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Choosing the best virtual world for your teaching needs

  1. 1. Choosing the best virtual world for your teaching needs JISC Innovating e-Learning 2009 Online Conference Frankie Rockett
  2. 2. VIRTUAL WORLD WATCH • Eduserv Research: • Produces snapshot reports of who is doing what with virtual worlds in some UK universities and colleges. • Quotes today taken from the October 2009 ‘choosing virtual worlds’ report.
  3. 3. “BEST”? • More ‘suitable’ than other virtual worlds. • More ‘suitable’ than other technologies, or non-technological ways of teaching. ... or perhaps ... • Helps achieves all the goals of the learning exercise. • Develops “bonus skills” as a consequence. • Cheapest / easiest / quickest option.
  4. 4. Project first “I look at a project and see *if* a virtual world might suit that project. If a virtual world does suit that project, then I think *which* virtual world would suit the project best.” Fiona Littleton, University of Edinburgh
  5. 5. Evaluating worlds “We in e-learning development haven't looked at alternatives to Second Life so far, mainly because of the ease of access and availability of Second Life and that we don't want to be having to do anything technical ourselves. But, I must say that with the increasing number of virtual worlds around now, I think at the end of this year when we have a number of teaching projects running in Second Life, we'll be evaluating them and might well look at other options then.” Dr Liz Falconer, E-Learning Development Unit, University of the West of England
  6. 6. WHY USE A VIRTUAL WORLD? SOME REASONS... • Meet, talk, while at home or office - reduce CO2 emissions ... • ... and save travel time and expense. • Develop team communication and collaboration skills. • Develop design and programming skills. • Integrate video, audio, digital media as you want it, into an event or display which anyone globally can access. • Teach, either one-to-one or one-to-many.
  7. 7. Start with a box and make what you need Jessica Mullen
  8. 8. Model, animate and manipulate at molecular and atomic levels Peter Miller, University of Liverpool
  9. 9. Build an accurate simulation of a real world environment Sarah Stewart (from the project)
  10. 10. No gravity, health & safety, multi-million pound construction... Sheila Webber
  11. 11. Recreate and explore historic structures, art, design Gary Hayes
  12. 12. Communicate, record, save, replay StevenW Bohm
  13. 13. Find academics with similar virtual - and real - world interests
  14. 14. Learn to deal with medical situations © Daden Limited
  15. 15. Learn to do dangerous things, safely Flickr user ~C4Chaos
  16. 16. WHY USE A VIRTUAL WORLD? LESS VALID REASONS... • “Fun!” (Though isn’t learning easier when it’s enjoyable?) • “Woo! It’s so pretty!” • “At last, I can attend staff meetings as a unicorn.” • “We can get funding for this!” • “Have you smelt my colleague on a hot day? Would you want to sit next to him, or communicate virtually?” • “‘They’ are using it and we don’t want to look lame.”
  17. 17. There are many worlds...
  18. 18. Virtual Worlds Second Life (33) Age 5 Jumpstart 1.4m Webkinz Jr. All Star Babies Registered Accounts 17m DinoKids 1m Chuggington Utherverse (32) 3m SeaPals 15m 2009 Q3 2009 2.5m WebbliWorld Liv World Garden Party 2m 1.2m Zula 13m Pixie Hollow Blue Mars (31) Wowzie 1m 1.2m Age 30+ GeoSim World Age 8 Philly (32) Ecobuddies Tw 2008 init Planet Soccer Live y (3 Bunnytown 1) Mini Match Konstruction Zone Vector City Racers Teleplace Camp Pete Live or open beta Woogi World Beanie Babies Xivio nd 1.5m Launched in 2007 Isla Hello Kitty HiPiHi (30) erald Club PonyPals Handipoints ZooKazoo Em ille Webosaurs Closed gov Roblox Min 10.8m Buildabearville Amazing 5m 3m Worlds .com 7m Webkinz 2m anda Ty Girlz Pand 6m Zwinky 5m 2006 Wonder Rotunda/Footee 2010 Tootsville/ToppsTown ActionJetz Robot Galaxy 19m Barbie Girls 17m Brit Chicks/WoozWorld Chapatiz 15m 12m Cybertown 2005 40m 76m 80m Poptropica 20m ERepublik Chobots Ekoloko 4m 6m Fusion Fall Shidonni Omnidate 4m 7m Moshi Monsters 1m Age 25 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2005 2006 2007 Dizzywood 2008 2009 1m 1.6m Age 10 3m Franktown Rocks Yoowalk MinyanLand Free Realms 5m 45m 50m 2m 1.5m 55m Neopets SceneCaster 4m 3m Digital Dollhouse 2005 Supersecret Freakatars NFL Rushzone 3.3m Fantage 1m 1m Vizwoz 1m Elf Island Activeworlds 1m 2m Weblin 12m Green UpperDeckU Vivaty 2006 19m Football Superstars 22m Medikidz go My M Papermint 28m Sup Empire of Sports ini L 30m erm 1.5m Club Penguin Chamber of Chat ife od Twinners 2m 5m el 1.5m Galactik Football 8.6m 1.5m 1.5m s 10m Nicktropolis 2m orld 3m 2007 2m 2m mallW ClubCooee vSide Planet Cazmo 1m Girl Ambition Kaneva S vLES 6m 2.5m 1m 4m 3m 3m Precious Girls Club There 4.5m 20m Whirled 8m 5m 4m Lola’s Land 2m 13m 11m 6m Spineworld 5m 30m Whyville vMTV 90m 35m Rocketon 12.7m Ridemakerz Yoggurt 2008 IMVU 19m 15m Age 20 40m Funji Home 12m 17m Spicy Town 100m Muxlim 5m Age 13 7m 7m 16m Freggers 13m 3m Action Allstars Taatu 4m Frenzoo Onverse 9m 24m Girl Sense 8m xm 5m 15m 21m 124m 2m Home 1m Cosmopax 12m 135m sMeet 2009 26m 3.2m RevNjenz 5.2m xm 16m 1m 26m No data shown for worlds 13m Habbo Ourworld Outspark 20m 30m 148m under 1m registered accounts. 1.2m Includes estimates. Meez Gaia Stardoll 30m Copyright KZero 2006-2009 Meta-place 3.8m 2m 1.5m 42m WeeWorld Howrse Age 15 Roiworld Thursday, 22 October 2009
  19. 19. 2009 survey of business users of virtual worlds © Virtual Worlds Road Map
  20. 20. Metaplace Daniel Livingstone
  21. 21. Project Wonderland
  22. 22. OLIVE Ryan Rasmussen
  23. 23. Second Life John Kirriemuir
  24. 24. OpenSim / ReactionGrid Annabeth Robinson
  25. 25. Where do I start? How do I start?
  26. 26. how do you pick a world? What’s your criteria?
  27. 27. Criteria • What I could get installed and supported without huge and exhausting fights with the computing officers. • Price (although we ended up paying for our island we weighed up the cost of the extra support time for OpenSim against this). • End user programming is a must for us. • Learning materials available to support students. • Multiuser virtual environment with user generated content support. • Support from other educators who have done something similar. Judy Robertson, Department of Computer Science, Heriot-Watt University
  28. 28. Pedagogy “In terms of choosing Second Life, our institution had already subscribed to an island and there were people engaged in work in Second Life whose experiences we were able to draw on. We also developed our own pedagogical arguments to justify our approach and these were well rehearsed at our IPED conference here at Coventry, the Re-LIVE conference at Milton Keynes and the ascilite conference in Melbourne all last autumn.” Dr Graham Steventon, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, Coventry University
  29. 29. Compromise “No platform seems to offer a perfect mix of options, security, and population of others. In this sense picking a world to use with students is very much about deciding what areas you are willing to compromise and what areas you are not.” Michele Ryan, University of Lancaster
  30. 30. Some questions to ask, perhaps?
  31. 31. Is there an active community of educators using the virtual world? Sheila Webber
  32. 32. Local expertise “I am far more familiar with the educational applications of Second Life [than other virtual worlds], and I am aware of OpenSim and Twinity ... but a quick glance at Open Croquet looks very interesting. I am in Second Life because others in HE are, and because of existing expertise at my institution.” Dr Anne Cunningham, School of Sciences, University of Sunderland
  33. 33. Are there educators already doing what you want to do? Graham Stanley
  34. 34. Can you integrate other useful services and functionality? Daniel Livingstone
  35. 35. Lack of built-in functionality “I have had a few classes in Metaplace, and done some proof of concept work with SLOODLE in Metaplace. It’s light, simple fun and give a chance to do lightweight stuff with minimal learning curve for participants. But there’s no integrated voice (need Skype or Ventrillo).” Dr Daniel Livingstone, Computer Science, University of the West of Scotland
  36. 36. Will the virtual world still be around by the end of your educational exercise? “Before I started I went to our ITC where they were into VR stuff and realised it would be more efficient to use Second Life as it would be under constant development due to being commercial.” David Jukes, Nottingham Trent University Flickr user Nesster
  37. 37. Moving world “OpenSim is interesting in that it gives us a backup plan / exit strategy. Should Linden labs go under financially we could rescue something from the wreckage and put it on OpenSim. Also, should we encounter network bandwidth problems we could run OpenSim on campus. In addition, open source projects have a good track record if they can gain traction. So we’ve gone for a belt and braces approach; most of the work is in Second Life initially, but OpenSim is lurking in the background, not quite ready for prime time but capable of stealing the whole show!” Matthew Cownie, School of Health and Social Care, University of the West of England
  38. 38. Data transfer “We looked at OpenSim as it would give us more flexibility in terms of full management capabilities, no limitation on the number of islands we could create, or on the way we could interact with the virtual world e.g. extensions to SLOODLE or how we could integrate hardware into the virtual world. In addition, having full access/control of the hosting server would be useful. We deployed OpenSim in July 2009 and ran it in standalone mode. One useful tool we found was Second Inventory which allowed us to transfer over existing Second Life content into OpenSim.” Michael Callaghan and Kerri McCusker, University of Ulster
  39. 39. Can you re-use any buildings, areas or structures? Theatron project © King's Visualisation Lab, King's College London
  40. 40. Can you re-use existing content? Flickr user Ravenelle
  41. 41. Re-use “We looked at Active Worlds a bit but did not stay with it for several reasons. Cost was an issue but mostly because there are more 'people' in SL and thus the experience is richer. Also we try to use artifacts that other have developed, visiting other islands instead of having to create everything from scratch. SL provided a larger range of third party- created and free places to visit and use for our courses. We felt the limitation of Active Worlds being a collection of separate worlds was greater than the benefit of the added security a private world offers.” Michele Ryan, University of Lancaster
  42. 42. Are your computers up to specification? David Chess
  43. 43. Tools and platforms “One of my key criteria is being platform agnostic. Small Worlds, Metaplace and Second Life all run smoothly on Macs as well as PCs and that's often my first criterion. After that, content creation tools that are simple, co- operative, reliable and stable is my next criterion. I appreciate that Metaplace may have changed since I was there last, but each time I have looked, only Second Life has passed all these tests.” Eloise Pasteur, Designer
  44. 44. Can your institution support the technical requirements? Oli Sigurdarson
  45. 45. Can the virtual world handle a large group of learners? Raftwet Jewell
  46. 46. Scalability “My criteria for deciding on the suitability of different virtual worlds is determined by the needs of an art or design student studying on a predominantly campus-based, practice-led undergraduate course. The other major factor in my decision making process is the ability for the technology to facilitate the large numbers of students that I manage. If something takes 10 minutes to configure per student, that's 60 hours of configuration for just one course. If it isn't easily scalable, I haven't got time.” Ian Truelove, Leeds Metropolitan University
  47. 47. How long to orientate students before they can learn? PF Anderson
  48. 48. Will avatars be a benefit or a problematic distraction? PF Anderson
  49. 49. Can you and your students handle the culture of a virtual world? Prad Prathivi
  50. 50. Will learners encounter inappropriate content? Flickr user Torley
  51. 51. Safety-oriented options “Yes we have [considered virtual worlds other than Second Life] and we continue to consider them. We may well use alternatives to Second Life in a future project and where feasible we have developed technologies that are independent of the virtual world in which they are visualised. We would consider OpenSim, Sun's Wonderland or Forterra's Olive for projects requiring behind-the-firewall access, or where we needed to work across the age ranges of the two Second Life Grids (i.e. 13-18 and 18+).” Dave Taylor, Virtual Worlds and Medical Media, Imperial College London
  52. 52. What’s your budget? Phillip Torrone Andy Powell Phillip Torrone
  53. 53. Budget “Adaptability. So, if nothing suits well, can we adapt an existing virtual world - the open source virtual worlds do well here. Maintainability. How much money and time is going to be required to use the virtual world, including how much is it going to change the hardware requirements when equipping computing labs.” J Ross Nicoll, School of Computer Science, University of St Andrews
  54. 54. Will your students get “too into it”? Prad Prathivi
  55. 55. What will you leave behind? Flickr user Right as Rain
  56. 56. Finally... “Pedagogy wise I really don't think platform matters all that much - it’s the old chestnut of Blackboard or Moodle, Internet Explorer or Firefox, iPod or MP3 player. It's about people’s 'perceptions', and misperceptions can just stick or freeze people into not trying things, into being negative. It’s not the technology per se, it’s what you do with it.” Kathryn Trinder, Glasgow Caledonian University

Editor's Notes

  • Hello, and welcome to a presentation by Virtual World Watch, an Eduserv-funded service. In this presentation, we’ll look at some of the reasons WHY people - academics in UK universities and colleges in particular - chose to use a virtual world in teaching and learning. More precisely, we’ll see how they chose BETWEEN the various virtual worlds available to them.\n
  • Virtual World Watch is funded by the research wing of Eduserv. This is a small project, using one independent part-time researcher. The project started in the Spring of 2007, when what was then the Eduserv Foundation asked John Kirriemuir ( to determine the level of virtual world activity in UK Higher Education. This led to the first ‘snapshot’ report. As activity using this particular kind of technology increased, more snapshots were commissioned over the next few years.\n\nThis led to Virtual World Watch (VWW) being set up. The service runs in two parts; from October 2008 to May 2009, and from September 2009 to March 2010. During this time, further snapshots have been produced, each showing increased use of virtual worlds in UK universities and colleges - but with significant issues, such as duplication of effort, lack of evaluation, and cost, resource and technology barriers. \n\nVWW takes a neutral approach to virtual worlds and does not endorse any particular platform or service. In addition to examining ‘who’ is doing ‘what’ with virtual worlds, VWW is now taking a look at how UK academics choose the virtual worlds that they do, as well as ongoing research into virtual world use.\n\nThe pictures on this slide are the previous Second Life avatars of Andy Powell and Pete Johnston, Eduserv Research staff who steer VWW.\n
  • Choosing the ‘best’ virtual world for your teaching needs is the title of this session. Okay - we need to focus on the word ‘best’. And, to muddy the waters more, how can a virtual world be better than (or the best of) other technologies for use in education?\n\nHere, we need to see what the strengths of virtual worlds are - though, as we’ll see later on, there are also many problems with virtual worlds which hinder their use in some aspects of education.\n
  • Using a virtual world - or, for that matter, any technology - just for the sake of it, is difficult to justify. Fiona takes the sensible approach, looking for the most appropriate technology to use on a project first. \n
  • Alas, virtual worlds take time to look at, the process of which is a distraction from everyday teaching and learning. Academics like Liz are aware of the increasing range of virtual worlds that may have some educational use, but need to find an appropriate time to evaluate them.\n
  • Looking at the literature base and examples, academics quote various generic reasons why they use virtual worlds. These are six of the most recurring.\n
  • Virtual Worlds often (though not always) allow you to create content. In Second Life and similar virtual worlds, most objects start out as a simple box which can be manipulated, modified, surfaced and textured. From this most simple of 3D items, complex structures can be created, limited only by the time, skill set and imagination of the developer.\n\nIn this screen shot, a relatively new Second Life user has created her first object using the tools provided in the basic software.\n
  • The ability to recreate things that are very large, or very small, is useful in subjects such as astronomy, physics and the biosciences. While it would be unsafe to e.g. let students literally poke around with specific types of virus and bacterium, modeling their structures and behavior in virtual worlds is a safer, and more controllable, option.\n\nThe diagram shows a permanent display of various molecular structures. There is a basic theme of ‘attack on the bacterial cell wall’. From left to right:\n\n1. (coming in from top left) Ball-and-stick model of peptide side-chain of petidoglycan (part).\n2. (background) Backbone of the protein (enzyme) lysozyme (aka alpha carbon trace) which is present in secretions such as tears and attacks the peptidoglycan. The rezzer is a modified version of one generated by Troy McLuhan, basically making the atoms "touch-sensitive" (they chat their position and amino acid) and the secondary structure emit particles in response to chat. The planks and pipes were added manually to highlight the alpha and beta secondary structure.\n3. (foreground) Scaffold model of peptidoglycan generated using Scratch4SL. This rather radical model is regarded with some scepticism as it doesn't fit all the data.\n4. (background and foreground) Sculpted prims of lysozyme generated using Hiro Sheridan's web service showing the recently introduced surface textures for amino acids, hydropathy and polarity. The one on the left foreground is touch-sensitive, swapping between different surface textures.\n5. (background) Simple cartoon, again lysozyme, rendered in UCSF Chimera, imported and used to texture a prim. As with the ship in the background, it is only visible in one orientation.\n6. (foreground) Rotating lysozyme image generated from animated gif.\n
  • In virtual worlds, building restrictions are mainly bound by how much ‘land’ you have bought or are renting, and the budget for development time. This compares to the real world, where building involves architects, lawyers, construction companies and many other organisations over a substantial timescale. Maintenance, utility and ongoing costs of real world buildings also compare very badly to those of virtual world buildings, where land rent is often the only ongoing cost.\n\nThere is an argument since the first buildings went up in Second Life about whether it is best to faithfully recreate what you see in the real world, or abandon all of that and use the full functionality of virtual worlds. Both sides are, in some situations, correct. \n\nIf you want to simulate something from the real world - perhaps it is expensive, dangerous or impractical to do it there - then a virtual world may offer a cheaper, safe and practical way of doing this. The picture here shows the development of a midwife birthing simulator building.\n
  • On the other hand, the physical aspects of building are also different in virtual worlds. Gravity can be ignored, or used in unusual ways. Structures and functionality which would be dangerous, or banned by health and safety, can be incorporated. If your class on marine biology would be assisted by having a classroom on the sea floor, then build it (in a virtual world).\n\nThe diagram shows the skydeck on the Infolit iSchool. How does this compare to the building which your office is in?\n\n\n\n
  • Some works of art, historic buildings, and locations of cultural interest are difficult to reach (taking time and money). When you get there, opportunities to view can be limited.Now take the representation of the Sistine Chapel in the picture. You can visit it any time, so long as the Second Life grid is up and you have a broadband connection. You can linger where you want, zoom in or zoom out, even fly to the top of the ceiling to have a closer look.The environmental cost of your virtual visit? Miniscule (though not zero - servers and computers need power) compared to a real world visit. And there’s no damage, or erosion, to the chapel or painting itself. \n\n\n\n
  • Virtual Worlds such as Second Life offer a variety of communication systems, including Instant Messaging, local chat and voice. The ‘viewer’ software contains tools for capturing some of this content, and for saving screenshots. Add on other tools and there’s a lot of options for how people can communicate within a virtual world, and how this content can be captured, analysed and re-used. In training, lectures, presentations, tutorials, meetings and language learning, the ability to capture communication and analyse it many uses.The picture shows the 2009 Libraries of the Future symposium. In Second Life, home or office-based attendees were able to watch the proceedings through a video channel. While conference attendees at that part had to sit in silence, attendees in the Second Life part kept up a lively (text based) dialogue amongst themselves through the ‘back channel’, illustrated. This dialogue was automatically streamed into the twitter feed for the event.\n\n\n\n\n\n
  • While other online communication technologies, such as Skype, offer ways of communicating between a defined list of people, they usually offer no method of serendipitously finding people with similar interests. \n\nIn virtual worlds, this isn’t the case. Depending on the profile facilities available, and what information people put “out there”, it is often possible to find and identify other academics with similar interests.\n
  • One of the most repeated educational uses of virtual worlds involves medical situations. Midwifery, which at first thought is perhaps not something you would use a virtual world for, is taught by four UK universities using this technology. This is difficult to describe in print, and is best experienced within the environment of a birthing simulator, complete with water swishing around and various, often startling, sounds. As it is difficult to train new midwives within a scheduled class time, a simulator with post-birth analysis, debriefing, and situation run-through, makes sense before a midwife starts to practice on real mothers giving birth.The screenshot shows the reenactment of a traffic accident. This is part of an simulation exercise using Second Life and PIVOTE (, a virtual learning authoring system for virtual worlds. It was developed as part of the JISC funded PREVIEW project, where it was used to develop training material for paramedic students at St George's Hospital and Kingston University.\n\n\n\n\n\n
  • Virtual Worlds are not static environments. Depending on the functionality, and the skills of the designer, elaborate working systems can be constructed. Here, a person is skydiving (for which opening the chute at the correct time is somewhat critical). In UK universities, virtual worlds are used to teach students the dangers of the workplace. The University of Derby has a quarry simulator, complete with explosions, diggers, rockfalls and sumps, to educate trainees on the dangers of the environment before they set foot in a crumbling real world version. The University of the West of England has constructed a warehouse simulation, where accidents can be re-enacted, recorded, replayed and studied.\n\n\n\n\n\n
  • In response to snapshot requests, UK academics have also given reasons for their interest in virtual worlds which, arguably, have little or no educational merit. Here are a few of them.\n\nOn reflection, some of these reasons may have some merit. ‘Flow’, for example, where a person is highly attentive through the medium in which they are interacting, is a recognised and much researched concept in the use of digital games in education. [See, for example, Csikszentmihalyi, M. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1990 or Bizzocchi J. & Paras B.: Game, Motivation, and Effective Learning - an Integrated Model for Educational Game Design, Proceedings of the Digital Games Research Association 2005 Conference]. There has been, over the last two decades, a case developing in the games and learning research community that a combination of ‘fun’ (or interest-led activities) and carefully guided learning in digital environments can facilitate effective and swift learning.\n\nWe’re less sure about the unicorn thing, though.\n \n
  • To create a headache for academics, there are many virtual worlds to choose from. While choice is often good, too much choice in this case is not. Academics generally have limited time in which to decide, or research, which technology is best for their teaching needs.\n\nEach world has different features, functionality and technical requirements from the others. Sometimes these difference can be subtle, sometimes wildly different. Let’s try and get an idea of the range of worlds available.\n
  • KZero ( are one of several companies who track virtual worlds. This diagram shows just those virtual worlds with over 1 million registered accounts.\n\nIn this diagram, virtual worlds are positioned according to the average age of their users; from this, you can see that much commercial effort is placed into virtual worlds for younger people. The orange ball indicates the time the virtual world went ‘live’, showing that this kind of technology has been around for a few years yet; the black balls show worlds which are no longer live.\n
  • Homing on the forth quadrant shows virtual worlds with over 1 million registered accounts each, and an average user age of over 25. Of these, Second Life is the most well-known, in terms of media presence and use within educational institutions in Europe and North America. HiPiHi, on the other hand, is a virtual world with a user base predominantly in China and an activity level that is difficult to determine. \n\nThe number of registered accounts is similar to the number of Twitter followers that a person has, in that it is an oft-quoted but misunderstood and misleading metric. Some people create multiple accounts in a virtual world, for a variety of social and economic reasons. Some accounts are also dormant and no longer used. The number of registered accounts does have some use in gauging the magnitude of interest in, and experimentation with, a virtual world - but it shouldn’t be taken as an accurate figure of active users.\n
  • In sectors such as the business community, the number of different virtual worlds being actually used is quite small. \n\nIn this survey result diagram, the red block indicates worlds actually in use, as opposed to being piloted (purple) or explored (blue). This shows Second Life to be (amongst the survey respondents) almost the default virtual world of use, but with a small range of other virtual worlds attracting substantial interest in their potential. This situation is similar to that of the university and college education sector in the UK. \n\nLets take a look at a small number of virtual worlds which have been mentioned in recent VWW snapshot surveys...\n
  • Metaplace ( is currently in Beta testing. It’s an unusual virtual world, in that the view is currently isometric in nature. Metaplace has generated some interest amongst UK academics, partially as it doesn’t require a software download and everything can be created using a web browser. \n\nAccording to the official website, the platform is "client-agnostic", which means that virtual worlds developed on Metaplace can be accessed using any device that connects to the Web.\n
  • Project Wonderland ( is a Java and open source toolkit for creating collaborative virtual worlds. \n\nGraphical content can be added to a Wonderland world by creating objects using a package such as Blender or Maya. As you can see from the screenshot, Project Wonderland also supports shared software applications, such as word processors, web browsers and document presentation tools. \n\nThe user is currently represented as a basic avatar. He or she can speak through their avatar to others in the world via the voice-bridge and a microphone and speaker, or use a dedicated chat window for text-based messages.\n
  • Forterra’s ( OLIVE system aims to provide representations of real world locations, as opposed to exotic islands favoured by other virtual worlds. Instances of OLIVE are ‘closed worlds’, in that local administrators alone determine who can access their particular installation. \n\nConsequently, OLIVE has some traction in the business community, especially in a training capacity, and has also sparked some interest in education. In the UK, universities including Coventry, Essex and East London are evaluating OLIVE for educational purposes.\n
  • Second Life ( is the most well-known virtual world in North America and Europe, and by far the most used in education. Developed by Linden Labs, SL has been around for over 6 years, building up substantial communities in sectors such as education, business and virtual item construction. Editing tools and a complex economy based around the Linden Dollar currency mean a wide variety of items can be created, bought and sold.The pricing structure for Second Life is complex, with what you get generally depending on the size and type of land and what control you have over it. Second Life also provides the “Teen Second Life” ( option, for people age 13 to 17, to prevent contact with what may be considered adult material. However, the user age ranges of “Teen Second Life” and the main grid make for a logistical problem for UK FE colleges containing students both below and above 18.\n
  • OpenSim ( and ReactionGrid ( are variations of the same ‘open source’ principle. Using this software, administrators can create and control all aspects of a world which lives ‘behind the firewall’, thus negating concerns such as security, or inappropriate contacts or content.\n\nIntriguingly, content can be moved between OpenSim, ReactionGrid and Second Life, offering possibilities for ‘backing up’ work. Worlds can also be linked, and various forms of a ‘Hypergrid’ of connected educational worlds have been discussed by UK academics over the past year.\n\nAnnabeth Robinson explains the picture: \n\n“The context of the image is me copying my avatar (brand) into ReactionGrid, and then logging into Second Life and ReactionGrid at the same time. There's no clever access to just one account powering both (though that'd be cool in the future).”\n
  • Unless the virtual world you are looking at is very new, there’ll be information about it on the web. Second Life has far more than any other; partly because of the large education community, and partly because it’s been around longer than most. The screenshot is from the Second Life Education Wiki, which has links to various free content, examples, lesson plans and other education materials; it’s a good place to start for noob (new) educators.\n\n‘Reading’, however, is not a replacement for ‘doing’. Go into a virtual world of interest. Try and find places of relevance to your work, and like-minded people. Communicate with them. Sit in on a workshop, conference or meeting. Try building something simple. See how much you can do, and do for little (real) money or for free.\n
  • How do you identify which world is most suitable for your education project? Let’s have a look at what some UK academics, who have used a variety of virtual worlds, said.\n
  • The six criteria laid down by Judy Robertson cover technical access, price, functionality, and user, material and community support.\n
  • Being able to justify the use of a particular world, from a teaching and learning perspective, is crucial. This also presents the opportunity to carry out some dissemination, at events and through papers, articles, blog posts and other ephemera.\n
  • But ... which world to choose? None are perfect, and all have trade-offs and compromises, in functionality, performance, technical requirements and many other areas. *Sigh*. It isn’t easy, is it?\n
  • Now we’ve seen a few of the advantages of using virtual worlds, and some of the worlds available, it’s time to ask a few - overlapping - questions. This may help to narrow the field down, and will highlight some of the disadvantages of using, or trying to use, a virtual world in education.\n
  • While there is nothing wrong with being the first educator, or innovator, of a virtual world, it helps if there is an existing community of educators for sharing advice, information and resources. Virtual Worlds have the advantage that educators can meet up, without leaving their home or office, using the very technology that they use in their work.\n\nIn the picture, some of the UK education community are having an informal meeting on the University of Teesside Second Life island, while awaiting the firework display on November 5th.\n
  • An existing skill and experience set in her host institution is a key reason for Anne Cunningham choosing Second Life, as it is for many UK academics.\n
  • It’s a good sign if you can find other educators doing your activity. They may have tips on how to use the virtual world most effectively; they may have content, or buildings to share. It’s easier to work as part of a community of supportive peers who understand what you are trying to do, rather than as a lone academic. Above all, if other people have tried it, then with their help the chances of you using the technology successfully are higher.\n\nThe picture shows a meeting of a group of Italian teachers. Language learning is a ‘sticky’ area within virtual worlds. In other words, it’s a particular educational activity where virtual worlds such as Second Life have been repeatedly used.\n
  • Very few virtual worlds offer a rich set of communication facilities, recording options, and the ability to save information or move it into another format or service. Therefore, the ability to add relevant functionality to a virtual world is necessary for many education practitioners. This comes back to a fundamental question: what do you need the technology to do in your teaching exercise?\n
  • The previous slide shows Daniel Livingstone integrating Metaplace with Moodle, a Course Management System (CMS) (also known as a Learning Management System or a Virtual Learning Environment). However, the trade-off for the ease of set-up and use of this particular virtual world is a lack of built-in functionality.\n
  • Well, will it? It’s impossible to know. Some virtual worlds show much potential, but then the plug is pulled on them, often with short notice. Even large companies are not immune from this; Google discontinued ‘Lively’, its virtual world development, nearly a year ago.\n\nKey indicators to look out for are how long the world has been publicly usable for, and whether the company who owns it has income streams. And this doesn’t just apply to the company which produces the virtual world. If you choose to ‘rent’ or occupy virtual land ‘owned’ by someone else, what guarantee do you have that this arrangement will not be discontinued without fair notice? Several UK university developments in Second Life have already experienced their work disappearing. \n\nEven if you are confident with your arrangement, having some way of ‘backing up’ your development seems sensible.\n
  • If your virtual world of choice goes under, can you keep going? Perhaps surprisingly, there is some compatibility between groups of virtual worlds at the content level, and in some situations you can move your stuff from one to the other.\n
  • The ability to transfer data between compatible virtual worlds was highlighted by several respondents to the survey on ‘choosing virtual worlds’.\n
  • Building a structure in some virtual worlds, such as Second Life, can soak up a lot of time and money. This is why many universities hire external developers, as it works out cheaper and quicker than training academics and getting them to build. As well as the cost of staff time, there’s also the cost (with some virtual worlds) of buying ‘materials’, as well as the cost of ‘land’. So - and this is especially true of Second Life - using an existing building on existing land makes economic sense, especially when there is so much choice.\n\nFor example, the Eduserv-funded Theatron project ( constructed 20 high quality historical theatres in Second Life, one of which is pictured here. These can be booked for use with students - remember, it’s a virtual world so the students and the educator can be anywhere in the world. It would therefore be a poor waste of resource for other educational institutions to ‘reinvent the wheel’ and create similar structures for a one-off use. \n
  • Other people have already created content within many virtual worlds. Perhaps there is some that you can obtain, either cheaply or for free, and use within your educational exercise. \n\nThese objects are not just restricted to obvious items, such as the collection of teddy bears shown. You name it, and it can often be found in the larger virtual worlds. Skins (body shapes) and hair are two particularly large sectors of the Second Life market. Some UK academics have their own sideline in developing content, for example creating virtual shoes for sale.\n
  • The ability to re-use, either cheaply or freely, things which other people had created is a compelling reason for many academics who use virtual worlds.\n
  • Virtual worlds require differing degrees of computer performance; this has been one of the major barriers for UK universities and colleges in their use of this technology.\n\nBlue Mars (, for example, requires a high performance computer in terms of processor power and graphics capabilities. In addition, just to get started requires a substantial software download.\n\nGenerally, the more graphically intense the world, and the more configurable the elements within it, the higher specification of computer is required. Or, “The better it looks, the louder your PC will complain.”\n
  • If you choose a virtual world that runs on just one platform, you run a risk if your institution or department funds a move to another platform. Eloise, a designer of virtual worlds for UK academia highlights this, as well as the need for reliable content creation tools.\n
  • As well as high performance PCs or Macs, some virtual worlds have technical requirements concerning Internet and Port access. \n\nMany early education initiatives using Second Life in UK universities and colleges were hindered by these requirements, as well as limitations on IP addresses and the ability to download sometimes critical updates of software. The IP address issue is a reminder that what may be possible using a virtual world on one computer may not be possible for a whole lab of computers.\n
  • Lag. The bane of virtual worlds.\n\nLag is when your computer slows to a crawl. There are many reasons why this may happen (an inadequate computer being one of them), but having a large group of people in the same place can often cause noticeable lag. In the case of Second Life, this is because the server has to send a constant stream of data about that same place to every person within it.\n\nHow to get around this? If you have a large group of learners, split them up and put them in different places, or stagger in-world times. Test the virtual world beforehand, and read up on how many people it can comfortably take in one go.\n
  • If your education exercise involves a large number of students, then the set-up required for each of them becomes an issue. Can they do all of the set-up themselves, or is some of this down to the tutor? How long will it take?\n
  • One of the conclusions of the Theatron Project was that:\n\n“The time required to invest in learning to use the environments [also] is a barrier to adoption.”\n\n(see:\n\nAll technology takes time to learn; virtual worlds are no exception. However, the additional and novel concept of the ‘avatar’ can make a virtual world difficult to use at first, as the new user has to ‘orientate’ him or herself. This involves learning how to move, fly, view items, teleport, interact with objects, and many other tasks. \n\nIt could be argued that orientation in itself is a learning exercise, with the user acquiring a range of new skills. However, the issue remains that in education exercises where there are not many ‘in world’ hours, orientation of learners unfamiliar with the medium could take up a significant proportion of this time.\n\n
  • There are many arguments for and against the use of avatars in educational activities. The ‘learner as avatar’ is often the flashpoint in discussions between pro- and anti- virtual world academics as to the effective use of this technology.\n\nOn the plus side, students and learners can personalise their appearance within an environment. Doing so gives (some) more confidence, as does the ability to control how they appear, while gaining extra skills in using the particular virtual world. People can flick between shapes and clothing as they feel appropriate to the virtual world situation. In a educational group situation, commenting and helping each other on avatar modification helps students to collaborate and bond.\n\nOn the negative side, avatar configuration can be time consuming. Students who prefer the anonymity of being in a corner of the classroom may be uncomfortable with having an avatar which they feel others will judge. Appearances can be distracting during an educational exercise; are you focused on what the person is saying, or staring at his long forked tail?\n
  • If your class is going to work in isolation, then cultural aspects of the virtual world they are using will not matter so much. However, should they have previous experience, or start wandering off into other regions, then students will often soak up the culture around them. Could this be a problem or a distraction, or will it give them confidence and empower them to participate more?\n\nEven if the educational exercise takes place in a completely isolated virtual world, the implicit culture of the medium will still present different teaching challenges to using other technologies, or learning in a classroom setting. One of the conclusions of the Open Habitat project was that:\n\n“Using an MUVE (multi-user virtual environment) is a high risk activity as because of the nature of the platform the range of student and tutor experiences can be varied. A bad session can feel highly isolating and alienating while a good experience can feel very communal and co-operative.”\n\n(see:\n
  • There is an argument that inappropriate content and behavior are a ‘mirror’ to the real world and therefore are not an issue. However, virtual worlds can allow people to do things which are not physically, or legally, allowable in the real world, which can lead to problems.\n\nThis particular issue is amplified by the image of virtual worlds and social media in some parts of the mainstream media, as dangerous environments filled with sexual deviancy, fake identities and immoral events. What the - actual and realistic - risks and dangers are, as opposed to the perception of infrequent or non-users, is open to question. \n\nColleges in particular, and some Universities, accept people under 18 years of age for further and higher education, which can make this a tricky issue. Many virtual worlds allow developers to create a closed environment so uninvited people cannot wander in. But is it an issue if a student encounters, or creates, inappropriate content? Or is this, in a different way, an extra lesson for the students about conduct in virtual worlds mirroring that in the real one?\n\n(And yes, the picture was created in a virtual world.)\n\n \n
  • The age range and restriction issue is a factor in some academics evaluating more ‘controllable’ virtual worlds.\n
  • Yes, building something in a virtual world is only a fraction of the cost of building it in the real one. \n\nHowever, it is certainly not free. \n\nWhen making a budget for your use of virtual worlds - an essential requirement - you’ll need to factor in:\n\nInitial cost of the ‘land’ in the virtual world.\nAny ongoing rent or maintenance costs.\nCosts of purchasing any items which are not free.\nStaff time in getting used to the environment.\nDevelopment time.\n\nAnd it’s this last factor which many people underestimate. It’s usually best to ask people who have undertaken similar educational exercises what their overall costings have been. Development time, in particular, can be a difficult issue to quantify; many educational developments in UK Higher Education have had some element of volunteer time from enthusiastic academics.\n
  • Money is mentioned by many academics, aware that budgets are at the foundation of what software, hardware and staff time are feasible.\n
  • The ‘A word’ (*sigh* addiction) makes a tediously regular appearance on television, in newspapers, in magazines. This is not just in relation to virtual worlds, but to forms of social media, the Internet, and basically anything that the target audience of the particular medium are not great users of. \n\nIf you are worried that your students may become ‘addicted’ to virtual worlds, examine your own concerns. Why are you worried? Is this realistic? What really is addiction (as opposed to enthusiasm or having a hobby or pastime), and what are the cases and rates of virtual world addiction? You may find that the concern is more of a perception than a reality...\n
  • In the real world, buildings crumble and decay. Old academic reports are put on shelves and forgotten, or end up in databases, only found when searched for.\n\nIn virtual worlds, unless developments are deleted, they stay as they are (providing there isn’t rent outstanding on the land). Second Life contains many structures, buildings and universities, set up by academics and abandoned (or seemingly abandoned). What will you do with yours when your teaching exercise is over? \n\nAlso, what about the smaller objects and other created content? Unlike the web, with search engines that index data and metadata, search facilities in virtual worlds are primitive or non-existent. If you don’t publicise your materials outside of the virtual worlds in which they reside, will anyone - apart from strangers wandering virtually - find them in the future? If not, isn’t that a bit of a waste of scant academic resource?\n
  • The last word is left to Kathryn Trinder, the other speaker on virtual worlds in the JISC Online conference this year.\n