Explaining how students can learn the dispositional components of physical world actions by performing virtual world actions
Virtual worlds are an important educational technology for professional education because they enable students to take actions in a safe, simulated environment while adopting specific professional roles. For example, medical students can role-play as doctors in a virtual hospital built in Second Life and practise taking such physical world actions as examining patients, ordering laboratory tests, and prescribing medicines in the form of their virtual character or avatar. This bridging between the classroom and the workplace is especially important in universities where learning experiences may lack relevance to the workplace. A major problem in the research literature is that virtual worlds are often conceived as platforms that offer students hands-on, tangible learning experiences that somehow involve their physical hand and body, even though students are controlling their avatar by merely pressing buttons. This is a problem because it is unclear how students might learn to perform physical world actions by performing the corresponding virtual world action. For example, it is unclear how pressing the Examine Abdomen button to examine a patient’s abdomen in a virtual hospital might help students learn the physical world action of physically palpating a human patient’s abdomen in an actual hospital. Intuitively, it seems unlikely that students can learn to physically palpate a human patient’s abdomen by pressing a button. An explanation of this learning process is needed because the conception that virtual worlds offer students physical hands-on learning experiences requires clarification and because educators need to know which learning outcomes virtual worlds can be best used for. Without such an explanation, it is unclear whether students can or cannot learn to take physical world actions via virtual world role-plays. In this thesis, an explanation of how students can learn to take physical world actions by performing virtual world actions was developed in two ways. First, a systematic literature review was conducted to identify all current learning theories underpinning empirical studies on virtual worlds for education from 2008 to 2015. This information-gathering phase focussed on learning theories because learning theories provide a set of principles that explain how learning takes place. Second, a philosophical inquiry was conducted to evaluate to what extent the explanations provided by the theories could explain the learning of physical world actions in virtual worlds. Following an examination of the assumptions underlying these theories, no theoretical explanation was found that plausibly explains how students can learn to take physical world actions such as palpating a patient’s abdomen by performing virtual world actions. Current explanations imply that students gain a physical experience of the physical world action when they perform the corresponding virtual world action. This explanation is implausible because students do not perform the virtual world action with the same physical movements as when they perform the physical world action, and hence are unlikely to gain the physical experience of the physical world action. This thesis uses a conceptual methodology to develop an alternative explanation by relating John Austin’s speech act theory to the performance of virtual world actions. When certain conditions are met and certain social conventions are present, a particular virtual world action can mean the same action as its physical world equivalent, despite not being performed with the same physical movements. Students can thus learn to take physical world actions by acting with meaning in virtual worlds. By acting with meaning, students can learn the dispositional components of physical world actions or under which circumstances it is appropriate to perform particular actions. However, students cannot learn the physical movements of physical world actions. Based on this alternative explanation, learning in virtual worlds is better explained as deriving from social conventions, rather than from physical experience.This study makes a significant contribution to research in the field of educational technology because it provides a more plausible explanation of how performing virtual world actions can bring about the learning of the dispositional components of physical world actions. With this new explanation, educators can use virtual worlds to help students learn the dispositional components of physical world actions.
Advisor: Golding, Clinton; Stein, Sarah
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Higher Education Development Centre
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: virtual worlds; learning theory; educational technology
Research Type: Thesis