Snapshot 7: Winter 2009

Virtual world activity in UK universities and colleges. An academic year of expectation?

From input to this and previous snapshots, plus background research, institutional website searches and anecdotes, it is evident that every UK university except one (the University of the Highlands and Islands) has members of staff who have developed, or are developing, something in a virtual world – though that ‘something’, and the use and educational relevance of it, varies extremely widely.

This snapshot includes input from new respondents. In addition, several academics who are at the early stages of using virtual worlds chose not to report for this snapshot (and will hopefully do so for the next one).

Overall, the picture is one of more virtual world activity in UK academia than in previous years. Several universities, such as Edinburgh and the Open University, are into their third or fourth year of using Second Life and an academic development community continues to grow, though steadily rather than quickly.

As the snapshots reflect only what is reported to us, rather than giving a comprehensive overview, caution has to be taken in comparing activity by subject area. However, some subject domains do appear to be making more use of virtual world technology than others. The biological, health and medical sectors, in particular, make up a large proportion of virtual world activity in UK academia.

Language learning, patient treatment, computer science, health and safety, and art, performance and design stand out as subjects where several institutions are actively using virtual worlds in teaching. Academics in a range of more specific subject areas, such as criminal detection, electrical engineering and midwifery, have used virtual worlds in their teaching.

All 13 of the JISC Regional Support Centres responded to the snapshot survey request for information. The picture they present is of virtual world use being much more isolated and infrequent in further education (FE) than in higher education (HE). Institutional technical barriers and support are still major issues for further education staff. Where institutions have overcome these, substantive virtual world developments have occurred.

The RSCs themselves are providing support in different ways, e.g. events, forming a national coordination grouping, and levering the experience of HE institutions to support FE colleges. Across the 13 regions, staff hold widely differing views on the effectiveness of virtual worlds in education.

As with all previous snapshots, Second Life is the predominant virtual world of choice. Having said that, OpenSim is being mentioned by more respondents than in previous snapshot surveys, though actual implementations in UK academia remain few and far between.

This is the fourth academic year covered by an Eduserv virtual world snapshot, as the first one covered the tail-end of the 2006–07 session. While cases of virtual world use in academia have steadily risen, evaluations and evidence of their effectiveness has been fragmented and low-key. Though the same observation could be leveled at many other technologies – take a bow, Virtual Learning Environments – used in education.

Many academics – possibly a significant majority – are still wary, sceptical or openly hostile to virtual world use in education. More visible proof of where it works may swing the more open-minded of them. With the mass of teaching and research activity currently under way in higher education, it’s only reasonable to hope for more (and better) evaluations, and clarity concerning where virtual worlds can be put to good use and where not. For proof, evidence, data and convincing arguments, 2009 to 2010 feels like the year of virtual world expectation.

Snapshot 7: Winter 2009 (346Kb PDF document)