Clouds and trees and micropipettes

Yesterday, I spent some time in the countryside. It was a beautiful, sunny day and I was sitting in a lovely country garden. I could feel the grass beneath my feet, see the blue sky and white wispy clouds, smell the flowers growing all around. What a wonderful way to relax.

I was also sitting in a darkened meeting room in Oxford.

This ability to engage in two experiences at once has been explored throughout history, from cavemen painting their hunting exploits on stone walls, though the early travelling story tellers and court entertainers, to classic novels like Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and now today’s sophisticated entertainment industry. Watching a great movie, for example, brings us experiences sufficiently real to use in everyday life – to vicariously experience the world in ways not readily available and use that as a learning experience.

It’s not the technology. It is an innate ability of the human mind to imagine other possibilities, other realities. To experience without the actual. In a technological age we of course use our technology to assist us, but the concept – the fundamental idea of escaping from the immediate – is, and has always been, within us.

And so it was that we needed no clever technology in our darkened meeting room last night. The guided meditation that I ran saw twenty people each transported to their own personal country retreat, to relax, to still the immediacy of the chattering conscious mind and to seek an inner wisdom easily ignored in the rush of everyday busyness.

The previous time I ran this guided meditation, things were a little more complex. Again, I was in a country garden; again I was in a darkened room, but I was also in a third place – a Buddhist temple, with incense, rare orchids and singing bowls. The temple was in Second Life.

It’s a testament to the power of the human imagination that it can adapt so easily from two simultaneous experiences to three. Yet it can, and it works well. A child can build a fort from a cardboard box; an adult can expand their social life into a few web pages; a great movie can feel like a lifetime on another world, and technology you will find in museums in 10 years’ time can invoke experiences real enough to be seriously useful.

That’s why the Beyond Distance Research Alliance has several projects investigating the effectiveness of virtual world technology in providing a learning experience. One such project – SWIFT – will use this technology, in the form of Second Life, to transport students to a genetics laboratory, in which they will collaboratively conduct experiments and solve problems. Some of this is not possible in a real-life lab, because each experiment may take hours and use a great deal of (expensively supervised) lab space and equipment.

It’s a long way from that idyllic country garden, but should be no less real, and previous work investigating learning within these computer-generated virtual worlds suggests that, if done properly, time in the virtual world can translate to real, measurable learning and expand the student experience beyond that which is currently possible.

They don’t even need to be in a darkened room.


Dr. Paul Rudman

Beyond Distance Research Alliance


SWIFT is a collaboration with GENIE, the Centre for Excellence within the Department of Genetics here at the University of Leicester.


Visit the Media Zoo in Second Life:

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