Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Virtual environments for social skills training

Virtual environments for social skills training: comments from two adolescents with autistic spectrum disorder (click here for PDF file)
Computers & Education, Volume 47, Issue 2, September 2006, Pages 186-206
Sarah Parsons, Anne Leonard, Peter Mitchell

"Two autistic kids...navigating a virtual bus and café."

The purpose of this study by Parsons, Leonard and Mitchell was to explore the effectiveness of a virtual environment (VE) in providing social skills training for people living with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). Using a qualitative case-study approach, the researchers looked at the responses and behaviour of two British boys diagnosed with ASD. The presence of a facilitator helped the participants activate their avatars in socially acceptable ways by providing feedback and opportunities for discussion.

My response:
I was intrigued by this study because my thesis idea also involves handicapped students learning in a virtual environment (Second Life). In this study, the researchers acknowledge that VEs are being used with ASD clients in social skill development. Because my own "hypothetical" study was to involve a small number of participants and a case-study model, I thought this paper by Parsons, Leonard and Mitchell might give me some insights into the process.

The two adolescents were led through a virtual café visit (with 4 levels of busy-ness) and a virtual bus trip (with 5 levels of crowdedness.) The students had to make choices about where to sit, what questions to ask and how to behave in a socially acceptable manner. While there was some evidence of repetitive behaviour and "game play" mentality, the boys did make some progress.

The focus here really was on the facilitator-participant interaction. The researchers hoped to show that value of this approach was not to abandon the students in front of a computer program, but to guide them, with multiple opportunities to "retry" until they could be successful. Would they treat the experience as artificial with no connection to the real world, or would this be a true learning opportunity whose lessons could be applied to real life situations? (What I found interesting was that in the follow-up interview with "John", he indicated that he was able to put some of the principles he learned into practice, while the other participant ("Mike") showed no such initiative.)