Situating Cognition in Virtual Worlds: Rethinking Online Learning

I thought since I will be co-teaching a course this summer with my colleagues from the EdLab on the sociology of online learning, I figured I would write a think-piece about using virtual worlds for online learning. It’s a little radical but a little fun.


The purpose of this paper is to explore the potentials of virtual worlds as rich-contexts for distance learning. I will first provide a background and rationale for this exploration, followed by some theoretical issues with such an approach, followed by a possible application.

Background and Rationale
The rationale for exploring virtual worlds as a rich-context for distance learning is motivated by the disequilibrium between the demands for distance learning and the means to adequately fulfill those demands. By increased demand, I am referring to the growth in the number of students who are seeking distance learning programs to satisfy higher education degrees and professional development. This increased demand in widely acknowledged by several national groups, such as Sloan Consortium’s 2004 measurement of a 24.8% increase in the number of online enrollments (Natriello, 2005; Allen & Seaman, 2004, p. 5; Collins, 2004). What is most remarkable about this increase is not that demand is not being met. On the contrary, many online universities have been created and many traditional higher education institutions have augmented their degree programs with online programs to meet this demand. Rather, the ability to formulate sufficiently rich learning environments for these new online ventures has been inadequate, resulting in one-sided educational models used to deliver online education. Examples of this phenomenon abound. For example, at Teachers College, Columbia University, almost all distance learning courses depend on a particularly limited model. This model includes a syllabus generated by a professor with list of readings and activities the students needs to complete (papers, reviews of readings, online discussions, etc). Some more ambitious courses may include group projects or usage of multimedia materials (videos, etc.). The issue is not that this type of model is inherently limited. In fact, it can be quite efficacious for certain skill development, such as the ability to build and stack rhetorical and discursive statements, advancing comprehension through reading challenging materials, and furthering one’s ability to work collaboratively. These are all incredibly important skills, yet they lean too heavily on one side of the epistemological spectrum, one that favors academic qualities such as strong writing, skillful argument development, and manipulation of abstract concepts and ideas. This may not be such an unfortunate situation if it were not for the fact that much of the demand for distance learning is coming from those looking for professional skills, such as those needed by teachers or school leaders. These professions often require complex social negotiations and practical training that such academic work does not necessarily compliment. I do not wish to imply that these professions do not require such skills, but rather it is only one component needed within a complete education.

Let us consider the following. If current distance learning teaches one to comprehend a set of resources, reflect on them, and then generate some type of argumentative position situated in discourse, is this the type of activity that accurately reflects the work of the teacher? Or does this activity more accurately reflect that of the academic? Teaching academic modes for professionals such as school administrators has been called into question in recent years. For example, Arthur Levine, the former president of Teachers College, argues that principals and school-system superintendents should not have to write research-based dissertations that have nothing to do with their jobs: “It just seems a waste of time. It’s an example of status trumping substance.” (Jacobson, 2005). The solution some propose for providing educational opportunities to the professional is using a more clinically-oriented program, like the educations medical students receive (McClintock, 2004). If the solution to educating the professional is a more clinical approach, how does one begin to address the issue of online learning, which is both in demand and highly steeped in the academic-like knowledge production process? One solution is to provide rich online learning environments that act as the clinic, ones which engages learners in activities that easily translate into their professional lives, which do depend solely on academic knowledge production. With a great deal of thought, research, and instructional design, virtual worlds can act as the clinic or rich-context for providing authentic activities for learners in the professions.

A similar problem has persisted in K-12 educational programs. Many educational theorists have cited the ways in which much of the knowledge taught in schools is not easily translatable or even useless to real-world lives. The articulated need for educational opportunities that accurately reflect real-world contexts has rapidly developed in educational research. In the next session, I will begin to use the theories and applications of situated cognition as a way of theorizing why virtual worlds are a plausible method for delivering online learning, especially to those professions where academic-like knowledge production is not a core activity.

Theorizing virtual worlds

Perhaps the most well-known and enduring articulation of the need to situate cognition was made by Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989), who argued:

Recent investigations of learning… challenge this separating of what is learned from how it is learned and used. The activity in which knowledge is developed and deployed, it is now argued, is not separable from or ancillary to learning and cognition. Nor is it neutral. Rather, it is an integral part of what is learned. Situations might be said to co-produce knowledge through activity. Learning and cognition, it is now possible to argue, are fundamentally situated. (p. 32)

Brown, Collins and Duguid’s notion of situated cognition, derived largely from Jean Lave’s work on learning, apprenticeship, and everyday cognition, argues against the teaching of decontextualized formal concepts but rather situating activity in real-world contexts. This notion has spawned a number of instructional approaches and applications. One of the relatively early examples is the anchored instruction approach developed by the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (1990), which attempted to “overcome the inert knowledge problem? by “creating environments that permit sustained exploration by students and teachers and enable them to understand the kinds of problems and opportunities that experts in various areas encounter and the knowledge that these experts use as tools? (p. 3). One example of anchored instruction, the Jasper videodisc series, created immersive problem-solving environments with the aim of “transforming school instruction into apprenticeships more feasible? (p. 8 ). Hence, rather than asking students to solve mathematics word problems, Jasper prompts students to solve math problems of consequence. For example, a bald eagle’s survival is dependent on student group’s problem solving abilities. Since the math skill becomes situated in real-world contexts, the student should be able to think like a mathematician and solve math problems when encountered in their real life.

The case-based instructional approach also attempts to create immersive contexts for student learning. Cases can act as “occasions for offering theories to explain why certain actions are appropriate? and teach principles or concepts of a theoretical nature (Shulman, 1992, p. 3). One application of the case-based approach is the Case Technologies to Enhance Literacy Learning (CTELL) project, which creates a highly immersive environment which embodies twelve learning principles of effective literacy instruction (Kinzer et al, in press, p. 1). The idea is to place the learner in a context where the problems and solutions are occurring and hope they can make meaning out of a very complicated situation. Interestingly, both anchored instruction and case-based methods cannot guarantee that the learning is transferred. As the CTGV notes when reflecting on the Anchored Instruction approach, the “anchors are designed to promote, but not guarantee, the kinds of activities that are emphasized by constructivist approaches to learning? (CGTV, 1993, p. 54).

How can the notion of situated cognition, and the instructional approaches which apply it, support the use of virtual worlds as contexts for learning? Perhaps it is best to consider the challenges such a problem presents. One problem revolves around what I will call instructional risk. In the Jasper videodisc series, there is this perceived need to teach the skills to solve the problems first before viewing the anchors (CGTV, 1993). The question becomes, what happens if the students don’t know how to solve the problems? Similar problems persist with case-base instructional approaches. What happens if no learning principles are gleamed from a student’s interaction with the case? A similar problem could possibly pervade a virtual world. What happens if the learning principle that one hoped the student to learn does not adequately present itself within the environment? What if the student misses what they should have learned? These problems causes one’s conservative tendencies to surface, causing one to rethink the ails of didactic education. The problem of environmental dynamism also presents itself at this point. What if the Jasper videodisc series is perceived as being a static or consumer-like instructional approach (CGTV, 1993, p. 55)? What if a case is perceived as a static entity as well, providing the student with a pre-packaged set of resources where the information bounds have already been decided for them? Shouldn’t learners have to decide which information is important and which is not? The issue of dynamism would no doubt raise itself in a virtual world. Should I segment off my learner population on a distant island, or should I more actively involve them with the other members of the environment? What level of outside influences can the learning environment take before it becomes too dynamic and chaotic?

The issue of risk and dynamism can be more easily addressed with anchored instruction and case-base teaching methods. One can assert (and later test), that although the environments are not truly dynamic (new materials are not incorporated after completion), the dynamism comes from the unique ways in which students engage with the materials and numerous possible answers (CGTV, 1993, p. 56). In terms of risk, one must be certain that the materials are developmentally appropriate and the concepts can be obtained by reasonably motivated individuals. However, the use of virtual worlds could prove itself difficult. To truly adhere to Brown, Collins and Duguid’s notion of situated cognition, the activities should be as authentic and contextually-rich as possible. The question hence becomes: can you create a learning environment where you can be certain that the learning principles persist (or at least some persist), but that there is sufficient dynamism needed to mimic the everyday (or the authentic)? In the next session, I will begin to provide an application for teacher education which attempts to maximize the learning principles while maintaining the authentic.

Applying virtual worlds in teacher education

One way that virtual worlds could be used as a rich-context for pre-service teachers include the mimicking of classrooms, schools, and their respective communities within the virtual world. Teachers could then be tasked with essentially living in the virtual world as teacher and learning from those interactions. Of course the question becomes, where do the students, parents, and other members of the community come from? This could be accomplished with varying degrees of both virtual and real persons. For a great deal of dynamism, everyone in the community could be real students, teachers and parents, who actually inhabit these roles in real life. Using intelligent computer technology, the interactions and behaviors of the real people could then be recorded as used as data for reproducing the behavior for other iterations of the simulation. Or similarly, youth-on-youth interactions within virtual spaces could be recorded and then used later to reproduce authentic youth activity within the simulation. You could imagine a hybrid simulation of classroom-school-community, where some of the persons are real and others are intelligent agents which have learned to act as they do from real people. Such a simulation could provide realistic context for teaching subject matter that is difficult to achieve in a university classroom, such as classroom management. Teachers would then have to contend with the type of interactions student have with one another, and the types of interactions students have with adults. In the very least, the teacher may glean some insight into the activities that students find meaningful and engaging.

There are obvious problems, both practically and theoretically, with such an approach. One such problem is whether people would act “normally? within a virtual environment, hence allowing the simulation to actually simulate the real-world. T. L. Taylor has noted that the issues around virtual and real selves are “complicated? and “messy? (p. 154). Elizabeth Lawley, a professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, describes the complicated nature of this issue with an anecdote:

I started playing World of Warcraft in December because a friend and colleague had encouraged me to join his guild–and a big part of the appeal was being able to interact with him and with other real-world friends and colleagues. My kids then started playing WoW because I was there, and because my friends and I were in a position to be able to help them navigate the game and fund their early explorations.

Not long after I started playing WoW, however, the convergence of my real-world and virtual social networks began to present some challenges for me. What do you do, for example, when a professional colleague IMs you at work to tell you that your teenage son is ninja-ing loot in an instance and could you please log in and tell him to stop? (Yes, you’re laughing, I know. But I wasn’t, at the time.) It was an indication of how these virtual contexts are beginning to affect real-world social ties and boundaries–sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

Lawely’s anecdote reveals how virtual spaces can come to resemble the real world, especially the sometimes complicated social situations that arise. Another question that might come from a different perspective is, what about the game element? Would you really want to reproduce a school, which most youth would probably not like to see, in a game environment? Although this might be difficult, it could act as a way of shifting the power structures and allowing the needs of youth shape both the virtual, and maybe eventually, the ways in which real schooling is conducted. Hence, the virtual school may change over time, and some of those changes might eventually be reflected in real schools or the structures which support present-day schooling.


In conclusion, this paper attempts to explore the potential of virtual environments as rich contexts for distance learning. The interest in this exploration was spawned by several notions. The first of which is the need for better models for distance learning, especially for professional preparation. Current models of online education depend heavily on academic modes of analysis and knowledge manipulation. These models do not necessarily reflect the complex social nature of many professions, such as teachers and school leaders. The movement away from instructional approaches that handle inert knowledge manipulation has been underway in educational research, especially with regards to K-12 educations, with the theories and approaches connected with situated cognition. These approaches has led to the creation of rich-contexts that mimic authentic activities. The use of virtual worlds as learning environments would continue in this tradition of moving inert knowledge manipulation to real-world activity. One example provided is using a virtual world as an environment for training pre-service teachers. Several problems persist with this idea; however, the potentiality remains for virtual worlds as online learning environments.

Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2004). Entering the mainstream: The quality and extent of online education in the United States, 2003 and 2004. Needham and Wellesley, MA: Sloan Center for Online Education at Olin and Babson Colleges.

Brown, J.S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42.

Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (1990). Anchored Instruction and Its Relationship to Situated Cognition. Educational Researcher, 19(6), 2-10.

Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (1993). Anchored Instruction and Situated Cognition Revisited. Educational Technology, March 1993.

Jacobson, J. (2005). The Ed.D.—Who Needs It? The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Kinzer, C. K., Cammack, D. W., Labbo, L. D., Teale, W. H., & Sanny, R. (in press). The need to (re)conceptualize pre-service literacy teacher development: technology’s role and considerations of design, pedagogy and research. In McKenna, M. C., Labbo, L. D., Keiffer, R. E., & Reinking, D. (Eds.), International handbook of literacy and technology (Vol. 2, pp. 211-233). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in Practice : Mind, Mathematics and Culture in Everyday Life. Boston, MA: Cambridge.

Lawley, E. (2006). Shifting Social Tides. In Terranova: Exploring virtual worlds. Retrieved from

McClintock, R. (2004). Homeless in the House of Intellect: Formative Justice and Education as an Academic Study. New York: Laboratory for Liberal Learning.

Natriello, G. (2005). Modest Changes, Revolutionary Possibilities: Distance Learning and the Future of Education. Teachers College Record, 107(8), 1885-1904.

Schulman, L. S. (1992). Toward a Pedagogy of Cases. In J. H. Shulman (Ed.), Case Methods in Teacher Education. New York: Teachers College Press, 1-30.

Taylor, T. L. (2006). Play between worlds: Exploring online game culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *