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On presence, III

OK so, what was, I thought a fairly obscure ramble through ideas on presence, (I actually almost didn’t post anything about it at all) has generated a lot of interest. who’d have thought it? so anyway to re-cap …

Immersion seems to matter for virtual worlds, moreso than for LMSes (aka VLEs) or other technologies. Engagement isn’t the same as immersion, engagement really involves a critical stance apart from the medium being viewed. Presence improves our interaction and motivation in learning in different environments. Presence is a combination of mediated presence (“being there” aka immersion) + social presence (projection of ourselves, perception of others) + copresence (being somewhere with others) + self presence (or embodiment).

So what actually is embodiment?

At the moment I’m writing (or should be writing) the introduction to the book Understanding Learning in Virtual Worlds. Introductions are always tricky, because, if you’re introducing a book on a topic similar to one you’ve written before, there will be some overlap with previous introductions. Keeping it fresh forces you to refine your argument each time. With the ULVW intro I’m really bringing VWs down to two unique things, the 3D space and the avatar. The 3D space gives us the opportunity to fully experience the sense of “being there” in the virtual world. The avatar is a basis for us to create social presence and copresence, through being an attachment on which to hang our identities, or a body through which to create an identity, or portray one. Avatars give us a body image in that space.

However, avatars don’t just give us a body image, (we can actually have those to some extent through environments like this, with our gravatars). They also give us a body schema in the virtual world.

I said before that many media are immersive, we feel immersed in them. We feel like we are there. But it’s a formless, and bodiless form of being there. When we’re watching a movie or reading a book, we can feel like the world surrounds us, it absorbs our attention (psychological immersion) or in a 3D movie we can actually see it around us (perceptual immersion). However our bodies don’t actually have a presence in that space. One of my friends was playing Halo for the first time last week, and posted in FB “when i look down i can see my legs. Awesome” and yes, yes it is. Taylor in The social life of avatars used the phrase “through avatars our interaction in virtual worlds is grounded in the practice of the body” which is a fantastic phrase, because it sums it up so well. We have a body in that space. We can express ourselves through movement, we can feel awkward if someone stands too close to us. We have a locus for direct, personal, experience. When you have a body within an online environment, shit just got real.

How does embodiment happen? Well, our body schemata are plastic. For most of us. A prosthesis can feel part of us. The rubber hand illusion can freak us out. Our sense of selfhood is not necessarily located within our physical body, it can be transferred to an extension of that body. Including an avatar. If that happens, that’s embodiment. There’s a neurological basis for this happening. I don’t really understand the biology, but have learnt that if you say left inferior parietal cortex with enough conviction, that doesn’t really matter. But one day I would like to get the authors of this: “How the Human Brain Goes Virtual: Distinct Cortical Regions of the Person-Processing Network Are Involved in Self-Identification with Virtual Agents” by Shanti Ganesh, Hein T. van Schie, Floris P. de Lange, Evan Thompson and Danie¨ l H. J. Wigboldus, in the journal Cerebral Cortex to explain it to me in layperson’s terms. Studies also indicate that if you spend time in virtual worlds, when you recall the memory of being there, the same parts of your brain activate as in the real physical world. The strikethrough there is important. Because if we’re talking about experiences (the basis of cognitivist learning theories) then our brains don’t distinguish between the physical and the virtual. Here’s something in New Scientist about that http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18117-how-your-brain-sees-virtual-you.html  Biocca pre-empted a lot of this in his paper that I referenced in the first post on this http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol3/issue2/biocca2.html   “increases in self-presence are correlated with higher levels of cognitive performance, and, possibly, emotional development”. If we want our students to experience experiential learning in virtual worlds, then creating a feeling of embodiment is key.

For most of us. Remember I said that? Taking that cue from Biocca, for my PhD I asked groups of students about their experience of presence (all four types), I also asked them about their perceptions of the learning experience (I didn’t have access to the data on whether or not they did learn, so this was the next best thing). One in four of the students reported experiencing very low presence in the environment. Carrie Heeter asked similar questions in a study about 15 years ago now, on people’s sense of embodiment in a video image. 1 in 4 didn’t feel any. I recently did a survey of attendees of a virtual world installation at an art gallery.I asked them how many really didn’t feel they got anything out of it. the answer was 1 in 4. 1 in 4 people aren’t affected by the rubber hand illusion. According to Ganesh et al, 1 in 4 people don’t have a plasticity in body schema, their right inferior parietal cortex dominates, not their left one (see how that sounds authoritative when i say that?). Now I’m not making any claims here, but I think that’s probably a pattern. I’m also very pleased with myself for, I think, being the first person to spot that.

Oh, the other half of my survey. About the students’ perception of learning anything. Almost without exception, the students who experienced presence (in all of its forms) perceived the learning activity as worthwhile. Those that didn’t, didn’t. It was a smallish sample size (36) but the correlation was strong enough to be able to say that this is not by chance. In fact in quantitative data analysis you can do a statistical thing called a chi -squared test to work out what the probability is for this to just be a fluke. It’s called a p value or confidence value. 1 in 20 is ok, 1 in 100 is pretty good. The p value for this is 1 in 860 million (if i did my maths right). So that’s pretty solid.

So why does this matter so much for virtual worlds, when immersion doesn’t matter so much for other media in order to learn? Which was my original question really. Well three things possibly. One is that virtual worlds are so hard to get the hang of, you’ve got to really get something valuable out of it to find them worthwhile. Secondly remember, there are a lot of other forms of presence going on besides immersion. They don’t happen in other environments at all, cannot happen, but to observe them happening around you and not experiencing them yourself must be an alienating experience. Thirdly, if you’re just observing information, reading, writing, downloading uploading, then immersion isn’t important, but with the activities we were doing, where they were based on the learners having experiences, then if those experiences weren’t actually felt because the students weren’t embodied, then they must have been failry hollow activities for them. The fact that that matters is a good thing (it means we’re offering something unique for learners, that they can’t get anywhere else, which is “real” experiential learning). It also means that if we’re using them to their fullest extent, in the most meaningful pedagogical way, that there will be a quarter of the student base who will not get it, and may not benefit from it.


6 thoughts on “On presence, III

  1. Thanks Mark for another interesting post. When you think back to the students who said they did not experience presence did you notice anything that contradicted that, as in did you see them follow ‘social norms’ of distance, changing clothes, use of personal norms when discussing their avatar? Or were you not always present (ha not presence) with your participants. 😉

  2. Well I was either present with them, or interviewed them in depth afterwards. I can’t think of one occasion where they did do any of those. Lack of embodiment does go along with all of those things. The avatar is called “it”, there’s no personalisation of it, or desire to project some identity through it. Of course, all students go through a phase of not experiencing embodiment, for most it takes a while to build. You can always tell the difference between a class that’s new to SL because of how they stand, they’re not following the normal distancing you’d expect from proxemics. After a while, most do. New classes also don’t feel the impulse to give feedback, but experienced ones will signify responses through posting smiles, and so on. But it doesn’t take long for the progression of members to become strung out, with some advancing quickly and others not progressing at all in their adoption of norms.

  3. Nice post Mark! I like your definition: Presence is a combination of mediated presence (“being there” aka immersion) + social presence (projection of ourselves, perception of others) + copresence (being somewhere with others) + self presence (or embodiment).

    Going to have to quote that. Interesting about 1 in 4 not experiencing anything. Don’t you think this is a general feature in learning? Some people don’t like group work, others don’t like social media, etc., etc. So I think this means two things. Firstly, we have to make it very clear to our students why we are asking them to do something, what are the benefits etc. This of course comes down to making the design explicit. Secondly, we have to recognise that variety is key. Mix and match pedagogical approaches and use of technologies (appropriately of course) to ensure all students get something out of the experience.

  4. Pingback: e4innovation.com » Blog Archive » Blurring boundaries

  5. Oh I totally agree with explaining why and demonstrating the benefits. The worst teaching experience I had was with an introduction to virtual worlds, and was intended to be the second half of a session. In the first half the students were to be introduced to why and the goals, then brought over to the IT suite where I was setting everything up. Unknown to me the halves were switched round due to a scheduling conflict. So I had a roomful (overfull due to the course having twice as many students on it as expected) of bewlidered and truculent students. It was only towards the end when they were asking why they were doing it that I realised the crucial step had been missed out.

    And yes, if we didn’t introduce a new technology into the classroom because someone didn’t like it, then we’d still be using chalk (as John Kirriemuir once said). One of the issues I have with this move to a more customer-focused view of education, is that this is followed by a move towards giving students what they want, not what they need. If we’ve actually thought a model, a learning design or a technology through and ensured we have made a good job of doing that, and explained it to the students, then that should be enough for them. We’re the ones with PhDs in this, not them. Unfortunately you will always get some naysayers who just don’t like change, or like complaining. Some of the resistance to the use of virtual worlds is just down to that. Some of the resistance is down to the fact the technology still doesn’t work very well.

    However, there is a class of reactions to virtuial worlds that are specific to virtual worlds. Students find them uncanny, or repellant. They object to them on moral and idelogical grounds. There is a visceral reaction amongst a sizeable minority to the very idea, which I’ve not seen before, perhaps occasionally with videoconferencing. The strength of this opposition is difficult to account for from just the usual luddism. In fact, sometimes the students are likely to be those who are pro technology and often welcoming of new ideas. They’ll say things like “I don’t see the point” or “it’s not my thing” and this indicates rather a perceptual or psychological grounding to the failure of the experience. They wanted to get something out of it and didn’t.

    There’s a chapter in one of my forthcoming books (Experiential Learning in virtual worlds, co-edited with Greg Withnail) co-written with Anna Peachey, and based on our Pelecon presentation “Fur and Loathing in Second Life: students’ resistance to virtual worlds” on the subject, so look out for that. Hopefully forthcoming. The publisher have had the copy for nearly a year and I still haven’t heard when it’s coming out.

  6. yep totally agree Mark and this relates to my concern about ‘student-centred’ learning. We are the experts as you say and learning is not all about enjoyment, sometimes it needs to be hard. Students need to be outside of their comfort zone sometimes, if their ZPD is going to have any meaning. Lol re your workshop getting messed up! Not a good experience!

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