Higher education teaching in virtual worlds

Download the full report: HE teaching in virtual worlds [pdf, 872kb]

Summary

Immersive virtual worlds are online environments that aim to simulate aspects of the real world. They were first developed for gaming but rapidly came to have more serious uses, particularly in education. The best-known and most widely used virtual world is Second Life, which was launched by a San Francisco-based company, Linden Lab, in 2003. Second Life offers a rich and varied environment that has been exploited in an enormous range of applications.

By now, most universities will to have tried out at least a few educational applications of virtual worlds. One of their most important advantages is that they can confer a sense of “presence”, so, at least in the most successful applications, users in different locations feel close together. It might therefore be assumed that they have particular value in distance education.

“Virtual worlds in higher education are approaching a “plateau of productivity” with useful applications in simulating and demonstrating complex activities and in exploring ideas around virtual reality”

In 2007-8 I received a Teaching and Research Award from the CDE to explore a range of technologies including Second Life in an MSc course in structural molecular biology at Birkbeck, University of London. That pilot had mixed results, with some students (particularly one with Asperger’s syndrome) finding the technology extremely helpful and others unable to access it at all. This was 2007-8, which corresponded roughly with a peak – perhaps an artificially high peak – in the popularity of this technology.

The take-up of new technologies often follows a trajectory termed a Gartner hype cycle, in which an initial “peak of inflated expectations” is followed by a “slough of despond” and, eventually, a “plateau of productivity”:

Gartner Hype Cycle

Gartner Hype Cycle

If virtual worlds in education have been following this cycle, and 2007-8 represents the peak, then is the technology still in the trough of disillusionment or has it entered its plateau of productivity – and which are the applications that will form that plateau? These were some of the questions I set out to ask in a short snapshot of the use of virtual worlds in higher education, which is now published on the CDE website. In this, I conducted extensive interviews with eight experienced users and developers of virtual worlds in the university sector. Seven of my interviewees were university lecturers and researchers, six based in the UK and one in the US; my final interviewee was a senior representative of a UK-based software company, Daden Ltd., which works closely with this sector in developing applications of virtual worlds. All interviews were conducted in mid-2013.

Some of the principal findings of this survey are listed below.

  • The most popular virtual world in UK higher education is undoubtedly still Second Life. This is despite a significant, but fortunately short-lived, decrease in the valuable educational discounts offered by Linden Lab.
  • Although Second Life is popular, it is not universally loved. Its often-cited advantages include the variety of applications available and the (diminished but still substantial) “community of practice” that new users can draw on; its disadvantages include a very steep learning curve, particularly for developers.
  • OpenSim is a useful open source alternative to Second Life, and a significant number of applications have now been developed there or moved there from Second Life. It is, however, considered to be even harder to learn to develop applications in.
  • Although over 100 separate virtual worlds are known, the only other cited by any of my interviewees was a “games engine”, Unity 3D, that is mainly used for developing standalone applications. Minecraft, which is rapidly increasing in popularity at least in school education, did not appear to have penetrated far into higher education in mid-2013.
  • There was a clear consensus that three types of educational application work particularly well in a virtual world:
    1. Simulating scenarios
    2. Practising methodology
    3. Exploring digital identity
  • Scenario simulation is often used to teach skills in dealing with situations that are difficult or impossible to replicate in “real life” for educational purposes (e.g. a professional response to serious accidents, or the functioning of a criminal court). This type of application is of particular use in professional and vocational education.
  • Practising methodology involves preparing students for “real” practical work in a lab or on a field trip, which is particularly valuable if the real world experience involves expensive or delicate equipment. Simulated practical work may even be used to replicate real-life practicals, although this is not ideal.
  • Some students, particularly on courses in psychology and the social sciences, find open-ended projects to explore the concept of digital identity useful, but these must be carefully designed to avoid students “wandering round aimlessly”.
  • Replicating straightforward lectures and tutorials in a virtual world is rarely successful: although this does allow students at a distance to take part, more straightforward teleconferencing technology can reproduce lectures and tutorials at least as well.
  • These points can be summed up in pedagogical terms in the observation that cognitive pedagogy (teaching through problem-solving) and social constructivist pedagogy (forming ideas through discussion) are more suited to reproduction in virtual worlds than associative pedagogy (transmission of information).
  • In the UK, higher education institutions vary widely in their “take-up” of virtual worlds: some have embraced the technology in a wide variety of disciplines and applications while in others enthusiastic users are still seen as trail-blazers. CoventryUniversity and the University of Edinburgh are particularly enthusiastic adopters.
  • Educators have a detailed “wish list” for the next generation of virtual worlds and are particularly looking forward to applications that work on mobile platforms. Some of these are under development and are likely to prove popular with students; however, most interviewees expect technical developments in the next few years to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
  • Student responses to learning in a virtual world cover the whole range from enthusiasm to rejection. This is one reason why it is virtually impossible to achieve 100% student participation in any activity based in a virtual world. Distance learning students can be particularly badly affected by this.
  • Nevertheless, many students and their educators have found the sense of presence that can be imparted by a well-designed virtual world application to be extremely valuable. The University of Edinburgh’s virtual graduation ceremonies illustrate that this can continue outside a formal teaching environment.

In conclusion, I suggest that virtual worlds in higher education are approaching a “plateau of productivity” with useful applications in simulating and demonstrating complex activities and in exploring ideas around virtual reality. Ways to maximise the undoubted value of this technology include allowing the pedagogy to drive the technology, choosing software to match the discipline and application and taking advantage of advice and training to lessen the technology’s undoubtedly steep learning curve.

Dr Clare Sansom, CDE Fellow

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