Get a life, virtually speaking

February 26, 1999

Educators are now grappling with the real issues created by the emergence of digital spaces, David Squires reports. Below, Hazel Burke explores the sociable side of a virtual campus

Virtual worlds immerse people in constructed environments. These may replicate aspects of the real world or provide alternate realities in which people are immersed in abstract, often fantastic exploratory spaces. Artefacts also have their virtual incarnations - the surgeon with a virtual scalpel performing operations at a distance.

The combination of desktop bibliographic systems, electronic publishing and online document delivery spawned the virtual library. Virtual communities, where communications and relationships between people are mediated by global networks are an established feature of cyberculture. Sherry Turkle in her book Life on the Screen highlights how notions of identity and presence can be re-interpreted in these communities.

While these developments challenge the way we may conduct our professional and personal lives, there are perhaps even deeper implications. Will a new view of reality emerge which conceives virtual representations as part of the real world in themselves?

There is a resonance between virtuality and contemporary socio-constructivist views of learning, which stress the importance of experience, exploration, expression, and collaboration. Some museums in North America feature virtual basketball hoops. People learn about physics from the experience of throwing a ball when gravity is set to zero. At Indiana University students learn basic astronomy by programming the behaviour of a planetary system. They run the resulting three-dimensional simulations in a virtual reality projection theatre (CAVE) to see the planets move according to the rules they have programmed.

It is claimed that there will be a fundamental change in the nature of education institutions, leading to the notions of the virtual classroom, the virtual schools such as the Concord Consortium Virtual School Project (http://vhs.concord.org) and virtual universities such as the Western Governors University (http://www.wgu.edu). Making lifelong learning a realistic possibility may depend on the development of a virtual infrastructure. Virtual institutions may lead to radical changes in role of the educator, with teachers and lecturers becoming self-employed and responding to client demand. The educator may be seen as a virtual telepresence acting as a freelance peripatetic worker.

Professional communities for educators will change. Virtual teachers' centres and staffrooms already exist. The National Grid for Learning features the Virtual Teacher Centre (http://vtc.ngfl.gov.uk/), the Scottish Virtual Teachers' Centre (http://www.svtc. org.uk/) and the Welsh Teachers' Centre (http://vtccymru.ngfl.wales.gov.uk/). In the USA Tapped In (Teacher Professional Development Institute - http://tappedin.sri.com/) is becoming well established. It was named as "site of the month" in the November issue of the electronic magazine Technology Source (http://horizon.unc.edu/TS).

Challenging present notions of identity may lead to changing views of how students participate in learning experiences. "Lurking" provides an opportunity for passive learners. The anonymity of cyberspace may encourage passive learners to become responsible for their own learning. But virtuality can encourage new forms of misbehaviour and anti-social behaviour. For example, deliberate malicious annotations to materials in open collaborative environments - multimedia graffiti.

The CAL99 Conference (http://www. elsevier.nl/locate/cal99) aims to address the implications of virtuality for education. The conference will be held at the Institute of Education in London, March 29-31. The papers cover a broad range of issues from both a schools and higher education perspective.

David Squires is reader in educational computing, King's College London.

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