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Multiuser Virtual Environments and People With Special Needs - Maresova, Hana

Hana Marešová, Milan Klement
Faculty of Education, Palacký University Olomouc, Olomouc, Czech Republic



This paper evaluates multiuser virtual learning environments that were designed or used specifically for the education of people with special needs. The good practice examples are analyzed and also our own experiences with the multiuser virtual environment Second Life in the seminars at Faculty of Education, Palacky University in Olomouc.
A multi-user virtual environment (MUVE) is defined as a virtual 2D or 3D simulation environment representing the real space (Brdicka, 1999). It represents the integration of existing forms used by online communication and becomes a medium through which it is possible to create social interaction very close communication in real space. The popularity of 3D virtual worlds in recent years has grown rapidly. For example in one of the most famous virtual worlds, Second Life, grew from 230,000 residents in 2006 to the present more than 13 million (BeVirtual, 2008), of which the Czech Republic has tried SL about 30 thousand users. According to Gartner Research (Gartner, 2007), in 2011 more than 80 % of active Internet users will be a member of any part of the virtual worlds. Some authors argue that these virtual worlds redefine the Internet as we know it today (Kluge, Riley, 2008). Indeed, the signals can be recorded in terms of more use of video and share 3D virtual environment and computer games, which today represent real-world simulation.
Effectiveness of communication is increased if the characteristics of the media are in accordance with the processes of communication – the immediacy of feedback, variability of symbols, the number of possible ways of communication, testability, replicability and others (Riha, 1999). Collaborative hypermedia environment that represents MUVE, meets most of the above aspects – they are the object-oriented systems, where communication takes place in real time, for example, through audio or video conference or in the immediate interaction through its 3D graphical representations (avatars). Unlike previous types of communication (e-mail, text or video) that are mostly used for communication isolation, communication in all these types of MUVE integrates and enhances the effect of online communication. User moving in MUVE can monitor the communication of individual participants, he can move to a specific participant, all of which can communicate very much like the real environment.
This aspect of communication options similar to the real environment without the necessity of personal presence in the communication situation provides a strong motivational moment for the use of these technologies by people with special needs. Interactive software also encourages active involvement in learning and gives the user the experience of control over the learning process. This is especially important for people with learning difficulties. Learners can work at their own pace. They can make as many mistakes as they like without irritating others and the computer will not tire of the leader attempting the same task over and over again, or get impatient because they are slow or engrossed in particular details. It also showed some studies – Standen et al (1998) describe a study which involved taking 19 pupils aged 14–19 years with severe learning difficulties to a supermarket to find four items on the shelves and take them to the checkout. Nine pupils spent twice-weekly sessions carving out a similar task in a virtual supermarket. The remaining pupils had the same number of sessions using other virtual environments. There was no difference between the two groups on their first visit to the real supermarket. Yet, on their return visit, those who had practised shopping in the virtual supermarket were significantly faster and more accurate than those who had not.
According to statistics suffer from some type of disability approximately every tenth citizen of the Czech Republic (Chvátalová, 2010). Numbers of research projects focused on the use of ICT by person with special needs were provided in the Czech Republic in the last decade. These include communication with eg Project Database Systems for Handicapped-based natural language (P. Slavik et al, project GACR), Blind User Adaptive Navigation in a virtual environment (V. Nemec et al., project Ministry of Education), presentation of virtual acoustic scenes for navigation in real environments using augmented reality for the visually impaired users (A. Sporka, Ministry of Education project), Interactions of Visually Impaired Users in Virtual Environment with surround sound (V. Nemec et al., CTU project) and other.
Multi-user virtual environment Second Life (SL) can be one of the suitable options for the education of persons with various forms of disability – such as persons with reduced levels of visual perception, which can use voice chat, while deaf people can enjoy classical chatting, people with disabilities can be in SL through their avatars move (walk, run, fly) equally with other colleagues, and not at the level of the social groups experiencing feelings of otherness. Creating of social communities in these environments can help these people feel free from traditional prejudices encountered in real life. In addition to their own education it is possible to use SL as a space for an information platform for communities of people with special needs, for conferences and lectures.
The SL has appeared first projects focused on a group of people with special needs – for example IBM has launched a project called Aira (Accessible Rich Internet Application), which is based on the possibility of complementing objects in SL labels and information relevant reader can then interpret the blind users or the Virtual Ability Island (Island of virtual capacity), focused on people with the different types of disabilities etc.
We used the method of analysis of available literature, Internet resources and selected multi-user virtual environments in order to gain an overview and evaluate the effectiveness of some virtual environments for people with special needs. Based on these findings, we implemented a multi-user virtual learning environment Second Life in teaching of the seminar New Media and Cyberculture at Faculty of Education, Palacky University in Olomouc. Following the completion of training, we investigated the attitudes of respondents to the teaching in the environment by a questionnaire method.
Our results suggest that work in multi-user virtual environment is a particularly strong first motivational stimulus for learning, but a very important role play also the user skills, because a lower level of ICT skills also led to more negative attitude to learning in multi-user virtual environment. Based on the analysis of examples of good practice and self-assessment of questionnaire surveys, we set some of the aspects that must be respected especially for students with special educational needs with regard to learning in MUVE. Our intention for the future research is to provide the teaching in MUVE with a group of students with special educational needs.
Virtual education is beneficial for students with disabilities, because they form a more level playing field than teaching face-to-face. Virtual worlds allow users with special needs to have an access to teaching and learning materials from their home. It can help them keep abreast of relevant information and also give them the sense of belonging to common study groups, where it would be more difficult to implement in a real environment. Possibility to participate in the presentation through a virtual world from home or workplace offers these users a comfortable environment. The flexibility of virtual worlds significantly improves their opportunities for learning and work cooperation.


This paper is supported by the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic, Reg. No. P407/11/1306 (2011–2012), The evaluation of educational materials designed for distance learning and e-learning.
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