In a virtual immersive environment, some of the traditional obstacles and barriers of conducting face-to-face role plays are eliminated. For one, online role plays are easier to take on because the learner can get closer to the role. She can dress the avatar in the right clothes, put it in the right environment, and obtain the right tools just like on the job. The environment can be realistic and immersive and literally place the learner into the role she is assuming.
Participating in a virtual world role play helps crystallize the learner’s knowledge because the learner is forced to apply all their skills and abilities to the role.
In addition to taking on prospective roles, a role play can also allow a learner to experience a role she does not normally fill, such as allowing a person to experience a different gender or a different race. This provides the learner with a new perspective. This can also be done by having a doctor take on the role of a patient to observe the sights and sounds from a completely different point-of-view or having a sales person take on the role of a customer. The instruction can place the learner into many different situations in which she can participate in different roles within the same activity.
An experienced copier sales manager can play the role of a potential customer in a virtual store with virtual products. A new trainee can play the role of a sales representative and engage the potential customer in a discussion in an attempt to sell him copier.
A student can take on the role of a border patrol officer and practice interviewing individuals entering a country.
A pre-service teacher can role play teaching in front of a group of kids (played by experienced teachers.)
One advantage a role play has over traditional programmed simulations or branching stories is that it is open ended from the learner’s perspective. In a pre-programmed simulation, the designer of the instruction needs to consider as many of the possible branches of the simulation as possible to cover the broad spectrum of learners and their possible responses. The designer, because of limited resources, must then choose only those branching scenarios the learner is most likely to encounter or create. The instructional designer must keep exceptions or variations to a minimum since the branching can grow quite large with just a few choices.
In a VIE role play, the branching is infinite since, ideally, an experienced person is playing to other role and is able to go in any direction the learner initiates.
Both the learner and the instructor need to be in the virtual world at the same time. Additionally, given the current state of avatars, the ability to read facial expressions and subtle body language cues does not currently exist. Virtual worlds are, at this point, simply not complex enough to convey those nuances. Although, this is one of many aspects of virtual worlds being worked on by developers and will be overcome in the near future.
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