British Journal of Educational Technology Vol 40 No 3 2009 543–546
MUVE eventedness: An experience like any other
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The OpenHabitat project is a Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) Users and
Innovation Programme funded project exploring the practical application of multi-user
virtual environments (MUVEs) to the higher education classroom. This paper discusses
ongoing research, drawing tentative conclusions from reporting streams coming out of
the project. The researchers have identiﬁed that once lecturers have acquired literacy in
the MUVEs, there is a threshold after which they become able to see MUVEs in education
as offering an experience that allows for the exploration of existing content in a new
context and which acts as a focal point for reﬂection. The ‘otherness’ of the environ-
ment provides a ‘mirror’ for practice (for both student and teacher). The otherness,
however, does not necessarily call for new pedagogies but rather relies on a long tradi-
tion of experiential learning.
The use of MUVEs (Multi User Virtual Environments) in education is no longer the
realm of the avant-garde or the charmingly quaint, and is encroaching on the edges of
the mainstream. A recent scoping study conducted for JISC tells us that the (educa-
tional) ‘use of virtual worlds has accelerated exponentially over the last two or three
years’ (de Freitas, 2008). With the increasing prominence of these new tools, we need
to start asking what the technology offers for the average classroom, and moving
beyond the ‘if ’ of virtual worlds to the ‘when’ and ‘for what reason’. The OpenHabitat
project is primarily an attempt to see past the complications of the technology to explore
what happens when a virtual world comes to a regular classroom, or in the case of
OpenHabitat, two classrooms: Ian Truelove’s art and design class at Leeds Metropolitan
and Marianne Talbot’s class at Oxford University overseen by the project’s Principal
Investigator David White.
The OpenHabitat project
The project was conceived as a series of two iterative pilots where best practices and
lessons learned could be gleaned from the results of the ﬁrst pilot and used to inform the
development of the second pilot. Each of the groups has kept an open, running discus-
sion freely available online and aggregated to www.openhabitat.org using video, photo
© 2009 The Author. Journal compilation © 2009 Becta. Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ,
UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
544 British Journal of Educational Technology Vol 40 No 3 2009
and text blogs. This reﬂexive method was chosen for the ﬁrst pilot in order to track,
develop and reﬁne best practices. These practices would then lead to a solid foundation
for the second pilot, in addition to offering a preliminary opportunity to test out those
best practices and further reﬁne them. This method worked for us, but rather than the
second pilot simply being a reinforcement for the ﬁrst, it also allowed us to ‘see through’
the technology to such a degree that we were able to focus from a clearer standpoint on
some of the real advantages of using MUVEs.
That clearer picture is something that we suggest may be the subtler and perhaps more
important part of our research with MUVEs. ‘Teaching and learning in virtual worlds
is’, according to David White, ‘an experience’ (White, 2008a). In his ﬁrst blog post on
the subject, he explains that it is the intensity and ‘eventedness’ that creates the real
value of the MUVE experience. Bringing a virtual world into a classroom serves as a
catalyst, a ‘shared event’ that takes learning beyond a simple knowledge transaction
between student and instructor. It has the potential to bring students together as a class,
and push the material far enough into a new context to allow students a new and,
perhaps, more compelling way of approaching the content of a given learning event.
Literacies: identiﬁcation and acquisition
The planning for the ﬁrst pilot primarily involved consideration of what we could do
with the technology. From the perspective of the project members, researchers designed
the platforms, focusing on speciﬁc kinds of feedback loops and avatar actions that
would allow for an ‘authentic experience’. Best practices were sought that would allow
for replication of the immersive experience in other instructors’ teaching spaces.
In the process, we accumulated a great deal of data and found some patterns that we
thought (and think) might be important. In reﬂecting on some of the lessons learned
from the ﬁrst pilot as described, however, we saw a slightly different picture forming.
Rather than the skills-based, step-by-step planning typical of a ‘traditional’ approach to
Higher Education, we began to see the primacy of social literacies emerging as our
lessons learned from the process. We ﬁnd that the intense curricular and pedagogical/
technological planning is less responsible for successful learning ‘experiences’, and that
the support of teacher/student dialogue and pre-MUVE socio/pedagogical concepts
start to portray themselves as the primary and essential literacies needed for the learn-
The reﬂections from the project leaders during the ﬁrst pilot revealed key principles that
formed the foundation of the new ‘what we already knew about teaching’ perspective,
a move away from focusing on MUVE-speciﬁc best practices. Ian Truelove blends in
lessons from his arts-based background when discussing identity.
Design education consciously and deliberately strives to achieve a balance between the unre-
stricted and impulsive (Nobody), the collaborative teamworking, subject speciﬁc or audience
satisfying (Anybody) and the personal achievement of the author/producer (Somebody). We
© 2009 The Author. Journal compilation © 2009 Becta.
MUVE eventedness 545
glued all this together with many, many ‘Aha!’ moments (Eureka) ... . but it is clear that individual
and collective identity is bound together with the creative process (Truelove, 2008)
This description could be applied to the MUVE environment as well as design education.
There is some question of whether the issue of identity will really be very different than
the identity stretching that happens to students when they come to university. In a
designed classroom, where you already know who the people in the class are, ﬂights of
identity are going to be less disruptive—and no different than those of art students
using other mediums or having other experiences.
There is also a sense in which the foregrounding of ‘natural’ collaboration competes
most directly with traditional views of Second Life as a call for a new pedagogy. Truelove
wonders if ‘Maybe “collaboration” in these MUVE environments is more about discus-
sion than construction. When people collaborate in world they are rarely to be found
wrestling over the same polygons/prims’ (White, 2008a). There is a sense in which
thinking through ‘construction plans’ and trying to force the MUVE medium can bring
to the fore project member Steven Warburton’s concerns that ‘Second Life can be
deceptive ... It can seduce one into believing that “teaching” practices that work on the
outside can be readily transposed inside. It is a sobering experience when the particular
constraints of SL kick back and even the best-laid plans begin to unravel’ (Warburton,
We took advantage of the two-phased approach and allowed the continuum to ﬂow
from the technology and towards the educational experience that the students were
going to be having. Discussion among the project planning team moved from consid-
ering what we could do with the technology to elicit certain learning behaviours from
students (the best laid plans) towards more immersive, experience-based plans that
contextually allowed for the realities and limitations of the platform. The experience of
working within a MUVE environment brings out some of the key concepts already
existing inside the ﬁeld or topics being covered; it exposes things that might have
remained hidden in a more traditional context. This is best represented by Ian True-
love’s screenshot of the virtual houses built by students, with the caption ‘They’re ﬁrst
years. They only left home 3 weeks ago. Of course they want to build themselves
homes.’ (see http://www.ﬂickr.com/photos/cubistscarborough/2978733707/)
If David White’s intuitions are correct that the MUVE should be seen as an experience,
a form of journey or ﬁeld trip, where students are travelling in both virtual space and
in their personal development, it is possible that the project is only now realising
the real fruits of the reﬂections gained from the ﬁrst pilot. In this model, each of the
students will be able to engage with both the pedagogy push from the lecturer and
their reﬂective journey articulated in student–lecturer and student–student relation-
ships, supporting not only peer learning but peer development. The learning designer
might be better served by accepting the chaotic nature of the virtual environment and
the value of the ﬁeld trip for what they are. A positive result from a virtual learning
© 2009 The Author. Journal compilation © 2009 Becta.
546 British Journal of Educational Technology Vol 40 No 3 2009
experience actually relies on the chaotic, organic nature of the MUVE and the inter-
actions therein, on the literacy level of the instructor, and more importantly appears
to be pedagogically agnostic.
While Steven Warburton’s caution against directly translating real-world book teach-
ing styles into a MUVE is well warranted, this should not preclude the inclusion of
teaching styles that are based on other, perhaps less traditional, but still valued
experience-based learning pedagogies. Many of the same criticisms levelled against
teaching in a MUVE might be made of a classroom in the open air of a park, a lesson
taught by mobile phone or a practicum in a hog farm. These are all experiences that do
lend some confusion and some chaos, but it is this very unsettling of the learner (and
the instructor) that makes a change in habitat such a valuable learning experience.
de Freitas, S. (2008). Serious virtual worlds: a scoping study. Retrieved March 9th 2009, from
by WebCite(R) at http://www.webcitation.org/5f9ulxex1
Truelove, I. (2008). Eureka. Retrieved March 9th 2009, from http://tallblog.conted.ox.ac.uk/
index.php/2008/05/22/initial-impressions-ﬁrst-open-habitat-pilot. Archived by WebCite(R)
Warburton, S. (2008). How tall is tall in Second Life? Retrieved March 9th 2009, from http://
warburton.typepad.com/liquidlearning/2008/06/how-tall-is-tal.html. Archived by Web-
Cite(R) at http://www.webcitation.org/5f9uLAg1d.
White, D. (2008a). That was an interesting experience. Retrieved March 9th 2009, from http://
Archived by WebCite(R) at http://www.webcitation.org/5f9uNPPqn.
White, D. (2008b). Initial Impressions from the First Open Habitat Pilot. Retrieved March 9th 2009,
from http://iantruelove.blogspot.com/2008/05/eureka.html. Archived by WebCite(R) at
© 2009 The Author. Journal compilation © 2009 Becta.