Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Collaborative Virtual Environments: Potential and Actual Democratic Learning Tools.

This is a paper I've just written about community education and the future:

“To have an idea of a thing is thus not just to get certain sensations from it. It is to be able to respond to the thing in view of its place in an inclusive scheme of action: it is to foresee the drift and probable consequences of the action of the thing upon us and of our action upon it.”
John Dewey Democracy and Education (1916)

Online interactive virtual environments provide a space for education and a resource environment for cooperative accessible learning which is consistent with concepts of democratic constructivist learning.

Since the beginning of 2003 I have been involve with technology as computers and education in a number of contexts. Primarily as a student but as the last 12 months have progressed I began working with what could be termed research and experimentation with modes of technology as means for delivering, depicting and exchanging information. One mode of presentation and delivery of information with technology I have employed has been in three dimensional collaborative virtual environments (CVE’s):

A CVE is a computer-based, distributed, virtual space or set of places. In such places, people can meet and interact with others, with agents or with virtual objects. CVEs might vary in their representational richness from 3D graphical spaces, 2.5D and 2D environments, to text-based environments. Access to CVEs is by no means limited to desktop devices, but might well include mobile or wearable devices, public kiosks, etc. (Churchill, E. F. et. al. 2002: 1)

These can be termed ‘Avatar Worlds’, after the embodied virtual forms used to create a physical presence in the environment by the user. In this paper I wish to briefly examine some of the issues raised by these as potential and actual learning tools in relations to some of the theories and ideas of Dewey, Friere, Mutch, Carr and Hartnett.

A Picture of an Inworld meeting in progress

Technology is often viewed as a product of efficient capitalist societies. I would argue that global and national access to technology is governed by similar structures to the political agendas and powerful interests which attempt and often succeed to direct and control educational access, content, theory and curriculum as described by the above mentioned theorists and education providers. Unequal distribution of technological resources exists in even the richest nations (Dodge & Kitchen 2001) and it usually does so alongside unequal access to education. The cost of production of mass market technology, such as personal computers is not reflected in direct terms by the price of the unit at point of sale. The relatively short life span of newly purchased computers in the Group of 8 nations due to perceived redundancy (2-4 years) created by market hegemony results in a waste of resources and the maintained unequal distribution of technology on the global scale. The figures for the United States alone in regard to this are staggering:

"In 1998, of the 20 million computers taken out of service, only 2.3 million, which is slightly more than 10%, were recycled. Between 2000 and 2007, as many as 500 million personal computers will become obsolete."
(U.S. Environment Protection Agency)

This waste of technological resources is a waste of educational resources and a denial of the interrelated structure of a globalizing economic system and the associated educational responsibilities carried by so-called developed nations. In a deliciously ironic situation it is education which could assist in the more democratic and equal allocation of these resources. I believe just as access to democratic forms of technology is determined by distribution of resources, access to education is determined by distribution of resources, usually along such identifiable demographics as geographic location, gender, socio-economic and ethno-cultural classifications. Control systems established around the development and distribution of technology are also restrictions on the access those not represented in the making of those laws have to the technology (e.g. patent, copyright, intellectual property). How market hegemony dictates the structure and development of global technology is in a sense how we develop a material form of a “socialized extension of intelligence”:

"The indictments that are drawn against the intelligence of individuals are in truth indictments of a social order that does not permit the average individual to have access to the rich store of accumulated wealth of mankind in knowledge, ideas and purpose….It is useless to about the future of democracy until the source of its failure has been grasped and steps taken to bring about the type of social organization that will encourage the socialized extension of intelligence.” (Dewey quoted in Carr and Hartnett 1996: 56)

As an example from my own indirect experience the development and implementation of culturally appropriate institutional education to resident females in isolated rural Aboriginal communities in Australia has been extremely problematic. This is an area of solution that I am extremely interested in and one I believe access to technology as constructivist educational tool is relevant.

As a tool for production of media the computer is bound up in the same dialogue structures which Friere speaks of when he describes the necessity for the naming of the world to be a possibility for all. A computer is a formulation, composition and broadcast device where learnt skills in its use are the expertise in crafting a dialogue be it visual, written, or as film or multimedia:

Dialogue is the encounter between men, mediated by the world, in order to name the world. Hence dialogue cannot occur between those who want to name the world and those who do not wish this naming- between those who deny others the right to speak their word and those whose right to speak has been denied them. (Freire 1996: 69)

In February 2003 I had begun working in HUMlab, a humanist computer laboratory at Umeå University on the Virtual Weddings Project as part of my C level essay for English Literature. This was an online project where a 3D world was built in a program called ActiveWorlds in conjunction with a series of online essays (Literature, Culture, and Linguistics) and each reflected the content and thematics of the others. In this project it was understood that:

"Cultural Studies serves as a natural link between Linguistics and Literature. The virtual environment serves as a facilitator and as a creative arena where students build things together - thus engaging in both concrete and abstract virtual construction."
From the website at

A Detail of my construction inworld

In March 2003 I attended a seminar at HUMlab by the visiting American scholar technician and educationalist Bonnie DeVarco entitled Education Innovation. DeVarco is concerned with the implementation of educational resources to, among others, marginalized minorities in the south western United States and this is done through computer based open source technology. In her written works she describes the advantages of working with CVEs as being cheap, adaptable, flexible, student driven, cooperative, international, creative, and:

"Through new technologies for information visualization, collaboration and ubiquitous computing, education technology has opened the doors to international and multicultural collaboration and sharing of resources….In the recent ThinkQuestLIVE 2002 conference that brought students and educators from dozens of countries together to explore the future of learning, one of the key issues expressed by participants was the need for a community-based learning environment for global education and communication."
Bonnie DeVarco at

During the last year I have been directly involved in three formats of CVE: ActiveWorlds, Adobe Atmosphere, and Online Traveler. As a participant in each of these worlds it is free to download and visit the virtual spaces where one can ‘meet’ others, chat (Traveler is a live voice chat), view media (video, still images, sound), read material, negotiate 3D structures (an example being the paintings of van Gough in Atmosphere) or participate in virtual classrooms or conference sessions. All can be run on telephone modem technology with ActiveWorlds and Traveler both being more than ten years old. Although the property of server and the role of manufacturer as source are asserted with each of these platforms they are all open access in the sense that communication or dialogue and visual space is free. For ActiveWorlds a small monthly charge (approx $US12) during the building period is required if one wishes to ‘found’ a world and build interactive structures in it. After the building time period is over the content of the world is maintained by ActiveWorlds and any users can visit the space. Adobe Atmosphere Builder is sold at an ‘educational’ price ($US90) to approved bodies as a network license and the user must find hosting for the online worlds themselves without further charge from Adobe. Traveler is free to download and is a 3D avatar program where sound operates in real time with facially responsive avatars. To my knowledge it is primarily being used as a language teaching and conference platform but there have been art exhibitions, musical performances and poetry readings inworld.

Obviously CVE’s are not a replacement for ‘real world’ education, but they can provide a component of that education and overcome some of the problems found in contempory educational systems. One of the great strengths of CVE’s as a constructivist learning tool is the ‘play’ factor involved. The virtual environments as constructed by the students circumvents many of the spatial power constructs found in many long term classroom designs with the teacher in a raised position at the front of the room while students are self-arranged in a hierarchy of interest, sitting in rows facing the black or white board, and as to quote a school teacher I had once: “Windows are not to be looked out of during class!”. The computer is a metaphorical window and a portal to the libraries and universities of the world. Even in economically underdeveloped countries the appeal of computer mediated environments is large. An example could be Uzbekistan, where for the year 2003 it is estimated more than 270,000 people are using the net in the region, compared to 137,000 for 2002 (BBC News). This increase in access should be seen as a part of the structure which allows for general global access to resources and thereby education. I see this situation as equitable with the dictum that: “Pedagogically it requires participation rather than instructional teaching methods in order to cultivate the skills and attitudes which democratic deliberation requires.”(Carr & Hartnett 1996: 44).

Clearly there is a long way to go in this democratic delivery of technological based educational systems to the oppressed and the unrepresented. It has begun and it will continue despite the difficulties, but as reflected by Mutch, the history has already been one of struggle:

"The first era highlights the tensions between indigenous culture and the colonizers in the nineteenth century. The second outlines the tension between the traditional conservatives and the liberal progressives for most of the twentieth century. The final era is that of tension between the new right and the liberal left from the 1980’s to the present." (C Mutch 2000:4)


Carr W. and Hartnett A.: 1996, Education and the Struggle for Democracy: The Politics of Educational Ideas, Open University Press, Buckingham.

Churchill E. F. Snowden D. N. and Munro A. J. (Eds.): 2002, Collaborative Virtual Environments: Digital Places and Spaces for Interaction, Springer, London

Dewey. J.: 1916, Democracy and Education, Encyclopedia of the Self at

Dodge, M. and Kitchin, R.: 2001, Mapping Cyberspace, Routledge, London.

Friere P.:1993, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Penguin London.

Örnberg T.: 2003, Why Computers? Constructivist Language Learning on the Internet, Degree Thesis, Dept. of Modern Languages, Umeå University.

Related URL’s:

Bonnie DeVarco:


My Experience:

Weddings Project:


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