Affordances and Technology Selection


In this report we are asked to find references that specifically discuss our chosen learning technology, its advantages and disadvantages for the specific application we will making of it, whether literature exists that covers the specific use we plan to make of the technology, and how this technology specifically enhance learning. The author will attempt to go from previous discussion of virtual reality in general to the specific technology that will be used for his project, OpenSimulator.

It should be noted that OpenSimulator, despite the project being ten years old, has not had nearly the volume of publications in the education and training fields than its predecessor, Second Life, has. (The author performed a Google Scholar search on opensimulator AND education and received 2,000 results. “second life” AND education receives over 61,000 results.) Since the two VR systems are very similar in practice although the projects have different code bases and goals, the author will be using Second Life publications as sources, treating the results as largely applicable to his project despite not using exactly the same code. Note that from the learner’s point of view, the interface is provided by a separate client program (such as Phoenix Firestorm) rather than the actual hosting environment, so the two are often indistinguishable from the learner’s viewpoint. Of course, where differences do exist and are relevant to this purpose of this document they will be noted.

Advantages (Affordances) and Disadvantages of Virtual Reality and OpenSimulator/Second Life for Procedural/Sensory Training

The author’s work will result in a VR system to train emergency personnel to carry out the proper survey procedure after major damage to the electrical system. This task can be broken down into subtasks: identify and classify damage to equipment (which has both sensory and cognitive elements),  properly report damage (which is largely procedural and linguistic), and follow and enforce all safety procedures (which is also procedural, but has sensory/cognitive elements in identifying hazardous situations).

Hsu, et al. (2013) review the then-state of the art in VR training for disaster response and preparedness training. One sentence from their abstract defines the current author’s justification for using VR in this application: “… the immersive and participatory nature of VR training offers a unique realistic quality that is not generally present in classroom-based or web-based training, yet retains considerable cost advantages over large-scale real-life exercises and other modalities and is gaining increasing acceptance.” Their review article also limits itself to the same technology platform as the current author, a PC with a broadband internet connection (excluding special 3D theaters or goggles, haptic feedback devices, and other such enhancements). They argue that the use of this ubiquitous and simple interface will lead to greater learner interaction as well as lowering the cost barrier of the technology. The article specifically mentions both Second Life and OpenSimulator.

Another advantage mentioned in this article is configurability and flexibility. It is easier to tailor a simulation than physical objects to a learner’s or organization’s requirements, almost by definition. A VR environment also allows learners to set their own pace. Finally, the ability to review recordings of learner performance both allows for assessment (formative and summative) and coaching.

As disadvantages, Hsu et al. mention the likely perception among organizational leadership that a VR environment might not be taken seriously, due to its similarity to a video game. They also say that, while in reality likely to result in cost savings, leaders may perceive development costs as high.

There would be a requirement for learners to be trained in the use of the VR system itself, taking valuable learner (and instructor) time.

For many skills, VR does not provide the hands-on experience that a physical classroom does. However, while accepting Hsu’s point, this is less applicable to the current author’s specific project, where the skills (as mentioned above) are largely cognitive and linguistic, rather than manual.

Lastly, Hsu et al. mention the still relatively-primitive state of VR technology, which may be unstable, inaccessible, or intolerant of too many simultaneous users. They also predict that advancing technology will ameliorate these problems.

A more analytic look at VR in education comes from Dalgarno and Lee (2010). They specifically consider Learning Affordances of VR. This document will not list all their points or reasoning. Instead, only those points relevant to the current report’s scope will be considered.

First listed is the learner’s ability to move within the simulated world—the multiple viewpoints can promote spatial knowledge of the learned domain. A second (and one that is key to the current project) is the ability to facilitate experiential – that is, learner-centered and active – tasks in situations that are impractical or dangerous to carry out in a physical classroom. A third affordance would be increased engagement and motivation.

Dalgarno and Lee emphasize that at the time of their writing, the potential benefits they list have not been fully demonstrated, and hope that their analysis can be helpful in designing future research.

Dong-Hee Shin (2017) provides a useful literature review. Professor Shin treats the concept of affordances differently from Dalgarno and Lee, considering aspects of the VR environment rather than directly listing their benefits: presence, immersion, usability, empathy, and embodiment. She considers, for instance, that a combination of immersion and usability is necessary to gain VR’s demonstrated benefit of improved engagement. A diagram on page 8 of the paper indicates her proposed model of how the five affordances interact and lead to improved learning. Another key point Shin raises is that immersion (and thus many of VR’s learning benefits) is more accessible to certain learners based on their own characteristics.

Drilling down to more specific technology, a case study highly relevant to the current project is described by Pinheiro et al. (2012). Their own project used OpenSimulator to create a training simulator for jet engine maintenance. As with the author’s current project, the Portuguese team chose to create their prototype system in OpenSimulator to expedite the process. They used an external program, running as a web service, to control the actual simulation aspect of their training system. That is, the behavior of objects in the simulation was controlled by an external program rather than being directly scripted in OpenSimulator. The author will keep this technique in mind.

The learners who pilot-tested the prototype reported, among other things, that they found the introduction to the VR environment useful, supporting Hsu et al.’s point that learners will need to be familiarized with the learning technology before they can learn the domain content. As with most reports of VR training, learners did report increased engagement.

Since the current project is aimed largely at a corporate (and government) audience rather than academic, and is meant to provide job skills rather than general education, Kopp and Burkle’s (2010) article from the International Journal of Advanced Corporate Learning provides another viewpoint on the utility of Second Life/OpenSimulator. Like Dalgarno and Lee, Kopp and Burkle emphasize that VR enables learner-centered training, with instructors moving toward a facilitator’s or coach’s role rather than a lecturer’s. Like Hsu et al., they also emphasize the ability to record sessions in order to assess and advise the learners. Like several other authors, they also mention the need to orient new VR users to the virtual learning environment before learning can begin.

Generally, while the various authors have differing viewpoints (in the sense of looking at a problem from different metaphoric directions) and each paper has many useful details which are not covered in this very high-level and focused report, there seems to be a broad, general consensus among researchers in the field on the key points related to the current project.


Dalgarno, B., & Lee, M. W. (2010). What are the learning affordances of 3-D virtual environments?. British Journal Of Educational Technology, 41(1), 10-32. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2009.01038.x

Hsu EB, Li Y, Bayram JD, Levinson D, Yang S, Monahan C. State of Virtual Reality Based Disaster Preparedness and Response Training. PLOS Currents Disasters. 2013 Apr 24 . Edition 1. doi: 10.1371/currents.dis.1ea2b2e71237d5337fa53982a38b2aff.

Kopp, G., & Burkle, M. (2010). Using Second Life for Just-in-Time Training: Building Teaching Frameworks in Virtual Worlds. International Journal Of Advanced Corporate Learning, 3(3), 19-25. doi:10.3991/ijac.v3i3.1373

Pinheiro, A., Fernandes, P., Maia, A., Cruz, G., Pedrosa, D., Fonseca, B., & … Rafael, J. (2012). Development of a Mechanical Maintenance Training Simulator in OpenSimulator for F-16 Aircraft Engines. Procedia Computer Science, 15(4th International Conference on Games and Virtual Worlds for Serious Applications(VS-GAMES’12), 248-255. doi:10.1016/j.procs.2012.10.076

Shin, D. (2017). The role of affordance in the experience of virtual reality learning: Technological and affective affordances in virtual reality. Telematics And Informatics, doi:10.1016/j.tele.2017.05.013