Snapshot 6: Summer 2009

Virtual world activity in HE/FE

Second Life (SL) was launched on June 23rd, 2003, making it nearly six years old. Virtual worlds such as SL are therefore not ‘new’. This is apparent when noticing the growing number of UK universities who are into their second or third year of teaching and learning using this technology.

Second Life remains, by far, the ‘virtual world of choice’ for academics in UK universities and colleges. Though OpenSim is mentioned by a minority of vocal academics, the number of non-SL uses and investigations across UK academia is still a small fraction of the SL uses. This does not mean, of course, that Linden Labs should remain confident, or that academics should focus solely/blindly on Second Life. Though well developed (and well used) in academia over the past half-decade, SL still throws up a number of technical, administrative and logistical hurdles for academic practitioners and their institutions.

Second Life in particular is being used in a very wide range of teaching and learning activities. The number of students who take part in these activities varies wildly from just a few to over a hundred in several cases.

A core of universities, most significantly the Open University, Edinburgh and Coventry, have many groups, courses and departments using virtual worlds as a central technology for teaching and learning activities, e.g.

“Virtual worlds have become a core technology for our teaching, learning, research and collaboration.” - Fiona Littleton, Virtual Worlds Development Adviser, University of Edinburgh.

Other universities, such as Lancaster, Teesside, Southampton Solent, Glasgow Caledonian and Strathclyde, are also developing a significant virtual world presence, e.g.

“Lancaster University’s long term plans are grand. We are laying the ground work for more courses to be taught, more students to have access and more research to be conducted.” - Michele Ryan, Department of Management Learning & Leadership, Lancaster University.

Some universities, such as Glasgow, Oxford and Cambridge, report little or no virtual world development, though investigation often shows more activity than is being stated in some of these institutions. Activity in further education remains difficult to quantify, locate or obtain clear information on (this is becoming a long-term problem with the snapshot series).

Trends, especially subject areas of use, are becoming clearer. The academic health and medical science sector in particular has a disproportionate number of virtual world activities. This could be because the subject matter lends itself more easily to such development, and also due to the (relative) ease of funding for such applications. For example, hands-on maternity and birthing simulations have been developed in several UK universities (Coventry, Nottingham, Teesside and Worcester). The full experience is especially difficult to convey in mere textual words, and the author of this report recommends trying one out as a good introduction to the experience of learning in virtual worlds.

Other emerging subject areas where there are several instances of virtual world use include health and safety, art and design, and computer science. However, none of these exhibit anything near the activity of the health and medical sector in its use of Second Life. Fewer academics are complaining about technical issues, such as equipment and Second Life viewer update access in universities. This reduction is most likely due to a combination of some academics giving up in ‘unfertile’ institutions, whilst other institutions are now more supportive of virtual world activities.

Snapshot 6: Summer 2009 (218KB PDF document)