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Multi-User Virtual Reality Technology as a Laboratory for Learning about Social Research: Issues and Prospects
There is a possibly apocryphal story concerning modern fighter aircraft pilots who can chose to fly `blind' using their head up displays or `sighted' using direct observation. The story is that almost all prefer combat `blind', in a sort of virtual world, and its moral is obvious. Whatever we may think, there are some activities that are best performed in a virtual world rather than a real one. In education there are many examples of settings in which students might benefit from working virtually. Often it is possible to set up exercises in virtual worlds that would not be possible in the real one by reason of time, access and cost. Virtual worlds can easily be revisited to enable learning by repetition (`drill and practice'). Since we often learn, not by doing something correctly, but by our mistakes, virtual worlds enable errors that in the real world would be serious to be made without penalty and, as we often say `put down to experience'.
These and similar considerations led Ralph Schroeder & Ray Lee to develop the exercise they describe in the following paper. In this, they used a multi-user virtual world as a source of `virtual' interview respondents for advanced students undertaking training in social survey research. In the comparative `safety' of this virtual world, students were able to undertake either a structured interview or a formal questionnaire intended to uncover as much as possible about the person/avatar in the virtual world. This work raises educational, ethical and technical questions and these are discussed in full.
Social science students aren't fighter pilots, but it is clear that the available technology provides numerous opportunities for simulations of real `research' in the comparative safety of the computer laboratory.
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