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July 25, 2008

Education panel at Virtual Policy '08

I attended the first day of the Virtual Policy '08 conference earlier this week to take part in a panel on Education, Learning and Virtual Spaces.  My co-panelists were Andrew Burn (Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media Institute of Education, University of London)and Anna Peachey (The Open University).  Unfortunately I couldn't stay at the meeting very long because of other commitments but it looked like an interesting event, with a slightly different kind of audience than one usually finds at these kinds of things.  With hindsight, I wish I'd registered properly and attended the whole thing.  The conference was organised by the Virtual Policy Network and held at the Department of Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform (BERR) in London, with New York Law School providing program support.

Our session was chaired by Annie Mullins of Vodafone. The three of us each spoke for about 10 minutes, followed by Q&A.  My understanding was that we'd been asked to respond to the following three questions (though I'm not 100% sure that message got thru to all of us):

  • What are people saying about education in virtual worlds that, perhaps, they shouldn't?
  • What works - and where is there evidence to show that virtual worlds offer something new or better to educators and learners? 
  • What needs fixing - from access issues to firewalls, what do we need to know, make or circumvent to make virtual world pedagogy viable?

FWIW, I think this is an interesting set of questions and it'd be good to hear other people's answers to them.

The remainder of this post summarises what I had to say in response.  Given the limited time available, I tried to limit myself to 4 bullet points about each of the 3 questions (though I crept over slightly with the last one).

So, what are people saying about the use of virtual worlds in education that I don't like?

  • Firstly, I hate the whole "Google generation" thing (which is probably a sign of my age!).  I dislike it both in the general case but also specifically around virtual worlds - for me, being a 'digital native' is an attitude, not an age-based demographic.  When we were receiving bids for our virtual worlds grant call last year, several proposals said things like: "virtual worlds are where young people are, so educators need to be there as well".  Unfortunately, the Second Life demographics don't bear this out and it's not logical in any case.  As educators, we should be using virtual worlds if it makes educational sense to use virtual worlds (or if we think it might make sense and we therefore need to experiment to find out for sure).  Using them simply because that's where other people appear to be isn't a good enough reason on its own.
  • Related to this is the tendency for all of us to focus on Second Life specifically rather than virtual worlds more generically.  A comment on my ArtsPlace SL post about the panel suggests that I didn't make this point very clearly.  What I was trying to say is that experimenting with and building stuff in Second Life is absolutely fine (and very appropriate given that Second Life is by far the best mutli-user virtual environment for use in education at the moment - as I said at our symposium a year ago, in branding terms "Second Life is the Hoover of virtual worlds" and will probably remain so for some time to come).  However, it is only fine provided we try to use our experiences to learn pedagogical and other lessons that can be applied more generally to other educational virtual worlds as and when they become available.  As educators, we should be using Second Life for educational purposes because it is the best virtual world offering at the moment, not because it is Second Life per se.
  • My third point was that I sense a growing tendency by educators towards wanting to build rather more 'closed' virtual worlds than those offered by Second Life (and others) currently.  By this I mean closed to people outside their institution - a virtual world intranet if you like.  There are some good reasons for wanting to consider this as an option - a fear of the open, fairly permissive, and therefore potentially disruptive nature of Second Life for example, or a desire to have closer control over the server hardware on which the virtual world runs.  But there is a significant danger as well - that we lose the collaborative, social network effects of working within a bigger and open environment.
  • Finally, I made the point that Second Life often gets associated with the whole Web 2.0 phenomenon.  Whilst there are some similarities, notably around user-generated content for example, there are also significant differences and we need to be careful not to get mixed up by our use of simplistic labels.

OK, the next question was around what works and how we know it works:

  • Unfortunately, my sense is that there is still little methodical evidence around how, or indeed whether, virtual worlds have an impact on learning.  There are lots of compelling stories from teachers and lecturers in this area.  But these are somewhat anecdotal, and in any case, they come from people who are leaders in their field and who could probably teach successfully in the middle of a desert.
  • In our snapshot surveys of the uptake of Second Life within UK higher and further education we have tried asking questions about impact (as opposed to simply asking about activity).  But questions like, "how do you propose to measure the impact of your use of Second Life?" tend to result in more questions, such as "what do you mean by impact?", rather than direct answers.

Finally, we were asked to think about what needs fixing (by which I assume we really mean, what can policy makers, whether at corporate, institutional, national, or European levels, do to make things better):

  • I started with the mundane - virtual worlds need to somehow stop being as far ahead of the average desktop hardware capability as they are now.  This is not just an issue for institutions, many of whose teaching labs will not have kit up to the job I suspect.  It's also a problem in terms of inclusion (or exclusion depending on how you look at it) more generally.  This issue will resolve itself naturally I guess, but in the meantime those who build virtual world technologies need to make things as painless as possible for those lower down the hardware spectrum.  That needs to be done carefully.  Virtual worlds like Google Lively - which is much lighter-weight in terms of its hardware requirements - isn't really a virtual world at all.  It's a chat room with knobs on, IMHO.
  • We need to understand the pedagogic possibilities offered by virtual worlds rather better than we do now and be able to demonstrate, i.e. measure, the impact that they have on learning outcomes.  Without this, it seems to me that the use of virtual worlds will never get fully embedded into our collective learning and teaching strategies.  There are similarities, and probably lessons, here with the way the Web got adopted into learning.  At the moment we are largely in that bottom-up phase of individuals and small groups experimenting.
  • The integration of the Web with virtual worlds is very important, particularly in the context of education, but is rather poorly handled currently, particularly if we think specifically about Second Life for a moment.  Linden Lab are taking steps in the right direction but we are nowhere near there yet.  Textual documents will always be a fundamental resource within learning and teaching and the ways in which text can be handled in Second Life are currently rather poor, whether it is being used as a stand-alone resource or, more importantly, as a something underpinning a collaborative exercise.
  • Finally, we need to be able to manage access to our virtual teaching spaces rather better than we can currently.  As chair of governors at a primary school in Bath I drew an analogy here with what has happened in schools.  Until recently, we were very proud at our school about the fact that we were able to keep our playing fields and other areas open to the community.  But like many schools, and in our case as the direct result of a merger between two schools, we finally succumbed to pressure to close the school grounds.  Clearly, there are good child protection reasons for doing this and I'm not overly bemoaning the fact that we had to do it.  But suddenly our school went from being an open space to being a walled garden, surrounded by heavy fencing, with overtones of a prison camp.  It seems to me that this is a great shame - particularly in light of a government agenda that encourages the opening up of school space for use by the community.  What we need to avoid, it seems to me, is our virtual spaces going the same way and the ability to have fine-grained access control coupled with good management tools feels like an important part of that.

I snuck in a final point towards the end of my talk because I was surprised that no-one else had mentioned voice.  It seems to me that there is a tension in our use of virtual worlds between 'chat' and 'voice' as a means of communication.  Voice is clearly more expressive, more immediate and more interactive and therefore seems more appropriate in the context of teaching and learning.  Unfortunately, it also has a tendency to destroy the immersive quality of virtual worlds.  Does that matter in the context of education?  I don't know... but I think it might.

Those were my responses... I'm not totally happy with them but it was the best I could do in the time available.  I'd be interested to hear people's responses to them, or other thoughts in this area.


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Some interesting issues. I've never 'got' SL and related virtual worlds - I suspect the main reason is that I've never spent enough time in them to really expect to get anything out of them. They don't appeal immediately for a variety of reasons, and so I don't end up going past the basic create an avatar and tutorial stage.

I wonder if the reasons virtual worlds don't appeal to me are related to some of the issues you raise here.

Perhaps an interesting question to consider is - if we had the technology to project our image online and interact in a much more 'real' way - I guess I'm thinking of something akin to the Cisco telepresence technology http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrjwKEzRhFI but in a virtually created space, with multiple participants etc. then would this be a replacement for virtual worlds?

My guess is probably not - there is something about the nature of virtual worlds as they currently exist that means you are playing a role when you enter (one of the things I think that puts me off).

This all suggests that we need to understand better the nature of our relationships to virtual worlds and how they are different to RL before we can start to really exploit them in the educational context.

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