Snapshot 8: February 2010

Virtual world activity in UK universities and colleges: Virtual teaching in uncertain times.

This snapshot report was put together against a backdrop of political and economic uncertainty. It comes, therefore, as a pleasant contrast to notice many cases of continuity, where academics are building on their uses of virtual worlds in previous academic years. It’s also good to welcome details of new sustainable virtual world projects and initiatives from universities such as Middlesex, Bristol and Bath Spa.

Specific subject areas, where several universities are using virtual worlds, continue to come to light. For example, previous snapshots have highlighted contributions from academics involved in midwifery, with at least four UK universities using Second Life to assist in the training of this practical skill. To these and other well-defined subject areas can be added Environmental Health, with universities such as Coventry and Middlesex using virtual worlds to model and explore urban socio-economic decay and decline.

The global access capabilities of virtual worlds become more evident with each snapshot. As universities rely more (especially in these economically uncertain times) on overseas, remote, home-based and part-time students, so technologies that allow learning to take place far away from a physical campus become more useful. For example, Daniel Livingstone writes:

“I am still making good use of Second Life’s ability to bring people together across large distances. I have scheduled virtual guest talks for my own students. Students at the University of the West of Scotland will also be involved in an online virtual cultural exchange with students at San Jose State University in the US.”

…while from the Open University, Shailey Minocha writes:

“A couple of my part-time PhD students don’t live in England, and are able to travel to the university’s campus for a face-to-face meeting only once or twice in a year. We regularly meet in Second Life for supervision meetings.”

Reading this snapshot, several academics, and independent developers, are making virtual world content and artifacts available for other academics and students to use. For example, one developer writes:

“[We are creating] a free set of law (barrister) clothes and accessories.”

…while a JISC-funded virtual world development will be used in several universities:

“As well as being used in the classroom at Bristol, the model will allow Bristol students to collaborate with undergraduates studying a similar module in Liverpool.”

In these economically stringent times, and with one of the main hurdles to virtual world use in academia being the time it takes to create content, this makes virtual world a more attractive options to academics. However, there are still issues over how academics (especially those unfamiliar with virtual worlds) can quickly locate and comprehend constructs that have relevance to their teaching or research.

As with all the previous snapshots, Second Life remains the virtual world ‘of choice’ for UK academics who responded to the survey. However, also as with previous snapshots, other virtual worlds are in use, such as OLIVE at Coventry University for emergency planning, and OpenSim at Leeds for handling large numbers of art and design students.

Snapshot 8: February 2010 (301Kb PDF document)

This report was one of the deliverables of the Virtual World Watch project and service.