Virtual Lecture, Virtual Laboratory
or Virtual Lesson?

Published in Proceedings of SCCS, 1998



Curt Hill

Brian M. Slator

Mathematics Department

Computer Science Department

Valley City State University

North Dakota State University

Valley City, ND 58072

Fargo, ND 58102






The need for computer based education and distance learning systems is becoming increasingly obvious. In addition, the value of "active" versus "passive" learning has become increasingly clear. Two complementary implementations of this approach are described -- the virtual lecture approach and virtual laboratory approach -- as well as discussion of future plans for integrating these approaches into the Virtual Lesson.

The Virtual Lecture approach implements an Exploratorium-style museum metaphor to create a hyper-course in computer programming principles aimed at structuring the curriculum as a tour through a virtual museum. The Virtual Laboratory approach implements a synthetic planet where Geology students are engaged in a mineralogically based exploration.

Current plans for these research efforts include the integration of the Virtual Lecture with the Virtual Laboratory into the synthesis of the Virtual Lesson which combines the best elements of each.





The Need for Computer Assistance in Education.

Education, like many other disciplines, needs computer-aided assistance. Most educational endeavors focus on an instructor, in a classroom, on a campus, at a particular time. Administrators prefer large lectures because that minimizes cost in an era of increasingly tight budgets. The ones who lose out in this scheme are the traditional students, who get very little instructor contact, and those non-traditional learners who cannot take the time to travel the distance to those campuses where knowledge is dispensed.

Education is very labor-intensive. Numerous organizations have applied technology in one form or another to make the instructor more efficient and the process more cost-effective. Diversity University ( is a well known example. This paper suggests another approach.

Toward the virtual lecture

Consider the most common means of teaching in this country: the lecture. In one session the teacher may give out information in a cost-effective way. Unfortunately, this method has some serious deficiencies. Lectures are very much teacher-centered, the teacher is elevated as the only one who really has something to share and is proclaimed the master of the students’ destiny. Communication is typically uni-directional, the instructor speaks and the students listen. If well done, in a small group setting, it can be quite good with student involvement, interaction among all members of the group, a sense of ownership. Yet, the practical realities are that a small group is an expensive luxury. Instead, the lecture model views students as passive information sponges. Students are to be quiet, hanging on every word the teacher utters and carefully copying every single mark recorded on the blackboard. There is to be no comprehension at this time, for if a student considers an item for too long the instructor is on to a new topic and they have missed forever some valuable information. On the contrary, their task is to faithfully record every bit of information and, while outside of the classroom, attempt to make sense of it all. In rare cases a student might ask a question during a lecture, but self-consciousness prevents most of these. The problem, even with small group settings, is the experience is more passive than active, and the value of "active" versus "passive" learning has become increasingly clear (Reid, 1994).

There are many students whose learning style makes it quite difficult for them in a lecture setting. They have been branded as slow learners, in high school and shuffled into vocational programs that are much more hands on. It such a situation many of these flourish, not because they were incapable of the higher reasoning needed, but because coincidentally the vocational programs happened to match their learning style. It is no wonder that many people decry the use of the lecture mechanism, yet what is there to replace it?

The content of a lecture can be communicated by a number of means, to make it even more cost effective. Instead of concentrating the students in a single classroom, use some broadcast media, such as television to disseminate the image and sound to a much wider audience. This still has the disadvantages of a single time and the expense of broadcasting, but can effectively communicate nearly as well as a live performance. A videotape can capture the performance, but may be harder to distribute than a video signal. It does have the notable advantage that the student now has control of the time of presentation. Some of the power has been wrested from the instructor and given to the student. However, the presentation itself is very much linear. The student must start at the beginning and process it sequentially. The fast forward, rewind and pause buttons give them some options not available in a real lecture, but the format is still essentially linear. The corresponding disadvantage is the experience is almost totally passive.

The Hypertext Reference Document

The ubiquitous Internet can make a contribution in active learning. The lecture can be reduced to text and graphics and then put in a succession of world wide web pages. Although, they can still be arrayed in a linear order, hypertext may be structured in many other shapes as well. A link to an example may be viewed or skipped. Now the learner has control of many aspects of the presentation. They choose which pages to visit and in what order; the experience is now primarily in the hands of the learner. In this respect, a collection of web pages may be superior to either a traditional text book or a traditional lecture. To be sure, there is a loss of interest as we proceed from the teacher speaking live in a classroom, to the captured image on tape, to merely text and graphics on a web page. The web page is not as engaging as the lecture, but the web page is learner-centered: the learner has control of the process. However, browsing through hypertext is still largely passive in nature.

One possible implementation is, as has been suggested, a collection of web pages. Each page contains a small amount of text and supporting graphics. Each page is then linked to appropriate other pages. The links then structure how a student can browse; this approach is similar, in certain respects to the way traditional museums are organized. In the museum metaphor, each page is an exhibit.

There are some obvious advantages to this type of implementation that need not be belabored here. HTTP servers are quite common, with most higher education institutions already having a server. Authoring web pages is relatively easy. Many applications, such as word processors, have some facility in this area. The hard part is not the web authoring, but that the content is technically and educationally appropriate. The web is available continually to anyone, anywhere; distance education is becoming reality.

The Virtual Lecture

Despite the obvious advantages of the world wide web, it is still a relatively passive mechanism. The active learning alternative is the synthetic environment where learners can experience their education in a "learn by doing" way. The Virtual Lecture approach implements an Exploratorium-style museum metaphor to create a hyper-course aimed at structuring the curriculum as a tour through a virtual museum. Student visitors to the Virtual Lecture museum are invited to participate in a self-paced exploration of the exhibit space where they are introduced to the concepts of the particular domain, are given demonstrations of these concepts in action, and are encouraged to manipulate the interactive exhibits as a way of experiencing the principles being taught.

Virtual Lectures are implemented using freely available MOO environments (for example, the Xerox PARC LambdaMOO (Curtis, 1992) or the High Wired Encore MOO (Haynes and Holmevik,1997)). A MOO is an Object Oriented MUD where a MUD is a Multi User Domain. The most common use of these has been for role-playing games and the like. The metaphor of a MOO is of a text based virtual reality, with rooms and players. In this kind of educational setting a MOO room corresponds to a web page. When a student enters the room, an amount of text is presented in a way analogous to the browsing of a web page. The exits to the room are marked and the student may weave through the museum in the same way as the web. This minimal use of the MOO is equivalent to the hypertext reference document.

However, exploring a MOO is quite different from browsing a series of web pages. MOOs can be much more interactive. A MOO allows the interaction between one student and other students, interaction between the student and the environment, and between a student and software agents. Furthermore, record keeping is possible and even easy in a MOO in contrast with a web implementation. Using a MOO, the capabilities of a web reference document can be enhanced into a virtual lecture.

A MOO contains all the capabilities of an Internet chat room. Thus, students are aware of each other’s presence in the room. They may inquire as to whom is presently in the museum and where these people may be. If either other students or instructors are present in the room then they may enter into a conversation. This conversation may be public, received by everyone currently in the room or private, only heard by two participants. A person not in the room may be paged, that is signaled that a conversation is desired and where the originating person is. A student (or a teacher) may disguise their identity. This has the effect of freeing them to ask questions they may not be brave enough to make if their identity is known. Two students at different physical locations may thus communicate and engage in collaborative work, which would be impossible on a web site. The student has all the control they had in the web implementation and substantially more as well. A MOO may also contain software agents. These are programs that occupy the MOO in approximately the same way as a student. They may interact with the student in the form of a tutor or peer.

Record keeping in a web site is very difficult. A server may record what page was served but the identity of whom received the page is usually only an IP address. In contrast a MOO requires a real login and password. Because of this login process, a variety of record keeping is kept automatically and more is available with special programming. It is therefore possible to track students’ progress through the museum.

A Virtual Lecture Implemented

A specific example of a Virtual Lecture is the Programming Land MOO at Valley City State University which is being developed as an adjunct to programming classes. The MOO contains material that parallels an introduction to programming in C++. The MOO server is called WinMOO (Unkel, 1997) which is a port of the original LambdaMOO server from UNIX to Windows NT. The original database was the enCore database, which is the LambdaMOO database enhanced with numerous objects of educational merit, such as moderated classrooms, lectures, etc. The server is version 1.8.0p6 and database is enCore Beta 2.

Student visitors to the Virtual Lecture museum are invited to participate in a self-paced exploration of the exhibit space where they are introduced to the concepts of computer programming, are given demonstrations of these concepts in action, and are encouraged to manipulate the interactive exhibits as a way of experiencing the principles being taught.

The museum is being used with one class in the fall 1997 semester and will be used with two in the spring. There are two MOO entryways to the Virtual Lecture. The first leads to a series of rooms that describe the basic commands of the MOO. The other leads to the C++ Foyer exhibit. This takes the student to one of several topics. Each of these lessons may lead to one or several further lessons. A lesson is an amount of instruction that could reasonably be completed in one sitting, whereas a topic is usually several lessons and hence too large for a single session. It should be noted that both lesson and topic are arbitrary terms without specific boundaries in the MOO. If a student wants to learn one lesson in several settings, they have the freedom to progress at their own pace in whatever way they choose. Thus, students do not perceive lesson boundaries or topic boundaries. All they see are single exhibits, which are single rooms and the brief amount of information that is present in that context.

A single exhibit will convey a very limited amount of text. This text may be any of several types. One common exhibit is a signpost. A signpost exhibit does not convey much technical information, instead it is usually the entrance to several other lessons and topics. The C++ Foyer is a signpost directing students in any of several directions. Figure 1 shows the Function Lesson which is a signpost exhibit and an example of what a touring student would actually see in this Virtual Lecture:

Function Lesson

This is the start of a number of lessons about functions.

Consider the following menu that may be selected by letter or topic:

a) The importance and usefulness of functions (why)

b) Using functions or calling functions (call)

c) Overview of function definition (define)

d) Function parameters (parms)

e) Function return values (type)

f) Function and variable scope (scope)

You may choose any of these and enjoy.

Obvious exits: [exit] to C++ foyer, [define] to Function Definition, [call] to Calling Functions, [parms] to Function Parameters, [scope] to Scope Lesson, [why] to Why use functions?, [type] to Types that functions produce


Figure 1: an example of a Signpost Room

The first line "Function Lesson" is the MOO room name. The next ten lines are the room description. The last four lines are a listing of the exits from this room. This description as a signpost does not convey any significant technical information, but does direct students to a series of lessons. This particular signpost is arrayed like a menu. A student may type either "b" or "call" and go to the same room. The name of the room is given when the room is created. The description of the room is written after the room is created and is the main means of conveying information. The last four lines are generated by the MOO server to indicate the available exits. Each of these exits may have one or more synonyms that cause the student to progress to the destination room.

The most common type of exhibit is informational, a room where some content is given. This can take any of the forms that a lecturer would use. For example on the menu of Figure 1 the first option is mostly motivational -- why is this feature useful to the student. In an actual lecture this is needed to pique the curiosity or otherwise show the need of the concept about to be discussed. Lecturers do not need to motivate the good students, but a lecture has to be inclusive, so motivational comments are required for a good lecture. Yet in the virtual lecture students may pick and choose what they view and in particular a student may skip the first part of the function lesson if they desire. Other rooms may have the informational content of other parts of a lecture: simple descriptions, a variety of longer descriptions and examples. No oral lecture can have the number of examples of a virtual lecture since the student does not need to view them all, only enough to grasp the concept.

The example of the Virtual Lecture so far presented could be easily implemented with a series of web pages: a hypertext reference document. The next part considers some of the aspects of the MOO that are not readily implementable with web browsers and these enhance the mostly passive hypertext reference document into the active Virtual Lecture.

The MOO attaches to each student a list of exhibits they have visited. This list of exhibits is available to the instructor and is a record of progress and a diagnostic tool for that student. This list cannot consider comprehension, but does demonstrate exposure. For distance learners it is a concrete measure of activity for a student that may have no other communication with the instructor. A student who has a problem, may just have missed the part of the Virtual Lecture that dealt with the item in question, so that an obvious course of remediation can then be suggested.

This history of exhibits also enables an improvement to the structure of the museum. In order to keep the hypertext reference document convenient many more paths must be created than a novice should be allowed to use. Designing a Virtual Lecture requires a balance between the single linear path, which penalizes advanced or returning students, and the potential for too many choices which invites the novice to exhibits where they are more likely to be confused than educated. The solution to this dilemma is the active exit.

The active exit checks the prerequisites for the room. A student taking a path to an advanced topic has their history checked against some possible background exhibits. If the student has visited rooms that form the foundation for the room to be entered, they are allowed in without knowing that their prerequisites have been tested. If they have not visited the rooms needed then the exit suggests that this room may be more confusing than helpful and asks them if they really want to proceed. An advanced student may have acquired the needed knowledge outside the Virtual Lecture and thus can go forward, while a merely curious novice has been warned and at least knows there is potential confusion ahead.

A very important consideration for any educational tool is the interest level that the tool maintains in the student. Consider public libraries: most of those that lend video tapes are actually lending more tapes than books, which is especially remarkable when considering the selection of book dwarfs that of video tapes in most libraries. The implication is clear, video tapes are more engaging than books. Similarly, the Exploratorium model for a museum is more interesting than the older museums with glassed in exhibits and no interaction. If interest level was not a consideration we would write good textbooks, hand them to the students and administer examinations at the end of the time. The impracticality of such an approach is obvious. A web implementation of the reference document will hold a student for a while, but will eventually become essentially the reading of an electronic text. What is needed is something even more interactive than the reference document or even the Virtual Lecture possible in a MOO.

In the web implementation this may be accomplished by Java applets, but in the MOO this will be accomplished by software agents. Such an agent may appear as a code machine that occupies the room and has various commands that operate it. It may also be a robot, that the student might or might not distinguish from another student, who comes alongside and questions or tutors the student as they walk through the museum.

The Programming Land MOO at present has but one agent, a code machine. The code machine is an interactive object placed in appropriate exhibits. The main job of the code machine is to demonstrate short pieces of programming language code. It accepts several commands:

1. Show lists the lines of code

2. Explain gives an explanation of each line in succession

3. Trace shows the execution of each line in succession

4. Next advances an explanation or trace by one line

5. Help explains the possible commands of the machine.


This object is intended to raise the interaction level and engage the interest of the student in a an active way impossible for a textbook or web page.

This Virtual Lecture does not eliminate the utility of a web site for the class, both complement each other. The class web pages contain a general page about the entire course which includes the announcement of tests, links to assignment documents, the source of programs discussed in class, answers to exercises, and overview documents like the syllabus and course outline. The normal web browser makes it easier to download documents than most MOO clients. Therefore, the web is a very handy administration tool for the course, but the Virtual Lecture is far better for instruction.

The Virtual Laboratory

Simulated environments are valuable teaching tools because they can take a learner to places they would never ordinarily experience –- either because they are too dangerous, or because they are a physical impossibility. GAMES are Graphically Advanced Multi-player Educational Simulations that provide authentic environments for Reality Oriented Learning Experiences (ROLEs). The players in a ROLE-based environment actively participate in a sustained problem-solving simulation. To succeed in these virtual worlds, and to effectively play GAMES, a learner will necessarily master the concepts and skills required to "play their part". Role-based learning is learning-by-doing, but not the mere goal oriented "doing" of a task. Role-based learning is learning-by-doing within the structure and context of playing a role. Rather than simply teaching goal-based behavior and task-oriented skills, the ROLE-based approach communicates a way of practice (Slator and Chaput, 1996)

The Geology Explorer (Slator et al, 1997), is an interactive multi-media educational game for teaching Geoscience in a role-based, goal-oriented, and learn-by-doing way. The purpose of the project is to study several issues connected with highly graphical and highly interactive learning technologies with a view towards developing effective teaching systems and efficient methods of implementation. To accomplish these goals, design and development have gone forward on four fronts: 1) the assessment of student uses of educational games; 2) the development of a theoretical construct for explaining student use (not discussed here); 3) the prototype development of an experimental game; and 4) the design of a suite of software tools for continuing the development cycle (also not discussed here).

Although computer technology has caught the imagination of many educators, it has yet to be conclusively proven if the technology increases student learning of course material. A report entitled "Is Distance Learning any Good?" (TeleEducation NB, 1995) provides one reference list of publications that found technology had a significant impact on learning and a second list with references that found that technology had no significant impact. To provide more definitive evidence, though, courseware tools that are rich in content and have high interactivity must first be built before any assumption regarding the effectiveness of computer tools to improve learning can be tested.

As part of the Geology Explorer development, experiments are being conducted so as to answer particular research questions concerning 1) the effectiveness of these educational environments in terms of student learning and technology use, and 2) the effectiveness of our approach to game design and development.

The over-arching goal is to discover ways to design and develop educational software that is both learning- and cost-effective. In the pursuit of this, we address several issues in educational game design, student learning, and educational technology uses.

The research questions fall under two headings. In particular our experiments address the following educational research questions:

1) "What do students learn from these systems?"

2) "How does the role-based approach contribute to student learning?"

3) "What style of learning do these systems best support?"

4) "How do these systems compare to more traditional methods?"

and the following design and development questions:

1) "What are the effective procedures for designing and developing role-based, game-like educational software?"

2) "What are the software tools needed to expedite the design and development of subsequent systems?"


From a development point of view, this research project is composed of the following elements:

1) Virtual Laboratory development to simulate the objects of Geoscience and Planet Oit;

2) Graphical user interface design and development to customize the Virtual Laboratory client software for this application;

3) Development of the assessment protocol; and

4) Development of a role-based theory of enculturation in order to support the development of future designs and tools for implementing future environments.

Developing methods for the assessment of student learning is a central element of the research. The subject group is students in a freshman level Geology course. Physical Geology (NDSU Geology 120) is an large-enrollment (>400 students/section), 3 semester hour lecture course. Aside from lecture, the course content is augmented by slides, by a set of course lecture templates, by a textbook, and by a web resource site which includes self-quizzes, photographs, course news, and links to related resources. Testing is by multiple choice exams, with students submitting their results on optical scan sheets. Nearly 100% of the students enroll in the course to complete either general education requirements or specific course requirements within their majors. Of the 434 students enrolled at the beginning of Fall, 1996, none were Geology majors.

The challenge for the instructor is to try to make these non-science oriented students think like a scientist: proposing and testing hypothesis, making appropriate decisions utilizing the basic tools of a geologist, working with the language of geology as a science, etc. It is obviously impractical for an instructor to take 434 students into the field and have them individually experience how a geologist makes on-site decisions. However, the student can experience these in a Virtual Laboratory, in which each student would act as a geologist and be expected to address a series of plausible geologic situations. Within this environment, the student would make decisions similar to those of a "real" geologist using the tools and techniques of a geologist.

In addition, because it is tied to an Earth-like planet, the course has a geographic base upon which to establish this synthetic environment. The base is not limited to just the Earth's surface but to the relationship of this surface to processes and energy sources deep within the planet. Synthetic environments could then be established at any position on, above or within the Earth sphere, and the student can evaluate diverse and often counteracting forces and processes.

The students of Physical Geology 120, or a portion of them, are to be subjects in a bi-modal study. Each will be given a pre-test instrument composed of two parts:

1) a selection of standardized, multiple choice questions; and

2) a subjective, case-based exam where authentic geoscience scenarios are described and the students are asked to work through the problem sets as a geologist would.


The students will be separated into two groups at some point in the semester. Half will be given a self-paced, on-line, textbook and quiz system to work through. The other half will become explorers on Planet Oit. At the end of the parallel sessions (we imagine this will be a 2-week mini-course undertaken in the Fall of 1998), a similar two-part post-test instrument will be administered. With this data, we will undertake to answer the educational research questions listed above.

The Geology Explorer (Slator et al., 1997) is a synthetic environment to simulate a portion of Planet Oit (very similar to Earth, and in the same orbit, but directly opposite the Sun). Students "land" to undertake an exploration exercise armed with tools and instruments implemented as Virtual Laboratory objects. They are given an authentic geosciences goal, e.g.. to locate and report the position of potentially valuable mineral deposits. Accomplishing these goals will entail mastering several geoscience concepts and procedures, and will demonstrate student mastery of the material. The first module involves mineral exploration, where students are expected to plan an expedition, locate mineral deposits, and survive the somewhat hostile environment in order to report on it.

Planet Oit is comprised of over 50 locations from which the geological expedition can begin. Geological tools and instruments have been developed (such as streak plates, hammers, and geiger counters), and the appearance and response of 40 minerals and 40 rocks to a series of interactions are described.

Students are transported to the planet surface and are issued or otherwise acquire a standard set of field instruments (a rock pick, a bottle of acid, a magnet, and so forth). Students are issued an electronic log book to record their findings and, most importantly, they are assigned an exploratory goal. These goals are intended to motivate the students to view their surroundings with a critical eye, as a geologist would. In the context of the Geology Explorer, these goals are chosen from a principled set, in order to leverage the role-based elements of the game.

The students make their field observations, conduct small experiments, take note of the environment, and generally act like geologists as they work towards their goal of, say, locating a Kimberlite deposit, or assessing soil mineral content for arability. A scoring system has been developed, so that students can compete with each other and with themselves.

Planet Oit is in the process of being populated with intelligent tutoring agents to monitor, mentor, and remediate the human learners in the performance of their roles. These agents are developed as sub-topic experts who have access to problem solving experiences, context sensitive help and advice, conceptual and procedural tutorials, and stories of success and failure within their particular sub-topic. The agents monitor player's progress and "visit" a player when they need their particular help. The agents coach the players by sharing their expertise in the form of prototypical case studies, problem-solving dialogs, and pre-packaged tutorials.

Tutoring agent behavior is adaptive in two senses. First, each agent is the owner of a small set of sub-topics and related cases. As a learner operates in the synthetic environment they will be building their own case, and the relevant agent will be alerted for remediation whenever a learner case becomes similar and relevant to a case under the agent's control. As learner behavior changes, so will their profile and the nature of the cases they match against. In this way, agents will gain and lose interest in a player according to the changes in the learner's profile.

Second, learner state will be preserved throughout the course of their involvement of the synthetic environment. As learners leave the game, either as successful or unsuccessful players, their state and experience will be saved as a new case. These saved cases, according to their profile, will become part of the inventory assigned to one or more of the tutorial agents. As later players enter the synthetic environment, the tutorial agents will have these additional cases of success and failure to present as part of their remediation package. In other words, tutorial agents will begin the game armed with prototypical case studies, but they will accumulate additional student case studies as players enter and leave the game over time.

In addition to these plans, Planet Oit has an existing inventory of "deductive problem solving" agents which monitor student actions and give advice, but they do not mandate or insist on student actions, nor do they block or prevent student actions. There are currently two types of tutoring agent in the game, and plans for a third (for more complete details, see Slator et al., 1997).

The equipment tutor detects when a student has failed to acquire equipment required to achieve their goals The equipment tutor is called when instruments and tools are acquired. The tutor checks whether the student has the instruments they need to identify their rock or mineral goal. If not, the tutor visits with the player on that topic. Future plans may also entail the tutoring decision to remediate when buying instruments that serve no obvious purpose.

The exploration tutor detects when a student has failed to observe a goal in the course of their travels. The tutor checks whether the student is leaving a room that might contain a rock or mineral goal. If so, the tutor visits the player to inform them. Future plans may entail a REDUCTION in tutoring behavior, if it should be found that too much tutoring intervention is an obstacle to student learning. In other words, the tutors may wait for several failures to occur before remediating.

The science tutor is the next to be implemented. It will detect when a student makes a deductive mistake in identifying their rock or mineral goals. There are four cases to be considered:

(wrong tests) the player has "guessed" incorrectly and their history indicates they have not conducted the necessary experiments to identify their goal

(wrong answer) the player has "guessed" incorrectly and their history indicates they have conducted the necessary experiments to identify their goal

(lucky guess) the player has "guessed" correctly but their history indicates they have not conducted the necessary experiments to identify their goal

(good work) the player has "guessed" correctly and their history indicates they have conducted the necessary experiments to identify their goal


The Science Tutor has knowledge of the learners goals, and knowledge of the "experiments" needed to confirm or deny the identity of a goal. For example, suppose the student is given the goal of locating and identifying talc used in the production of cosmetics and other materials. To confirm that a mineral deposit is indeed talc the student must test the deposit with the "streak plate" and observe a white streak and scratch the deposit to determine its hardness is less than 2.0 on the standard scale.

The system will encode the necessary and sufficient experiments for each goal, as well as their expected results. The system will check these facts against the student's history to determine when to remediate.

The Virtual Lesson

Synthetic environments, such as those described above, are dynamic and extensible spaces. These environments support multiple users (so learners can interact with both the environment and each other), real-time simulation of events, and interactive software agents, particularly tutors. This flexibility permits complementary approaches to student tracking and modeling, as well as mentor-style interactions where an "over the shoulder" software tutor monitors student actions and "visits" participants with timely and felicitous help and advice.

The eventual goal of these efforts is to combine the Virtual Lecture and the Virtual Laboratory and produce the Virtual Lesson. A Virtual Lesson will be an active environment where things can happen quickly. As soon as a student learns a concept in the Virtual Lecture, they can apply it in the Virtual Laboratory. Indeed the boundary between the two will dissolve.

Related Work

Far and away the most common approach to implementing synthetic multi-user environments is the text-based MUD: the multi-user, text-based, networked computing environments that are mostly for "gaming". MUDs, or Multi-User Dungeons, are an outgrowth of computer chatlines and bulletin boards plus the popularity of adventure role-playing as exemplified by Dungeons and Dragons. They are environments which one can log into from a terminal connected to Internet, and then interact in text with objects, places, and other players within a gamelike setting (Carlstrom 1992).

The Social Virtual Reality project at Xerox PARC has extended MUD technology for use in non-recreational settings. Their goal is to keep the strength of MUDs --- shared computing with a powerful real-world metaphor --- while correcting their shortcomings by adding audio, video, and interactive windows. They have built two specific prototypes: Astro-VR, for use by the professional astronomy community, and Jupiter, for use by researchers within Xerox. (Curtis and Nichols, 1993)

In a recent search of the World Wide Web it was clear that MOOs for different ability levels are becoming a reality. Amy Bruckman, a doctoral student at the Massuchessetts Institute of Technology has built a programming language to make it simpler for children to construct objects and participate in MOOs (Bruckman, 1993). She has combined construction and community in the hope of creating a constructionist learning culture in her MOOse-Crossing MOO.

The Donut MOO in Stark County, Ohio addresses the needs of K-12 students. Students build the MOO by creating "textually anchored virtual reality spaces." Although the site is open to all students, many are older.(Suzie 1995)

MOOs have shown their importance in elementary schools. Two in particular, MariMuse, and MicroMUSE have been geared so that elementary school students can participate full-time. One noteable success has been on underachieving students who had left school. These students reportedly became involved, started to form friendships, and began to take a greater interest in school.(Poirer 1995)

In some learning environments, the virtual reality MOO connected to a network is already here. At the United States army base and training facility in the Mojave desert, there is presently a virtual reality multiuser computer simulation that can be linked to other military bases all over the world. Using topographical resources and mapping facilities, the entire Mojave desert has been recreated digitally. Soldiers from all over the world can participate in

the same wargame scenario.

Other examples of virtual reality MOOs, sometimes called "multi-user computer simulations,", are being implemented in a virtual physics classroom being developed at NASA, and with interactive programs run the Loma Linda Medical centre in southern California.(Mclellan 1994). Mclellan (1994) cites some early conclusions about the VR MOO experience with other entertainment games such as "Battletech".

Mineral Venture is a recently developed software environment that simulates business-oriented mineral exploration from a technical and economic perspective. This is not a multi-user spatially oriented exploration system, but rather a simulation intended to pose planning and resource management problems that geologists routinely face.

SELL! is a multi-playered, networked game that teaches basic marketing and micro-economic concepts. Players are immersed in a simulated environment where they are expected to save a failing retail outlet. The tools of the retail trade, (hiring, advertising, ordering, pricing), are made available, and the underlying simulation is crafted to respond to game play in plausible ways. Throughout the course of a game, players have the opportunity to consult real world entrepreneurs, advertising executives and economists for guidance as they attempt to build up the net worth and market presence of their simulated businesses (Slator and Chaput, 1996; Hooker and Slator, 1996).

The Geology Explorer project (Slator et al, 1997) implements an educational game for teaching the Geosciences. This takes the form of a synthetic, virtual environment, Planet Oit, where students are given the means and the equipment to explore a planet as a Geologist would



The following people were involved with the Geology Explorer as a class project in its earliest stages: Scott Gordon Aagard, Elson Abraham, Brian Raymond Allrich, Tonia Marie Brezina, Michele Lea Chown, Murali Dhandapani, Michael Glen Dunkle, Brent Alan Ellingson, Chad Justin Elliott, Bryan James Fugere, Syed Habibullah, Jeffrey Allen Haugen, Robert Jerome Hoffman, Jim Sam John, Beau James Douglas Kautzman, Shane Nelson Kullman, Jason T Lagge, Debra Ann Meyers, Rupa Mitra., Prashanth Mylvarabatla, Curtis Wayne Ophoven, Xiaofeng Pan, Mingbo Qin, Sylvia Salas, Darin Jeffrey Schmitz, Samuel E Silverthorn, David Chadwick Teigland, Daniel Douglas Ward, Yue Yun.

The Geology Explorer team includes Donald Schwert*, Bernhardt Saini-Eidukat*, Jon Abel, John Bauer, Brian Gietzen, Nathan Green, Tammy Kavli, Lucas Koehntop, Bhaskar Marthi, Vidyalatha Nagareddy, Acey Olson, Yongxin "George" Jia, , Kishore Peravali, Daniel Turany, Brad Vender, James Walsh.

Additional thanks is due to the members of the Educational Media Seminar for discussion and feedback: Radha Balakrishnan, Murali Dhandapani, Uma Kedla, Satyanarayana Pasupuleti, Sisir Ray, and Hong Wu.

The Geology Explorer project was supported in part by a Grant from the NDSU PPRG to the NDSU WWWIC adminsitered by Dr. Paul Juell and Dr. Phil McClean, and by NDSU Grant-in-Aid #1109.


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