Snapshot 5: Spring 2009

Virtual world use in HE/FE

This report is the fifth in a series of snapshots of virtual world activity in UK higher and further education. It is the first to be conducted under the umbrella of Virtual World Watch (VWW). VWW and the previous snapshots are funded by Eduserv and supported by the Eduserv Foundation.

Questionnaire data for this snapshot began to be collected at the end of December 2008. Several staff within the JISC Regional Support Centres provided additional information; together with monitoring mailing lists, ‘soft’ information from contacts and searches of the web and Second Life, this contributed to a more rounded picture of virtual world activity in UK academia than was achieved in earlier snapshots. However, this report focuses on the 54 valid responses to the survey questionnaire.

Four main geographical clusters of academic Second Life activity have emerged in the UK:

  • Edinburgh: the University of Edinburgh and nearby Heriot-Watt University.
  • Milton Keynes: the Open University.
  • The West Midlands: Coventry and the nearby universities of Birmingham City and Warwick.
  • Leeds: the universities of Leeds and Leeds Metropolitan, and Leeds Art and Design College.

A number of universities, such as Lancaster, Southampton, Teesside and the West of England, have seen Second Life developments and teaching across several departments, and there is evidence that nearly every UK university is using Second Life to some extent for development or teaching work. However, in further education colleges the picture is more sparse, with evidence of development and student activity in a minority and little or no evidence of activity in the rest.

Eighteen uses of virtual worlds in UK higher and further education were identified, each described in several survey responses. Learning and teaching activities predominated, with these supporting many subject areas; however, the medical sciences, mathematics and art and design were mentioned more often than others. Simulations, the visualisation of complex structures and safety role-play were also described by several academic respondents.

Many universities are studying the use of virtual worlds – mainly Second Life – in education. There does appear to be a large amount of duplicated research in this activity. Some are using virtual worlds in courses about e-learning, while others are teaching staff how to use these environments to best effect.

Second Life remains the virtual world of choice for learning, teaching and research in UK academia. However, a cluster of universities, groups and lone academics are starting to experiment with OpenSim as an alternative.

Respondents to the survey reported mixed attitudes to the use of virtual worlds from both students and peers; however the large majority of respondents said they planned to do further virtual world learning and teaching in the next year.

The practice of solely creating an exact reproduction of the university campus in Second Life is now somewhat rare. Most institution-wide, in-world campuses make fuller use of available virtual world resources, for example providing teaching facilities for departments and courses, and exhibition spaces for student work.

Snapshot 5: Spring 2009 (332Kb PDF document)