Virtual Reality Gluons: Creating Online Learning Environments

Carlos C. Rodriguez (SUNY Albany Math)

Research Associates:
Monica L. Rodriguez (SUNY Albany Psychology)
Jeanne McWhorter (Diversity University, DUETS)
Eric Mercer (Diversity University, DUETS)


This proposal aims to create a multibandwidth, multimedia, distributed virtual reality (VR) for teaching, learning, and performing collaborative research with a new paradigm for empowering existing software and network technology. The paradigm integrates: (1) a surrounding VR environment, (2) software agents connecting distributed programs or machines to the VR (GLUONS), and, (3) a user interface (UI). This paradigm is based on a working prototype developed by the PI during the past two years, which enables several users to collaboratively work and solve mathematical problems on MOOs (Multiuser Object Oriented domains). The techniques implemented for use with the computer algebra system, Maple, will be extended to enable communication with arbitrary programs from within a MOO.

The specific aims of this project include: (a) the design of a general protocol (MCP+) for the automatic generation of multiuser interfaces to software packages such us, computer algebra systems, statistical packages, word processors, compilers, etc, (b) the design and implementation of MOO objects making use of MCP+. We call these objects GLUONS for they glue remote programs to the MOO, (c) the design and implementation of a simple and robust web interface for the MOO eDUcore package for facilitating the interaction with GLUONS, (d) the testing and evaluation of the system as a teaching aid for entry level college courses in mathematics and psychology, which are basic requirements in several majors.

A successful completion of this project will produce an open, free system that will enable several computers connected to the internet to be virtually shared by simultaneous users in a homogeneous multimedia virtual reality domain. This system will bring to the web an unprecedented new level of interactivity that will make widely available a robust, modular, and distributed, framework for building collaborative online learning environments.

1   Goals and Objectives

The rapid advances in computer connectivity are creating new possibilities for communication that promise to extend the way we teach and learn. But to unleash the full potential of this promise, new tools and standards are needed to enable the internet to deliver efficient collaborative environments connecting widely distributed researchers, students, instructors and resources.

This proposal offers a paradigm for empowering existing software and network technology for online collaborations, including scientific research, teaching, and learning. There are three components to the paradigm:

A surrounding virtual reality environment.
Software agents connecting distributed programs or entire machines to the VR.
A user interface.

The interrelation of these three components provides a surprisingly flexible framework for building collaborative online environments. An instance of this paradigm already exists as a working prototype at Diversity University (DU;, a nonprofit educational institution specialized in online educational environments. This prototype uses: (1) MOO as the VR, (2) Mapleman as a GLUON, (3) the web interface to Diversity University as the UI. Mapleman is an object player in the Multiuser Object Oriented domain (MOO) that provides a multiuser interface to the computer algebra system Maple. Students and instructors connected to the Diversity University virtual campus are at present able to use Mapleman for teaching and learning mathematics online.

The aim of this project is to consolidate the experience gained during the past two years with the Diversity University prototype and to extend its range of applicability to other disciplines besides mathematics. Specifically, we will use this experience to: (1) engineer general purpose GLUONS able to connect a large number of external programs to the VR, (2) re-design the VR and the UI to work with GLUONS, and (3) implement and evaluate the new system as a teaching aid for entry level college courses in mathematics, statistics, and psychology at the University at Albany.

This system will then be released as open software to the internet.

The proposed paradigm has many desirable characteristics, including:

The current technologies underlying MOO, Mapleman, and the web interface to DU, are undoubtedly going to change (perhaps dramatically) in the near future. However, this paradigm can readily accommodate new technological improvements. For instance, advances in natural language understanding software could help beginner users interact with the VR by means of specific GLUONS connected to specialized machines (e.g. neural nets).

The components function independently of each other allowing the integration of heterogeneous hardware and software. For example, the system easily incorporates access to enriched user interfaces. Users with fast internet connections and specialized hardware can use speech to text translation, two-way audio/video, or vrml, and still co-exist with players with slow telnet connections.

The VR environment, the external software attached by a GLUON, and the UI, run concurrently on different CPUs. Thus, increasing computational demands on one of these components does not significantly degrade the overall system. For example, Mapleman's computation of the inverse of a large matrix does not slow down the communication between users.

2   Mapleman as a GLUON and the Web as a Place

The existence of Mapleman is due to the recent emergence of open technologies enabled by the internet. Mapleman is a lambdamoo object that communicates via MCP (MOO Control Protocol) with an elisp (emacs lisp) MOO client (rmoo). Elisp functions are used for interacting with Maple which runs on the client machine. Perl functions are used for the automatic transformation of maple output to html (Maple2html). The complexity of this plethora of languages and protocols is completely transparent to the common user. Common users simply interact with a web page that allows them to converse with other people (player objects), one of whom is always willing to help with math. Mapleman is a powerful tool that enables remote users with diverse computer resources to talk, do, collaborate on, and teach mathematics online.

Beyond Mapleman's ability to bring math to the MOO, Mapleman has the power to glue all the resources of the machine where it resides to the VR where it connects. The emacs session hosting Mapleman can be controlled by the users connected to the MOO. Therefore, MOO players can have access to the remote machine's software from within the VR. For security reasons this feature of Mapleman is not active but it is available in principle. More research and hands-on experience are necessary to find appropriate compromises between security and utility. More research is also necessary to facilitate the introduction of external programs to the VR. In the type of environments generated by GLUONS, users are exposed to nested and layered levels of virtual reality that could easily become unmanageable, unless intuitive powerful metaphors to deal with them are created. To a large extent, Mapleman's success is due to the powerful metaphor that it implements: a helpful super-mathematician.

The PI has also tested the use of the proposed paradigm to add a virtual reality environment to the web. At present, a player can command Mapleman to create a room, the description of which is the specified URL. This feature allows players to browse the web from inside the VR making the URL a place that can be visited by several users simultaneously. The MOO messages act as an omniscient narrator creating the effect of visiting the web together.

Adding a surrounding VR environment to the web and to any program on any computer could revolutionize the way in which we use the internet today. In fact, these experiments suggested the idea of automatic mooification of a web server: That is, the automatic creation of a MOO world that would match the topology and contents of a given web server. The documents in the web server become rooms in the MOO and the hyperlinks of each document become the exits of the corresponding room in the MOO. In this way, an already existing course on the web can be rapidly transformed into a multiuser MOO world. Specialized GLUONS, such as Mapleman, can then be added to the VR as robotic helpers. The range of possibilities is obviously immense but research and experimentation are needed to identify the design characteristics that will ultimately decide the usefulness of a system of this nature.

3   Improving the Web Interface for the eDUcore

DU Educational Technology Services (DUETS), Inc. is a nonprofit educational charity that develops, promotes, and provides training in the use of online multi-user virtual reality worlds for education. At this time, the use of such teaching and learning environments is experimental, and DUETS assists teachers and researchers who wish to explore their use. Our primary online environment at this time is the Diversity University Main Campus, a text and graphics-based virtual reality world that is free for non-commercial educational use. The DU Main Campus is regularly used for online classes by educators from around the country. In addition to its application to single courses, it has been used in joint teaching programs between geographically dispersed schools. The DU Main Campus is the current site of the preliminary Mapleman system.

The DU Main Campus is based on the ``eDUcore'' software that DUETS has developed during the last four years, and which it distributes for non-commercial educational use without charge. The eDUcore presents a virtual reality world through either a text-only (Telnet), Web page, or 3-D VRML interface, at the user's discretion. The Web pages and VRML scenes are dynamically generated upon request in order to present the up-to-the-minute internal state of the shared virtual reality environment. The preliminary Mapleman system extensively uses the Web page interface of the DU Main Campus. We propose to establish a separate online VR world using the same underlying eDUcore software as the DU Main Campus, but specifically operated to serve as a development site for the novel educational tools to be created by this project. This new VR world will be accessible to mathematics and psychology educators at various national sites, who will help to test the system both for its stable operation and its effectiveness in teaching the implemented courses online.

The only existing example of a VR GLUON is Mapleman and it is fairly specialized for use with MAPLE software. Our experience with Mapleman has made clear that a more general and abstract version of a GLUON could be developed. These objects should be sufficiently flexible to permit the integration of several useful programs to the VR environment. We anticipate the need to develop a class of software objects functioning entirely within the VR world that will act as agents for the GLUONS. These agents will act on behalf of the GLUONS in the VR, presenting the external software to the users as natural and integrated parts of the VR environment. At least one other external tool besides MAPLE will be integrated into the VR world testbed using the newly developed tools in order to demonstrate their effectiveness.

Although the current Web page-based user interface system is used extensively, it was to a large extend developed as a test-bed for the underlying functionality that generates the Web pages dynamically. During the past few years the range of things that can be done with a web page has improved dramatically (e.g. Javascript, style sheets and dynamic html). The existing system has proven adequate for demonstrating the feasibility of Mapleman and the concept of GLUONS. However, early feedback from users suggests that, although the underlying functionality is effective, a more intuitive, dynamic and robust user-interface, designed with GLUONS in mind, and taking advantage of new web technologies, will significantly boost the utility of the system. Therefore, part of our proposal will include making significant improvements in the user-interface. This process will begin with an analysis of the existing user-interface system through surveys of users and examinations of its actual use. A set of effective improvements will then be developed based on these studies and implemented within the software. Finally, a follow-up analysis will determine if the changes have been effective and where further improvement might be useful.

4   Implementing and Testing the System

Introduction to Psychology (PSY 101) and Elementary Statistics (MAT 108) are among the most heavily attended courses at the majority of colleges in the country, as they satisfy General Education requirements in most academic institutions. At the University at Albany, approximately 4,000 undergraduates attend these courses each academic year. These courses are generally designed to teach the basic methods and major theoretical perspectives in their respective areas. In many institutions, in addition to the lecture periods, students attend weekly discussion-laboratory sections. In these, they have an opportunity to conduct laboratory experiments, participate in structured observations, analyze scientific data, and write brief scientific reports of their findings. Hands-on experience is a central component of most successful introductory college courses of this kind. Through demonstration and experimentation students acquire basic research and data analysis skills, as well as a general framework for understanding scientific pursuits. Due to the large size of these courses the implementation of laboratory and recitation sections is often prohibitively costly requiring assistants, lab rooms, materials, computers. For this reason, at the University at Albany, lab sessions are seldom implemented in these courses.

The proposed paradigm provides an innovative vehicle for the conduct of lab sessions. Computer-designed lab experiments (e.g. testing hypothesis with real data in Statistics, or classical and operant conditioning a ``virtual rat'' in the Psychology course). Lab sessions will be transformed into a VR world that can be remotely monitored online by a teaching assistant and can be visited simultaneously by students connecting from remote locations. Specialized GLUONS will be designed and added to this VR world to attach external software such as MAPLE and well known statistical packages available at the University at Albany (e.g., SPSS, MINITAB). In addition, students and instructors from within the virtual reality, will be able to visit together course-related web sites available online without loosing the communication capabilities provided by the MOO.

The effectiveness of this paradigm as a teaching aid will be assessed in several ways. First, using a controlled pre-post design, we will examine the effects of use of the online system on academic performance. Second, we will examine curves of individual academic growth as a function of patterns of online use, controlling for relevant individual differences variables such as demographics, temperamental qualities, self-efficacy and outcome expectations, personal life goals, college satisfaction and self-esteem. Third, we will examine the moderator effects of the individual differences variables on the links between online use and academic performance. Data will be collected online in the form of surveys and archived records of online interactions with the system.

5   Personnel Description and Proposed Time Table

Our multidisciplinary research team brings specialized skills that are particularly suited for the development of each of the components of the proposed paradigm. The PI, who has developed the paradigm concept and prototype, brings extensive experience in teaching-related software development, and will design and implement the general purpose GLUONS, and the necessary extensions to the eDUcore in combination with the researchers from Diversity University. The Diversity University investigators who have created and currently operate the Diversity University online campuses, bring expertise in MOO programming, development, and maintenance, and will help re-design the web interface for the eDUcore to work with GLUONS. The social science investigators from the Psychology Department at the University at Albany, bring expertise in behavioral and personality assessment, and in the use of the web as a teaching aid for large introductory courses. The psychology investigators will design and implement the online material for the courses, will evaluate the human-computer interface of the system, and will assess the effectiveness of this paradigm as a teaching tool.

The proposed time-line is as follows:


(a) Re-create the standard eDUcore on a SUN Enterprise Server 6500 at the University at Albany.

(b) Test preliminary designs of general GLUONS, improved UI for the eDUcore, and the web mooifier.

(c) Design new and modify already existing course materials on the web to be used in a VR world with GLUONS.


(a) Begin mooification of web sites and attachment of external software via GLUONS.

(b) Pilot assessment of the design and subsequent implementation of changes.


(a) Full implementation and assessment.

File translated from TEX by TTH, version 1.95.
On 1 Feb 1999, 13:40.