Choosing virtual worlds for teaching and learning in UK HE.

October 2009

Virtual World Watch asked previous respondents to snapshot reports – UK university and college academics who develop and use virtual worlds – what worlds they used and why they chose them. Second Life and OpenSim were mentioned or used by most respondents.

Second Life is attractive due to its constant development over six years, there is no need to acquire a server or significant local technical support, the large community of experienced practitioners, and the variety of already-created objects and structures that can be quickly re-used cheaply or for free.

OpenSim is attractive because, compared to Second Life, ‘land’ does not carry the same expense, there are fewer security issues, there is no dependence on a single commercial vendor, and it is easier to configure how private your environment is; content can also be ported from Second Life.

Apart from Second Life and OpenSim, over a dozen other virtual worlds or environments were mentioned; of these Metaplace and Forterra’s OLIVE appeared to pique more interest and use, from an educational perspective, than the others. Some respondents had examined a range of virtual worlds. Sensibly, organisations such as St Andrews University are examining these from the perspective of the educational or project requirements, rather than the attributes of the particular virtual worlds.

Several respondents contributed their criteria lists (given in this report) for evaluating virtual worlds. A few are creating or using more complex frameworks: the Open University, for example, is developing a matrix of virtual world needs containing around 70 weighted criteria.

However, examining just one virtual world from the perspectives of teaching, learning, build, functionality, security, stability and many other criteria of importance to academics is not a trivial operation. Consequently:

  1. Some academics, though they would like to examine more virtual worlds, tend to default to examining just one or two options due to a lack of time/resource. Usually, Second Life or OpenSim is one or both of these.
  2. Many UK universities are, independently of each other, examining a range of virtual worlds. This time- and resource-consuming operation results in a significant amount of duplicated activity across the sector.

Recommendations

  1. It would assist other academics in making a more informed choice, and reduce the significant amount of duplicated activity across UK higher and further education, if institutions would rapidly disseminate their virtual world comparative findings. As virtual worlds are being developed at an extremely fast pace, the traditional academic timeline for dissemination is of no use; a matter of weeks, rather than months or later, and such information becomes outdated.
  2. A number of similar responses indicate a common need for an OpenSim – or similar – platform for current and prospective virtual world users and developers in UK higher education who do not have server and technical resources. As well as providing a low-cost environment with relatively high (and configurable) security and privacy, such an option provides a ‘back-up solution’ for previous and ongoing work created in worlds such as Second Life. Whether this could, or should, be provided by an academic institution or consortium, or by a technology services company, is a debatable point; ReactionGrid appears to go someway towards this requirement.

Choosing virtual worlds for teaching and learning in UK HE. (240Kb PDF document)