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Multi-User Virtual Reality Technology as a Laboratory for Learning
about Social Research: Issues and Prospects
7. Assessment of the Usefulness of the Teaching Session
The main results of this assessment are as follows. One difficulty which several students encountered was an inability to find a subject to talk to or interview. In the case of one student, this meant that he was unable to complete the second interview. Several other students felt that it was frustrating to find subjects, but almost all managed after a short time. The problem that it may take time to find a suitable subject could have been overcome by allowing for more than time than the allocated 30-45 minutes per interview.
There was also a mixed response in terms of whether the students preferred the 'casual conversation' or structured interviewing. Some found it easier to engage in a friendly conversation and thought they could learn more about the avatar/user in this way. Others felt that asking set questions made the interview easier since they could elicit little information through casual conversation. This latter problem, again, could be solved through allowing more time since, as we shall see below, getting a 'feel' for the users of virtual worlds becomes easy when the researcher has had a chance to become acclimatized to the setting.
Several students observed that some avatars/users were coy or unforthcoming about answering questions. When a willing and forthcoming subject was found, however, (and this is the majority of cases), students expressed surprise about how easy it was to ask questions and how much users/avatars were willing to reveal about themselves. Hence, it was felt that the main advantage of studying virtual subjects as opposed to real ones was that it was easy to gain access, to feel comfortable in asking questions, and to elicit responses (including answers to questions that subjects might not be willing to reveal in face-to-face interviews). The main disadvantage was that it was impossible to know whether the subject was being truthful and also that the lack of face-to-face contact did not allow for getting a real 'sense' of the subject.
Other drawbacks that were mentioned were that conversations in Activeworlds could sometimes be uninhibited to the point of being offensive, that it was sometimes difficult to isolate users from other users to carry out the conversation/interview, and that some groups were quite close knit and therefore excluded a newcomer or researcher. Other advantages mentioned were the absence of preconceptions about the researcher or the subject and the details that subjects were willing to reveal about themselves and the candour with which they did so.
Graphics Multimedia Virtual Environments Visualisation Contents