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  1. 1. The Use of Virtual Environments with People with Challenges: Educational Humanism in Practice Linda Deneher Peer Review: Susan Ferdon and Andrea Williams Boise State University
  2. 2. AbstractThe practice of educational technology can be applied using a variety of concepts.Educational humanism is chosen here to illustrate the use of technology with individualsdiagnosed with challenges, for example Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) andTraumatic Brian Injuries (TBI). A survey of the literature regarding humanism ineducation and in the use of technology with challenged learners was conducted and foundthat the practice of combining educational technology with the humanistic standpoint iseffective in facilitating learning. Research into fulfilling the physiological and socialneeds, as well as the cognitive needs of learners, is found to have positive impactsincluding programs that can be used to create repeatable studies. Experiences deliveredthrough the use of virtual reality systems comprised of headsets, software, and computersare found to elicit reactions similar to those in real life and can modify the learnersbehaviors. The implications of this conclusion include increased motivation for educatorsusing this type of technology with learners with challenges. Introduction Humanists in the field of education believed that the goal of education was toadvocate for and involve the entire being in the process of learning, regardless of thechallenges faced by individuals. Learners were valued and believed to havephysiological, cognitive, and social needs. These needs can be fulfilled through learner-centric, technology-based learning environments allowing people to become self-actualized. The progress in the application of educational technology has been matched byprogress in humanist research designs using technology in virtual environments (VE) forlearners diagnosed with a wide variety of challenges. VE are generally comprised ofheadsets, software, and computers that users interact with as though the informationprovided is real. Learning theories underlying research in VE ranges from behaviorism tohumanism to social learning to more open designs such as case-based learning (Kolodner& Guzdial, 2000). With the advent of VE with customizable avatars that move through athree-dimensional landscape, researchers could study how people with challenges
  3. 3. functioned in programmable realities. (Parsons, Mitchell & Leonard, 2005).Developments in programming resulted in a level of detail in human avatar faces thatmade possible research in emotions (Moore, Cheng, McGrath & Powell, 2005). Newinterface devices including head mounted displays have been used to immerse learners invirtual environments that hypnotize participants (Austin, Abbot & Carbis, 2008). VE canhave multiple users who can collaborate in a real-time or scripted safe environments inorder to facilitate social skills (Parsons et al., 2005). An obstacle to producing reputable research is the wide range of characteristicsand abilities of people with challenges. This can be partially overcome through the use ofVE due to the ease in which the programs and scenarios can be duplicated. (Rizzo,Schultheis, Kerns &Mateer, 2004) Questions include whether or not information learnedfrom a VE can be applied to a similar real-life scenario. A distinct advantage to this modeof delivery is that computers are naturally appealing and that helps provide motivation forparticipants (Mineo, Zeigler, Gill &Salkin, 2009). History of the Field of Educational Humanism Humanism is defined by the Merriam - Webster Online Dictionary as, "a doctrine,attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values." Humanism existed inEurope during the middle ages, and the goal of these humanist educators was to teachskills necessary for speaking convincingly and writing persuasive letters, as opposed tothe sciences. In the early 1800s F. J.Niethammer used the term as a description of theGerman school system’s curriculum. Controversy arose regarding the term with debatebetween ecclesiastical organizations espousing religion, believing that the emphasis on
  4. 4. humans detracted from the focus on religion, and educators using the term to describelearner - centered education. Educational humanism became popular in the United States in the 1800s andcontinues in use today with the recognition of the value of the humanness of the learnersand their attendant needs. This educational theory is based on the concept that the bestform of education is one that develops intellectual strengths, and that these strengths areinterrelated so that strengthening one will strengthen them all. The spirit of inclusion alsoembraces all learners, including those with ASD and TBI . “Humanism in education hasmeant greater emphasis on emotional health, on self-identity, on social relationships, anda diminution of stress on formal study of the academic disciplines” (Broudy, 1973, p. 68). Abraham Maslow recognized the significance of human needs, and how theseneeds influence the ability of the learner is able to participate fully in educationalopportunities. The self-actualization stage that is the goal of humanist education is at thetop of Maslows pyramid model of hierarchy of needs. Maslow recognized that beforestudents reached the stage where they were able to learn, they needed to satisfyphysiological and social needs. After satisfying needs found lower on the diagram,achieving competence through facilitative humanist learning experiences and self-actualization can occur. Barriers to Virtual Learning and Their Solutions With the increase in usage of virtual reality devices, it became apparent tohumanist educators that use of this type of device was causing a particular set ofunpleasant physiological side effects. The results of nine experiments designed tomeasure these effects found negative physiological changes in learners including
  5. 5. “simulator (VE) sickness, postural instability, psycho motor control, perceptualjudgment, concentration, stress, and ergonomic effects (Cobb, Nichols, Ramsey andWilson, 1999 p. 169). Some of the effects were described to be “relatively minor andshort-lived,” but were considered to be “serious for 5% of participants and irritating for aconsiderable percentage more” (Cobb et al., 1999 p. 169). This set of effects wascompared to another VR in industry at the time, flight simulators, and it was found to bedissimilar to justify Cobb’s 1999 development of a new descriptive term: Virtual Reality- Induced Symptoms and Effects (VRISE.) These negative effects from the use of virtualreality devices creates a problematic humanist learning environment that must bemitigated for those learners with VRISE. In an article on case-based reasoning as a model for learning, Kolodner andGuzdial (2000) describe one solution, the SmallTalk Apprenticeship-Based LearningEnvironment (STABLE), a type of software that does not require the use of potentiallynauseating headsets. The apprenticeship learning model facilitates and scaffolds noviceusers, a humanist educational goal, through learning facilitated by a master in the domain.These methods are often referred to as scaffolding (Kolodner & Guzdial, 2000). The‘master’ in this example is software with linked sections with access to three levels ofdetail. Similarities to other studies include participants expressing their displeasure in theprograms inability to compare specific cases. They found that “what students see asrelevant is important to determine and may not always be evident. Several iterations of atool are needed to ensure that all the capabilities that need to be in it for productive useare indeed included” (Kolodner & Guzdial, 2000, p. 233).
  6. 6. This type of ‘master’ software can be effective with learners with challengesbecause the different levels of detail would allow use by students with a wide range ofdisorders. Learners would be able to tailor their interaction with the program to whateveris appropriate for them. Inappropriate lessons are a significant barrier to learning as wellas a source of frustration. The field of Educational Humanism is based on Pragmatistphilosophy, so facilitators teaching using this model will be comfortable with the notionthat flexibility and change are likely to be essential in the process of creating educationaldesign. Barriers to Research in Virtual Learning and Their Solutions Building on the importance of socially-based learning, collaborative virtualenvironments (CVE) were used in a study to see if people with autism were able“understand basic human emotions as represented by a animated humanoid avatar”(Moore et al., 2005, p. 231). The CVEs have the ability to represent real-life socialinteractions similar to those that are encountered in real life, but what may becommonplace for many may be problematic for those with autism because of theirdifficulties interpreting emotions. Through the use of avatars, it is possible to display anemotional state by choosing “an appropriate facial expression” for themselves, and alsounderstand the emotional states of others by interpreting the expressions on their avatars.If these learners had not been able to recognize facial expressions on avatars, it wouldhave invalidated studies using avatars. Since the results were positive, this potentialbarrier to further research has been eliminated. More than 90% of the participants wereable to recognize four emotions, indicating that it may be possible for them to learn tointeract socially with fewer misunderstandings regarding emotional states. Parts of the
  7. 7. style in this study were behaviorist as there was a limited selection of answers and onlyone in each case could be correct. Reviews of literature regarding the use of “augmented and alternativecommunication (AAC) and assistive technology as they have been used to supportcommunication and learning in individuals with autism” have been done (Mirenda, 2001,p.141). Regarding computer-assisted instruction (CAI), Mirenda notes that in the 1970spapers were published with “anecdotal reports of positive outcomes,” but there were fewrigorous studies being done at that time. The lack of credible, supporting research is abarrier to further research in any field; however, it was found that learners participating inthe study demonstrated less problematic behavior and were more likely to comply withinstructions using CAI. An example utilizing synthesized speech was provided that showsthe use of CAI provides a clear benefit. Findings include “marked increases in theirspontaneous utterances in all of the ON conditions, compared to both baseline (nocomputer) and all OFF conditions” (Mirenda, 2001, p. 147). Cost is a barrier to research in the field of educational technology, but sincevirtual reality programs and scenarios can be duplicated, “virtual environmentsconstructed for one purpose can also be applied for applications addressing other clinicaltargets” (Rizzo et al., 2006, p. 35). Along with the ability to be reproduced, virtualrealities are beneficial to a variety of fields of research because they are less expensivethan physical models with features than may or may not reproducible in the real world.The studied mentioned above describes how a virtual reality scenario that was designedas a virtual classroom used to assess children with ADHD was modified for“development of tests that address other cognitive functions, eye movement under
  8. 8. distraction conditions, social anxiety disorder, and the creation of an earthquake safetytraining application for children with developmental and learning disabilities” (Rizzo etal., 2006). This valid, repeatable, flexible, delivery method is itself a solution tonumerous barriers to learning. Naturally attractive media may allow learners to be more easily taught, and Mineoreports study participants enjoyed computer-based learning. Their research projectcompared four different types of electronic screen media (ESM) using video showingeach participant, video of someone participants knew playing a VR game, an animatedvideo, and there was an opportunity for participants play the VR game themselves.Findings show that there is a “preference for seeing themselves on the screen, as well asreviewing the VR scenarios” (Mineo et al., 2009, p. 172). Comfort levels of learners, an interest of the humanist educator, is raised by theuse of virtual environments. They have the ability to provide users with a secure zone forthe opportunity to learn intuitively, and experience learning in ways that are not possiblein the real environment. There are “advantages of VEs in providing people a safe place tolearn about and practice skills, behaviors and activities that they may need to do in thereal world” (Cobb, 2007 p. 13). In the aforementioned article, Cobb authored a review ofresearch in the subject of virtual reality learning environments dating from the 1990s, andit was found in many cases that participants using VE improved their learning.Virtual Learning Environments for People With Autism Spectrum Disorder Austin’s description of autism states that it “is characterized by severeimpairments in socialization, communication and behavior. Children with autism maydisplay a range of problem behaviors such as hyperactivity, poor attention, impulsivity,
  9. 9. aggression, self injury and tantrums.” (Austin et al., 2008, p. 102). Parsons conductedresearch using virtual environments and was one of the first studies to incorporatelearners with ASD; the inclusion of all learners is an educational humanist goal. Thesevirtual environments determined if participants with ASD observed social normsregarding personal space, if they reacted differently than the control group, and tocompare experiences with virtual environments and tasks performed without thistechnology. Participants were given two scenarios, a cafe and a path containing astaggered series of flowerbeds. The findings of this study show that, “generally, membersof the ASD group were slightly less likely to behave according to social conventions, butwere not significantly different from the other groups” (Parsons, 2005, p. 105). In another study, partially immersive virtual reality in combination with hypnosisfacilitated learners’ development. Although this study showed little effect on theparticipants symptoms of autism, reports from the parents of the participants in the studyindicate “children with autism accept and enjoy the VRH procedure,” so the childrenwere interested in the process and paid attention (Austin, 2008, p. 107). Those whobecome anxious when exposed to high levels of environmental stimuli may benefit fromusing this type of partially immersive, low-stimulus augmented VE and progress in theirjourney toward self-actualization. People with autism spectrum disorders have deficits in their ability to play as aresult of their impaired executive functions causing an inability to participate in socialinteraction and form emotional relationships. "Initial social difficulties prevent thedevelopment of social interaction, with its role in eliciting and enriching spontaneousplay" (Jordan, 2003, p. 347). These deficits decrease their ability to play, but using
  10. 10. examples of successful models that describe ways to teach children how to play mayameliorate the condition and promote self-actualization. VE can be used to assist in thedevelopment of socially interactive behaviors such as play, one of the characteristics ofself-actualization and a basis for self-esteem as well as the positive regard of others.Social learning theories describe how we make sense of the world around us through oursocial interactions, and that our earliest social actions are experienced through play withpeers. Playing is important because the interaction with peers facilitates the developmentof social skills and it aids the progressive steps of cognitive development. “It provides away of practicing culturally important activities and preparing the child for life” (Jordan,2003, p. 350). The behavior of children with ASDs playing with their peers tends to beproblematically rigid unless there is a strong structure in place. Studies that occurredbefore this have little mention of play, but some studies afterwards include features thatcan be considered to be more playful. Virtual Learning Environments for People With Traumatic Brain Injuries Studies looking at the ability of VE to be useful in assessing learners diagnosed withtraumatic brain injury (TBI) attempt to discover whether or not this type of assessmentaccurately predicts how participants will function in real-life situations. Findings includethat this type of testing was able to recognize and identify participants with TBI who alsohad memory impairments. The results of this test were compared with standard tests ofmemory currently used as assessment instruments and were found to be similar“suggesting the construct validity of the task” (Matheis et al., 2007, p. 2).
  11. 11. The use of VE is superior for this type of assessment when compared to standardtests because the standard tests are unable to reproduce real world experiences in alaboratory the way VE does. This type of educational technology can be utilized forimproving learning and learner performance (Kolodner, 2000), increasing physicalmobility, and also is “used for a variety of applications including assessment andrehabilitation, behavior therapy and phobia treatment, and training and education forindividuals with disabilities” (Cobb, 2007, p. 123). This study was designed with asystem that provided a positive outcome for the selection of the right choice, and wassupportive in facilitating second choices. This system of rewards for only the selection ofpre-chosen correct answers is a behaviorist method applied to a humanist model oflearning. Learners with a diagnosis of TBI have difficulties performing common activitiesof daily living like as orienting themselves in space, which can result in their becominglost. Safety is a basic human need and it is addressed in an article by Rizzo (2004) inwhich a patient diagnosed with a TBI used VE to rehearse her path of travel within thehospital. In three weeks worth of lessons, she showed improvement, which the authorsattribute to the VE as a delivery method being able to run faster than real life, and it canexclude distractions. The ability of educational technology of this type to be paused andreplayed is a distinct advantage over learning in real life. "For some tasks, theopportunity of combining immediate feedback and processing/discussion, obtainablethrough V(E), may offer safety options not possible in the real world." (Rizzo, 2004, p.223.) Increased safety, as well as its ability to repeat lessons, makes VE a useful tool forlearners with TBI.
  12. 12. TBIs can be caused by many types of cerebral accidents, including injuriesreceived by soldiers who may have concurrent diagnoses of Post Traumatic StressDisorder (PTSD). One program in open clinical trails in 2009 used VR to teach ActiveDuty participants with diagnoses of PTSD to reduce their anxiety level. This trainingincreased their level of function to the point that "16 of the 20 completers no longer metDSM criteria for PTSD at post treatment" (Rizzo et al., 2009, p. 281). This use oftechnology created positive physiological reactions that facilitated an environment whereinjured combatants learned to function more effectively and, therefore, grow as humans. Conclusion Research in the field of learning in Virtual Environments is still in its infancy, butvalid conclusions have been established and a solid foundation for future research hasbeen established. It has been found to provide a humanist learning environment capableof fulfilling basic physiological, social, and cognitive needs, which facilitates learning inindividuals with challenges such as ASD and TBI. Experiences delivered through the useof VE are found to be attractive, elicit reactions similar to those in real life, and canmodify learners behaviors. Learners with ASD have been found to react to theserepeatable virtual experiences in a similar manner as real-life situations, learn from them,and are able to use this information to modify future behaviors. The implications of thisconclusion include increased motivation for educators using this type of educationaltechnology with learners with challenges.
  13. 13. ReferencesAustin, D.W., Abbott, J.M., Carbis, C. (2008). The use of virtual reality hypnosis with two cases of autism spectrum disorder: a feasibility study. Contemporary Hypnosis, 25(2), 102-109. ISSN: 0960-5290.Broudy, H. S. (1973). Humanism in education special issue: tradition and the new sensibility. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 7(2). 67 - 77. Retrieved from, S. V. G., Nichols, S., Ramsey, A., & Wilson, J. R. (1999). Virtual reality-induced symptoms and effects. Presence, 8(2), 169 – 186. doi:10.1162/105474699566152Cobb, S. V. G. (2007). Virtual environments supporting learning and communication in special needs education. Topics in Language Disorders, 27(3), 211 - 225. doi: 10.1177/1362361305049032Jordan, Rita. (2003). Social play and autistic spectrum disorders: A perspective on theory, implications and educational approaches. Autism, 7(4) 347-360. doi:10.1177/1362361303007004002Kolodner, J.L., & Guzdial, M. (2000). Theory and practice on case-based learning aids. In Jonassen, D. H., & Land, S. M. (Eds.), Theoretical foundations of learning environments (pp. 89-121). Malwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.Matheis, R. J., Schultheis, M. T., Tiersky, L. A., DeLuca, J., Millis, S. R., & Rizzo, A. (2007). Is learning and memory different in a visual environment?. Clinical Neuropsychologist, 21(1), 146-161. Retrieved from
  14. 14. Merriam - Webster Online Dictionary. Humanism. http://www.merriam- Mirenda, P. (2001). Autism, augmentative communication, and assistive technology: What do we really know?. Focus on Autism & Other Developmental Disabilities, 16(3), 141. doi: 10.1177/108835760101600302Mineo, B. A., Ziegler, W., Gill, S., & Salkin, D. (2009). Engagement with electronic screen media among students with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 39(1), 172-187. doi:10.1007/s10803-008-0616-0Moore, D., Cheng, Y., McGrath, P., & Powell, N. (2005). Collaborative virtual environment technology for people with autism. Focus on Autism & Other Developmental Disabilities, 20(4), 231-243. doi: 10.1177/10883576050200040501Parsons, S., Mitchell, P., & Leonard, A. (2005). Do adolescents with autistic spectrum disorders adhere to social conventions in virtual environments?. Autism, 9(1), 95- 117. doi: 10.1177/1362361305049032Rizzo, A.A., Bowerly, T., Buckwalter J.G., Klimchuk, D., Mitura, R., & Parsons, T. D. (2000). A virtual reality scenario for all seasons: The virtual classroom. CNS Spectrum 11(1). Retrieved from http://vrpsych.ict.usc.eduRizzo, A. A., Difede, J., Rothbaum, B., Johnston, S., McLay, R., Reger, G., Gahm, G., Parsons, T., Graap, K., & Pair, J. (2009). VR PTSD Exposure Therapy Results with Active Duty OIF/OEF Combatant. Medicine Meets Virtual Reality 17, 277 - 282. Retrieved from
  15. 15. Rizzo, A. A., Schultheis, M., Kerns, K. A., & Mateer, C. (2004). Analysis of assets for virtual reality applications in neuropsychology. Neuropsychological Rehabilitation, 7(1/2), 207 - 239. Retrieved from