16 December 2009

Virtual world activity in UK Universities and Colleges

Virtual World Watch have been compiling their 7th snapshot of Virtual world activity in UK universities and colleges for Winter 2009. It offers the best available information on the state of UK education in 3D multi-user virtual worlds. The report can be downloaded here (321kb/.pdf). 

Psychology at University of Derby is included and I have compiled a list of my comments that feature in the report below.

“It’s an ongoing process of development and rethinking. The use of virtual worlds for education isn’t a linear route to a satisfactory end result. It’s a slow series of increasingly less spectacular failures.”

“We are using virtual worlds for teaching Psychology at undergraduate level. It allows us to provide a custom environment that we can shape quickly for our teaching needs.

We’ve also been developing expertise in problem-based learning using virtual worlds. We’ve constructed a number of avatar-driven scenarios where students can find out about clinical mental health conditions in small groups by interacting with programmed avatars designed to mimic commonly occurring mental health symptoms. We also see the advantage in virtual worlds when it comes to asynchronous learning. We have a number of teaching locations where students can access psychological materials related to teaching content.”

“All of the teaching we have offered in virtual worlds at University of Derby has been a supplementary and optional component of existing teaching modules. If students do not wish to engage with the in-world content they are given an equivalent alternative. We have found that it is easier to teach generic skills than specific knowledge-based content. The traditional teaching formats (lectures and seminars) are, from our experience, still better than virtual world platforms when delivered effectively. The essential component of virtual worlds for teaching is the often-misunderstood notion of interactivity. When the barriers to engagement are removed (e.g. good inductions, suitable hardware, timetabling) students learn in a qualitatively different way than traditional teaching methods allow. Participation becomes an adventure and the activities are often reframed as ‘fun’.

It is still hard to quantify this as an output measure but the students tend to claim they have understood concepts in a different way. I think the learning that is happening in a virtual world activity is more akin to real-world (experiential) learning than academic learning. What comes naturally to us as children is play, discovery, learning by trying things out. These are all essential components of a well-developed three-dimensional multi-user virtual learning environment. Much the same as academics learnt to avoid reading word-for-word from their presentation slides when giving a lecture, we now appreciate that just uploading material to the virtual world and housing it in a pretty building that looks similar to those in which we teach is not adequate.”

The University of Derby, a long-term user of Second Life, is carrying on:
“Yes. It’s an ongoing process of development and rethinking. The use of virtual worlds for education isn’t a linear route to a satisfactory end result. It’s a slow series of increasingly less spectacular failures. This perspective is mirrored by funders such as JISC who view the development cycle as critical in the success of virtual world projects. The point eventually comes when one realises that the skills struggled with at the beginning are less challenging and the problems exist at a higher level; pedagogical considerations rather than implementation issues.”

“We are using Second Life and trialling OpenSim.”


  1. Very interesting as more people spend time online and in virtual worlds it only makes sense that the outside world should become more accustomed to working virtually either remotely or in avatar form. This is definitely the future of learning.

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