educational application. However, for purposes of this discussion, educational applications of VE will be focused on the potential use of VE in grades K-12, in which improvements are of demonstrable and pressing national concern.

Most commentators on the goals of K-12 education would agree that it should develop a student's capacity to think independently; increase a student's desire and motivation to learn; and increase the extent to which a student learns and retains specific skills and knowledge. In contrast, there is no unanimity about how to create an environment in which these things happen. For specificity, the discussion that follows is guided by the philosophy that people learn best when they can integrate what they are learning into the broader context of other things they know and care about; that they are more highly motivated when they can and have reason to influence the course of their own learning; and that they learn to think independently when they are given substantial opportunities for doing so. Much of this educational philosophy has been characterized as constructionism.

Constructionism is a theory of instructional design, based on constructivist theory. Constructivism is a school of thought among developmental psychologists (Carey, 1987; Piaget and Inhelder, 1967) that concerns the way in which children develop models of the world. The idea is that the essential steps toward a mature understanding of a particular subject include a series of differentiations and reintegrations of experiences involving the dissection and reconstruction of internal models. Within this philosophical framework, computer and other information technologies, specifically VE, may have important roles to play in improving education. In particular:

  • VE is a potential vehicle through which the range of experience to which students are exposed could be vastly increased.

  • VE can provide immersive and interactive environments that provide macro contexts in which interesting intellectual problems naturally arise.3

  • VE potentially provides micro worlds in which students can exercise the skills and use the knowledge they learn.

3  

Theories of situated cognition (Brown et al., 1989) suggest that learning takes place most effectively in contexts that are meaningful to the learner. Such pedagogical approaches contrast sharply with those that assume that the learner learns a general skill that can then be applied to all relevant situations. One instructional design technique based on situated cognition is referred to as anchored instruction (Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1993). Anchored instruction consists of providing a rich story line or macro context, within which VE environments may be able to provide macro contexts that are both rich and controllable.



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