Snapshot 10: Spring 2012

Virtual world activity in UK universities and colleges. Zombies can’t fly: the enduring world of the virtual.

As with previous snapshots, the responses show a mixed picture of virtual world use and institutional attitude in UK Higher Education, from the positive:

“We seem to be moving into a phase where virtual worlds are taken very seriously as potential environments for learning which means, as an institution, we don’t waste time trying to repeatedly convince ourselves any more.”

…to the negative:

“My personal view is that the downturn in interest reflects a combination of effects arising from the financial squeeze on universities and the need to concentrate on the provision of hard evidence of academic quality in order to justify the new tuition fees our institutions wish to charge.”

Second Life remains the predominant virtual world of use amongst survey respondents, as it has been in UK academia for over half a decade. However, other worlds such as OpenSim (in particular) and Open Wonderland are being explored and used by an increasing number of academics, partially due to their functionality and partially as they do not exhibit the restrictions and costs of using Second Life. On the subject of Second Life; while comments about this particular virtual world were mixed or positive, comments regarding Linden Labs were pretty much all negative, due in large part to the increased cost of ‘land’.

When asked about what happened when students encountered virtual worlds, most respondents reported good experiences. The steep learning curve of virtual worlds, and the expectations of video game playing students, were themes in those who reported mixed virtual world experiences amongst their students.

Institutional support, such as IT provision and virtual world access, staff time, virtual world technology acceptability, and funding for staff and infrastructure e.g. Second Life island space, remains varied across UK universities. Some institutions provide significant support and internal funding; others provide nothing and academics persevere through their own devices. Despite this, some UK academics who have had little or no support have persisted in using virtual worlds in their teaching and/or research for several years.

There is enthusiasm, research, and a (wide) variety of ideas (and some disagreement) on how virtual worlds should be integrated with other technologies. The SLOODLE project, which integrates the virtual environment of Second Life or OpenSim with the Moodle learning management system, was mentioned positively by several respondents.

Future predictions varied amongst the respondents. Some were handicapped, or disenfranchised, from further use of virtual worlds further due to a squeeze on funding or other institutional resources, or a change in priorities within their host university regarding what staff should be doing. They were understandably pessimistic about the future use of virtual worlds in academia, by themselves and others. Others saw a continuing use of virtual worlds in teaching and academia, an optimism shared by several first-time contributers to a snapshot.

Several participants called for more research, and the highlighting of the resultant data to make a stronger case for the use of virtual worlds in education.

Snapshot 10: Spring 2012 (408Kb PDF document)

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