Affordances of synthetic worlds for language learning

The “affordances” (Gibson, 1979) of an environment refer to the perceived and actual properties of an environment that determine how the environment can be used. Young (2001) furthered that affordances can be thought of as “possibilities for action.” This is echoed in the definition given by van Lier (2004) that affordances are the qualities of an object or an environment that allow an individual to perform an action.

In this post, I will highlight five affordances of 3D virtual learning environments as proposed by Dalgarno and Lee (2009) and compare and contrast these affordances by those proffered by Deutschmann and Panichi (Ch2 in Molka-Danielson and Deutschmann (Eds) 2009) and Henderson and al (2009). I offer examples of learning situations within 3D VLEs to illustrate each affordance.

The first affordance offered for suggestion by Dalgarno and Lee is that 3D VLEs can be used “to facilitate learning tasks that lead to the development of enhanced spatial knowledge representation of the explored domain.” The authors argue that if a learner is expected to understand real-world objects which display dynamic behaviours, experimenting with such objects in a 3D VLE will help the learner to build on personal knowledge of the object in question’s behaviours, by testing the objects’ capacities and reactions.  This could be drawn upon, for example in CLIL lessons where students are learning about content specific knowledge, e.g. forces in physics, or scripting and programming in IT, through the foreign langauge.

The second affordance proposed is that “3D VLEs can be used to facilitate experiential linguistic tasks that would be impractical or impossible to undertake in the real world.”  For example, the logistics and cost of taking a foreign language class to an airport where the target language is spoken in order to practice checking-in may make the task unfeasible. However, in a synthetic world, with the help of a ‘holodeck’ which allows one to build, save and then ‘rez’ a variety of scenarios/environments,  an airport can be ‘built’ and the task be completed by students.

Similarly, where the scenario in real-life would simply be too dangerous to attempt, synthetic worlds can offer possibilities to experience the event. ESL teacher Nergiz Kern illustrates this in her kitchen fire simulation lesson (  Using a holodeck which resembles a kitchen, Kern simulates a fire that starts in the kitchen whilst a meal is being prepared. She asks learners to react and work together to ensure the group’s safety. The simulation is realistic, reacting to learners’ actions and, thus, showing them whether their language and communication skills would suffice in such a situation. These two examples show that synthetic worlds allow learners to, firstly, practise skills and, secondly, undertake embodied learning tasks that to accomplish in the real-world would be too expensive or dangerous.

Figure: Kitchen fire simulation lesson. Image from N. Kern’s post on 

In the former teaching examples we can also better understand the fourth affordance advocated by Dalgarno and Lee; that “3D VLEs can be used to facilitate learning tasks that lead to improved transfer of knowledge and skills to real situations through contextualization of language.” They explain that should one consider that learners apply knowledge more effectively in real-world contexts if the learning environment in which the knowledge was acquired be based upon the real context for application, the rich sensory stimuli which can be used when learning in a synthetic world offer a true possibility for situated learning.

There are parallels between this fourth affordance and an affordance suggested by Deutschmann and Panichi; that the 3D VLE of Second Life offers the language learner and educator the possibility for physical simulations of real life tasks, noting that Second Life “increase(s) the scope for authenticity” (2009:38.) The authors give the example of asking someone for directions in a virtual world, explaining that unlike in a real-life classroom, where a learner has to pretend to be lost and to follow the directions, in a synthetic world such an act can be a real act of communication. For example, asking directions to an avatar who is not part of the learning group, whilst completing a treasure hunt task to find specific locations within the virtual world. The environment allows the learner to perform a real communication act. Thus, the environment contextualises the language which may improve the transfer of such a language skill to a real situation.

The third affordance advanced by Dalgarno and Lee is that 3D VLEs can be “used to facilitate learning tasks that lead to increased intrinsic motivation and engagement.” This is suggested, due to the high degree of collaboration and personalization that the environments allow. Individuals have the possibility to co-construct the environment visually as well as socially. The ability for learners to carry out tasks collaboratively may create positive interdependence between learners which in turn acts as a stimulus for learning.  Furthermore, Dalgamo and Lee advocate that the ability for learners to establish individual goals and make personal choices as to how best achieve these in the synthetic world is an affordance of the environment which leads to increased learner engagement. In relation to this, it has been suggested by Steuer that the sense of being present in the mediated environment rather than the learner’s surroundings in the physical environment, due to the rich sensory stimuli, contributes to intrinsic motivation. I will explore this further when looking at the work of Larson in Section 4.

The final affordance advocated by the Australian researchers is that “VLEs can be used to facilitate tasks that lead to richer and /or more effective collaborative learning than is possible in 2D alternatives.” They argue that drawing on the spatial and non-verbal cues within the environments can provide learners with a greater “sense of place” and, subsequently, increase group propinquity. In a further paper, Lee adds to this point explaining that should learners have the abilities to point to virtual objects or to use the position of their avatar or of an object as reference points, the type of interactions between learners can be considered as richer and the communication, due to the possibility of using indexical items to refer to the environment, can be more efficient.

Henderson and al similarly refer to this affordance, stating, in their table of virtual world affordances for language learning, that “the immersive social environment of virtual worlds provide a range of discourse elements which are generally not available in less immersive environments” (2009:466).They suggest that synthetic worlds allow the merge of both physical and linguistic co-presence and, thus, indexical language becomes one of the discourse items which in turn is used as an aid to make communication more efficient during collaborative learning.

The last affordance that I wish to highlight in this post is the ‘affective filter affordance’ as proposed by both Henderson and al and Deutschmann and Panichi. The first researchers suggest that “virtual presence can result in reduced apprehension and embarrassment” (2009:466) and Deutschmann and Panichi further this by stating that this is due to the environment allowing the “visual representation of self via an avatar” (2009:34). Roed has shown the impact of being represented as an avatar on learner participation and learner attitude, and this is discussed in Section 4, however he does not suggest this as an affordance of the environment unlike the previous cited authors. Deutschmann and Panichi specifically describe that because the environment allows portrayal of users as avatars, actions are possible in the environment that are not possible in traditional learning settings. To illustrate this point, they describe the possibility of using the VLEs for tasks that make use of the affective and creative dimension of the environments such as tasks which encourage users to explore their identity through their avatar and play with the notion of self, both in physical but also in cultural terms. They argue that “the degree of cultural anonymity afforded by avatars creates a new/neutral ground for discussing issues which can be sensitive in language education” (2009:37).


Gibson, J. J. (1971).  Notes on affordances. 
Van Lier, L. (2004). The ecology and semiotics of language leaning: A sociocultural perspective. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 
Young, M. (2001). An ecological psychology of instructional design: Learning and thinking by perceiving-acting systems. In D.H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research for educational communications and technology (pp. 169-177). The Association for Educational Communications and Technology. 



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