Today we had a visitor to the lab, Kiki NorÃƒ©n, a teacher of Swedish as a foreign language who has much experience from distance education and has participated in a European project developing an online course for the lesser taught languages. I had the opportunity to show her around, and among other things we had a look at the different three-dimensional platforms that we use for our educational projects. This led to a fruitful discussion on the concept of ‘presence’ and its role in education at a distance, which happens to be an area of interest in HUMlab in general and a central theme in my own research. For instance, how important is the sense of sharing a space online, and can this be accomplished without the three-dimensional component? In the courses that Kiki has been developing, they have used Yahoo Messenger for voice interaction, and she seemed to be pleased with the results. However, I would argue that there is definitely something about visiting a well-defined virtual space which you can share with others, that makes interacting in 3D a quite different experience. The specific type of copresence you can experience here may be of particular importance for students taking part in off-campus distance courses where they share no physical meeting place.
The avatars used in Traveler are far from realistic, and the question arises whether these representations are sufficient. In my view, social realism is far more important than perceptual realism and, in addition, a complete illusion of non-mediation is not always a good thing. One example of this concerns the potential advantages of “hiding” behind your avatar, similarly as when wearing a mask, something which was also discussed at the ITAS gathering in Traveler last week. Here, one of the teachers present (Paola Eklund Braconi) referred to the way in which her students seem less intimidated when communicating in this type of environment, simply because they can hide behind the avatar of their choice. Still they have a very strong experience of sharing a space.
Related to this is the filtering that takes place when communicating via text instead of voice. Some would argue that his mode of communication implies a depersonalization of the interaction, and might ask whether it is at all possible to experience a sense of presence via text-based media. Others would say that text based media have the same potential in creating a sense of presence, but at a higher cost (see for instance this article by Douglas Galbi). David Jacobson, Brandeis University, has written a short article which neatly summarizes established theories on presence in text based interaction, “On Theorizing Presence“. Among other things he discusses the importance which is ascribed to imagination in this process, and the notion that “less is more” when participants “exercise their imagination to fill narrative and/or descriptive gaps.” He also discusses the interrelation between online and offline knowledge, and briefly introduces the concept of “flow”. It is definitely worth a read!