Learning About Self and Other in Virtual Worlds:
Experiences of People with Physical Disabilities

Virtual Worlds Research

Project Overview

The purpose of this research was to delve into the personal experiences of people with physical disabilities and their informal learning about self and other in virtual worlds. Curious about virtual identity, embodiment, social interactions, learning, (dis)ability, technology, and meaning, I chose a phenomenological approach. Phenomenology is all about exploring the recounted lived-experiences of people to “define” the object of study.

Phenomenological VWs Disability and Learning about Self and Other Research

Structured Abstract

Research Problem
Virtual worlds like Second Life are shared 3D graphical places where people interact with each other and the environment through customizable embodied self-representations called avatars. Due to the recent nature of this research environment, the literature encompassing avatar identity, disability and learning in virtual worlds is limited. Thus, the purpose of this study was to explore experiences of people with physical disabilities learning about self and other in virtual worlds.

Research Questions
1) How do people with physical disabilities experience learning about self and other in virtual worlds?
2) What do they learn?

Literature Review
Virtual worlds’ constructs and historical developments contextualize the research environment. Definitions and typologies of selfhood and virtual identity explore the connection between person and avatar. Medical, social theory and capabilities models of disability are described, and accessibility, issues of virtual embodiment and disability in virtual worlds are explored.

Conducted in virtual worlds and involving in-depth interviewing of three residents of Second Life who experience physical disabilities, this study follows a qualitative phenomenological approach with descriptive and interpretative analyses within and between participants.

Results and Conclusions
Self-avatar and avatar-avatar interactions lead to participants experiencing learning about themselves, their roles, and coping with disability. Participants expressed that Second Life is freedom and that with the right knowledge and tools disabilities can be overcome. Implications include shifts in perceptions of disability in technological contexts and potential uses of virtual worlds for self-exploration. The findings are limited to this study; future research should explore their generalizability.

Judge, A. (2013). Disabilities and Virtual Worlds: An Exploration into the Experience of Learning about Self and Other. Masters thesis, Concordia University.

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