Colorado provides the backdrop for the biggest experiment in 3D virtual education, Jon Marcus reports
When David Monarchi was 14, he went to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and marvelled at a giant mock-up of a heart so big he could walk up the arteries and see the valves and chambers close up.
"It never left me," he says. "I remember walking up the rubber ramp and looking at the indentations and learning what they were about. That was entirely different from looking at a book."
Now 55 and a professor at the University of Colorado, Dr Monarchi has translated his nostalgia into a new kind of learning experience using virtual reality.
From a modest start - letting information systems students wander through the guts of a computer - he went on to develop one of the most advanced distance education models in the United States, a three-dimensional online learning environment in which students create characters, attend several different courses and meet classmates in common areas.
Journalism students cover crime in the virtual world. In the virtual newsroom they hear police radio calls and must respond to such events as fires, explosions and automobile accidents. After speeding to the scene by virtual taxi, they interview witnesses and sort out conflicting answers.
"It's a good way to stimulate journalism students," their professor, Laurie Van Horn, says. "Sometimes there's a lot going on, and you have to know which choices to make."
The virtual world supplements conventional classes on the campus. But students say it has vastly increased their interest in subjects.
"I really enjoyed that aspect of the class," says Daicia Lueck, a 21-year-old junior, who used the virtual world as part of her required course in business computing skills. "I did it much more willingly as opposed to the standard lecture course, where you sit and see the computer image projected on the screen, rather than just getting in there and figuring it out."
The project stemmed from a government request for proposals to deliver courses at a distance. Dr Monarchi, whose field of management science and statistics had been in decline, decided to respond. A member of the business faculty, he had a background in maths, physics and systems engineering, and by then was teaching information systems.
Despite his vocation, he says, "When we started this, I was sceptical about distance education. I believed that a book was a distance education - and not because I was technophobic, but because I was lost in trying to find value in the applications I saw."
Instead of following conventional US distance education models, which have often done no more than adapt conventional materials, Dr Monarchi planned what he calls an interactive immersive learning environment.
"We did not design the course, but the shell, the learning environment," he says. "We tried to build it from principles, rather than as a bunch of technocrats saying, 'Gee, isn't this keen.'" The other challenge was to do it on the cheap. Dr Monarchi used off-the-shelf software, some of it free, including Internet Explorer, NetMeeting and Active Worlds, a virtual reality browser. "In a nutshell we put these pieces together so the students would have a palette of resources from which to choose," he says. "The idea was that the students would paint their own education, which is tied into the active learning."
But there would also be layered help systems, fact files and online human support in the form of access to graduate students serving as teaching assistants (TAs). The project did not remove the instructor or the textbook or the TAs.
"Instead, we believe that you must give the students a range of resources and not try to second-guess them in terms of what resonates for a particular person."
Some students never talk to the TAs. Some find their presence reassuring.
"That's one of the best parts of the class, that there are multiple resources available to you at all time," says one, Jen Lee, an 18-year-old junior.
"It's important that you always have the human side available," says Ms Luecks. "As some students don't thrive in a traditional lecture setting, others don't thrive on the technology."
Students see the virtual world on the left side of their computer screen, and the web on the right, where they can connect to classmates, the TAs, and library resources. Less effort has been spent making the site look real or the movements appear authentic than in incorporating software that makes the experience more accurate.
In the journalism programme, for example, witnesses are scripted to forget some details with the passage of time, and police will not provide information about juveniles, just as actual police officers are prohibited from doing so. On the other hand, the "city" is an impressive, realistic-looking New York simulation provided free by the developer of a Godzilla computer game; the university merely had to remove the giant lizard clawprints from the streetscape.
Now a political science professor is proposing a course in which various nations in the virtual world would interact. A medieval history professor wants to re- create the world of that time. An engineering instructor has suggested creating an online three-dimensional car engine that students could explore from the inside.
A year after its debut, the virtual world is still evolving. There have been helpful lessons. The original 41-page online syllabus, or course description, proved intimidating; it has been reduced to seven pages. Conventional textbooks turned out to be a problem, too, as it was difficult for TAs to refer specific questions to specific pages - about why something is not working, for example.
Dr Monarchi speculates that technology has made students accustomed to speedy answers. "It is critical to have textbooks that are very, very specific. It sounds like a simple thing, but not every textbook is laid out for that purpose. We could argue that browsing the book is a good learning process, but that is not going to work well with freshmen and sophomores."
Then there are the faculty, many of whom complain the virtual world is more entertainment than education and derisively refer to it as "edutainment".
"My response to them has been, 'You are an academic because clearly you enjoyed learning, and you enjoyed learning from books'," Dr Monarchi says. "So I'll say, 'If you enjoyed learning, and you used the books, then for you, books were edutainment too'."