High Performance Network Applications Program
Office of the Vice President for Information Technology
c/o Rick McMullen
Franklin Hall 116
Indiana University
Bloomington IN 47405

HPNAP Grant Proposal

Project Name: iUniverse: Creating a Collaborative Information Universe for Indiana University

Investigator: Katy Börner, School of Library and Information Science, IUB

Phone: +1 812 855 3256 | Fax: +1 812 855 6166
Email: katy@indiana.edu | WWW: http://ella.slis.indiana.edu/~katy/
Vitae: http://ella.slis.indiana.edu/~katy/CV.html
Funded Duration: 08/01/2000 - 07/31/2001

Executive Summary
Today's digital revolution and the rapid development of the Internet affect every major field of human knowledge and ultimately the way we teach and learn. Large amounts of human knowledge are already available online - in form of texts and images but also as audio files, 3-D models, video files etc. 2-D Web interfaces are equipped with more and more plugins to access these different data formats. Research and teaching projects become collaborative efforts that bring people with different skills and expertise together. Domain experts are often spread out in space and time zones and consultation and collaboration has to proceed remotely instead of face-to-face. Required are learning and teaching environments that allow to exploit multi-modal data, that are accessible from anywhere and at any time, and that support student-student and student-instructor collaborations efficiently.

The proposed project aims to establish one of the most sophisticated interface technologies for desktop computers at IU. The technology, a "3-D Virtual Reality Chat & Design Tool" by Activeworlds.com, Inc. (http://www.activeworlds.com) allows one to build compelling, multi-modal, multi-user, navigable, and collaborative virtual environments in 3-D that can be interconnected with standard webpages. The environments are inhabited by avatars (acting as placeholders for human users) and provide true means for interacting with the objects in the environment, with embedded information sources and services, or with other users and visitors of the environment. The required hardware such as fast Internet (required for downloading and communication) and PC's with sufficient hard disk and computation capacity (needed for real-time rendering) is readily available on campus.

Using this technology, students can interact with and observe events at an atomic or planetary scale, they can visit environments and interact with events that distance, time, or safety factors normally preclude, and they can collaborate online with other students or teachers. This provides a hands-on experience that many students may find far more engaging than traditional lecture and discussion methods. Last but not least, online spaces provide almost unique capabilities to monitor students, to match the difficulty and expressiveness of the tools/teaching material at any time to the improving skill level of the individual student, or to give automated feedback.

Up to now, Active Worlds technology (AWT) has been used efficiently to conduct online research meetings. The design of customized teaching environments that meet specific course needs will pose new (research) questions.

The funding of this project would result in the design and evaluation of at least four prototypical teaching environments, that ideally could act as templates for other courses. The environments would be designed by students taking the L578 User Interface Design course (http://ella.slis.indiana.edu/~katy/L578/) at SLIS in Fall 2000 and in collaboration with IU faculty. The teaching environments would present instructional material in new ways, provide access to the Internet's "library" of information as well as offer spaces for (course related) communication and collaboration. The four teaching environments would create an information universe (iUniverse) for IU and would be refined in June 2001 by Katy Börner and students and extended if required. AWT would also be used in some lab sections of L542 Introduction to Human Computer Interaction (Fall 2000 and Spring 2001 http://ella.slis.indiana.edu/~katy/L542/) as well as in L697 a Special Topics Course on Information Visualization in Spring 2001.

Specific formative and summative course evaluations would be conducted in collaboration with Christopher Essex, School of Education. They would be targeted towards the improvement of course materials and procedures, and to make the AWT activities as effective, efficient, and educational as possible.

In summer 2001, a workshop would be conducted inside the created virtual "iUniverse" to teach interested faculty how to use AWT for instructional purposes.

Documentation about the installation, setup, and usage of AWT as well as recommendations how to use AWT for teaching purposes would be provided online and could be incorporated in IU's Teaching Knowledge Base repository.

In this way, AWT would be available and a critical mass of AWT teaching expertise could be created at IU, such that faculty interested in its use can easily access and adapt it for specific course needs in order to prepare students for today's digital world.

1. Introduction

Why should one use collaborative 3-D virtual environments for teaching?
Instructional material is often composed of different media: text-based and visual material but also audio and video as well as combinations thereof.

Many courses have an inherent need to visualize, design, or interact in 3-D. Examples are molecule structures in chemistry, sculptures in fine art, visualizations of biomechanics data sets, plots and graphs in statistics, etc. Other courses may benefit from the possibility to (inter)act with class material in 3-D space, for example to build and evaluate prototypical stores in an e-commerce course or to visit a different environment (market place, mall, museum) in each language lesson allowing for a much more action-oriented way of learning. Courses taught in 3-D provide a hands-on experience that many students may find far more engaging than traditional lecture and discussion methods.

Often, projects are collaborative efforts that bring people with different skills and expertise together to work on the collective construction (design and organizational principles) as well as the management of interactions (with other users as well as the environment). Multi-user environments promote sharing of insights, collaboration, and teaching among students allowing them to become part of a "community of practice" [1].

Unique capabilities of virtual environments include allowing students to see the effect of changing physical laws, visualize abstract concepts, observe events at an atomic or planetary scale, visit environments and interact with events that distance, time, or safety factors normally preclude. Role-playing may be easily incorporated to promote effective collaboration.
Last but not least, online spaces provide almost unique capabilities to monitor students, to match the difficulty and expressiveness of the tools/teaching material at any time to the improving skill level of the individual student, or to give automated feedback. Ideally, students would be "in flow" [2] - they would experience just the right balance of challenge and reward to make course work highly motivating. The course would provide a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of being transported into a new digital reality.

Why AWT?
Different 3-D online browser systems such as The Palace (www.thepalace.com), Blaxxun's online community client-server architecture (www.blaxxun.com/community), Microsoft's Virtual Worlds Platform (http://www.vworlds.org/), and Active Worlds technology (AWT) by Activeworlds.com, Inc. (http://www.activeworlds.com/) have been examined to find the best and most versatile to use for students with no prior programming knowledge and the envisaged goal to design multi-modal instructional material in 3-D for diverse classes that are interlinked with webpages.

Microsofts open source Virtual Worlds (VW) Platform looked like the optimal choice. However, different tests (see also http://ella.slis.indiana.edu/~katy/VirtualWorlds/vwtest.html) showed that its installation, and the 3-D building done outside the world is more complicated and not very well suited for non-programmers. Last but not least VW runs on Windows 2000 - a software that will not be available on campus in the near future.

Tests with AWT (see also http://ella.slis.indiana.edu/~katy/iscape/iscape-w.html) showed its superiority in that it

AWT is different from most 3-D systems in that environments are modular and created entirely online. "Bots" can be used to control building of objects, backup worlds, offer contextual help by recognizing words from chat texts and triggering automatic responses, interface the internet - download webpages, read relevant information, generate webpages in the fly and submitting them, monitor chat text for appropriate content and eject offenders, and many other purposes.

Last but not least AWT is a widely used system. The Active Worlds Universe (see Figure 1) is home to hundreds of thousands of users and millions of kilometers of virtual territory. Users can "shop online in the 3-D virtual mall, explore over 1000 unique virtual worlds, build their own 3-D home on the Internet, make new friends and chat with people from all over the world, play interactive games, and choose from a vast range of avatar identities" (http://www.activeworlds.com/).

Figure 1: The Active Worlds Browser interface. It provides a "List of worlds and teleports" for easy navigation on the left hand side, a 3-D virtual reality window and a chat window in the middle, and a Web Browser Window on the right hand side. You just entered the AWT University.

While most of the worlds in the main AW Universe are essentially anarchic environments where freedom of expression is the main ingredient, there are many places dedicated to education. The Active Worlds Educational Universe (http://www.activeworlds.com/edu/), for example, hosts over 80 participants including University of Colorado at Boulder, University of California at Santa Cruz, Cornell University, University College London, Center for Advanced Learning Technologies, and United Nations.

I invite you to visit AW yourself. To enter and use the Active Worlds Universe one needs to have the Active Worlds Browser running. The browser can be easily downloaded from http://www.activeworlds.com/products/download.html. Alternatively you may like to visit the iScape - Information Landscape, a world dedicated to the analysis and visual display of information for teaching and research purposes. IScape is part of the Active Worlds education universe and therefore requires a different browser. Instructions on how to enter iScape can be found at http://ella.slis.indiana.edu/~katy/iscape/iscape-e.html.

2. Project Description
The project proposes the design and test of at least four prototypical teaching environments as part of an evolving iUniverse. The environments would be designed by Katy Börner and students taking the L578 User Interface Design course in collaboration with faculty interested to use AWT in their courses.

The resulting iUniverse will be half exhibition, half hands-on science center and will provide a marketplace of sciences with alternative meeting places for students and faculty. At least one class will be taught in each teaching environment. This way, faculty and student designers will get student's feedback about their projects and the suitability of AWT for different teaching needs. The evolving iUniverse could be shared and exploited by many users -- from students on campus to people all over the world, 24 hours each day, and in 24 time zones.

AWT Installation and Teaching Preparation
The usage of AWT in L578, L542, L697 requires the installation and setup of AWT, the design of lab material (in world "design manuals" and "on-the spot" mini-lectures about certain topics, links to AWT related reading resources), and assignment instructions.

Teaching of L578, L542, L697
The development of the Internet into a repository of human knowledge and the possibility to record, store, and access knowledge in multi-modal ways poses new challenges to the design of efficient and intuitive human computer interaction that empowers human capabilities.

The usage of AWT technology in the L578 User Interface Design course would allow students to meet some of these challenges by designing multi-modal interfaces to multi-media data (images, animations, sound, and videostream grabs), to study new interaction metaphors, and to collaborate virtually.

Corresponding to the draft L578 course outline at http://ella.slis.indiana.edu/~katy/L578/ lectures would be used to present and discuss the theoretical foundations of task analysis, interface goals and design methods, technical principles, as well as social impact and future developments.

In the first lab sessions, students with no prior programming experience would be taught fundamental principles of how to design compelling, multi-modal, continuously navigable, and collaborative spaces in 3-D enhanced with chat capability, inhabited by avatars, and interlinked with traditional web-based materials. Subsequently, students would concentrate on the design of content and would actively "learn by doing" how to design a multi-modal user interface. An instructor would primarily act as mentor and moderator, providing advice, helping students to solve problems, and supporting course participants to become "insiders". Lab sections would also be used to coordinate student teams, to discuss the overall interface structure, choices of medium (text, audio, etc.), design alternatives and their implications, as well as to empirically evaluate the interfaces.

Although interface design would be done in-world (except for the design of webpages or new textures, and 3-D models) the lab sessions would be held in a standard lab room reducing student's distressing experiences with miscommunications and technical nuisances as reported from web-based distance education courses [3]. A face-to-face lab session would also provide prompt and reliable feedback that seems to be fundamental to the effectiveness of education [4].

Following the ThinkQuest (http://www.thinkquest.org/) models of project-based learning, students would work in teams to analyze and organize teaching materials and present them as learning "modules" on the Web. In their second class project students would design dynamic webpages for self or assisted learning of JavaScript basics. They would construct knowledge for themselves, under guidance, rather than have it fed to them [5,6]. The third class project would be devoted to the evaluation of different teaching worlds in the Active Worlds Educational Universe. In class 6, faculty interested to transform teaching material into 3-D would present different project ideas to class that would be designed in the fourth class project. Potential teaching environments are:

Faculty would later serve as collaborators with expertise in the design of teaching material for a specific subject matter. Students taking L578 would be experts in the design of effective virtual spaces using AWT. They would be responsible for mastering content, deciding how that content is to be represented in the Virtual Environment and how it is to behave.

Having students design an environment to teach other students is also a powerful learning tool. We assume that the responsibility students take on will be highly motivating.

Based on the experience gained in L578, AWT would also be used in some lab sections of L542 Introduction to Human Computer Interaction (Fall 2000 and Spring 2001) as well as in L697 a Special Topics Course on Information Visualization to be taught in Spring 2001. The L542 course would exploit teaching material provided in iUniverse such as JavaScript basics (see assignment 2 in L578) or the statistics teaching environment. L697 may extend the iUniverse by a visual interface to a yet to be determined database.

The integration of AWT technology into the SLIS curriculum would be a major advance for the program, and student reaction to these changes would need to be carefully monitored and measured to ensure the success of this innovation. Specific formative and summative course evaluation would be conducted in collaboration with Christopher Essex, School of Education, including the following:

All of these evaluation activities will be targeted towards the improvement of course materials and procedures, and to make the AWT activities as effective, efficient, and educational as possible.

This way the suggested project will also provide empirical results on the usage of collaborative 3-D desktop spaces as an educational tool and can help identifying characteristics of the technology that learning.

These course evaluation instruments and procedures would, of course, be submitted to the Human Subjects Committee for approval before implementation.

Course Support
The two most promising prototype teaching environments in the iUniverse would receive considerable implementation help and teaching advise by Katy Börner and students in June 2001 to make them an integral part of the corresponding courses.

Ideally, the prototype teaching environments could function as templates for the efficient implementation of new course material and provide a showcase of how different course requirements can be met.

Workshop and Teaching Support
In July 2001, a workshop would be organized for faculty interested in using AWT technology as a tool for developing innovative approaches to education. The workshop would start with an introduction into Active World and its Educational Programs; provide a guided tour to educational sites and to showcases of student work (direct Teleports would be provided); explain how to install and run AWT; Provide a hands-on building session; demonstrate the "in world" tutorial; and last but not least it would pass on experience about different ways to integrate AWT into the classroom. A discussion session would encompass topics such as how to "fit" the environment with the learning objectives and content, and AWT's potentials for "distance education", "just in time education", and "learning as exchange". The workshop would be hosted inside the created virtual iUniverse allowing faculty from outside BL campuses to join remotely. Slides would be presented in form of Web pages. The Chat Log would provide some insight into the ensuing discussion. An informal, get-together would be organized after the workshop, allowing participants to meet in the real world. Section 5 provides a list of Indiana University faculty that expressed interest to use AWT in their courses.

3. Relevant Teaching Experience
In Spring 1999, Katy Börner taught H212 Introduction to Software Systems, Honors in the Computer Science Department, IUB. In their final project, students worked in teams on data base, interface, newsgroup, security issues to develop an online Homefinder for BL [7]. Experiences from this course show that the description of a collaborative project has to be very detailed in order to coordinate subprojects, yet it needs to be flexible so that students can make their ideas come true, ultimately seeing it as their very own project. Because of the spatial metaphor underlying AWT, each intermediate group solution is immediately connected to (partial) solutions of other teams. This will make it easier for a student and the instructor to discuss partial results and to provide additional technical help or design guidance.

In 1999, Katy Börner along with four Computer Science Graduate students: Sven Bertel, Mitja Hmeljak, Matt Jadud, and Bob Najlis implemented VegoWelt [8,9,10], a Smart Virtual Environment that uses a children's playroom scenario for demonstrating and evaluating the support of manipulation activity (see Figure 2, left). VegoWelt was partially supported by a Postdoc Fellowship from the German Academic Exchange Center (DAAD), 1998 - 1999.

Figure 2: CAVE Interfaces of VegoWelt (left) and LVis (right)

Another project, called LVis: A Smart Virtual Reality Interface to Digital Libraries [11,12,13,14,15], is an interdisciplinary, collaborative effort involving Katy Börner, Andrew Dillon, SLIS and Margaret Dolinsky, School of Fine Arts & UITS, IUB as well as students from different departments: Andy Clune, Computer Science Dept & Cognitive Science, Ryan Schnitzlein, Computer Science, Hosang Cheon, MIME Program, Department of Telecommunication, Kevin Kowalewsky, UITS, José A. Montalvo, SLIS, Sumayya A. Ansari, SLIS, and Tyler Waite, SLIS.

The project aims at the support of the navigation of complex information spaces. Figure 2 (right) shows an exemplary CAVE interface to a document set retrieved from the Dido Image Bank at the Department of the History of Art of Indiana University. LVis is supported by IU's High Performance Network Applications Program, 1999-2000 (http://www.indiana.edu/~uits/hpnap/). An ITR/IM+HCI grant proposal entitled 1, 2, 3-D iScapes for Digital Libraries: A Comparison of User Interfaces Supporting Information Visualization and Personalization (PI: Katy Börner, SLIS, Co-P.I.'s: Andrew Dillon, Javed Mostafa, SLIS) was submitted to NSF to continue this research.

VegoWelt and LVis show the potential of virtual environments to build user interfaces that provide users with metaphors that are close to what they know and expect, encouraging their engagement with the (teaching) material. They can enable learning that emerges from looking- and acting-from-within rather than looking-at. However, 3-D interfaces often make it difficult to present text-based material in a convenient manner. AWT provides a unique combination of virtual environment and web-interface. It entails a number of unique features, e.g., navigating and orienting oneself in the space, learning to experience the environment and the objects and persons within it via virtual presence in avatars, and successfully communicating and engaging with others (through text, talk, and avatar bodily movement) according to various explicit and implicit interactive norms. Furthermore, desktop VR is more suitable for widespread use than immersive VR technology.

4. Expected Outcomes
The funding of the project would result in the following activities and results:

Last but not least, the project would enhance IU's reputation as being a technologically advanced institution of teaching and learning.

5. IU Faculty Interested to Use AWT in their Courses

6. Incorporation of Campus Institutions
The following institutions have been contacted and their feedback was incorporated into this proposal. 7. Timeline & Actionplan 8. Budget Summary & Justification
The project budget is summarized in Table 1.
Senior Personnel
Katy Börner 1 month summer support in 2000 and in 2001

$ 9,470
Other Professional
2 graduate students a $10/h, 40h/week for 8 weeks (Aug 2000 & June 2001)

$ 6,400
Software: Galaxerver Type G1000 
Hardware: Dell PowerEdge 1300 Computer

$ 1,330
$ 1,800
Conference presentations and demonstrations

$ 1,000
$ 20,000

Table 1: Summary Budget

Katy Börner would devote one summer month in 2000 for the preparation required to use AWT in the L578 User Interface Design course and another month in 2000 to prepare and conduct a workshop for interested faculty.
Chris Essex would be employed on an hourly basis to conduct data acquisition and data analysis as part of the empirical evaluation of courses taught using AWT.
Graduate students would be employed on an hourly basis to design lab material and assignment instructions, and to redesign two educational environments.
Contingent on the funding of this project, SLIS will contribute $4,080 for one Faculty Assistant employed 15 hours per week for 16 weeks in Fall 2000 and Spring 2001.

Educational versions of Active Worlds Servers host a maximum of 20 simultaneous users, which is not sufficient, even for the initial class of 30 students, but especially inadequate given the rising number of students that would utilize the system in the following semesters. Also, having the iUniverse hosted on a server that is not onsite, would limit our access to and control over the technology, and we could not assure faculty and students that the system would always be online and available for their use. Therefore, the purchase of a server is necessary. The smallest Galaxerver Type G1000 (http://www.activeworlds.com/products/galaxerver.html), hosts up to 50 simultaneous users. It provides 1 million square meters of virtual land and comes with a Support Package at a price of $1,995. Designed for a stand-alone World separate from the Active Worlds Universe of Worlds it gives to the administrator full configuration control over the World. Active Worlds offers qualified educational programs a 33% discount on all Active Worlds servers reducing the price to $1,330.

Rick McMullen, UITS Advanced Information Technology Laboratory generously offered to host the main iUniverse on a server at the Center for Innovative Computer Applications.  This will ensure fast and reliable online access.
The budgeted Dell PowerEdge 1300 computer will provide the technical basis at SLIS to design and evaluate test environments for the main iUniverse (3-D modelling, sound production, usability tests, etc.).

IUniverse and it's instructional projects would be presented by graduate students and Katy Börner at international Conferences such as Educause 2000 in Indianapolis.

9. References & Links

HomeFacultyKaty BörneriUniverse Grant Proposal

Last modified: 10/09/2000