Skip Navigation

National Center for Special Education Research

icon of glasses and a book Social and Behavioral Outcomes to Support Learning


- OR -


- OR -


- OR -

FY Awards

- OR -

Developing a 3D-based Virtual Learning Environment for Use in Schools to Enhance the Social Competence of Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Year: 2009
Name of Institution:
University of Missouri
Goal: Development
Principal Investigator:
Laffey, James
Award Amount: $1,491,075
Award Period: 7/1/2009 through 9/30/2012
Award Number: R324A090197


Purpose: Children identified with high functioning autism or Asperger syndrome have deficits in social competence that can lead to problematic social behavior and social isolation. Lack of appropriate social skills interferes not only with their ability to succeed in school, but with successful transition to adulthood (e.g., employment). A promising social skills program, Social Competence Intervention based on a framework of Cognitive Behavioral Intervention: SCI-CBI, has shown promise for improving social behavior of youth with autism. This face-to-face program occurs in a limited number of clinic settings however, and access to this program is restricted for some students who do not live close to a clinic setting, cannot meet during the available clinic hours, or have problems securing transportation to such settings.

This project will adapt the SCI-CBI curriculum into a cost-effective school-based model, iSocial, that can be delivered via networked, 3D-based virtual learning environments (3D VLE). The goal is to develop and then test the feasibility and promise of using 3D VLE to make the SCI-CBI program available in schools to youth with autism who have no or limited access to high quality face-to-face programs.

Project Activities: The development of software code and visual representation to create a 3D VLE includes usability testing, usage testing and field tests to assure a product that accurately delivers the SCI-CBI curriculum. Data collected through focus groups of educators and through field tests with youth in their school settings will be used to inform the development process and to determine whether the intervention shows promise for improving the social competence of students.

Products: This project will result in a fully developed virtual form of the SCI-CBI intervention, called iSocial, and published reports, and presentations describing the promise of this program to improve social outcomes for students with high functioning autism or Asperger syndrome.

Structured Abstract

Setting: Public middle and junior high schools in Missouri.

Population: Students aged 11 to 14 with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder or Asperger syndrome, and an IQ of 75 or above. The software usability and usage studies will each include three youth, and the field test will include 15 youth. Sixteen school personnel will participate in focus groups.

Intervention: The intervention addresses deficits in three areas that comprise social competence: emotion recognition, theory of mind (i.e. the ability understand the thoughts, intentions, and feelings of others), and executive functioning. The ten-week curriculum addresses (a) recognizing facial expressions, (b) sharing ideas, (c) turn taking in conversations, (d) recognizing feelings and emotions of self and others, and (e) problem solving. In each unit, the lesson plan follows a consistent structure of (a) either introducing a new skill or reviewing a previously learned skill, (b) skill modeling, (c) verbal rehearsal of the skill, (d) opportunities to practice the skill, and (e) some type of closing activity or review. The new iSocial program provides a virtual and social experience through an internet-connected computer. In iSocial, students work online with a trained guide and other online students. A local educator-facilitator is nearby, but allows the student to work with minimal supervision. The role of the educator-facilitator is to manage the youth's local experience, from coordinating times to access the technology, orienting the youth to the software, troubleshooting technical or behavioral problems, and to helping extend the lessons learned in iSocial to the local school context.

Research Design and Methods: The development process will include one usability test, five usage tests, focus group sessions with school personnel, and two field tests. In the usability test, students will interact with prototype features of the technology. Usage tests for each unit will begin with keystroke testing, which ensures that space and objects look and act as they are supposed to and that all features have been tested. In the final stage of the usage tests, three youth and an online guide pilot the unit over a two-week period. Morae recording software (an automated data capture system) and eye tracking will monitor student behavior. The focus groups provide feedback on the feasibility of this program in school settings for students with autism. Finally, a pretest posttest design for the field tests will occur, first with five students, then with ten students.

Control Condition: N/A

Key Measures: Measures of student outcomes will include the Social Responsiveness Scales, the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function, and researcher-developed curriculum-based measures that assess student knowledge and proficiency in the skills taught in the curriculum. Measures of intervention fidelity and social validity will also be collected.

Data Analytic Strategy: Data analysis in the usability phase includes examination of errors and compares actual performance with expected performance to determine if there are problems with the technology system. In the usage studies, feedback from students via "think aloud" data, observations of use, and interviews with program users are examined qualitatively to understand themes and perspectives on the usability of the program. Focus group transcripts are also analyzed qualitatively for emergent themes.

To analyze student outcomes, researchers will conduct mean-level comparisons of pre and post assessment scores (i.e., paired t-tests to partial out baseline scores when examining change in post intervention scores). Researchers will also examine the associations (using correlational techniques) between global assessments and students' CBM scores, and will fit a regression line to students' CBM scores to explore students' progression in learning. Various measures of student activity drawn from Morae logs will also be correlated with levels of achievement to identify key components of the program that appear to be related to positive student outcomes (e.g., the most active students were not the one who gained the most on social skills, but particular types of activities may indicate how students are gaining from the virtual experience).

Publications from this project:

Laffey, J., Schmidt, M. & Amelung, C. (2010). Open for Social: How Open Source Software for E-Learning can take a turn to the Social. International Journal of Open Source Software & Processes (pp. 49–64). DOI: 10.4018/ijossp.20100101

Laffey, J., Stichter, J. & Schmidt, M. (2010). Social Orthotics for Youth with ASD to Learn in a Collaborative 3D VLE. In Seok, S., Dacosta, B., & Meyen, E. L. (Eds.), Handbook of research on human cognition and assistive technology: Design, accessibility and transdisciplinary perspectives (pp. 76–95). New York: Idea Group.

Schmidt, C., Stichter, J. P., Lierheimer, K., McGhee, S., & O'Connor, K. V. (2011). An initial investigation of the generalization of a school-based social competence intervention for youth with high-functioning autism. Autism Research & Treatment, 1–11. doi:10.1155/2011/589539

Laffey, J., Galyen, K & Babiuch, R. (2012). Guidance in Game-Based Virtual Learning: Lessons from Developing iSocial. Journal of Immersive Education. Vol 1 (1).

Laffey, J., Schmidt, M., Galyen, K., & Stichter, J. (2012). Smart 3D collaborative virtual learning environments: A preliminary framework. Journal of Ambient Intelligence and Smart Environments, 4 (1), 49–66.

Lierheimer, K. & Stichter, J.P. (2012). Teaching Facial Expressions of Emotion. Beyond Behavior, 21, 20–27.

Schmidt, M., Laffey, J., Schmidt, C., Wang, X. & Stichter, J. (2012). Developing methods for understanding social behavior in a 3D virtual learning environment, Computers in Human Behavior. Vol. 28 issue 2, pp. 405–413.

Schultz, T. R., Stichter, J. P., Herzog, M. J., McGhee, S. D. & Lierheimer, K. (2012). Social Competence Intervention for Parents (SCI-P): Comparing outcomes for a parent education program targeting adolescents with ASD. Autism Research and Treatment (Vol. 2012, Article ID 681465).doi: 10.1155/2012/681465

Stichter, J.P., Herzog, M.J., O'Connor, K.V. & Schmidt, C. (2012). Exploring a performance-based measure to monitor social competence: A pilot study of the General Social Outcome Measure. Assessment for Effective Intervention, 38, 40–52.

Schmidt, M. Galyen, K., Laffey, J., Babiuch, R., & Schmidt, C. (2013). Open source software and design-based research symbiosis in developing 3D virtual learning environments for individuals with autism: Examples from the iSocial project. The Journal of Interactive Learning Research. Vol 25(1).

Stichter, J., Laffey, J., Galyen, K. & Herzog, M. (2013). iSocial: Delivering the Social Competence Intervention for Adolescents (SCI-A) in a 3D Virtual Learning Environment for Youth with High Functioning Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(7). (DOI) 10.1007/s10803–013–1881–0.

Laffey,J., Stichter, J.P. & Galyen, K. (in press) . Distance Learning for Students with Special Needs through 3D Virtual Learning. International Journal of Virtual and Personal Learning Environments (IJVPLE).