Getting virtual – joint Eduserv/CETIS meeting, 20/09/07

Last Thursday (20 September) Eduserv and CETIS held a joint event at the Institute of Education’s London Knowlege Lab primarily to showcase the four project’s Eduserv have awarded their annual research grant to. The common theme for the projects is the use of Second Life.
A common complaint or should I say issue:-) with using Second Life in many institutions is actually getting access to it from institutional networks. After some frantic efforts by Martin Oliver (and the judicious use of cables) we were able to connect to Second Life so our presenters could give some in-world demo’s. However the irony of almost not being able to do so from the wireless network wasn’t lost on any of us.

Andy Powell started the day with an overview of Eduserv and the rational behind this year’s research grant. He then gave his view on second life through the use of his extensive (and growing) wardrobe of Second Life t-shirts. The ability to create things is a key motivator for most users of virtual worlds such as SL; and these worlds can be seen as the ultimate in user-generated content. However, there are many issues that need to be explored in relation to the educational use of spaces like SL, such as the commercial nature of SL, and what the effects of the ban of gambling might be?What will be the effect of the increasing use of voice? It’s relatively simple to change your ‘persona’ just now when communication is text based, but the increasing use of real voices will have a dramatic impact and could fundamentally impact some users within the space. There is a huge amount of hype around SL, however Andy proposed that in education we are a bit more grounded and are starting to make some inroads into the hype – which is exactly what the Eduserv projects have been funded to do.

Lawrie Phipps followed with an overview of some JISC developments related to virtual worlds. Although JISC are not funding any projects directly working in Second Life this may change in the near future as there is currently a call in the users and innovations strand of the elearning programme which closes in early October. The Emerge project (a community to help support the users and innovations strand) does have an island in Second Life and there is a bit of activity around that. Lawrie did stress that it is JISC policy to fund projects which have clear, shareable institutional and sectoral outputs and aren’t confined to one proprietary system.

We then moved to the projects themselves, starting with Hugh Denard (Kings College, London) on the Theatron Project. In a fascinating in-world demo, Hugh took us to one of the 20 theatres the project is going to create in-world. Building on a previous web-based project, Second Life is allowing the team to extend the vision of the original project into a 3-D space. In fact the project has been able to create versions of sets which until now had just been drawings never realised within the set designers lifetime. Hugh did point out the potential pitfalls of developing such asset rich structures within Second Life – they take up lots of space. Interestingly the team have chosen to build their models outside SL and then import and ‘tweak’ in-world. This of course highlights the need to think about issues of interoperability and asset storage.

Ken Kahn (University of Oxford) followed giving us a outline of the Modelling for All project he is leading. Building on work of the Constructing2Learn project (part of the current JISC Design for Learning programme) Ken and his team are proposing to extend the functionality of their toolset so that scripts of models of behaviours constructed by learners will be able to be exported and then realised in virtual worlds such as Second Life. The project is in very early stages and Ken gave an overview of their first seven weeks, and then a demo of the their existing web based modeling tool.

We started again after lunch with our hosts, Diane Carr and Martin Oliver, (London Knowledge Lab) talking about their project; “Learning in Second Life: convention, context and methods”. As the title suggest this project is concerned with exploring the motivations and conventions of virtual worlds such as Second Life. Building on previous work undertaken by the team, the project is going to undertake some comparative studies between World of Warcraft and Second Life to see what are the key factors to providing successful online experiences in such ‘worlds’ and also to see what lessons need be taken into mainstream education when using such technologies.

The final project presentation came from Daniel Livingstone (University of Paisley). Daniel’s “Learning support in Second Life with Sloodle” project is building links between the open source VLE Moodle and SL – hence ‘Sloodle’. Once again we were taken in-world on a tour of their Sloodle site as Daniel explained his experiences with using SL with students. Daniel has found that students do need a lot of support (or scaffolding) to be able to exploit environments such as SL within an educational context – even the digital natives don’t always ‘get’ SL. There are also issues in linking virtual environments with VLE systems – authentication being a key issue even for the open source Moodle.

The day ended with a discussion session chaired by Paul Hollins (CETIS). The discussion broadened out from the project specific focus of the presentations and into more a more general discussion about where we are with second life in education. Does it (and other similar virtual worlds) really offer something new for education? Are the barriers too high and can we prove the educational benefits? Should we make students use this type of technology? Unsurprisingly it seemed that most people in the room were convinced on the educational benefits of virtual worlds but as with all technology it should only be used as and when appropriate. Issues of accessibility and FE involvement were also brought up during the session.

Personally I found the day very informative and re-assuring – practically all the speakers noted their initial disappointment and lack of engagement with Second Life: so I’m now going to go back in-world and try to escape from orientation island:-) It will be interesting to follow the developments of all the projects over the coming year.

Further information about the day and copies of the presentations are available from the [ EC wiki].