MET:3D Virtual Learning Environments

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This page was originally authored by Paul Darvasi (2008). The page was edited by Sean McMinn (2009)

Main Characteristic of 3D Virtual Learning Environments

In light of improving technology and increased access to technology, educators, scholars, academics and learning communities are turning to three-dimensional virtual learning environments (3D VLE) as powerful and productive instructional design spaces. Nonis (2005) explains that “where a 3D virtual technology is used to create an immersive and interactive environment to facilitate or aid learning, this is known as 3D virtual learning environment” (p. 1).

Dickey (2003) defines 3D VLEs as networked, desktop virtual reality that provide three basic components: The illusion of 3D space, avatars that serve as visual representations of user and interactive chat environment for users to communicate with one another. Additionally, some objects in the environment should respond to user action, and 3D audio enhances the sense of immersion (Delgarno, 2002). These virtual spaces can be MUVEs (multi-user virtual environments) or single user (Nonis 2005).

3D VLEs are described as "desktop" by Dickey (2003) to distinguish them from what Bryson (1992) calls immersive virtual environments. Immersive virtual environments allow users to directly interact with computer-generated objects themselves without the mediation of mice, keyboards and/or buttons (p. 1.1). Although immersive virtual environments may hold even greater educational potential, they allow for limited accessibility due to the state-of-the-art technology necessary to deploy them. However absorbing and realistic, 3D VLE’s do not literally immerse users, but only provide the illusion of immersion as they are merely three-dimensional representations depicted on screens and monitors.

3D Virtual Learning Environments and Constructivism

Some educators and researchers are advocating how 3D VLEs utilize constructivist learning principles. Constructivist learning involves knowledge building or “actively interpreting and constructing individual knowledge representations” (Jonassen, 1991, p.5). Constructivist values relevant to 3D VLEs include:

  • Learning is driven by ill-defined and ill-structured problems, questions, cases or projects;
  • Active resolution of authentic problems and learning goal encourage “ownership” by the learners;
  • Understanding is developed through interaction/experience in authentic learning environment;
  • Knowledge evolves through social negotiation and collaborative learning; and
  • Learners are aided by scaffolding and “just in time” information.

Research suggests that 3D VLEs utilizes simulations to create environments for a learner to participate in simulations where they can explore the observable world and abstract concepts. It is also suggested that 3D VLEs allow learners to participate in authentic activities, “but with the use of scaffolding provided by teachers and peers” (Burton, 2008).

Ownership and Ill-Defined Problems

3D VLEs afford flexibility and individuated learning, facilitating the exploration of open-ended problems, questions, cases and projects. Jonassen (1999) adds that “virtual reality may become the default method for representing problems soon.” (p. 221). Learners can undertake a variety of pedagogically driven tasks, which might include exploring, constructing, fulfilling quests or missions, or interacting with learning objects and simulations. Some researchers suggest that the freedom and decision making potential afforded by 3D VLEs encourages learners to take responsibility for their own learning, as they can actively choose paths, objects and define their own learning outcomes (Burton; Jonassen; Raunch; Ruzhitskaya).

Collaboration and Situated Learning

Collaborating in the Lab

The illusion of immersion and embodiment in 3D VLEs induce learners to feel like they are performing or “doing” in lifelike environments. The ability to collaboratively situate students in environments and contexts unavailable within the classroom, corresponds to what Barab & Duffy (2000) call situated learning, or “the perspective that knowledge is situated through experience” (p. 25). Learners can test theories by developing alternative realities. This greatly facilitates the mastery of difficult concepts, “for example the relation between distance, motion, and time or abstract science concepts” (Yair, Mintz, & Litvak, 2001, 304).

3D VLEs can be networked, creating a shared space for physically distant learners to meet, engage and collaborate. Tasks can be carried out in tandem and geographically separated users can meet in virtual spaces through their avatars. Kalay (2003) explains that “Virtual places afford group learning, of the kind enjoyed by students gathered in a (physical) classroom, lab, or library, where they ‘know’ they are in a communal space, are aware of the social process of learning, and affected by the presence and behavior of their fellow students” (p. 3). Communities of Practice emerge as learners collaborate and work in environments that model those of real world or real life practitioners.


Elements of Scaffolding

3D VLEs provide an ideal context in which to embed cognitive and collaborative support tools to scaffold and guide learning. A central constructivist concept is Lev Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) which defines the gap between where the learner currently resided and the learner’s potential for development. In order to bridge that gap, Jonassen (1999) proposes scaffolding as temporary framework to support the learner when operating beyond their capacity. According to Jonassen (1999), this can be accomplished in three ways:

  • Adjusting task difficulty.
  • Restructure a task to supplant knowledge.
  • Provide alternative assessments.

Delgarno (2002) suggests that scaffolding strategies can be implemented in 3D VLEs in a number of ways:

  • As a system-based help facility activated by the learner, possibly sensitive to the context of the task being undertaken.
  • As an intelligent agent with a visual representation within the environment, acting as a guide to the learner.
  • Through support tools that help the learner undertake tasks, such as calculators, graphing tools or language translators.

This type of scaffolding could either exist alongside the 3D environment or embedded realistically within it. Increasingly sophisticated intelligent tutoring systems can also be employed to aid saffolding in 3D VLEs.

Links to 3D Virtual Learning Environments


Barab, S., & Duffy, T. (2000). From practice fields to communities of practice. In D. Jonnasen and S. Land (Eds.), Theoretical foundations of learning environments. Mahweh, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Bryson, S. (1992). Survey on the virtual environment technologies & techniques. Retrieved April 4, 2005 from:
Burton, B. (2008). Collaboration and the Use of Three Dimensional Interface within a Virtual Learning Environment and the Impact of Communication and Learning: a case study. Retrieved January 23, 2008 from
Dalgarno, B. (2002). The potential of 3D virtual learning environments: A constructivist analysis. Electronic Journal of Instructional Science and Technology, 5(2). Retrieved February 8th, 2008 from:
Dede, C. (1995). The evolution of constructivist learning environments: Immersion in distributed virtual worlds. Educational Technology, 35(5), 46–52.
Dickey, M.D. (2003). Teaching IN 3D: Affordances and constraints of 3D virtual worlds for synchronous distance learning. Distance Education 24(1), 105-121. Retrieved February 15th, 2008 from
Jonassen, D. H. (1999). Designing constructivist learning environments. In C. Reigluth (Ed.), Instructional design theories and models: Volume II. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Jonassen, D.H. (1991). Objectivism versus constructivism: Do we need a new philosophical paradigm? Educational Technology Research and Development, 39(3), 5-14.
Kalay, Yehuda, E. (2004). Virtual learning environments. ITcon 9. Retrived on February 15th, 2008 from:
Nonis, D. (2005). “3D virtual learning environments (3D VLE)”, Ministry of Education, Singapore 2005. Retrieved February 15th, 2008 from:
Rauch, U. (2008). Who owns this space anyway? The Arts 3D VL Metaverse as a network of imagination. Retrieved January 23, 2008 from
Ruzhitskaya, L. & Speck, A. (2008). Impact of Spatial and Social Presence on Learning in Virtual Learning Environments. In Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2008 (pp. 5379-5388). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved January 23, 2008 from
Yair, Y., Mintz, R., & Litvak, S. (2001). 3-D virtual reality in science education: An implication for astronomy teaching. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Education 20 (3). Retrieved February 20th, 2008 from: