The researchers compare the effectiveness of e-learning when done in a virtual world as opposed to a traditional e-learning environment such as a text-based online classroom or videoconference. During their study, they found that virtual worlds are better suited for effective e-learning collaboration than text based e-learning environments. The study found that the mean value for the performance of participants in the virtual world learning environment was better than that of the traditional in person learning environment and that of the traditional, text based e-learning environment.
The researchers identified key requirements for a learning environment to be successful, one of which being that group members must get to know each other to promote successful collaboration. In their research they found users are able to successfully “get to know” each other via avatar representations. This is relevant to the current project in that it supports the hypothesis that patients will be able to form supportive groups in the virtual hospital environment without relying on a traditional face-to-face meeting.
The authors of the study also noted the importance of mapping social presence cues in virtual environments to the real-life cues in order to positively affect social presence. This suggests that inclusion of non-verbal cues into the game-play to allow for a more strongly felt sense of social presence, which is likely a necessary component to a successful support group for patients. The authors noted that one way of achieving this is to program non-verbal social cues into the avatars that are triggered by actions such as proximity to others or targeted dialogue. This will allow for those in the virtual world to feel as though their presence is being acknowledged, and will hopefully increase their engagement with others. The use of gestures will act as signals to the users to signify that they are receiving attention from other users, or avatars within the game. The authors note “visual contact directly affects the way a user interacts with others within a virtual environment.”
In regards to establishing a sense of social presence, the authors also note that a user’s sense of social presence and belonging is dependent upon their perception of interactions with other users. This is to say that a user will have a stronger sense of social presence if they perceive themselves to be a valued group member. The authors explain that the virtual world must be designed to promote a sense of group presence, which they regard as a precondition for social presence.
The authors found that presence is an important component in virtual environments, and explain that presence can be defined as the “user’s psychological state of being in the virtual environment rather than in a real-world location.” The idea of presence in the context of the current project is slightly different than a traditional virtual environment, because the virtual hospital is closer to the user who is in the hospital than a traditional abstract virtual game environment. The intents of the current project are to allow a patient to explore the facility they located, and become more educated in regards to the hospital as a whole, instead of being limited by physical segmentation and proximity.
The authors also note a key aspect to creating a successful virtual environment is creating a “flow,” a term they define as “a psychological state of enjoyment and satisfaction and a sense of control associated with highly focused attention on a task.” The authors explain that when flow has been achieved, a user becomes so immersed in the activity that their awareness of external stimuli fades. When they are given control over their virtual actions, they are provided with a simulated sense of control over the situation, which could have a very significant impact on the mood and recovery of a patient. They also explain that flow is associated with a high level of engagement, which is a component of medical care that health care professionals are constantly attempting to improve. The authors note that engagement in a virtual environment can be increased by designing an environment that allows users to express themselves through the experience, which lends itself well to the benefits of an active support group.
Franceschi, K., Lee, R., Zanakis, S., & Hinds, D. (2009). Engaging Group E-Learning in Virtual Worlds. Journal of Management Information Systems, 26(1), 73-100. doi:10.2753/MIS0742-1222260104