Snapshot 4: Autumn 2008

UK Higher and Further Education developments in Second Life

This is the first snapshot survey where a significant number of respondents were supported by external, often research-based funding. The spread of funding sources is diverse, including national sources (JISC are mentioned by several respondents), European funding and non-academic sources. Of the other respondents, the majority had institutional support, e.g. from central funds, the department, or a Pro-Vice Chancellor’s fund; such funding is sometimes multi-departmental in nature.

Many respondents had either carried out some kind of teaching and learning activity, or were planning such events for the new academic year. These included collaborative learning and design, seminars, workshops, tutorials and induction courses. Several lecturers and supervisors were using Second Life to hold tutorials, or communicate with remote undergraduate or PhD students. A significant number of universities are carrying out research as to the effectiveness of using Second Life especially in teaching and learning.

Some, but not all, teaching and learning activities were assessed, with no particular method of assessment being predominant. Positive benefits were mentioned by the majority, such as student skill acquisition, ease of communication and the ability to meet peers one would otherwise not meet. Problems such as the amount of work required to run in-world sessions were also reported.

As with previous snapshots, the two issues of obtaining funding for virtual world development, teaching and learning, and technical problems, predominated. Several respondents indicated a need for guides and tutorials, as well as a ready-to-use ‘kit’ of high quality, education-specific resources.

The general reaction of peers and academics to virtual worlds seems to have improved over time. More respondents reported largely positive, or a mixed, attitude locally and in the wider university sector. Some academics who were previously cautious or negative about the use of virtual worlds in education become more positive after using the technology, or seeing the benefits. Funding for research and virtual world projects has also had a positive effect on academic attitudes.

Looking ahead, most respondents who chose to answer thought that virtual worlds were more likely to be a ‘mainstream’ feature of UK education, rather than a ‘niche’ or ‘novelty’. However, several of these respondents felt this would be a gradual long-term development over several years.

Many respondents had used, or were considering examining, virtual worlds and online environments other than Second Life. A dozen such applications were cited. Of these three were mentioned by far the most: Google Lively, Wonderland and OpenSim. Lively was found to be disappointing in terms of education-relevant functionality, Wonderland had considerable communication potential, and OpenSim had attractive options for creating a closed virtual environment.

This theme, that Second Life is not the only option for teaching, learning and other educational activities in virtual environments, will be explored in future snapshots and activities of Virtual World Watch.

Snapshot 4: Autumn 2008 (632Kb PDF document)