Open Menu Close Menu

2006 Campus Technology Innovators: Virtual and Immersive Learning

2006 Campus Technology Innovators

Innovators: Appalachian State University
& Purdue University



Innovator: Appalachian State University

2006 CT Innovators: Appalachian State University


Challenge Met

The Instructional Technology graduate degree program at Appalachian State University (NC) serves hundreds of students each year, almost all of whom live and work more than 30 miles from campus. The typical student is a mid-career educator who is not familiar with immersive learning environments, has only a basic understanding of traditional web-based learning systems, and has access to rather modest technology.

Online instruction may have been an obvious choice to serve these geographically dispersed students, but ASU had specific objectives to meet before it would call the program a success. The stated challenge was to “create an online learning environment that: maintains fidelity to our conceptual framework; supports our social constructivist teaching methods; allows for serendipitous, non-structured interactions between students, instructors, and others; and supports participants’ sense of presence/ absence of others.” Their solution is AET Zone, a 3D, immersive world for learning that serves as the social, curricular, and pedagogical hub for all content and most interactions in the Instructional Technology program.

Nearly 900 “citizens” log on to AET Zone to attend classes, meet with peers or instructors, give or attend presentations, or even just hang out. Students head to AET Zone from different geographic locations and classes, multiple sections of the same classes, and multiple program areas. And students’ Zone citizenships are not revoked once the course in which they have enrolled is over. Instead, current and former students mix with instructors and visitors from around the world to create a truly vibrant global learning community.

How They Did It

Members of the Instructional Technology faculty at ASU’s Department of Leadership and Educational Studies, (including John Tashner, Stephen Bronack, and Dick Riedl) have driven the AET Zone project from its inception in 2001. They combined a suite of tools to create AET Zone, selecting Activeworlds as a 3D development platform because of affordability, scalability, and the low bandwidth requirements for use. They began with one small world, but quickly moved to a multiworld universe server, creating personalized spaces for different groups of Zone citizens. Still, additional resources were necessary to make the environment most effective for learning. Web-based discussion boards, voice-over-IP and file sharing, and a group-oriented custom course management system built in-house each contributed to the communication and interaction between and among students, instructors, and visitors.

“We may have begun with the notion of creating an online space that was analogous to and ‘as good as’ the typical blended program,” says Tashner, “but we have come to realize that the kinds of interactions that occur through a combination of peer network facilitation, varied communication tools, and an immersive online social environment are richer and more satisfying than those supported by the traditional classroom or web-based models.”

Next Steps

Today, ASU has opened its world to the larger world. Educators, researchers, adult students, and young students from the US, Mexico, Australia, and Finland are using AET Zone as a place to meet, teach, and learn. They are planning activities and building spaces of their own within the Zone. As the population of these new “citizens” grows, ASU hopes that AET Zone will serve as a model for educational institutions looking to create effective, immersive social environments for learning.


ASU’s Instructional Technology faculty agree that scalability was a key factor in developing AET Zone: “Look for technologies that offer a small footprint at first, but that are scalable when you succeed. In our case, Activeworlds’ public education server provided a quick, cost-effective way to get started and eased our transition to our own, private virtual world server.”

Innovator: Purdue University

2006 CT Innovators: Purdue University


Challenge Met

The Envision Center for Data Perceptualization at Purdue University (IN) was conceived by a group of faculty who saw a need for a central facility on campus that would support visualization and data perceptualization in research and teaching. Traditional text and 2D displays were falling short as a means to represent data and concepts, and technology offered new ways to involve a variety of senses—visual, auditory, touch, and more—to immerse users in environments for exploration, interaction, and discovery. The center gives its users a chance to work with the technologies that serve them best in interpreting data and concepts.

How They Did It

With a grant from NSF to partially fund the center, the first step was benchmarking the best visualization facilities at other campuses, taking into consideration budget constraints and facility size. The technology assessment for the project was led by Gary Bertoline, the director of the center, and Dwight McKay, the technical architect. Intel and IBM donated workstations and high-resolution monitors, and the visualization vendors Fakespace, Hewlett-Packard, and Barco provided valuable information and recommendations.

The center now incorporates a wide range of technologies:

  • VR Theater. VR Theaters immerse users in the environment they are viewing. The users are not just passive observers in the computer-generated world, but are interacting with the various components of the environment in real time. Envision’s VR Theater is a Fakespace FLEX system featuring three 10’ x 8’ panels for rear projection of large-scale 3D images.
  • Motion Capture. The Envision Center houses an STT Motion Captor optical motion capture system that is operated in collaboration with the Department of Visual and Performing Arts. This system is composed of six infrared cameras on tripods and as many as three linked computers.
  • Tiled Wall. The tiled display wall at the Envision Center is a 12’ x 7’ high-resolution display made up of a grid of 12 smaller projection displays controlled by several computers working together. A 13-node PC cluster with Nvidia GeForce FX 3000G graphics cards provide the computation and rendering for the tiles.
  • Access Grid. The Envision Center places a premium on collaborating with researchers and student groups at various locations around the world. Users of the Envision Center at Purdue can work through the Access Grid on projects that incorporate both local and remote presentation and interactive environments.

Beyond the infrastructure elements listed above, the Envision Center also offers a variety of other assets, such as high-resolution, portable stereo displays that can be used in classrooms to enhance instruction through the use of stereo graphics, sensing and haptic devices (which allow a user to interact with a computer by receiving tactile feedback), nano-manipulation haptic devices, and other high-performance computing resources. In one room, you’ll find IBM T221 ultra high-resolution 22-inch flat-panel monitors capable of displaying 9.2 million pixels. And equipment from several major vendors like IBM, Dell, Sun Microsystems, and SGI helped make up the fabric of computing resources at Purdue used in projects at the Envision Center.

Next Steps

The Envision Center’s next major steps are to increase the level of funded projects, work toward a self-sustaining model, and engage faculty on campus more fully.


From the initial benchmarking effort, planners learned what works and what d'esn’t at other centers around the country. Among the lessons learned: Make sure technical staff are included in the budget; meet vendors and establish partnerships; and supplement the hardware budget with vendor donations.

comments powered by Disqus