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The role of embodiment in student success in virtual worlds
by Mark Childs


Using virtual worlds for learning and teaching presents some unique opportunities, but also some unique problems. The opportunities are well documented, for example in publications such as those by Virtual World Watch, Savin-Baden et al (2009), Cormier et al (2009) and Bignell and Parson (2010), as well as in further case studies to be published in a forthcoming JISC report (JISC guide to Innovative Practice in a Digital Age, 2011). Many of the problems are also well-documented; these include under-resourced and low-specification IT infrastructure, restrictive firewalls and technical problems with service providers (see for example Childs et al, 2009).

The focus of the study presented here is how learners’ individual experience of virtual worlds contributes to the success or otherwise of virtual worlds as a learning activity, and particularly the role that presence and embodiment play in learning and teaching. It is based on a series of five case studies which ran from 2008 to 2009, with some additional information from learning activities conducted in 2010. These were all at different higher education institutions, across a range of subject disciplines. All took place in Second Life.  Firm conclusions about the role of learners’ experience are difficult to justify, due to the small numbers of students from whom data were gathered (a total of 35 across all the cases). However, (to the extent to which conclusions can be drawn) factors such as institution, subject, sex and age appeared to be less influential than the time spent inworld, and the nature of the activity.

The article here can only present the barest outlines of the work, for the full descriptions of case studies, methodology etc.; the full study is available for download. The work presented here will also form the basis of a keynote at the SOLSTICE conference at Edge Hill University, Liverpool, on 8th June.  

Unwrapping presence

One of the initial problems with conducting research into experience of presence is identifying a commonly accepted terminology. Terms such as telepresence, mediated presence and virtual presence are used differently in different contexts across various disciplines. Copresence and social presence are sometimes used interchangeably and can mean different things. For consistency, the following definitions are suggested.

The term Presence can be subdivided into one of four forms. One of these is Mediated presence, the sense of “being there” in a technologically-created environment, but where the sense of the technology mediating the interaction is diminished. This can either be Telepresence, where the location is remote, but real, or Virtual presence; experiencing a computer-generated world as if one is there (Goldberg, 2000; 5).

Copresence is the experience of being together with others in a technologically-generated environment Zhao (2003: 445), Social presence is the ability to project oneself socially and emotionally within that environment (Arbaugh and Hwang, 2006: 10).  A fourth aspect of presence, Self-presence or Embodiment, is the “users' mental model of themselves inside the virtual world” (Biocca, 1997).  

Of these forms of presence, embodiment proved to be the most difficult for participants to articulate. It also seemed to be the one most rarely experienced and the one that took longer to form. However, as indicated below, it emerged as a key element for the success of some of the learning activities undertaken.  

Screenshot from Second Life

Figure 1: Screenshot from Second Life


Presence and learning

The learners who took part in the various activities in the case studies were asked to complete a questionnaire about their experiences, as well as a range of questions about themselves. Four of these questions related to the degree to which they valued the learning activities. Another four related to the different aspects of presence described above. Those that tended to rate the activity highly were put into a “high-satisfaction” grouping (and those that didn’t a “low-satisfaction” grouping).  The learners were also grouped into high and low experiences of presence. These groupings were aggregated over all of the case studies and produced the data in table 1.

High presence



Low presence



High satisfaction



Low satisfaction16

Table 1: the numbers of students in each of the grouping divisions

The table indicates a strong correlation between satisfaction with the learning activities and an experience of presence, and the converse. With very few exceptions, a satisfactory learning experience will only occur if the learner also experiences presence. This distinction between the two groups of responses was also reflected in the qualitative data. For example, sharing the experience of walking around a theatre with other avatars is seen as having no additional value by one student (“I can’t see that it enhances it any more”) but leads to a sense of connection for another student (“you could physically, well not physically, walk them up to the bit you were talking about.”). This variation occurred despite all of the students using the same technology, yet the students located the cause or otherwise of this experience as being a result of the qualities of the technology. Students either made comments such as “You don’t have the feeling of it (the virtual space)” also commented “The whole design of it is quite poor”.

Although the design of the platform does make a difference to the experience (Childs, 2010; 202) the difference in responses indicates that there is an additional element, something intrinsic to the learner, that also has an influence. Analysis of other questions the learners were asked indicated that this is not linked to their prior experience of technology in general, or even the ease with which they learn to navigate the Second Life interface. Of the characteristics of the learners investigated, only two appeared to correlate with the high-satisfaction/high presence versus low-satisfaction / low presence divide.

One of these distinctions was that the gamers in the groups were those who experienced presence. Another distinction was that those who found the learning activity unsatisfactory tended to be disclosurist. Disclosurism is the need that some participants in virtual worlds display to discover who the person with whom they are interacting “really” is, rather than relate solely to their virtual persona (Amdahl, 2007). There may be a link between these factors (satisfaction with learning and the enjoyment of computer games on the one hand, and the need to discover who people are in an offline setting on the other) which may be the result of the learners’ embodiment tendencies.

Embodiment tendencies

The idea of an embodiment tendency is suggested by Heeter in 1995 (200). She proposed two characteristics of users as being propensities for involvement in virtual worlds: these are the engaging belief in a virtual world and the engaging belief in a virtual body (an “embodiment tendency”). Heeter found that this propensity varied from individual to individual.

In her study, participants engaged in a 3D virtual world in which the participants’ image was superimposed over computer-generated images projected on a screen. The participants were asked whether their off-screen physical body, their image on the screen, or both, felt like their real self. Heeter found that 29% to 31% of respondents “felt as if ‘the being on the screen’ was their real self”, 26% to 29% felt that their physical body was their real self and 40% to 42% felt that both were real” and that “the percentages were surprisingly consistent across different audiences and different virtual experiences” (Heeter, 1995: 200).

If this is a consistent phenomenon, then this inability to feel embodiment may explain the responses observed in the data from the survey. Someone who does not feel these tendencies will not feel the same level of excitement that is a key element of playing computer games so will not continue with them. If interacting with people in an online environment they will always feel that these interactions are lacking in some form of authenticity, and so will need to feel a connection with the only aspect that they perceive has some reality, i.e. others’ offline selves; and a learner who does not feel embodied at all within the environment will feel that the experience is lacking in value and “can’t see that (having a presence within the world) enhances it any more”.

The roots of lack of embodiment

Why some students may not experience embodiment at all is difficult to ascertain. Within the sessions conducted as part of the study, three of these were with students for whom this was their first time in a virtual world, one of these was with learners with a few weeks’ experience, and one with a few months’. More longitudinal studies are needed to demonstrate this, but anecdotal evidence indicates that some people do take longer to develop a sense of embodiment than others. However, all of these different groups showed some students who experienced embodiment and some who did not, indicating that even with longer inworld, some learners will not develop a feeling of embodiment.

Part of the lack of connection to the virtual world in the initial stages may be because learners are resistant to the idea of learning in a virtual world. Reasons for this are many, but can be grouped into the following broad categories (Childs and Peachey, 2010):

  • They see the virtual (or any technologically-based) experience as inauthentic. For example; “I rather think all the opportunities which are available to participants sound rather unhealthy. Personal interaction and real experiences are much more positive.” i.e. they perceive that if it happens in a virtual environment it is not personal and not real.
  • They see the virtual world as a game, and also have a set of inappropriate attitudes towards the role of games in education, i.e. that they are frivolous and time-wasting, not a respectable thing to do and only able to provide inauthentic learning (Whitton and Hollis, 2008: 223).
  • They do not like the culture of the virtual world, disapproving of the behaviour of many of the people they meet in the virtual world and seeing this as inappropriate or creepy.

This resistance to the concept of virtual worlds would limit learners’ preparedness to engage with the virtual world and therefore cause those students to deny themselves the potential to experience embodiment. However, some learners who did not experience presence had none of these negative attitudes. They entered the learning activity fully committed to the idea, and with no prejudicial opinions about the role of technology, yet they still did not feel engaged. Whereas other students who enjoyed the activities talked about the liberating feeling of flight and exploration throughout the virtual worlds, these learners spoke about feeling of entrapment and being sedentary, with phrases such as “Sitting at my laptop when I don't have to is usually something I don't care to do” and “I want to physically be doing it myself rather than watching a character do it on the screen”.

Heeter suggests that the reason for some people not experiencing embodiment is that “About one fourth of the population is so strongly situated in the real world and their real body that they have a difficult time becoming involved in a virtual world.” (Heeter, 1995; 200). Murray and Sixsmith come to a similar conclusion about embodiment and state that a diminishment of awareness of the physical body is required to experience it in virtual reality (1999; 327). The learners who reported a lack of engagement despite no value-based opposition to virtual worlds also spoke of their strong preference for physical activity. It may be that those who state that they “just don’t get” virtual worlds, despite accepting that they can have educational value, are particularly likely to be those who have a tactile or physical focus in their work, model-builders and sculptors for example.  Although consideration also needs to be given to an alternative viewpoint offered by one of the learners taking part in the study, which is "I think it's just simply that for some people it works; some people like it, enjoy it. You don’t necessarily always have to have a reason, an answer to something".

Embodiment and emotional connections

This sense of connection experienced by the students taking part in Second Life learning activities for the first time was still limited however, irrespective of any embodiment or immersive tendency. The learning activities the learners were set involved a variety of their responses to the features of the world, which included the emotional impact of some of the spaces. Although able to discuss the design of the virtual spaces at some length, and the affordances of the platform, how these spaces made them feel was not something they even understood as a valid question. However, when students who had been active in Second Life for several months were asked the same question, they were able to talk about the spaces and relate an emotional response to being within them. Stephens (2010) recounts a similar difference in response to participants in the World War One sim he has developed. Those who have already been active in Second Life for several months before entering the sim feel the experience as a far more personally affecting one. It appears therefore that the sense of embodiment increases over time, at a certain point, the sense of connection becomes strong enough that most participants feel embodied to an extent that enables this deeper emotional connection to take place.

Conclusions: embodiment and cognition

If part of what we wish to accomplish with our learners when taking them into a virtual world is to provide them with an experience from which they can learn, then taking into account: 1. Whether it is necessary for them to experience embodiment or not; and 2. Whether they can experience embodiment to the degree required for the learning activity to be effective, therefore needs to be considered. 

In hindsight, the importance of embodiment to an experience of learning is not surprising. Our sense of embodiment is also fundamentally important in learning in the physical world. The concept of “embodied cognition states that part of the process by which make sense of the world is because we have lived within it as physical people; our cognition is directed towards physical action (Wilson, 2002; 626). In her definitions of the characteristics of embodied cognition, Wilson also concludes that “off-line cognition is body based” (2002: 626), implying therefore that online cognition is not, however, the central role that embodiment has played in the learning activities in this study indicates that online cognition too is body-based.

If this is the case, then until learners have acquired that sense of a virtual body within a virtual world, cognition can be impaired. The difficulty with learning in virtual worlds is that as learners in the physical world we take embodied cognition for granted and so can be unprepared for the difficulties that when moving into a virtual world; learners have the need to learn to become embodied learners again, but within a new environment. The implication of this study is that, without support in doing this, some learners will not be able to achieve this embodiment, and so will struggle to learn, and will be doing so in a context in which there may be no-one aware of why they are struggling. 

Mark Childs
Faculty of Engineering and Computing
Coventry University


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