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September 18, 2007

Student expectations of ICT at university

Via the Lisa Whistlecroft on the HIgher Education Academy technical mailing list, I discovered this interesting study from JISC looking at student expectations of ICT as they enter higher education in the UK.  It's dated July 2007, so appears to have been around for a while, although I haven't seen it before.

There's a lot of material here but in this post I just want to touch on some of the Second Life findings, partly because I have a couple of SL-related presentations to make over the next couple of days.

The results are based on a survey of 501 students aged 16 to 18 from across the UK (though the vast majority in England) with at least a low to medium knowledge of ICT.

When asked how often they used various technologies, 21% responded that they used Second Life often or occasionally.  This is actually much higher than I would have expected - I would have guessed 10%, perhaps even lower for that age group.  This compares with 44% who maintain their own blog or Web site (wow!), 39% who use on demand video and 37% who download podcasts.

The least popular technological pursuit from the online survey was taking part in an online community e.g. Second Life. The majority (76%) have never, or only rarely, done this, and three fifths (60%) of females have never done this.

Participants in the groups articulated the idea that a ‘community’ had a social implication which could not be replicated by this type of technology – it is a very niche market and offers different benefits from other social sites. Indeed, few had actually heard of Second Life.

    “That’s a bit weird, to be honest. You would be quite sad to do that”
    Male, infrequent users at school and home group

Some of the more qualitative commentary is also interesting, in particular:

Second Life appeared to be an idea for people older than themselves, for the generation above who were interested in technology for its “own sake”. This is perhaps why the idea amused our participants and why they felt it was “sad”. The implications here for HEIs are that they cannot assume that presenting new technologies automatically makes their institution more youth-friendly – this new generation like to see the concrete benefits of technologies.

and:

When discussing Second Life, students felt that games and virtual worlds as part of learning could easily become “tragic” – technology being used for its own sake, and used rather childishly. They would need to understand the educational benefits of virtual worlds or games, it is not enough that they are simply ‘new’.

In a sense I don't think there are any surprises here - I have always argued that the majority of people found in SL are, err, of the older persuasion. As for the generally negative attitudes about virtual worlds, pro-SLers would probably argue that a similar study done at the start of the Web era might have found a similar state of affairs.  To be honest I don't know whether that is true or not - my memory isn't good enough to recall what student attitudes to the use of the Web in universities was like at that time.  But such an argument would seem at least potentially credible.   

Furthermore, I always somewhat sceptical about these kinds of surveys in terms of how questions are phrased and, therefore, what they are really telling us.  That said, the report is definitely interesting and worth a read.

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Also not too surprised, but it sounds like the report was a bit hasty in linking negative feelings about online communities to Second Life... but perhaps its just a corrective to the presumption that some people may have that SL is a kids thing. (Which as you note, it generally isn't)

In practice, students' negative feelings about online communities do extend to blogs (the other 56% of students), wikis and even to discussion forums (especially if they are linked to their education!). Instant Messages keep them in touch with their 'real' friends, and people who have lots of virtual friends might be considered 'sad'.

No I don't think that there is anything suprising here, i can recall an interview I conducted some time ago with a young student who suggested Second Life was for "saddoes" and her interactions were for "real" in her facebook account. A timely report which I hope will inform our discussions at Thursday's meeting.

Picking up your point on how questions are phrased, I must admit I found the form of the following question slightly odd:

How often, if at all, do you do the following?
- (...)
- Take part in an online community, for example a "virtual world" such as Second Life

I don't think of SL itself as an "online community" at all. Or if there is a "community of all SL users", it's a pretty loose one, with little in the way of a "common purpose". It seems to me the typical first time experience of SL as an individual (signing up, choosing your avatar, going through the orientation stuff) is pretty solitary (and I suspect it can also be a pretty negative and confusing one for many people!) However, I do think SL offers a space/platform in/on which communities can form and operate, and it seems to me there are communities within SL (or in some cases, communities who make use of SL as one part of their online activity, alongside MySpace, weblogs etc). But - just as on the Web - it requires some effort/experience to find communities in SL, to "get a feel" for them, and to engage with them.

Not sure I've thought this bit through, but in SL, that process of "engagement" with a community typically plays out in real time, which I guess has its pros and cons. Compare the process of arriving in some venue in SL for some sort of "meeting" and engaging in chat with that of joining something like a Web "message board"-based community, where interaction is asynchronous, you can browse a list of active conversations/threads, you can usually "lurk" fairly invisibly before deciding to contribute, you can (often) look up other individuals' posting histories, and you (usually) have access to searchable archives of (possibly several years worth of) past conversations/threads to explore the "communal history".

FWIW, my own experience of mentioning SL in the context of (non-work-related) Web-based online communities of which I'm a member (or having observed it mentioned by others) is that the response is generally negative - in pretty much exactly the way described here, "zOMG, that is sooo sad". And this is coming from people who _are_ already active members of (what I think of as) "online communities", and who have engaged in and sustained dialogues with other members, in some cases over quite long periods - and in many cases primarily through online channels (though, yes, in some cases people have met f2f too). And I've seen this response both in a community which is, AFAIK, composed mainly of middle-aged males, and in a community where the membership is rather younger (20/early-30-somethings - so still older than the group in this study) and more diverse. If anything the response was much more negative in the former case! Though sure, that experience hardly represents a scientific sample. ;-)

I've skimmed over this report several times and can't find out anything that fits "21% responded that they used Second Life often or occasionally." I did find some numbers on page 44 saying "Take part in an online community, for example a “virtual world” such as Second Life". Notice the very, very important "such as". Is this what the phrase was taken from?

By this definition I'd would wager many students would include games such as World of Warcraft or Runequest. Heck, I know of chat rooms/collaborative fiction sites that I've heard people consider "virtual worlds/online roleplaying/virtual communities".


In fact, I don't see anything to indicate that any of the students fit the "often" use of Second Life.

One more small quibble. What does occasionally mean? They look at it once every year to see if anything has been added that interest them? They go on a dungeon crawl in WoW with friends?



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