The effects of virtual space on learning: A literature review
First Monday

The effects of virtual space on learning: A literature review by Olle Skold



Abstract
This paper examines how the effects of virtual space on learning have been elucidated in recent research with the aim of providing both a comprehensive picture of the current state of research and interesting avenues for future projects. Drawing on a multidisciplinary review, it identifies five key themes that together constitute research in virtual space and learning: analogies between the study of physical space and learning; socio-cultural constructivist perspectives; practical and theoretical pedagogy; architecture; and, aesthetics. Current research on how virtual space affects learning is fragmented, albeit rich. The pivotal challenge for the future is to establish a research infrastructure that can harness the richness of already existing studies, while simultaneously serving to drive, focus, and interconnect future research efforts.

Contents

Introduction
Definitions, disciplinary focus, method, and disposition
A general view of virtual space and learning
Physical space and learning
A socio–cultural constructivist view of virtual space
Virtual space, pedagogy, and learning task design
Architecture and virtual space
Aesthetics, learning, and virtual space
Discussion and conclusion

 


 

Introduction

It can be argued that the computer–mediated representations of space known as virtual reality (Rheingold, 1992), hyper–realities (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2009), synthetic worlds (Castronova, 2005), and virtual worlds (Bell, 2008) are coupled with an unusually diverse set of associations, ranging from new–and–exciting and salvation–through–technology to dot–com era, disillusionment, and the kind of conceptual aversion that is the result of overuse and hype. The many ways in which the notion of virtual space is framed in general discourse correspond to the heterogeneous scholarly discussion of virtual space and its application in entertainment, virtual education, and other areas of practice. Variety also characterizes the research area that is reviewed in the present paper: virtual learning space, or, more precisely, how virtual space may affect learning that takes place there. Virtual space and learning have been studied from numerous viewpoints, including architecture, learning task design, affordances, usability, social dynamics, learner–teacher interaction, and aesthetics.

It is exactly the diversity of the field that calls for an effort to summarize current research on how virtual space affects learning. Such an effort, if carried out carefully, will create a ‘roadmap’ for future research along with a comprehensive view of the current state of knowledge on virtual space and learning. The purpose of this paper is thus to critically review, discuss, analyze, and synthesize current research about how virtual space affects learning.

 

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Definitions, disciplinary focus, method, and disposition

Definitions

The following heuristic definitions of virtual, space, and learning serve as the point of departure for this literature review. Virtual is, in the present context, functionally defined as “facilitated by networked computers” [1]. Space is used as a generic term to denote a platform or environment where people can interact. In other words, a virtual space can be a three–dimensional virtual world like World of Warcraft (http://eu.battle.net/wow/en/) or Second Life (http://secondlife.com/), a two dimensional learning platform — for example Moodle (http://moodle.org/) — or an Internet forum (Minocha and Reeves, 2010). Despite calls for a more precise use of terminology in the domain of online learning and virtual environments (Dillenbourg, 2000; Spence, 2008), the notion of virtual space is used as an umbrella term for similar concepts such as virtual learning environment (VLE), virtual world (VW), collaborative virtual environment (CVE), and multi–user virtual environment (MUVE). This definition of virtual space also includes game space. Even though convincing arguments for the conceptual differentiation between virtual space and game space have been presented (Carr, et al., 2010; Spence, 2008), several studies have indicated that it can be highly interesting to consider game space in relation to learning (Gee, 2005, 2009; Abrams, 2009). Finally, in this paper, virtual space is conceptualized as a cultural artifact whose production, consumption, and modes of usage are intimately connected to the cultural sphere (Williams, 2007). Learning encompasses a range of related concepts and educational practices, for instance, task design, student participation and motivation, student acquisition of information, and learning outcome.

Disciplinary focus

Virtual space and its effects on learning have been studied in a variety of academic disciplines, such as perceptual and environmental psychology, pedagogy, educational studies, sociology, game studies, landscape planning, culture studies, architecture and information studies. Given the multidisciplinary nature of this research, this review has to be equally broad in order to be able to show how current research has elucidated a complex relationship between space and learning.

Method

The scientific articles that form the basis of this paper were gathered through a series of literature searches in electronic library resources at Lund University, Sweden, and Åbo Akademi University, Finland. The following keywords were used: architecture, virtual, education, learning, aesthetic, design, space, environment, second life [2]. All of the keywords were truncated and combined in various ways. The method of citation pearl growing [3] was employed to generate the keywords. Approximately 500 articles were screened and evaluated during the literature search process. Articles that were found to make a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic of this paper were selected for further review.

Disposition

Five key research themes emerged inductively from multiple readings of the studies that were discovered in the literature search process. The themes are discussed in the following order. In the first section studies of physical space and learning are reviewed. This section focuses on how research on physical learning space can illuminate the study of its virtual counterpart. The second section of the review contains a discussion of inquiries that study virtual space from a socio–cultural constructivist viewpoint. Research on virtual space, pedagogy, and learning task design is reviewed in the third section. The fourth section treats a review of studies that consider the architecture of virtual learning space. Studies of the interrelations between the concept of aesthetics, learning, and virtual space are discussed in the fifth and final section. This paper concludes with a summary and discussion of the findings of this review with recommendations for future research. First, this paper will provide a general view of virtual space and learning, aiming to provide a background for the following sections.

 

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A general view of virtual space and learning

Since its emergence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the concept and phenomenon of virtual space has undergone a tremendous change. Tightly coupled with computer and information communication technology, the advent of fast and affordable Internet connections and personal computers has allowed virtual space to be accessible not only in computer laboratories, but also in homes, schools, and workplaces (Warburton, 2009; Salmon, 2009; Spence, 2008).

The rapid development of personal computing and Internet technology has also greatly multiplied and diversified the use, uses, and usability of virtual space. There are innumerable examples of Internet–based virtual spaces that are firmly established features in the realms of entertainment, business, cultural heritage, and education. World of Warcraft has over 10 million players, according to one source (Wikipedia, 2011). On 30 August 2010, the popular Facebook application FarmVille was accessed by 17.78 million users (FarmVille, 2010). Gartner (2007) estimated that 80 percent of all active Internet users will have a presence in a virtual environment by the end of 2011. In a business context, virtual space is used for selling, advertisement, and market research (Bray and Konsynski, 2007; Mennecke, et al., 2008). Furthermore, archeologists, museum curators, and historians are using virtual space to recreate and exhibit works of art, handicrafts, and historical settings (Koller, et al., 2009).

A similar trend of increased and more varied use of virtual space is observable in education. Since virtual space was first employed to support learning in the 1980s (Kern, et al., 2008), the use of virtual space has become a fairly common element in education (Salmon, 2009; Saleeb and Dafoulas, 2010a, 2010b; Dalgarno and Lee, 2010). The perceived advantages of using virtual space in education are numerous. For example, three–dimensional virtual space is often viewed as a suitable platform for distance education (Holmberg and Huvila, 2008). This is mainly due to the many available communicative modes — and consequently, the greater potential for collaboration — in learning space: teachers and learners, represented by avatars, may interact via chat, voice, and non–verbal communication such as avatar placement and gestures (Minocha and Reeves, 2010; Abbattista, et al., 2009).

Another perceived advantage of using virtual space in education is the high degree of customizability offered by some virtual spaces like Second Life — the most widely used three–dimensional virtual space in an educational context (Minocha and Reeves, 2010; Warburton, 2009; Salmon, 2009; Deutschmann and Panichi, 2009). The plasticity of some virtual spaces enables an educator to customize a learning space to fit a specific learning activity or a certain pedagogical approach (Minocha and Reeves, 2010). In addition, since the laws of physics and other physical world occurrences can be disregarded in a virtual environment, virtual learning space can be used to visualize macroscopic and microscopic complex systems, manipulate time in a sequence of events, simulate scenarios, allow complex interactions, and create objects and content (Bouras, et al., 2005; Warburton, 2009; Salmon, 2009; Deutschmann and Panichi, 2009).

There are several documented examples of how virtual learning space has been used in various educational contexts. Virtual learning space has been applied in language teaching (Deutschmann and Panichi, 2009; Stevens, 2006; Mayrath, et al., 2007), psychiatry (Yellowlees and Cook, 2006), mathematics (Elliott and Bruckmann, 2002), medical and health education (Boulos, et al., 2007; Johnson, et al., 2009), drama (O’Toole and Dunn, 2008), art (Gaimster, 2008), and teaching students with various disabilities (Cobb and Sharkey, 2007).

It should be noted that the conception of virtual space in education, viewed as a part of the larger discourse of pedagogy and technology, is not entirely positive (e.g., Kling, 1994). Several scholars have cautioned against an uncritical juxtaposition of technology and pedagogy in the domain of education (Bruce, 1996; Colpaert, 2006; Felix, 2003). The majority of these scholars have nevertheless expressed fundamentally positive attitudes towards the implementation of new technologies in educational practice. A recurring point of view is that pedagogically informed use of technology may support and reinforce a wide range of traditional and innovative pedagogical approaches (Bruce, 1996; Osborne and Hennessy, 2003; Ciekanski and Chanier, 2008; Stockwell, 2007).

 

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Physical space and learning

Even though virtual space is becoming an increasingly common feature in education, the interrelations between virtual space properties like light, color, and acoustics and learning remain largely unexplored. However, there are many studies that have explored how the physical learning environment affects learning (Higgins, et al., 2005; Woolner, et al., 2007; Knez, 1995; Engelbrecht, 2003; Schneider, 2002; Oblinger, 2006). These studies give rise to two observations. Firstly, it is interesting to transpose the area of study from the physical to the virtual world. Secondly, the studies of the relationship between physical learning space and learning can arguably inform such research.

The effects of acoustics on learning have been thoroughly explored in, for example, cognitive psychology and it is generally held as an established fact that high levels of noise have an impact on memory, learning, and reading. In addition, research has shown that recurrent bursts of noise can lead to substantial losses of teaching time (Higgins, et al., 2005; Woolner, et al., 2007).

Lighting is another well–researched, yet highly debated, property of the physical learning space. Knez (1995) found that lighting affects the mood, long–term memory, and problem–solving ability of both male and female students. Higgins, et al. (2005) and Woolner, et al. (2007) indicated that lighting has a significant impact on general learning performance, well–being, and the health of students.

Like lighting, the effects of the colors prevalent in the learning space are a highly debated research topic. Studies have indicated that color affects mood, behavior, perceptions of room size, eye strain, and work performance (Higgins, et al., 2005; Woolner, et al., 2007; Engelbrecht, 2003). Read, et al. (1999) found that low–ceiling height and contrasts of color in the physical learning space have positive effects on pre–school children’s cooperative behavior. Engelbrecht (2003) took a more cautious stance towards the impact of color on learning, and noted that the individual’s perception of color is dependent on mood, age, and life experiences.

One of the most common features of classroom learning space is the positioning of chairs and desks of students. Research has found that individual work performance of a student is improved if desks are arranged in rows, while horseshoe arrangements of desks and chairs increase the number of student–student and teacher–student interactions (Higgins, et al., 2005; Woolner, et al., 2007).

To conclude, the current body of knowledge on the relationship between the physical learning environment and learning shows that physical learning space has an observable impact on learning in cases of extreme environmental elements, such as poor ventilation or lighting, and high levels of noise or reverberation. The significance of these factors is much harder to estimate when they reach satisfactory levels (Higgins, et al., 2005; Woolner, et al., 2007). Hence the acceptable ranges of variables such as light, air quality, and acoustics are yet to be determined (Schneider, 2002).

It should be noted that although physical and virtual learning space are two very different settings, studies of physical learning space can nevertheless inform how virtual space affects learning. For instance, buzzing microphones, distortion, reverberation, lagging voice chat, and other sound–related technical problems are likely to have effects on academic performance in virtual learning space. In other words, acoustics is probably an important factor in virtual and physical learning spaces alike. A similar line of reasoning is applicable to factors such as lighting, color, arrangement of seating and workspace.

In addition, studies of the effects of virtual and physical space on learning are faced with similar challenges. Learning space, both physical and virtual, is compounded by numerous properties, such as lighting, room size and layout, color, arrangement of furniture, and acoustics. Even though there is a consensus that learning space decidedly affects learning, the methodological question of how to perform individual analyses of the properties of space is often viewed as one of the major difficulties (Higgins, et al., 2005; Woolner, et al., 2007). Another challenge is how to include contextual factors, like individual preferences, gender, age, and cultural and socio–economical elements, in studies of space and learning (Schneider, 2002; Higgins, et al., 2005; Woolner, et al., 2007).

 

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A socio–cultural constructivist view of virtual space

A host of studies have focused on the constructiveness of virtual space — the interrelations between space, society, culture, history, and politics. Taylor (2003) argued that nothing we see on our computer screens is objective and given, everything is created; code is written, graphics are drawn, sound is recorded, and the actions available to the user are the result of conscious or unconscious design decisions. Even virtual spaces where the user is given a great degree of freedom to create objects, travel, and interact are in some sense pre–shaped. In this view, software engineering and design are activities that chisel social norms and values into virtual space and thus affect the individual user, user communities, and modes of communication that are available to them (Taylor, 2003).

In a similar vein, Clark (2010) performed a post–modern cultural analysis of how nature is represented in Second Life. Clark’s findings are, in essence, similar to those of Taylor: nature in Second Life is not natural at all, but an aggregation of imagery, connotations, and aesthetics stemming from hegemonic anthropocentric and predominantly Western views of nature. There are numerous examples of studies that lay bare the cultural, ideological, and political bias of seemingly neutral and objective virtual spaces. Book (2003) noted that three–dimensional virtual worlds often are presented and marketed as exotic travel destinations. As a consequence, the virtual space is designed to accommodate the user/tourist through an extensive use of travel and tourism metaphors such as ‘postcard’ scenery and ever–present opportunities for leisure, play, and entertainment. Opel and Smith (2004) showed that ZooTycoon, a video game where the player is put into control of a zoo, embodies a corporate view of the natural world: animals are commodified and treated as a source of entertainment and profit. Monetary gain and human expansion are the objectives of the game.

In a later study, Clark (2011) set out to explore a question of crucial importance in this area of inquiry, namely how virtual space affects our perceptions of physical space, and vice versa. Clark described the connection between virtual and physical space by stating that virtual space, regardless of any degree of phenomenological similarity, always is ontologically different from the real, physical, world. However, virtual space can be “pragmatically real” [4] in the sense that the representations of phenomena are perceived as actual and authentic.

Several other scholars have researched the relationship between the virtual and the real, and how they shape each other in various contexts (Häyrynen, 2000; Stewart and Nicholls, 2002; Patin, 1999). Stewart and Nicholls’ (2002) study of the English picturesque garden — defined as a virtual space in the article — provides an excellent example in this respect. The notion of the picturesque is, in their view, an aggregation of artistic, geographic, and political impressions that well–to–do English gathered during a kind of educational journey — known as The Grand Tour — around Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The idea of the picturesque had a great effect on garden design at the time, and thus shaped the landscape throughout Great Britain. The many picturesque gardens that were the result of this process did in turn affect what kind of scenery English citizens sought in subsequent travels, strengthening the influence of the notion of the picturesque. To sum up, virtual representations affect our perception and understanding of real–world phenomena, and the other way around.

Hence, it is an established and well–grounded fact that virtual space is neither neutral nor transparent. This has sizeable implications for learning in virtual space in the sense that it directly correlates with the inclusiveness and exclusiveness of the space itself. It is important to be mindful of what kind of power structures and biases are immanent in learning space. This way, the risk of the learning space alienating students — due to their gender, ethnicity, or age — can be avoided to a greater extent.

 

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Virtual space, pedagogy, and learning task design

The interactions of virtual space and learning have also been studied from the viewpoint of learning task design and both theoretical and practical pedagogy. These studies hold three dominant positions: firstly, the increasing use of virtual space in education necessitates the development of a theoretical and practical online pedagogy. In other words, education in virtual space invalidates the “you do what you did before approach” [5]; pedagogy intended for a traditional, physical, school environment needs to be rethought before it can be successfully applied to education in virtual space (Conole, 2008; Carr, et al., 2010; Sheehy, 2010; Deutschmann, et al., 2009; Hauck and Youngs, 2008).

Secondly, there is a consensus that every virtual space is a distinct learning environment. This implies that the design of the individual learning tasks must be attuned to the benefits and drawbacks of the virtual learning space where it will be carried out (Hampel and Hauck, 2004; Hampel, 2003, 2006; Conole, 2008; Hauck and Youngs, 2008; Carr, et al., 2010; Sheehy, 2010; Deutschmann, et al., 2009; Thomas, 2002; Khalifa and Lam, 2002; Mayrath, et al., 2007; Dickey, 2005a, 2005b).

Thirdly, academic discourse on virtual space, learning task design, and pedagogy is permeated by a social constructivist, Vygotskian, view of learning that highly values student participation, interaction, active negotiation of meaning, and communication (Warschauer, 1997; Dalgarno and Lee, 2010; Savin–Baden, 2008, Andreas, et al., 2010; Praslova–Førland, 2004; Hampel and Hauck, 2004; Hampel, 2003, 2006; Dickey, 2005a, 2005b; Conole, 2008; Carr, et al., 2010; Deutschmann, et al., 2009; Hauck and Youngs, 2008).

Another common view is that learning tasks must be designed to ensure that students attain skills required to fully utilize the modes of multimodal communication available in a virtual learning space (Deutschmann, et al., 2009; Sheehy, 2010; Hampel, 2003; Carr, et al., 2010; Katsionis and Virvou, 2004). Hauck and Youngs (2008) described such skills as a critical success factor in virtual education. Besides adjusting learning tasks to this end, Hampel and Hauck (2004) emphasized the need to provide students with easily accessible online help and support from trained staff.

In addition to generally held positions and observations described above, there are many individual studies describing how virtual space affects learning task design and pedagogy. Carr, et al. (2010) found that the fundamental challenge of online pedagogy and virtual learning task design is to handle the ambiguity of three–dimensional virtual space in a satisfactory manner. This ambiguity can be described as a comparably large number of undecided factors that are accentuated when teacher and students gather in a virtual space for educational purposes. For instance, why should the avatars of teachers and students sit in chairs? Avatars do not become exhausted from standing. Why should they even be inside virtual school facilities? Avatars do not experience notions of heat or cold. Why should the avatars of the students even be in the proximity of a teacher’s avatar? Online voice chat does not have spatial limitations.

Bayne (2008) followed a similar line of reasoning and found that the uncertainty of three–dimensional virtual space can be used to raise interesting questions of ontology and being in higher education. Sheehy (2010) suggested that educational uses of virtual learning space, if coupled with a well–grounded pedagogic approach, has potential to greatly benefit inclusive learning. For example, virtual space can provide access to physical world experiences that are denied certain students due to distance, economic hindrances, or disability (Sheehy, 2010).

 

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Architecture and virtual space

A number of scholars have based their research on the interaction between virtual space and learning on the assumption that architecture is a social object. In this view, architectural design, as a phenomenon that structures the pattern of co–presence between people and creates potential for social interaction, has a direct impact on learning (Schnädelbach, et al., 2003, 2007; Minocha and Reeves, 2010; De Lucia, et al., 2008; Bouras, et al., 2005).

Multiple studies in this specific area of inquiry have arrived at strikingly similar conclusions regarding the major educational benefits of purposefully designed virtual learning space. In other words, virtual space that is designed to accommodate a specific learning activity — such as a tearoom for informal knowledge–exchange between fellow students and a traditional classroom for lectures — may have positive effects on learning if it is compatible with the educational activity that takes place. Conversely, a virtual learning space that is ill–suited for a specific task might have adverse effects (Praslova–Førland, 2004; Praslova–Førland, et al., 2006; Bronack, et al., 2008; Minocha and Reeves, 2010; De Lucia, et al., 2008).

Following this line of reasoning, Praslova–Førland, et al. (2006) claimed that the architectural design of a virtual campus should manifest the pedagogy–related features of a given university in order to encourage a desired educational approach among students and staff. De Lucia, et al. (2008) supported this notion, and found that a virtual campus in Second Life, whose design was informed by a constructivist, socio–cultural understanding of learning, increase peer–to–peer interaction, group work, and communication, facilitating sharing of knowledge and experience among students. In addition, both Molka–Danielsen, et al. (2009) and Minocha and Reeves (2010) found that learning space that functionally resembles its physical counterpart — e.g., a classroom for lectures — was helpful for students who are unfamiliar with learning in a virtual environment.

Scholars have also studied the connection between the architectural design of virtual learning space and the sense of place. Sense of place is a concept used in a variety of ways in humanistic and social science academic discourses. Semken and Freeman (2008) described place as a space “imbued with meaning by human experience” [6]. Harrison and Dourish (1996) offered a somewhat more comprehensive definition in stating that a place is invariably infused by “social meaning, convention, cultural understandings about role, function and nature and so on” [7].

In an educational context, sense of place has been viewed as something that enhances learning (Semken and Freeman, 2008; Harrison and Dourish, 1996; Clark and Maher, 2001; Stevenson, 2008). Clark and Maher (2001) argued that architecture plays an important role in the creation of a sense of place. Thus, a virtual learning space that provides a meaningful environment, and the tools and facilities required for collaboration and communication, might enable students to create a sense of place beneficial to learning (Clark and Maher, 2001). Studies have shown that sense of place is positively correlated to the mood induced by the virtual space — that is to say, a virtual space that is perceived as beautiful is more likely to be a ‘place’ in the above sense (Riva, et al., 2007). Furthermore, it has been indicated that the experience of virtual space — in terms of beauty, interest, perceived room size, satisfaction, et cetera — is connected to the spatial properties and individual architectural elements, for example building style and seating arrangements, of that space (Franz, et al., 2005; Saleeb and Dafoulas, 2010a, 2010b). It should however be noted that the aforementioned effects of architectural design vary according to individual differences such as age (Saleeb and Dafoulas, 2010a, 2010b).

As we have seen, many scholars have begun to explore the effects of virtual space architecture on learning. In their literature review of the affordances of three–dimensional virtual space, Delagarno and Lee (2010) nevertheless concluded that best–practice design principles for virtual learning space, and the possible educational benefit of architectural design, are in need of further research.

 

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Aesthetics, learning, and virtual space

Aesthetics is an essentially subjective, multifaceted concept that originated in eighteenth century philosophy (Shelley, 2009; Zangwill, 2009). The concept of aesthetics is most frequently found in literary studies, visual arts, and philosophy, although its pliability and usefulness have allowed it to be successfully employed as an analytical tool in many other academic disciplines as well. There is no single definition of aesthetics, but it can be described as a concept that seeks to crystallize human perception and sensation (Gigliotti, 1995), often in terms of beauty (Jacobsen, et al., 2004; Shelley, 2009; Zangwill, 2009; Carlson, 2009). The nature of the aesthetic judgment is as diverse as the definition of the term itself. An aesthetic judgment can be ascribed to the complexity, novelty, familiarity, or artistic style of the perceived object itself, or to contextual evolutionary, cultural, historical, cognitive, neuro–biological, emotional, or situational factors (Jacobsen, et al., 2004; Swonke, 2000). The concept of aesthetics has informed, for example, the study of organizational performance in organizational studies (Weggeman, et al., 2007), employee satisfaction and motivation in business studies (Bjerke, et al., 2007), and knowledge organization and relevance in library and information science (Huvila, 2010; Reuter, 2007).

Several scholars have perceived aesthetics as a valuable perspective in educational research. MacIntyre Latta (2000) argued that the concept of aesthetics could be used to guide the development of a new collaborative pedagogy, designed to promote intuitive responses, divergent solutions, non–linear learning, experimentation, and peer interactions. Parrish (2007) claimed that learning has an intrinsic aesthetic dimension: every meaningful learning experience will, according to Parrish, have notable aesthetic qualities in the sense that it is experienced as immersive, coherent, and complete. Thus, aesthetics can be advantageously used to inform learning activity design.

Additionally, a number of studies have explored how the aesthetics of virtual space affects learning. Some scholars argue that the realistic aesthetic of some three–dimensional virtual spaces can be utilized to efficiently convey information about the physical world (Lange, 2001; Orland, et al., 2001; Deutschmann, et al., 2009; Johnson and Levine, 2008; Daniel and Meitner, 2001; Slagen–de Kort, et al., 2001; De Lucia, et al., 2008; Minocha and Reeves, 2010). For instance, Deutschmann, et al. (2009) argued that a virtual space with a sufficiently high degree of realism can be used to successfully support certain kinds of educational tasks, such as giving a presentation in an oral proficiency language course. Hence, a virtual learning space that provides realistic surroundings and bodily representation of the speaker, teacher, and fellow students, gives a feeling of authenticity, increasing performance in real life.

Minocha and Reeves (2010) argued that realistic aesthetics is a prerequisite for the successful simulation of historical and contemporary scenarios in a virtual learning space. However, this view is contested. Andreas, et al. (2010) claimed that the use of real world metaphors — for example a realistic aesthetic — in itself never enhances learning in a virtual space. Büscher, et al. (2001) found that mimicry of real world phenomena can actually serve to limit the usefulness of virtual learning space, primarily because it obscures the full potential of the medium. Further, Dalgarno and Lee (2010) asserted that the correlation between environmental fidelity and learning benefits is largely unsupported by empirical studies.

 

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Discussion and conclusion

This paper examined how the effects of virtual space on learning have been treated in current research, providing a comprehensive picture of contemporary scholarship and interesting avenues for future studies. This was done through a literature review in the fields of architecture, culture studies, psychology, educational studies, information studies, and pedagogy. Five key research themes were identified. Table 1 summarizes the findings of this review together with related work.

 

Table 1: Summary of literature on the effects of virtual space on learning.
Key themeFindingsRelated work
Physical space and learning
  • The various properties of physical learning space, like lighting, acoustics, noise, color, seating arrangements, etc., have an effect on learning.
  • Research on how physical space affects learning can inform the study of virtual learning space. It should, however, be noted that some of the findings have been disputed, and that physical and virtual space are two distinct phenomena in many ways.
Higgins, et al., 2005; Woolner, et al., 2007; Knez, 1995; Engelbrecht, 2003; Read, et al., 1999; Schneider, 2002; Oblinger, 2006
A socio–cultural constructivist view of virtual space
  • Virtual space is culturally, politically, and socially biased.
  • Virtual space affects our perception and understanding of physical phenomena and the other way around. Thus the immanent biases of virtual learning spaces may have sizable implications for the inclusiveness and exclusiveness of the space itself.
Taylor, 2003; Clark, 2010, 2011; Book, 2003; Open and Smith, 2004; Häyrynen, 2000; Patin, 1999; Stewart and Nicholls, 2002
Virtual space, pedagogy, and learning task design
  • The increased use of virtual space necessitates the development of a theoretical and practical online pedagogy.
  • The design of learning tasks must be attuned to the benefits and drawbacks of the virtual space where it will be carried out.
  • Learning tasks must be designed to make sure that students attain the skills required to fully utilize the modes of multimodal communication available in virtual space.
  • The ambiguity and uncertainty of virtual spaces presents a major pedagogic challenge, but can nevertheless be used to support innovative approaches to learning.
  • Social constructivist, Vygotskian views of learning have a strong influence on the academic discourse on virtual space, pedagogy, and learning task design.
Deutschmann, et al., 2009; Conole, 2008; Carr, et al., 2010; Sheehy, 2010; Hauck and Youngs, 2008; Hampel and Hauck, 2004; Hampel, 2006, 2003; Thomas, 2002; Khalifa and Lam, 2002; Mayrath, et al., 2007; Dickey, 2005a, 2005b; Katsionis and Virvou, 2004; Bayne, 2008; Warschauer, 1997; Dalgarno and Lee, 2010; Savin–Baden, 2008; Andreas, et al., 2010; Praslova–Førland, 2004
Architecture and virtual space
  • The architecture of virtual space is a social object and as such affects learning.
  • Virtual space designed for a specific activity may have positive effects on learning if it is compatible with the educational activity that takes place in that space.
  • Virtual space architecture plays an important role in supporting the emergence of a “sense of place” among students, which is beneficual for learning.
  • The experience of virtual space — in terms of beauty, satisfaction and interestingness — is connected to the spatial properties and architectural elements of the space.
Schnädelbach, et al., 2007; Schnädelbach, et al., 2003; Minocha and Reeves, 2010; De Lucia, et al., 2008; Bouras, et al., 2005; Praslova–Førland, 2004; Praslova–Førland, et al., 2006; Bronack, et al., 2008; Semken and Freeman, 2008; Harrison and Dourish, 1996; Clark and Maher, 2001; Stevenson, 2008; Riva, et al., 2007; Franz, et al., 2005
Aesthetics, learning, and virtual space
  • The concept of aesthetics is applicable to educational research and many other disciplines and can be used to further the development of pedagogy and learning task design.
  • The aesthetics of virtual space may be utilized efficiently to convey information about the physical work in an educational context. However, this view has been contested.
Shelley, 2009; Zangwill, 2009; Gigliotti, 1995; Jacobsen, et al., 2004; Carlson, 2009; Weggeman, 2007; Bjerke, et al., 2007; Huvila, 2010; Reuter, 2007; MacIntyre Latta, 2000; Parrish, 2007; Lange, 2001; Orland, et al., 2001; Deutschmann, et al., 2009; Johnson and Levine, 2008; Daniel and Meitner, 2001; Slagen–de Kort, et al., 2001; De Lucia, et al., 2008; Minocha and Reeves, 2010; Büscher, et al., 2001; Dalgarno and Lee, 2010

 

The increasing use of virtual space in education suggests that the effects of virtual space on learning are an important area for continued research. However, as indicated by Table 1, the current state of knowledge on how virtual space affects learning is fragmented, albeit rich.

The disparate modes of thinking about virtual space and learning in current research is also evident in varied research opportunities that emerge in this review: the first section of the review, where research on the effects of physical space on learning were discussed, indicates the need for future research on how virtual space properties like light, room size, color, and sound, affect learning. The findings of these studies should be related to research on physical space and learning in order to contribute to an understanding of the specific ways in which physical and virtual learning space are distinct. Another important task for future research is the need to develop methods that allow contextual factors to be understood.

Inquiries employing a socio–cultural constructivist view in the study of virtual space and learning were reviewed in the second section of this paper. An important future research task is to use the findings and perspectives of these studies to inform the construction of a contextually oriented, conceptual framework of virtual learning spaces that could analyze the effects of innate political, cultural, and social biases of virtual space on learning.

The third section of the paper contained a review of inquiries studying pedagogy and learning task design in relation to virtual space. Further research should focus on developing an online pedagogy aiming to illuminate both practical and theoretical dimensions of learning and teaching in a virtual space setting. For example, how should learning tasks be designed in order to account for features in specific virtual spaces? Which methods should be developed to handle ambiguity and uncertainty in virtual learning spaces?

The studies that were discussed in the fourth section of the review focused on the architecture of virtual space and its effects on learning. It is important that future research in this area develops design principles and, ultimately, best practices for architectural design of virtual learning spaces.

Of the various kinds of research that have been reviewed in this paper, the study of aesthetics — discussed in the fifth and final section of this paper — appears to be an especially interesting area to explore in future research. This assertion is motivated in part by the current lack of sufficient knowledge (Udsen and Jørgensen, 2005; Delagarno and Lee, 2010) and the need for further understanding of how aesthetic aspects of virtual space affect learning. The principal reason is, however, the many interesting views of aesthetics and its possible applications in research, put forward by scholars in the field. These views will almost certainly prove to yield most interesting results when applied to the study of virtual learning space and learning. The following suggestions of possible directions for further research on aesthetics, learning, and virtual space may prove to be fruitful:

  • It has been suggested that the aesthetics of virtual space is something innately different than the aesthetics of physical space (Gullström, 2006). It is of great interest, from both a theoretical and practical point of view, to develop a new conceptual framework to enable a better understanding of virtual space aesthetics.

  • Studies have also indicated that an aesthetic perspective on product design processes promotes the design of commodities that quickly gain meaningful ‘presence’ in the daily life of the consumer (Hallnäs and Redström, 2002). An interesting avenue for research is to explore whether a similar viewpoint can inform the architectural design of virtual learning space, and ultimately serve to enhance students’ sense of place.

  • Some scholars have stressed the communicative aspect of aesthetics (Folkmann, 2009). Future studies of virtual space and learning should investigate how the aesthetic dimension of virtual space architecture can be used to manifest ideas or content to enhance the virtual educational environment.

  • The concept of aesthetics has sometimes been linked to ethics (Gigliotti, 1995, 2000). It would surely enrich the research framework to partake in this particular philosophical discourse, in order to delineate the relationship between aesthetics and ethics in the architectural design of virtual learning space.

  • It has been asserted that “good” video games have many qualities — such as being immersive and motivating — that have considerable positive effects on learning [8]. Future research of virtual space and learning should explore how game space aesthetics can be used to derive virtual learning space design principles.

To conclude, the pivotal challenge for research in virtual space and learning is to define a research infrastructure that can harness the richness of already existing studies — like those reviewed above — and at the same time serve to drive, focus, and interconnect future research. Additionally, systematic empirical exploration across the entire breadth of research is needed in order to attain results that can be generalized and hence used as a unifying starting point for further inquiries. This review can be viewed as a first attempt to go beyond the piecemeal character of current research on virtual space and learning and articulate a new area of multidisciplinary Internet research. End of article

 

About the author

Olle Sköld is a doctoral student at the Department of Information Studies, School of Business and Economics, Åbo Akademi University, Finland, and an adjunct in Archival Science at the Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences, Lund University, Sweden.
E–mail: olle [dot] skold [at] abo [dot] fi

 

Acknowledgements

This paper was made possible by financial support from the Avoimet Verkostot Oppimiseen (AVO) project.

 

Notes

1. Bell, 2008, p. 3f.

2. The electronic resources used for this literature review are comprised of the following article databases: ABI/Inform, ACS, AIP, ASCE, ASME, BioMed Central, Blackwell, Cambridge Journals, DOAJ, EBSCO archive material, EBSCO, EMERALD, IDUNN, IEEE, IOP, JSTOR, Karger, Kluwer, Mary Ann Liebert, Nature, Oxford Journals, Project MUSE, Sage, ScienceDirect, Springer, Taylor and Francis, Telford, Wiley, arXiv, Caltech’s, Cogprints, University of Duisburg, ARTO, E–LIS Eprints for LIS, ebrary, Elektra, Intute, Intute: Humanities, Library and Information Science Abstracts, SAGE Journals Online, Virtuella referenser — Biblioteksväsen, Web of Science, Europa World of Learning, and Encyclopedia of Database Systems. Additional information about these databases can be found at the following Web sites: http://libhub.sempertool.dk.ludwig.lub.lu.se/libhub and http://www.nelliportaali.fi/.

3. Ramer, 2005.

4. Clark, 2011, p. 149.

5. Svensson, in Deutschmann, et al., 2009, p. 207.

6. Semken and Freeman, 2008, p. 1,042.

7. Harrison and Dourish, 1996, p. 3.

8. Gee, 2005, p. 5.

 

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Editorial history

Received 24 March 2011; revised 7 November 2011; accepted 10 December 2011.


Copyright © 2012, First Monday.
Copyright © 2012, Olle Sköld.

The effects of virtual space on learning: A literature review
by Olle Sköld.
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 1 - 2 January 2012
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/3496/3133
doi:10.5210/fm.v17i1.3496





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