The Virtual Edifice:
from Cathedrals to Computers (by Way of the Book)

The term virtual edifice denotes at the simplest interpretation a building that is experienced but not physically felt. It is made up of the word virtual borrowed from the technology of virtual reality. (VR). VR is a class of computer-controlled multi-sensory communication technologies that allow more intuitive interactions with data and involve human senses interactively together (McLellan,1996). From a developers or designers point of view it is a tool or a strategy to experience information and thereby assist learning.... and be extremely entertaining.

Edifice is the place that one enters to connect with their own culture, beliefs and myths. In a general sense it is a space defined by architecture that houses the information, knowledge and beliefs of a culture. Itís role is built on its function as a symbol but it manifest much more. Years pass in the making of structures that edify society. The cathedrals of Europe became the dominate edifice of the 12th century until the book appropriated the role.

The book offered the movable edifice. Ideas, information, knowledge.... all of these classes of data could be offered up in the quest of cultural identity. One could experience anotherís ideas far and apart from each other. Groups, cultures and nations could form around the ideas that manifest in the book. Eventually books as a precious handmade objects treated as jewels became the ubiquitous form that we recognize. Its functional properties made it a carrier of ideas and it reach a production scale that gives it the characteristics of a mass media broadcast tool. Knowledge was set free never again to be owned by any one dogma. The transition was from a precious package during the incunabula phase of manufactured books to the ephemeral and ubiquitous medium of the paperback. Ink and paper were transformed from sculpture to surface over a period of 500 years.

Just as cathedrals are cherished shrines that continue to teach, the book is essential to our future regardless of the breath of future experience. What we as educators and planners must do is be aware of technology that can assist learning. The internet promises to be the quantum leap from present to future edifice. Even so, much of what we see as the future is still in the future. Most websites put up for the delivery of educational content are designed as virtual type on paper. The potential for the web is its ability to deliver multi-sensory learning experiences to the viewer who may explore, define, discover and construct their own learning. But in spite of what may seem inevitable, as researchers we must calm down and ask, What does the web contribute in learning terms? and how do we increase that contribution?

One of our latest research projects is an art and science museum project we call OLE or On Line Learning Environment. It is a unique site that is accessed through the web at http://ole.fsu.edu and will provide a virtual field trip to museums of art and science for middle school children.