Snapshot 9: September 2010

Virtual world activity in UK universities and colleges. “What now?”

This snapshot is the ninth in a series which stretches back to what seems the almost impossibly distant past of 2007. Many previous contributers to snapshots have contributed to this one, though a series of problems has resulted in there being less content than hoped for. Despite that, at north of 26,000 words, there’s still a lot of content to read through.

And it’s interesting noting that the snapshots have been produced for over three years, as it’s a reminder that the use of virtual worlds in education has longevity – more than some technologies. As one respondent comments:

“Second Life is being introduced to undergraduate students for the fourth consecutive year by Michael Callaghan.”

Virtual worlds are not a new technology, but a slowly evolving component of the toolset available to academics. One positive aspect of virtual worlds having been around for a few years in the education sector is that research results are (finally) becoming available in significant amounts, helping people to independently determine how this particular technology is best used in teaching and learning.

Some of the trends of previous snapshots continue. The large majority of reported and identifiable virtual world activity appears to be happening at the university, as opposed to the college, level. Activity involving virtual worlds is a mixture of teaching, learning and research. Though this issue lessens with every snapshot, some academics still have problems with freely using virtual worlds (and especially Second Life) in their institution.

Another continuing trend from previous surveys concerns using virtual worlds (especially Second Life) in universities and colleges. Access issues, such as installation and upgrades of the viewer, tend to be more in the older, than the newer, universities, and in colleges. It is odd that, even after several years of virtual world use across UK academia – enough time to assess their dangers (has there actually been any major security issue with SL in a university?) – some institutions still ban or heavily restrict their use by lecturers and academics.

Attitudes to the new service conditions for Second Life were generally relaxed or non-caring, while attitudes to the new interface for Second Life range from mixed to positive. Media on a prim is welcomed by most as a (possibly overdue) development. Despite this, the drift away from Second Life towards OpenSim, and similar environments, continues. Many of those respondents staying (for now) with Second Life are aware of the dangers of having “all their eggs” in the “basket” of a commercial company. The relative technical demands of OpenSim, and the lack of a national OpenSim grid initiative (though much discussed), probably prevent this drift from accelerating. However, forseen funding constraints may finally be the tipping point for some academic projects and services wishing to use virtual worlds.

And it’s funding that is the key worry, issue, concern, for most respondents. It’s sometimes more interesting what people say, but don’t want made public, when they get in touch with responses. With this particular snapshot, many correspondents expressed private concern over the future funding landscape. Some are worried that the incoming government may reduce funding for research, or be more ‘traditional’ teaching and anti-technology in attitude. Others are less pessimistic but more uncertain, seeing possibilities for virtual worlds to be ‘pushed’ as a cost-effective technology in education. No-one appears to have great certainty for the future, hence the title of ‘What now?’ for this snapshot.

Snapshot 9: September 2010 (318Kb PDF document)

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