Regular readers (yes, both of you) will know that I’ve been a little bit sceptical about the concept of virtual worlds in education in previous posts. That’s probably because World of Warcraft, Second Life, and so forth weren’t really designed for educational purposes so we’ve sort of adapted them. That’s not to say there hasn’t been some good stuff done in SL. I like Teeside’s Bayeux Tapestry sim in second life for example. But I was also impressed by Shareville, a virtual town, developed by Birmingham City University.

Shareville is a “virtual town” which was designed to help students prepare for learning in the workplace. You can navigate round the town using a grid based “map”. Clicking on a square will take you to a still 360 degree photograph of a district of the town, and by moving your mouse around the photo the user gets taken into interesting scenarios.  It’s perhaps pushing it a bit to compare it with things like Second Life, because you don’t have an avatar, it’s not a fantasy world – in fact it’s a rather grim view of reality! Technically I suppose it’s just a database. But it is expandable, so different scenarios can be added for different disciplines.  I also liked the way that Shareville was designed to be used in conjunction with other systems – no attempt is made to duplicate resources that might be in Moodle, Wimba or Mahara. Tutors put instructions on how to use Shareville in the VLE and users access that.
Anyway, rather than me going on about it, watch this presentation from the designers. There are also links for visitors to go and have a play with it.
While we’re on the subject of virtual worlds, I couldn’t resist this. I know it’s really just a game, but isn’t Lego about building a virtual world in the first place. So it’s a virtual world within a virtual world. A conundrum for the philosophy dept.

Virtual Pompeii

I’ve just been reading about the Sydenham Crystal Palace project, a JISC funded project to recreate the Pompeii Court in Second Life. Now it’s been a while since I looked at Second Life, having decided that the requirements for high spec graphics cards, the requirement for users to learn to operate in the world and the (let’s face it) naff quality of the animation made it pretty much a non starter for educational purposes.  It’s quite telling that the project page tells potential users to access the world through a non standard Second Life viewer.

Still, things move on, and I was interested  to see that JISC thought this project worth funding.  Here’s what the project team say they’re trying to do:

The aim of our project has to build a digitised collection of the material that was in the Pompeii Court and to create an interactive online space to house it. Visitors will be able to tour the Court and interact with us, other visitors and the objects on display. In the upcoming phases of the project, we want to compare further how the social and educational experiences offered by our Model compare with the successes and failures of the original Court, which itself was a Victorian experiment in education and reconstruction.

Well, I can see the rationale behind that. The original was a reconstruction, so it makes a sort of sense to reconstruct it again to see if the digital world can offer the same experience. But I don’t see how it can be the same. Virtual Worlds aren’t really 3D experiences, but 2D representations of a 3D world.

What is more problematic though is the experience of being a student. If you accept Diana Laurillard’s conversational framework model, there needs to be an opportunity set out your own conceptions first,  to interact with your teachers so that you can modify your conceptions and then to restate them. Laurillard also points out, rightly I think that academic knowledge is second order, that is, it consists of knowledge of others’ descriptions of the world, rather than of the world itself. A reconstruction tries for first order knowledge – that is to allow students to perceive the world. But actually it’s all based on others’ precepts.

For those reasons, I ‘m not sure that the project will be all that helpful in teaching students about classical civilisation. I do realise that this isn’t exactly what the project is about. There’s quite a lot about art, perception and philosophy built into it, and that’s important, but I’m interested in the pedagogical value of the project, so I am going to talk about that aspect anyway. I’ve never done any formal learning about Roman civilisation myself, (other than  school Latin) but a visit I made  to the real Herculaneum  some years ago did really change my conception of what a Roman town might have been like. I remember being very surprised to discover the atmosphere and the architecture put me much more in mind of a Middle Eastern village, than the classical structures we generally associate with Rome.  Equally, reading Mary Beard’s Pompeii (Which, incidentally is the best non fiction book I’ve read in some time.) made me see Roman life in a different way.  Of course had I been able to visit Herculaneum and Pompeii in, say, AD 78 I would probably have a different set of conceptions again.

My point is that I think claims for the kind of environment that the project is trying to claim are a little overblown. Second Life is not immersive, in the way that a visit to a site, or even reading a book is. Certainly students could be asked to discuss the value of this kind of representation before visiting the simulation, and again after a visit. Expert avatars could be provided at regular times to talk to visitors about these cities, or about the other aspects of the project.  I do wonder about the accessibility issues though – there’s quite a lot of evidence in the literature of students who are using technological applications focusing on operational issues, how to work the thing and so on, rather than learning the content. And how users with disabilities will cope remains to be seen.

Still, I look forward to seeing the evaluation report. Should make for interesting reading.

Second Life Workshop, Nottingham

I’ve been interested in the potential that Virtual Worlds offer for education for some time, so a workshop organised by ALT on Second Life, (one of quite a large number of virtual worlds that are available these days) seemed quite an interesting prospect. I went along with a colleague from Forensic Science who has also been quite interested in Second Life, probably spending more time in there than I do. (Actually, I’ve made myself dip out of it, while I focus on finishing my doctoral thesis, so I haven’t been in for quite a while.  

In the event much of the activity was focussed on really quite basic stuff – moving around, talking to people, personalising your avatar, which we both thought might have been better dealt with in an orientation session in Second Life itself – that kind of finding your feet is probably best done in the virtual world, rather than in a formal classroom event, although of course, as anyone who has ever delivered any form of IT training knows, you can not make assumptions about the level of knowledge that members of a group will have, and it’s always safer to start with the lowest common denominator.  There again, in the afternoon, we did start building (and managed to build an Art Gallery by the end of the day) and I found myself struggling to keep up.

There wasn’t a great deal of time for discussion of the educational potential of Second Life which was a pity – we started by going round the table and asking what people were hoping to do with it, which was a promising start. Among the interesting ideas that people wanted to do were role-playing (might be less nerve-wracking in a virtual world), building simulations (One lady from the Royal Veterinary College wanted to build a simulation of the rear end of a cow!), dealing with questions of identity, (we all had to change the appearance of our avatars – I ended up wearing a very fetching Raspberry dress – in-world, I hasten to add!) supporting language learning, or simply providing a different environment for distance learners to interact, the production of assessment artefacts, and many others. There’s certainly a lot of potential, but we all identified quite a lot of downsides too. – It’s a strange world, which can be lonely and a bit scary when you first enter it, and a few of those present noted that it is more popular with older people than with the traditional 18-21 year age groups. (The average age of a Second Life user is 33). My view is that you do need to develop quite high levels of tolerance for oddity if you’re going to use Second Life, because people are playing with identity, and behaving in ways they probably wouldn’t in real life. Anecdotally, it seems that a lot of 18-21 year olds seem very nervous about interacting with people they meet in Second Life. There again, you might argue that the 18-21 year old isn’t really the typical student these days.

There are also fairly serious issues around accessibility. You need a powerful graphics card, a fast Broadband connection and lots of time to make the best use of it. In a classroom situation there will be real issues about setting up students with accounts, getting them to choose names for their avatars, let alone personalising the appearance of those avatars. SL is also a seductive environment (in the nicest possible way of course). What I mean by that is that it is easy to get drawn in, and forget that other people have different preferences. We were told one cautionary tale of an American lecturer who was running all his classes in Second Life, and when the evaluation sheets came in, was horrified to discover that his students hated it! 

I think it comes down to the fact that if you have a teaching and learning problem that Second Life can help with then it’s worth experimenting.  But don’t just go in for the sake of it because it’s an interesting bit of new technology.

Degrees in Second Life

Well, I guess it had to happen. A college in Texas is offering what it believes to be the first degree offered via Second Life. I haven’t had a good look around  (the web site mentioned in the blog entry I linked to above is down) yet but I can think of all sorts of reasons why this might be problematic. Before I go into that, I do want to make it clear that I do think that Virtual Worlds like SL do have a lot of potential for educators (Yes, I do have an avatar in Second Life – Feather Congrejo, although I’m a fairly rare visitor these days)

So what are my reservations. Firstly, Second Life gives me a headache if I use it for any length of time. (Must be my aging eyes, but a colleague who attended a 6 hour conference in SL reported the same phenomenon!) Secondly, it needs quite powerful graphics cards, a requirement which seems to increase with every upgrade they produce, and I think that is a big accessibility issue. Thirdly, SL is a public site, and has, inevitably, some less than salubrious areas. (Quite a lot actually!)  OK, I suspect this is actually quite a small proportion of SL’s total facilities, and students in HE are adults and we can’t hold their hands all the time, but I can’t see any HEI relishing the prospects of misinformed local media announcing that it is directing students into what might be described as “adult” web services. I suppose you could get round that by using something like Open Sim for a stand alone environment but you’d lose a lot of connectivity in doing so.

It also requires quite a lot of skill in building a properly immersive environment. It can be done, but it takes time and skill, and teaching in SL seems to require that quite a lot of time is devoted to orientation. (I suppose that’s a one off cost with each cohort of students though) The other issue is about how to devote sufficient time to each student, while continuing with Real World work.  I’ve always thought that one great advantage of technology enhanced learning is that it does allow the “quieter” students a chance to get involved. But there’s no getting away from the fact that it does take more time to deal with 30 problems or questions than it does to deal with the 5 or so assertive students in any class.