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Role-playing a legend in virtual reality.


This paper reports a case study of 13 college students engaging in a role-play activity of a Maui legend in the synchronous web-based virtual reality environment. Immersed in the virtual space of Maui Island and the authentic cultural environment, the students not only interacted with the environment and with each other during the role-play activity, but also recreated the Maui legend based on their interpretation, knowledge, imagination, creativity, and reflection of the Maui culture.


The success of teaching culture and literature lies in helping students construct their own knowledge and interpretation through real-life experience. Traditionally, various media such as pictures, videos, and films have been used to provide students with vicarious cultural experience. In recent years, computer-based instruction has extended the means for teaching culture and literature. Through simulation, technology may provide students with authentic cultural experience through a manipulative virtual space, in which students can actively interact with virtual learning environment while engaging in different learning tasks. The virtual reality (VR) experience can facilitate students' critical thinking and deepen their interpretation and appreciation of culture and literature, as is illustrated by a case study, in which 13 college students participated in a role-play activity of the Maui legend [1] in a synchronous, web-based VR environment.

Virtual Reality and Experiential Learning

Virtual reality is defined as an environment created by the computer in which the user is immersed in a simulated environment (Dede, 1995; McLellan, 1996). "Virtual reality evokes a feeling of immersion, a perceptual and psychological sense of being in the digital environment presented to the senses. The sense of presence or immersion is a critical feature distinguishing virtual reality from other types of computer applications" (McLellan, 1996, p. 471). With settings, objects, and mood, the VR environment not only arouses learners' senses and emotions, but also requires learners to interact with the environment by manipulating objects through computer input. Virtual reality can make a microworld where learners do not merely study a domain, but also "live" in it, similar to the idea that the best way to learn Spanish is to go and live in Spain (Rieber, 1995).

Virtual reality supports activities such as concept visualization, discussions, group projects, virtual field trips, and simulations by integrating effective instructional strategies into the virtual environment. Students can play roles by manipulating avatars and communicating through text-based messages. Within limits of system functionality, it is possible to create anything imaginable, which then becomes a part of the system (McLellan, 1996). Therefore, virtual reality applications are ideal tools to create authentic learning environments for students to experience and interpret culture and literature.

There are mainly two types of VR applications: (a) text-based (e.g., MOOs) and (b) graphic-based (e.g., The Palace). MOOs are text-based, object-oriented, and server-client virtual reality programs. They allow multiple users to connect to a server simultaneously and communicate synchronously. MOO stands for "MUD, Object Oriented"; and MUD, in turn, refers to Multi-User Dimensions, which are real-time text-based chats for people to interact electronically (Young, 2002). MOO is a type of MUD that incorporates a sophisticated, object-oriented programming language that participants can use to construct their own personalized characters and worlds (Pfaffenberger, 2001). Once connected, the MOO users can employ simple commands to represent objects (e.g., identities), gestures, motions and sound; they can also create settings (e.g., the physical setting of a library) and mood and communicate ideas via text. Different conference rooms can be set up for different needs and purposes. Because of their advantages, MOOs have been used for educational purposes, such as collaborative problem-solving, discussion, role-playing, and virtual tour.

The Palace [2], one of the graphic-based virtual reality tools, is a Web-based chat, client-server program. Like MOOs, it is also object-oriented. However, in The Palace, the VR environment is represented by visual cues in which objects such as avatars (graphical representations of one's identity) and props (an object that can be worn, like a hat; be held, like a baseball bat, or be attached, like a pair of sunglasses) can be visually represented and physically manipulated. In other words, in MOOs, objects, voice, settings and activities are created via commands and text, while in The Palace, objects are represented by graphics together with text, and students engage in activities through manipulating avatars and props and typing text. The Palace allows learners to communicate synchronously and create different conference rooms with different settings to satisfy different needs and purposes. It also allows learners, who are represented by creative avatars, to go from room to room inside the virtual world to interact with peers, negotiating meanings, sharing experience, solving problems, and collaborating on a task. By comparison, The Palace has the advantage of allowing the learner to interact directly with the environment by manipulating the graphical objects physically without having to learn the command language.

Thus, with all its advantages, The Palace can be used as a powerful instructional tool to create experiential learning for constructivist learning environments. Constructivists believe that individuals construct their own reality through interpreting their experiences in the world. All learners have their own set of perceptions and beliefs, which can be shared through a process of social negotiation of meaning (Jonassen, 1996). Virtual reality provides an environment, in which learners use virtual artifacts to interpret the external world, reflect on their interpretations, negotiate meanings, and collaboratively construct knowledge. According to Simons (1993), constructivism is:

* Active--students process information meaningfully.

* Cumulative--all new learning builds on prior learning.

* Integrative--learners elaborate on new knowledge and interrelate it with their current knowledge.

* Reflective--learners consciously reflect on and assess what they know and need to learn.

* Goal-directed and intentional--learners subscribe to goals of learning.

Virtual reality may enable the learning process to characterize all the constructivist features if learning activities and strategies are designed and integrated appropriately and effectively. In the context of teaching culture, literature and language, through goal-directed and intentional tasks, students may actively interact with the authentic environment, engage in meaningful tasks, integrate their prior knowledge and information they have gathered, interpret literature in the historical and cultural context of the time, and reflect their own cultural context and experience.

The Case Study

This case study was an exploration of applying a virtual reality tool in teaching culture and literature. It was intended to find out: (a) what a VR application can afford in supporting learning and instruction of culture and literature, (b) how students interact with the simulated learning environment and with each other in virtual reality to accomplish the task of role-play, and (c) what are the cognitive and affective processes involved in the role-play activity. The participants for this case study were students enrolled in an undergraduate computer-mediated communication (CMC) course. As part of the course requirement, the participants had to study various CMC tools for educational purposes, including a virtual reality application. Thirteen students participated in the case study. The participants consisted of both undergraduate and graduate students of diverse cultural and language backgrounds.

The Palace, a web-based VR application, was used for the case study. The participants' goals were to use The Palace to accomplish the task of role-playing the Maui legend, review and critique the use of the VR application in education, for example, learning and teaching culture and literature. Before role-playing, the students had only learned some facts about the Maui legend and Maui Island, such as geographical features, historical background, and cultural context. It was intended that the students were to engage in deep cognitive processing and learn critical thinking skills through the role-play activity. Following the role-play activity, a discussion was planned for students to reflect upon their virtual experience and the use of the VR application in communication and education. The authors of this article served as designers, developers, instructors and moderators in the process of designing, developing and delivering the virtual class. Prior to the study, they created graphics for settings and background; selected avatars for the characters of the legend and props needed to role-play the Maui legend. They also set up servers, checked computer and network systems for application compatibility, confirmed lab availability, and provided pre-class tutorials to the students. At the same time, the students made pre-class preparation, such as reading the Maui legend, gathering information about Maui Island, and practicing using The Palace. The students were not informed about the role-play activity before the virtual class began.

The 13 participants were assigned to 3 groups, and each group was assigned to a separate VR environment run on a different server. All the three VR environments had the same graphic design for Maui Island. During the virtual class, each group was led by a moderator (one of the authors), who opened the class, announced the task, provided directions, asked and answered questions, and facilitated the role play activity by offering necessary help and solving any emerging problems. After the role-play task was announced, the students had a few minutes to prepare for the task by themselves in a separate room in The Palace. The role-playing activities of the three groups were documented through online role-play logs and video taping of the live screens. The follow-up interviews and students' reflective journals provided additional data sources.


The data sources provided evidence to answer the three research questions, which also fleshed out another finding about the effects of the VR tool (The Palace). Each finding is discussed below in light of the features of constructivist learning. First, the VR application afforded visual representation tools (e.g., avatars for characters and props for role-playing) and text tools, which enabled the students to use their imagination and creativity and manipulate the tools to recreate a Maui legend through role-playing. The three recreated role-plays by the three groups, documented in the form of online logs, became artifacts of active learning, in which the students processed information meaningfully. From the content analysis of the online logs, it was interesting to notice that the students' imagination flew in the VR environment. For example, they weaved modern reality and cultural life into the legend; such as Maui "working on two jobs," indicating the fast pace of today's life; Grandma asking Maui to bring one of those fancy things--the computer; and Grandma feeling "lonely" because Maui had not been able to visit her frequently. Role-playing in the VR environment had enabled the students to reflect on the traditional and the modern culture and compare the differences across the space of time. In addition, while wandering in virtual reality to role-play the Maui legend, the students were also made aware of the historical and cultural context of the time by thinking about using appropriate traditional tools and objects to perform certain tasks, for example, "weaving ropes to lasso the sun" and "poking promise on the leaf." The students also took into account the geographical features and special products of the Maui Island, such as the sun asking Maui to bring him a year's supply of bananas. Thus, the role-play activity required the students to activate and integrate their prior knowledge. Role-playing in virtual reality had engaged the students in active, cumulative and integrative learning, which assisted them to go beyond the level of declarative knowledge to the level of higher-order thinking.

In the meantime, as indicated by the follow-up interviews, role-playing in VR environment made the students feel "a sense of presence," because the environment showed who "you are talking to and interact with" through visual representations of avatars and props. The sense of presence is another capability afforded by virtual reality. Second, role-playing in virtual reality was goal-directed and intentional, which enhanced collaborative efforts of group members. For example, in the process of role-playing, the student who played the role of Grandmother needed to pass the prop "cloak" to Maui, and Maui needed to get a lasso for himself in order to grab the sun and slow him down. To this end, the students should know how to get the props needed for their roles and pass them to the right person at the right moment. Evidence showed that the students helped each other in order to accomplish their common goal, as demonstrated by the following dialogue:

Moderator C: Lucy, you need to go back to Heaven and change your avatar.

Lucy: Help.

Moderator C: Lucy, you need to grab the mother and save the pieces into your prop picker.

Granny: The black satchel bottom right

Granny: just drag them into it

Moderator C: Just drag them into your bag.

Granny: right!

Lucy: thanks.

The data also showed some other collaborative efforts, such as dividing jobs, deciding on the roles, and helping out in times of technical problems. Understanding and encouragement were also some of the positive signs revealed in the role-play activity, which facilitated collaboration and knowledge construction, as shown by the dialogue below:

Lauren: "I'm the only one having the major problems"

Ryan: "it takes a while to learn"

Lauren: "Sorry everyone for the problems"

Ryan: "no problem"

Mary: "no problem Lauren"

Third, both cognitive and affective processes were involved in the role-play. Cognitively, it required critical thinking skills of the participants to collaborate on changing a legend into a role-play within limited time and without pre-rehearsal. The participants had to immerse themselves totally in the situation, the scene, the context, and the environment, imagining who they were, thinking how the plot was going to develop, and making decisions on what to say, how to act, how to interact, and how to direct the flow of the role-play. Problem-solving skills were also needed. For example, when there were not enough participants, someone had to play two characters at the same time; they also had to figure out how to use the props to achieve the desirable dramatic effects within a short time frame. Affectively, the students were highly motivated and felt a great sense of ownership and accomplishment. Below is a dialogue showing the enjoyment and satisfaction at the completion of the role-play task:

Moderator B: :) applause

Jason: cool :)

Moderator B: Bravo!

Gerry: We did it!

Jason: good job team :)

In addition, the case study yielded a fourth finding, that is, self-regulated learning exhibited in the role-play activity. According to Rieber (1996), self-regulated learning is taking responsibility for his or her own learning and, as a result, taking appropriate action to ensure that learning takes place. Self-regulated learning was evident in the students' products--the online role-play logs, their reflective journals and the follow-up interviews. The students found the environment to be intrinsically motivating and that participating in the activity became its own reward (Rieber, 1996). The smooth flow of the role-play and the artifacts of the recreated Maui legend were evidence of the students' abilities in planning, goal-setting and self-monitoring developed through the role-play activity, in which learning became reflective.


This case study indicated some benefits of using web-based virtual reality applications for teaching literature and culture. If strategies and activities are designed appropriately, VR applications can be used effectively for complimenting classroom activities, stimulating learners' interest and motivation, and engaging learners in meaningful tasks. VR applications can also be used effectively for cross-culture learning; for example, American students in the U.S. and Chinese students in Taiwan can each create their own VR environment, invite the other party to tour their own virtual world and experience their own culture. At the same time, foreign language instruction can be integrated with authentic cultural experience in VR environment. The web-based virtual reality applications have potentiality for learning and instruction of culture, literature and language. However, we are aware of some issues concerning the use of virtual reality tools, for instance, the learning curve, the efforts and technical support involved in planning, designing and developing a VR environment, and facilitation of online activities, just to mention a few. It is hoped that this case study serves to share experience of, and invite active dialogues on integrating technology into teaching culture, literature, and language.


[1] The legend goes like this: People on the island of Maui do not have enough daylight hours to do all the fishing and farming, so they seek the assistance of Maui, the powerful Hawaiian demi-god. Following his grandmother's advice, Maui successfully captures the sun, who promises to slow down and make the days longer for six months out of the year.

[2] For detailed information about the Palace, refer to the Website


Dede, C. (1995). The evolution of constructivist environments: Immersion in distributed, virtual worlds. Educational Technology, September-October, 46-51.

Jonassen, D. H. (1996). Computers in the classroom: Mindtools for critical thinking. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-hall, Inc.

McLellan, H. (1996). Virtual realities. In D. H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research for educational communications and technology. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Macmillan.

Pfaffenberger, B. (2001). Webster's new world computer dictionary (9th ed.). New York, NY: Hungry Minds.

Rieber, L. P. (1996). Seriously considering play: Designing interactive learning environments based on the blending of microworlds, simulations, and games. Educational Technology Research and Development, 43(2), 44-58.

Simons, P.R. J. (1993). Constructive learning: The role of the learner. In T. Duffy, J. Lowyck, & D. Jonassen (Eds.), Designing environments for constructive learning. Heidelberg, Germany: Springer-Verlag.

Young, M. L. (2002). Internet: The complete reference (2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill/Osborne.

Xun Ge, The University of Oklahoma

Jack Lee, formerly of Wufeng Institute of Technology, Taiwan

Kelly A. Yamashiro, formerly of Wufeng Institute of Technology, Taiwan

Xun Ge is Assistant Professor with Instructional Psychology and Technology program. Jack Lee and Kelly A. Yamashiro are former Assistant Professors of English at Wufeng Institute. The three authors earned their Ph. D. degrees from the programs of Instructional Systems and Workforce Education and Development, The Pennsylvania State University.
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Author:Yamashiro, Kelly A.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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