Learning through falling: Second Life in UK academia.


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April 2009 keynote presentation at the JISC RSC Northern conference on virtual worlds in education.

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  • This is an overview of teaching and learning activities in UK Higher Education (and to a lesser extent, Further Education), focusing on the main issues that have arisen in recent surveys by Virtual World Watch (www.virtualworldwatch.net).\n
  • The content of the presentation is split into several questions, most or all of which have been asked by many UK academics over the past few years.\n
  • The first question - why? Why virtual worlds in academia?\n
  • There are some positive reasons why virtual worlds are steadily becoming more used in teaching and learning.\n
  • And there are some negative reasons as well, mostly based around financial issues.\n
  • The costs of just refurbishing college and university buildings is astronomical. Arguably the greatest beneficiaries of the expansion of the HE/FE sector in the last few decades has been the building industry, not the students.\n
  • Changing demographics and roll numbers make it difficult to plan new schools, or keep existing schools that are partially empty running, within tight budgets.\n
  • So here’s your new campus. The land cost a thousand US dollars plus a small maintenance fee. Building materials run into the hundreds, rather than the millions, of pounds. Labour is cheap. Utility bills? Health and safety hazards? Maintenance and replacement costs? Car parking and transport links? LOL!\n
  • There is a lot of free stuff out there, created by academics, for academics. And it’s cheap - or in many cases completely free and with no unreasonable re-use restrictions.\n
  • So - who’s doing what in academia?\n
  • This is the partial spreadsheet of activities from the January/February survey of virtual world activities in UK academia. The net result - the large majority of UK universities are doing something, but in a very fragmented manner.\n
  • Michele has done good work. Many of the uses of virtual worlds she describes can be mapped onto one specific application.\n
  • Orientation is okay (though sometimes time consuming) in Second Life, but it’s a good idea to teach students about how to do things, such as researching, in a virtual world. These skills are, of course, highly transferable to using in other virtual worlds, digital environments and remote communication scenarios.\n
  • Second Life allows academics to develop quite complex structures that are difficult, expensive or dangerous to do in the real world. The screenshot shows the tuberculosis bacterium converting sugar, overlaid onto a diagram that you can use to follow this complex chemical process. You can wander around the various structures and examine them close up. \n
  • There are large numbers of events held in Second Life. Some are public, some are private. There’s really no restriction on what kind of event can be held, either in isolation or linked into a real world event or activity.\n
  • One of the many attractive aspects of holding an event in a virtual world such as Second Life are the number of communication options available. You can have a private chat with another participant. Or use voice chat (some people like, some do not). Or participate in a public backchat at the event. Here’s 10 minutes of the participant backchat at the Eduserv Foundation Symposium in 2007.\n
  • There are a lot of health and medical developments in Second Life, particularly from UK academics. This one, for example, is a chemical and biosciences laboratory, as well as a forensic crime scene simulator, developed at the University of East London.\n
  • The Learning in Virtual Environments project at Birmingham City University sees students learn about film production methods and techniques. Student teaching within Second Life and virtual worlds is happening at a lot of UK universities. Some, such as the Open University, are into their third year of teaching in this manner.\n
  • Health and safety training is ideal in a virtual world, where the environment is totally physically risk free for the newbie. In addition, students can sit at home and learn about some of the basic hazards, before travelling to and taking the risk of being “on site”. Here, the University of Derby have teamed up with the Institute of Quarrying to build a simulation with many hazards. Other good simulated work environments have been developed at Teesside University (pie factory) and the University of the West of England (warehouse).\n
  • An increasing proportion of the whole learning experience has been replicated or moved over to a virtual world. Here we see students graduating from Manchester Business School.\n
  • This question comes up frequently. The implication is that a technology is “better”, “safer” or more “proven” if it is widely used in education, as opposed to being “niche”. The implication with “niche” being “used by extremists” or “unable to be widely used”. It is a bogus argument.\n
  • Most education technologies, materials and devices are, in fact, “niche”. This doesn’t make them less valid than more widely used (generic?) technologies and devices.\n
  • The experiences of academics in UK universities, when inevitably dealing with IT services, has been extremely variable. This often becomes the most significant factor in virtual world developments succeeding, or failing, in a particular institution.\n
  • Why these problems in some (not all) institutions? There’s a number of excuses: an unwillingness to change; a lack of funding; a reluctance to do more work; ignorance of, and misinformation about, virtual worlds; the fear of losing total control over IT in the university.\n
  • This comment has come up repeatedly, with IT services querying why an academic would want to use a virtual world. Apart from the questionable nature of the query (Do IT services not trust academics? Why?), should it be up to IT services to decide which technology is permissable? And shouldn’t they be up to speed on education technology before asking this kind of question anyway?\n
  • Where there is scaremongering, ask IT services to come up with some proof, or evidence, of all these negative things going wrong with virtual world use in academia.\n
  • The funding card is a good one to use, especially if you bypass IT services and go to senior members of the university with evidence of other institutions getting income from virtual world activities.\n
  • This question is a regular one, usually from academics who have little or no experience of using a virtual world.\n
  • Well, if it makes people nervous about virtual worlds, happier, then there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that people behave in virtual worlds similar to how they behave in the ‘real world’. So men build sheds and hide in them, no matter which world they are in.\n
  • Does it matter if it is “real” or not? If it does - why does it matter?\n
  • Evidence, proof, case examples; where are they?\n
  • There’s plenty of “stuff” out there, which is not surprising when you remember that Second Life has been around for a few years now.\n
  • One of the problems with rapidly emerging technologies is that it can take, literally, years for peer-reviewed work to be published. By the time a paper written today about Second Life appears through this route, things will have moved on significantly. Thankfully, some journals are providing an accelerated route without compromising the peer-review process.\n
  • Also note that there’s a lot of stuff out there beyond the UK. The Second Life Education Wiki is a good place to start to find out how other educators have made a success of using this particular virtual world.\n
  • Many Second Life developers use social media, such as blogging (for more descriptive prose) and twitter (for more immediate pointers and prose).\n
  • There is an issue about why emerging technologies, such as Second Life, need so much proof for some people. Especially when “traditional” educational methods and technologies remain unexamined, even though practices, people and learning have changed.\n
  • Sceptics come in all flavours. The nature of a good academic and researcher is, indeed, to be sceptical, but open minded to proof and evidence, experimentation and methodology. But this raises the issue of whether a closed minded sceptic, who refuses to impartially examine proof and evidence in favour of personal prejudice, is competent enough to be an academic?\n
  • It is inevitable, when starting out with virtual worlds in academia, that you will encounter differing levels of scepticism.\n
  • The more successful UK academics seem to have a simple approach. Invite in the open minded sceptics to do things in virtual worlds; some will eventually become collaborators. Ignore, isolate and work around the closed minded sceptics (and not just with virtual worlds); they aren’t worth the time and effort.\n
  • How do I get funding? Who’s giving out the cash?\n
  • Some tips from observation of the marking process, and from conversations with markers of proposals for virtual world research, developing, teaching and learning in UK academia.\n
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  • Some projects and consortia have successfully gone through the processes and obtained European funding.\n
  • The JISC have funded a number of virtual world projects, reports and initiatives. It’s worthwhile keeping an eye on their website (www.jisc.ac.uk) and subscribing to the appropriate feed. This particular call closes at noon tomorrow!\n
  • Second Life is not the only virtual world, though it has been the predominant one in education. Others include HOME on the Playstation 3, Metaplace (both pictured here), and OpenSim. Virtual World developments are rapid and constantly changing.\n
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  • Learning through falling: Second Life in UK academia.

    1. 1. Learning through fallingSecond Life in UK academiaVirtual World Watchwww.virtualworldwatch.netJISC RSC NorthernLearning in Virtual WorldsApril 21st 2009
    2. 2. Eight questions.
    3. 3. 1. Why are we doing this?
    4. 4. The positive reasons✤ Three things getting better (the perfect storm): 1. PC and Mac technology. 2. Broadband access. 3. Virtual Worlds themselves.✤ Lifelong learning opportunities.✤ Learn when you want, from where you want.✤ Thousands of successful instances of virtual worlds used in teaching and learning.
    5. 5. The negative reasons✤ “Job for life” dead. Constant re-skilling, re-education at all stages of life needed. Juggled with family, location ties.✤ Cost of repeatedly visiting distant campus in travel (fuel, tickets), time and carbon footprint.✤ University students live at home, can’t afford to live at university (Office for National Statistics report, April 2009).✤ It is cripplingly expensive to build, well, buildings and maintain them, at schools, colleges and universities.
    6. 6. £170 million buys a lot of virtual land, buildings.
    7. 7. Changing roll numbers = difficult school planning.
    8. 8. Your new university campus. Cheap, ignores gravity.
    9. 9. Even better: loads of cheap or free stuff.
    10. 10. 2. Who’s teaching? Who’s learning?
    11. 11. Lots of people in UK universities do both.
    12. 12. 16 ways to use virtual worldsExamples include:✤ As a connection device for Internet telephony, instant messaging or chat (as an alternative meeting place, live or recorded).✤ As a role play device (with predetermined roles, tasks or themes).✤ Open learning (as an open, non-structured, student centred learning community).Michele Ryan, University of Lancaster.http://www.lancs.ac.uk/postgrad/ryanm2
    13. 13. Teaching research, virtual world skills.
    14. 14. TB bacterium converts sugars.
    15. 15. Be anywhere, attend anything.
    16. 16. Multi-modal communication.
    17. 17. Lots of UK academic health, medicine in Second Life.
    18. 18. LiVE project, Birmingham: making movies.
    19. 19. Health and safety: quarry simulator.
    20. 20. Graduation ...
    21. 21. 3. Does a technology have to be “mainstream”?
    22. 22. Right tool for the right job ...✤ Calculators not used in history, biology, sociology, religious studies ... but are an accepted technology (except to neo-luddites clinging on to the abacus and slide rule).✤ A history textbook is only useful for history. But no-one refers to it as having a “niche application”.✤ Medicine ball in PE, test tube in chemistry, chisel in woodwork, paintbrush in art class, windspeed meter in geography ...✤ If you think about it, most of the tools and technologies in education are “niche”.
    23. 23. 4. When did some “IT services” become “IT dictatorships”?
    24. 24. Resistance to change?
    25. 25. “IT services sometimes do not take it seriously and ask ‘Why do you want to do this at all?’”Mark Childs, podcast interview, 20th April 2009.
    26. 26. Argument against (1)✤ Second Life has worked very well for teaching and learning activities for tens of thousands of students in UK universities.✤ No disasters, no armageddon, no university networks or JANET crashing.✤ So if it can’t work here, the only reason must be that the IT here is not up to scratch. Which is IT services problem ... IT services should have an attitude of “Make it so”, not “Computer says no”...
    27. 27. Argument against (2) Your obstruction to virtual world use loses this university income including: ✤ Virtual World and technology research funding (which also leads to publications, increased research rating and more funding). ✤ Income from distance learning courses, offered by other competing universities. ✤ Income from courses about technologies, offered by other competing universities. ✤ Income from collaborative works, partnerships, with businesses (as other universities are doing).
    28. 28. 5. How “real” is it?
    29. 29. “Primarily, women want to change their appearance and fiddle with their hair, and men feel the need to put walls and a roof (a shed) over themselves.”Anna Peachey, podcast interview, 20th April 2009.
    30. 30. “What is ‘real’, anyway? And does it matter if it’s ‘real’ or not, so long as it works?”Andy Powell, Eduserv Foundation, 28th January 2008.
    31. 31. 6. Where’s the proof virtual worlds work?
    32. 32. Fragmented, but there and free✤ Um, there’s, like, a massive online world of it. Have you looked?✤ Snapshot reports (5 to date), approaching 1,000 quotes from UK academic developers.✤ Externally funded projects usually obliged to make reports public, do an evaluation.✤ Many students doing PhDs in aspects of the use of virtual worlds in education.✤ Peer-reviewed material is creeping out ...
    33. 33. Accelerating the peer-review process is good.
    34. 34. Not just in the UK; look global (real world global).
    35. 35. Blogs, social media by academic developers.
    36. 36. “Why the need to prove? You’re not required, all the time, to quantitatively prove that lecture theatres are useful before building a new building.”Sheila Webber, podcast interview, 16th March 2009.
    37. 37. 7. How do we deal with other academic sceptics?
    38. 38. “I have convinced my managers now that it is worthwhile for teaching. Some people are bizarrely hostile to it, for no particularly good reason.”Dr. Judy Robertson, Heriot-Watt, Autumn 2008 snapshot.
    39. 39. Suggested responsesTo open minded sceptics: “Welcome! Understand by doing. So join us in-world at this teaching event; we’ll show you around.”To closed minded sceptics: “If you are a competent academic, your research would show that the technology works (proven) and plenty of fellow academics are using virtual worlds in teaching and learning.” “Admit it, you say that about every new technology. Therefore, the issue isn’t with the technology - it’s with you ...”
    40. 40. 8. Where’s the money?
    41. 41. Tips✤ Funding bodies tend to farm out proposals to people experienced in virtual worlds. So, no BS.✤ Unfortunately often have pseudo-sceptics marking as well. So may have to try a bit harder. References to back up your case.✤ Really, don’t recreate your campus in SL. Just don’t. Okay?✤ State educational goals as clearly as possible.✤ How is doing it in a VW better than not doing it in a VW?✤ Cost benefit over RW. Sustainability.
    42. 42. Examples of VW work funders✤ BECTA e.g. teen grid research.✤ JISC (more than any other UK academic funder).✤ Higher Education Academy.✤ AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) / BBC.✤ EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council)✤ Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (prev. DTI). Basically, the same organisations who fund digital technology in education. Nothing especially different about virtual worlds.
    43. 43. Example of European funding.
    44. 44. How quickly can you write a proposal... ?
    45. 45. One tiny last complication: loads more virtual worlds ...
    46. 46. Places in screenshots✤ Abbots Aerodrome (skydiving): http://slurl.com/secondlife/Abbotts/160/148/71✤ Southampton Solent University: http://slurl.com/secondlife/Solent%20Life/193/138/47✤ JISC Emerge: http://slurl.com/secondlife/Emerge/183/191/26✤ Reusable Learning Object: http://www.ics.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/rlos/chandler/index.php✤ The Faery Crossing: http://slurl.com/secondlife/The%20Faery%20Crossing/141/55/26✤ Manchester Business School: http://www.flickr.com/photos/24220989@N03/3367211287✤ Infolit iSchool: http://slurl.com/secondlife/Infolit%20iSchool/128/128/39✤ TB Bacterium: http://slurl.com/secondlife/Liverpool%20University%20Port/181/109/53✤ Eduserv Symposium (2007) audience: http://www.flickr.com/photos/silversprite/492471366✤ Multi-modal communication: http://www.flickr.com/photos/silversprite/492471374
    47. 47. Places in screenshots✤ University of East London: http://slurl.com/secondlife/UEL%20Island/62/44/31✤ LIVE (Learning in Virtual Environments) project: http://www.bcu.ac.uk/news/releases08/virtual_learning.html✤ Institute of Quarrying: http://slurl.com/secondlife/Institute%20Of%20Quarrying/171/144/38✤ Manchester Business School graduation: http://www.flickr.com/photos/24220989@N03/3365610474✤ Infolit iSchool: http://slurl.com/secondlife/Infolit%20iSchool/128/128/39✤ Spaceport Alpha: http://slurl.com/secondlife/Spaceport%20Alpha/83/142/71✤ Remington Typewriter: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bestrated1/2621358221✤ Education UK Island: http://slurl.com/secondlife/Education%20UK/128/128/22✤ La Trobe University lecture space: http://slurl.com/secondlife/La%20Trobe%20University/198/52/27✤ Journal of Virtual Worlds Research: http://jvwresearch.org
    48. 48. Places in screenshots✤ Second Life Education Wiki: http://www.simteach.com/wiki/index.php?title=Second_Life_Education_Wiki✤ Adventures of Yoshikawa (blog): http://adventuresofyoshikawa.blogspot.com✤ Abacus: http://www.flickr.com/photos/skidder/37675092✤ Eduserv Island: http://slurl.com/secondlife/Eduserv%20Island/128/128/20✤ MUVEnation funding details: http://elgg.jiscemerge.org.uk/stevenw/weblog/953.html✤ JISC Rapid Innovation Grant: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/fundingopportunities/funding_calls/2009/03/309ricall.aspx✤ Annabeth Robinson in Playstation HOME: http://www.flickr.com/photos/annamorphic/3104565954✤ Annabeth Robinson in Playstation HOME: http://www.flickr.com/photos/annamorphic/3106473041✤ Metaplace: http://learninggames.wordpress.com/2009/03/12/uws-metacampus