It’s taken a bit of time but the files for the Virtual World Watch (VWW) service are now all back online. The introductory and index page is elsewhere on this website.
Though now a fading memory, VWW took up a chunk of working life for several years towards the end of the last decade. It kicked off when Andy Powell, ex-colleague from UKOLN and then the Director of Research at the Eduserv Foundation, spotted I was spending some time in Second Life, wandering around the various education sites. He got in touch and asked if I’d like to do a report for them on this subject.
Which I did. The response to the report was somewhat unexpected. Lots of academics in UK universities and colleges appeared out of the woodwork and got in touch, some using the report to justify what they were doing to their peers, others using it as leverage to obtain either internal or external funding to continue their research, or to find peers doing similar work, or having similar views, in other UK universities and colleges.
Further stand-alone snapshot reports were commissioned by the Eduserv Foundation. Then, they went full-in and funded a more holistic service – Virtual World Watch – for a few years. As well as the snapshot reports, this included:
- A bundle of conference presentations, especially in 2009.
- Podcasts where I interviewed UK academics who were using virtual worlds.
- Tweets, Facebook postings, the usual social media.
- Several articles in academic journals and other media; for example   and .
- And, of course, collecting data. Lots and lots of lovely data.
Thankfully, we quickly moved away from VWW being solely about the contentious virtual world Second Life, though throughout the life of the service SL remained the predominant virtual world in UK academia.
This was a good time for research into this particular technology; as well as the Eduserv Foundation funding VWW and a variety of other virtual world projects, Jisc also supported several projects across various programmes. There was a lot of activity – at one point every UK university had someone using this particular technology for research or formal/informal learning, with some institutions (more the newer ones) using it across courses and departments, sometimes over several academic years. This led to some spreadsheets containing lots of that lovely data – for example:
…all of the data of which I (thankfully) archived away.
However, the data collection and dissemination was definitely not problem-free. The range of funding for this against for other EdTech research, a dislike of virtual worlds (or anything that looked like a game) in academia, and the (very unhelpful) over-the-top hype in some parts of the media over Second Life contributed to a Marmite-effect, with more than a few vocal academics being entrenched in either near-evangelical advocacy or near-hatred of the technology. Interesting times, though sometimes weary on social media.
The high-point for this specific generation of technology interest, funding, use and discussion in UK academia was probably around the spring and summer of 2009. The keynote at the Jisc RSC Northern conference on virtual worlds in April of that year was especially fun to do – and a big event (side point: even back in 2009, 23 of the 25 speakers at that event were tweeting). The slides from it are probably the best summary to come out of the Virtual World Watch project:
After several years, things were wrapped up with VWW. All of the snapshot reports, plus three other reports I wrote under my own steam, are online and free. Between them they contain a large amount of data, much of it deliberately unedited (and sometimes frank) survey responses. Do use, but please use responsibly, attributing authors and using their text responsibly.
Overall it was an interesting experience, though it feels somewhat unfinished. It’s good to see that quality research has been continuing elsewhere in this field in UK academia (example), though with the significant changes in technology, funding, practice and all manner of other attributes, things seem startlingly different to even just half a decade ago.
Now, deep into 2015, there’s two pieces of contemporary research I’d like to do if or when funding becomes available:
- Another snapshot of virtual world use in UK academia, which would also include a comparison of the data to that of the previous snapshot from several years ago. I’ve kept all of the contact and other data from the VWW service, so that’s one starting point.
- A clear-headed analysis of the (still) contentious reasons for and against the use of virtual worlds in education, possibly involving interviews with pro- and anti- academics from back then, and now.
I’ll see what happens (and if you are a potential funder then please do get in touch); it would be interesting, and hopefully useful to the education technology community, to be able to provide an enlightened and unbiased retrospective.