Dissertation Prospectus


* Still under construction

For this dissertation, the researcher plans to conduct an ethnography of intercultural literacy and cultural identity within the community of higher education educators who participate in 3-D virtual environments. The purpose of the study is to evaluate how these educators define and identify themselves within such environments.   In addition, through the study, the researcher seeks to discover whether or not online identity affects how educators approach intercultural literacy in virtual environments, as compared to their views of intercultural literacy in what participants in virtual worlds refer to as “real life” (RL).  


The researcher plans to base her dissertation on William C. Diehl and Esther Prins  (2008) study on intercultural literacy and cultural identity regarding Second Life participants called “Unintended Outcomes in Second Life: Intercultural Literacy and Cultural Identity in a Virtual World.” The study examines Second Life (SL) residents in general and their view of identity within SL through the “activity system” they participate in.   In other words, the activities instructors participate in within such an environment tend to “enhance participants’ intercultural literacy” (Diehl & Prins, 2008).


These researchers used a mixed methods approach, based on interviews, field notes, and surveys. Diehl and Prins took a random sample of 30 participants from various backgrounds by meeting them through the virtual world itself or through blogs.  The survey in the Diehl and Prins study included questions about the activities residents participated in in Second Life, such as the time spent, length of participation, events attended, what they had learned in SL, and questions about their real life, which included questions about their appearance, characteristics, “national origin, languages spoken, gender educational attainment, and cultural contacts.” Diehl and Prins used Heyward’s model of intercultural literacy and Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) to analyze the open-ended responses from their survey regarding the construction of their participants’ identity and literacy within the virtual world they participate in.  In addition, one of the researchers observed avatars in several public areas for 70 hours to examine people’s cultural backgrounds and cross-cultural interactions, and conducted interviews through the environment’s own instant messaging system.


In the study, the researchers discovered that residents are often exposed to a plethora of cultural identities.  They also found that the majority of users can speak more than one language, are friends with other residents from other cultures, and have learned about other cultures from Second Life.


For the proposed study, the researcher wants expand on the work by Diehl and Prins by focusing on a more narrow population, higher education instructors in virtual worlds and include different virtual environments including Second Life, Active Worlds and There.com. The main themes the researcher wants to explore in this study are cultural and social ties, gender and ethnic identity, language use, educational background, public verses private disclosure of personal information in both the participants’ real lives and virtual lives.  The researcher also wants to explore the participants’ group identity formation through the engagement of activities within 3-D virtual environments.  The main research question of the study is “What type of sites (e.g. classes, religious gatherings, art talks, etc…) in virtual environments does educators frequent and what type of interaction takes place in these environments?  How is it different from real-life interaction within similar type environments?”


Additional questions in the study include


 •    How do educators define themselves through race, gender, and appearance in virtual environments in comparison to their real lives when visiting these sites?
•    Do these sites engage educators in cultural literacy?  In other words, what are the attitudes of educators towards other cultures in virtual environments? What are their experiences with other languages?  Are they monolingual, bilingual, or multilingual? What are their approaches to people of different languages in virtual environments?


While there are many popular viewpoints on what constitutes a virtual world, for this study the definition that will be used is: “a virtual world is a computer-simulated representation of a world with specific spatial and physical characteristics, and users of virtual worlds interact with each other via representations of themselves called ‘avatars’” (Chen, Richards, Thrower, & Gillium, 2008). 


 Currently, several virtual worlds exist online.  Many of these virtual worlds are open-ended, although some include specific themes.  Types of virtual worlds include Massive Multi-player online games, education-focused virtual worlds, virtual worlds for kids, and open-ended virtual worlds.  Most higher education institutions participate in open-ended virtual environments including Second Life and There.com. Other open-ended virtual environments include Active Worlds, Google’s Lively (which recently folded), moove online, and Vivaty ("Second Life in Education," 2008).


Pedagogical Approaches Today


Educational institutions, medical organizations, businesses, and the military are using virtual worlds for instructional and training purposes.  Benefits of such educational activities included participation in simulated types of situations that would otherwise be impossible for most people to participate in, such as flying on a plane into the center of a hurricane or visiting the Sistine Chapel, or networking with other educational professionals through educational meetings within these types of the environments (Au, 2008).


Several colleges use 3-D virtual environments for instructional purposes, simulation, and research.  Currently, Princeton has conducted a few research studies on its island in Second Life ("Princeton University Island," 2007). In addition, Joe Sanchez, a doctoral student from the University of Texas at Austin, School of Information, recently taught an undergraduate class in Second Life called Working in Virtual Worlds.  Other academic institutions teaching in 3D virtual environments include University of Bedfordshire, Bournemouth University, University of Hamburg, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Edinburgh University, Europeen School of Visual Art, Griffith University, Princeton University, Boise State, Brown College, Bowling Green State, University of Kansas, University of Illinois, and Harvard University.


Along with higher education institutions, medical organizations and the government have used 3D virtual environments for training and collaboration.  Forterra Systems has a virtual environment known as OLIVE (On-Line Interactive Virtual Environment) that the US government, universities and medical organizations often use.  Such organizations include the Greenleaf Medical Systems, Lockheed Martin, National Institutes of Health, Stanford School of Medicine – SUMMIT, the US Army, and the US Navy ("Forterra Systems Inc.," 2008).


Past Research   


 Researchers have conducted a few studies on identity and activity within 3-D virtual environments over the past decade.  One of the earliest studies occurred in 1996 within a project called Virtual Society, which investigated “the evolution of the future electronic society” (Lea, Honda, & Matsuda, 1997). Although the researchers in the project focused more on the infrastructure of the environment in the project, they did make some note of the identity that their users chose to adopt within the environment.  The researchers noticed that “the majority of users adopt an identity, and then maintain that identity for subsequent visits to the shared locales.  This enables users to easily recognise one another” (p.133). The researchers also investigated the themes of shared interactions, collaborative working, and commerce within the virtual world.    


Another early study investigated how children chose to identify themselves in a virtual environment called Active Worlds (Bailey & Moar, 2001). The researchers noticed that when the children had a choice of avatars to choose from, they chose the avatar that dressed most like them.  They also noticed that the children identified strongly with their avatar.  One of the students in the study said that “You feel like you’re there and the avatar… like you’re looking through the avatar’s eyes not your own eyes, because you can see everything so clearly” (p.24). Furthermore, the researchers noticed that “For most children, they felt that the experience of meeting others in the world would be more genuine if they could appear as themselves, and they would be more engaged by the experience” (p.25).


The proposed study uses a research design focusing on the personal experiences of higher education educators in the United States who participate in 3-D virtual environments.  Since such studies usually focus on first person experiences, most of the data within the study will be subjective and fall into the category of qualitative. In addition, the researcher wants to use similar data collection techniques from the Diehl and Prins study, which includes interviews, field notes, and surveys. 


 For the initial survey portion of the study, the researcher plans to ask approximately 100-150 educators to complete an online survey.  Based on the survey results, the researcher will find people who are willing to participate in the interview portion of the study. For the interview portion of the study, the researcher plans to interview about 10 educators.  Finally, for the field notes portion of the study, the researcher plans to conduct around 70 hours of observation at higher education events within the three virtual worlds used in this study.




Au, W. J. (2008). The Making of Second Life. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.


Bailey, F., & Moar, M. (2001). The Vertex Project: Children Creating and Populating 3D Virtual Worlds. Journal of Art & Design Education, 20(1).
Chen, E., Richards, K., Thrower, J., & Gillium, E. (2008). Virtual Worlds.   Retrieved January 22, 2009, 2009, from http://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~eroberts/cs201/projects/virtual-worlds/history.html


Diehl, W. C., & Prins, E. (2008). Unintended Outcomes in Second Life: Intercultural Literacy and Cultural Identity in a Virtual World. Language and Intercultural Communication, 8(2), 17.


Forterra Systems Inc. (2008).   Retrieved January 22, 2009, 2009, from http://www.forterrainc.com/


Lea, R., Honda, Y., & Matsuda, K. (1997). Virtual Society: Collaboration in 3D Spaces on the Internet. Computer Supported Cooperative Work. The Journal of Collaborative Computing, 6(2/3), 227-250.


Princeton University Island. (2007).   Retrieved January 22, 2009, 2009, from http://etc.princeton.edu/sl/


Second Life in Education. (2008).   Retrieved January 22, 2009, 2009, from http://simteach.com/wiki/index.php?title=Second_Life_Education_Wiki