We use the language of presence and place when we interact online: in our instant text messaging windows we often post: “Are you there?” Research indicates the importance of the sense of presence for computer-supported collaborative virtual learning. To realize the potential of virtual worlds such as Second Life, which may have advantages over conventional text-based environments, we need an understanding of design and the emergence of the sense of presence.
A construct was created for the sense of presence, as a collaborative, action-based process (Spagnolli, Varotto, & Mantovani, 2003) with four dimensions (sense of place, social presence, individual agency, and mediated collaborative actions). Nine design principles were mapped against the four dimensions.
The guiding question for the study's exploration of the sense of presence was: In the virtual world Second Life, what is the effect on the sense of presence in collaborative learning spaces designed according to the sense of presence construct proposed, using two of the nine design principles, wayfinding and annotation? Another question of interest was: What are the relationships, if any, among the four dimensions of presence?
The research utilized both quantitative and qualitative measures. Twenty learners recruited from the Graduate School of Education and Psychology at Pepperdine University carried out three assigned collaborative activities in Second Life under design conditions foregrounding each of the two design conditions, and a combination of the two. Analyses from surveys, Second Life interactions, interviews and a focus group were conducted to investigate how various designed learning environments based in the virtual world contributed to the sense of presence, and to learners' ability to carry out collaborative learning.
The major research findings were: (a) the construct appears robust, and future research in its application to other virtual worlds may be fruitful; (b) the experience of wayfinding (finding a path through a virtual space) resulted overall in an observed pattern of a slightly stronger sense of place; (c) the experience of annotation (building) resulted overall in an observed pattern of a slightly stronger sense of agency; and (d) there is a positive association between sense of place and sense of agency.