Vicki Suter

Discovering the power of good questions

Sense of place

learning_theory_exploratoriumMy understanding of the sense of place in virtual environments was refined as I built a research testbed, “Malibu Island”, in the virtual world, Second Life. The Learning Theory Exploratorium on Malibu Island was the result of a project by a cohort of students in the master’s program in Learning Theory at Pepperdine, who were assigned to create interactive “rooms,” one each for various learning theorists, from Piaget to Vgotsky. (My favorite was the Piaget room, where a toy train going through a tunnel was a demonstration of object permanence.) Each room was a place where ideas were represented, textually, visually and kinesthetically.

Even more compelling was student energy around building customized places on the island. Each cohort designed its own building (or treehouse, or hobbit hole), each with a special character matching that cohort.croppedhobbit

I’d been thinking about the sense of place for a long time, ever since I became a telecommuter, and then even more deeply when I became an online student. I discovered myself thinking in place terms about presence – someone from my cohort who was available in skype was “there” and I was “here” (in fact, that was the genesis of my dissertation title: “I am here – Are you there? Sense of Presence and Implications for Virtual World Design”). Not everyone experiences this phenomenon, but Nardi’s research (2000) showed that many users of instant messaging had a sense that they were in the same place (where that place was represented by the IM window).

Then, I came to realize, in my world-creation efforts in Second Life, that I had a sense that Malibu Island (the world I created for my research) was there even when I was not. And many other students seemed to feel the same way, leaving messages for each other in different places in the world. So this idea of “sense of place,” emerged as one of the dimensions of the sense of presence construct.

The Scholarly Discussion

My conceptualization of the sense of place is that which is referred to in the literature as physical presence or spatial presence: There is a “there,” there. It “remains as an emergent property of interaction between an individual and the environment, and while there are some shared elements, the experience of the place is fundamentally unique to each of us” (Turner & Turner, 2006, p. 207). Attributes of media which lead to the development of a sense of place are affordances for “the subjective experience of being in one place or environment, even when one is physically situated in another” (Witmer & Singer, 1998, p. 225). They identify sensory factors such as: (a) the environmental richness (visual characteristics of the environment, its vividness); (b) multiple sensory channels (other sensory features such as sound); (c) consistency of multimodal presentation; (d) degree of self-movement perception; and (e) ability to modify point of view. Ultimately there is no sense of place until we give a “space” meaning through connections to previous places or feelings that the attributes of the space invoke in us; that is, place=space+meaning (Harrison & Dourish, 1996).

Many virtual world designers conceive of virtual worlds as places, including Bartle (2004):

“There is a distinction between space and place. A space is an abstraction that groups objects of a particular type under a set of fixed rules; a place is a region (under adjacency rules) of some space. For example, matter operating under the laws of physics gives us the 3D space we call reality; Athens is a place in this space (Bartles, 2004, p. p. 478).

Some researchers include sense of place, social presence, and individual agency in their definition of the sense of place; however, in the more narrow definition I’ve developed, the sense of place does not include the sense that anyone else is there, nor that there is a wide scope of actions one can take, nor of the possibility of collaborative activity.

An example of the sense of presence limited to the dimension of sense of place would be a virtual environment for a one-person one-way simulation, such as a bot-guided virtual tour of a botanical garden. An example from Second Life is a beautifully rendered virtual Harlem.

Practical Implications for Course Design and Teaching Practice

In course design, the instructor can create a “physical” space (in the learning management system environment) that is orderly and easy to navigate, with all the necessary resources. In addition, the instructor can create a visual conceptual space for the course, mapping the path of the course against the learning objectives for the course, and the attainment of concept mastery.


Bartle, R. A. (2004). Designing virtual worlds. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Harrison, S., & Dourish, P. (1996). Re-place-ing space: The roles of place and space in collaborative systems, Proceedings of the 1996 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, pp. 67–76. Boston, MA: ACM Press. doi:

Nardi, B. A., Whittaker, S., & Bradner, E. (2000). Interaction and outeraction: Instant messaging in action. Proceedings of the 2000 ACM conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, pp.79–88. doi:

Turner, P., & Turner, S. (2006). Place, sense of place, and presence. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 15(2), 204–217. doi:10.1162/pres.2006.15.2.204

Witmer, B. G., & Singer, M. J. (1998). Measuring presence in virtual environments: A presence questionnaire. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 7(3), 225–240. doi:10.1162/105474698565686

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