A contemplation on realism in virtual learning spaces

This is my first blog entry since joining the SWIFT project here at Beyond Distance. SWIFT is about helping Genetics students learn laboratory skills, and we are designing and building a virtual Genetics lab in the virtual world of Second Life (SL) so that students can have a broader lab experience than is possible in the physical labs (for reasons such as the real labs requiring supervision to ensure health and safety is maintained).

An interesting question came up about the need – or otherwise – for realism in this sort of project. Currently, the virtual Genetics lab in SL is in a “pretty” translucent dome with trees outside, while the real Genetics labs at the University of Leicester are, well, traditional labs.

Does it matter? Should we make the virtual one more like the real one? I thought I would share my initial thoughts based on my own experience in SL:

I have two memories of surfing with friends. One includes sunshine, palm trees and giant waves while the other has grey skies and a cold wind. Both experiences included learning, or reinforcing, the views that a) surfing is fun, b) timing is critical, c) shared experiences are priceless. The cold wind was in Cornwall, UK, and the palm trees were in Hawaii, Second Life.

In terms of motivation to want to surf again, the SL experience was superior. In terms of a shared experience with friends, both experiences are memorable. In terms of learning to use a surf-board, only the real life (RL) experience was able to do that BUT SL did make me aware of the principles (or remind me, since RL preceded SL). The question is, what part did the sunshine and palm trees play in the experience?

Had I been surfing first in the real Hawaii and then in SL without a beautiful environment one could assume that the environment was crucial to the experience. But it was the other way around. Cornwall in spring is cold, and a wet suit is, as the name suggests, wet! Yet I did feel I’d “been surfing”. Adding sunshine and trees in SL did make the experience more pleasurable in one way. Indeed, I would prefer my next surfing experience to be in the RL Hawaii (if only). However, it’s clear that the sunshine and trees are not critical to the experience of “surfing”.

So, applying this to the question of whether a lab experience in SL remains valid if the lab is unfeasibly “pretty”. When I first walked into the RL Genetics lab my reaction was not entirely positive. Looking back on that experience the phrases that spring to mind are “clinical”; “alien”; “authority”; “danger” – the sort of feeling one may have going to hospital for some tests one suspects may be unpleasant. Of course, many people have a different experience! Maybe they think along the lines of “professional”; “exciting”; “cutting-edge”; “medical breakthroughs” – the kind of feeling a child might have when they first sit in the driver’s seat of a parent’s car.

But would replacing some visual elements (low ceiling, bounding walls) with others (translucent walls, pleasant view) remove anything critical to learning? Students in the virtual lab must still wear their lab coat, tie their hair back and wash their hands in the correct sink. In fact, a pleasant virtual lab experience may help some students to overcome any fears they may have.

There are some specific things that may need greater realism. For example, at present the lab has no door (it seems that routines around doors, handles and gloves are important) and having a distinct boundary to the SL lab may be necessary.

Overall, SL is not (and is not intended to be) a replica of RL, it’s a simulation, in the same way that a painting may represent the real world. It’s true that a photograph is a clearer representation of the world than a painting, but a painting has the advantage of being able to add or enhance meaning that a photograph cannot show. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” is not a photograph of the night sky – it deliberately distorts reality to make a point.

So the translucent lab walls are staying, for now at least. In creating a virtual representation of the physical world, we may sometimes be better considering a Picasso, or even a Salvador Dali, than assuming a Constable will always be the best solution.

Dr. Paul Rudman
Beyond Distance Research Alliance

Visit the Media Zoo in Second Life:


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  1. Dr. Rudman,

    Interesting commentary. While I have never played Second Life, I believe your maiin point is correct (the trees and sunshine aren’t critical to the experience of surfing), but the thing I am skeptical of is the extent to which your virtual students can learn about life in a virtual environment. Is genetics something we can simulate? I mean, if studying something entails you have an incomplete knowledge of so isn’t the simulation then incomplete and lacking (i.e. not real). I think what I’m asking in a nutshell is do you regard genetics as something of the living world or something that can be reduced to math and functions or equations? Hope this makes sense, its late though and i’m tiiired 🙂 yawn

    • Paul Rudman

       /  December 21, 2009

      I think there needs to be a distinction between “genetics” as a concept, and skills used in genetics laboratories. The SWIFT project aims to help undergraduate students learn specific laboratory skills and ways of working that are important for a career in genetics. These skills revolve around the correct handling and analysing of tiny samples of DNA, and can, indeed, be broken into small sections.

      Such a career may entail running simple tests to examine the DNA of sample cells, or may lead to chairing a major ethics panel. Wherever a degree in genetics may lead, understanding laboratory skills will be important. SWIFT will allow students access to (virtual) labs outside of the supervised times (in physical labs), giving them more time to work things out for themselves in a safe manner and at a pace that suits them.

      You may find the University of Leicester’s Virtual Genetics Education Centre of interest:
      It shows the kind of things genetics students study and how the topic is broken down for academic learning.


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