous virtual worlds. Originally just for instructional technology grad students, other graduate programs in the college, such as Library Sciences, are starting to create their own worlds. The three professors are working with colleagues to create a new area called the Commons that will be the new entry point to these separate worlds.

Students in the Educational Technology program download the Active Worlds client and log on to the Zone's gray-cobbled Central Plaza surrounded by rolling hills reminiscent of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Avatars move by touching the arrow buttons on the keyboard, or by buttons on the GUI screen, which trigger preprogrammed, surprisingly fluid avatar movements such as jump, spin and even a Macarena dance.

On the plaza, you see a newsstand, an announcements board, the library building, the Student Services Center and the teleport building, through which you're whisked to any number of content destinations.

These virtual classrooms have an array of online options, such as video interviews, threaded class discussions, class information, and links to various types of online articles and other content. Faculty members post questions and students typically form teams to talk about them, post a reply and start a discussion thread. Other tasks include working as a team to apply a specific digital tool in an education scenario, assess the experience and share that assessment with others in the class. A student might review a relevant software application and post a review or tutorial on it.

There have been some technical challenges, such as figuring out how to integrate the 3D world with ASU's backup systems. The Activeworlds browser runs only on Windows, which can be a problem for some students. Others have had trouble accessing parts of the Zone from home or work because of the school's network security policies. The 3-D server itself and associated software programs have been stable and reliable.

For this story, a half-dozen AET Zone students met online in the Zone with this reporter, sharing their experiences via a VoIP conference call.

My real world

"The digital world [of AET Zone] is my real world for this master's program," Ruiz says, one of three Puebla teachers enrolled here. "The experience is like being there [on the campus]. Sometimes I remain working until 12:00 at night, but that's because you are so free in finding people who can help you solve problems in your daily life as a teacher."

"I wouldn't have thought this at first, but now I'm realizing I've actually had more opportunity [in AET Zone] to talk with people than I would have in a traditional classroom setting," says Mimi Ennis, a high school art teacher in North Carolina.

Ennis has used conventional online classes in the past. "They were text-based," she says. "It was hard to find information. There were long delays in sending [and receiving] messages to professors. And you didn't know who was online. [AET Zone] is more like seeing and knowing other people."

"I took an online course at another university this summer," says Kathy Furr, a grad student who's in the process of swapping a business career for teaching. "Online chat was typing only. That's what they considered online. But I didn't consider that online at all. In the Zone, you have a physical presence in the world."

These assessments are the result of the 3-D technology, the actual design and layout of the Zone's geography, and the teaching assumptions that have guided the Zone's development.

"We have deliberately challenged some of the assumptions about what makes a good learning environment," says Stephen Bronack, assistant professor in the Leadership and Educational Studies department. "Community hinges on communication. A lot of times, what we believed to be good pedagogy has interfered with this. Like sitting in a classroom for 90 minutes at your own desk along with 25 others, and not being able to talk with them or the teacher. In AET Zone, all are talking with each other: As new connections and thoughts are being made, these are immediately available to all participants."

"We believe learning is a social act," Bronack says. "To make these connections [in a 3-D immersive experience] with other people is really effective learning."

The grad students immersing themselves are excited about the implications of virtual worlds for their work as teachers. Scott Stuckey, who recently graduated from the master's program, is now an instructional technology specialist supporting teachers in six North Carolina high schools.

"We're seeing tremendous growth in options for distance learning at the high school level," he says. "They're getting the content down quite well, but they miss out on the social interaction. These offerings can be tedious and quite monotonous. Bringing this [3-D] technology into virtual public schools would increase membership and commitment in these programs."

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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