Why using virtual worlds for teaching just got easier

One of the Frequently Asked Questions about using virtual worlds as a teaching and learning environment is: “How much does it cost to prepare a learning environment?” )

Last week, Linden Labs (makers of the Second Life virtual world software (SL) ) added a new feature: “Mesh”. On the face of it, this could lower the cost of building suitable teaching environments within SL, but like most new features it’s hard to predict just how useful they will be. So I decided to try it out. . .

We are in the process of setting up the third SWIFT experiment in SL, and we need to create a simple building with some visual interest. We settled on an Egyptian-style pyramid. Until now, the standard (and almost only) way to build in SL was using “prims” – simple shapes one materialised (or “rezzed”) and manipulated within SL. Creating our pyramid with prims would look something like this (you add the “texture” – image of stone blocks or whatever – later):

With Mesh, you design objects first using a number of free or commercial programs and then import them as objects into SL. Apart from now having a choice of tools to use, there is one huge advantage: because the object is built out of lines rather than 3D objects, you only need think in terms of what you see, not component shapes that you have to imagine.

For example, in the picture above, I’m creating a pyramid out of triangular things. For a Mesh object, I can create it with lines, like this:

I’m using the free Google Sketchup program (that character is not an avatar, it’s just a 2D drawing, there to – I assume – give a sense of scale). Other programs are available, such as Blender  (better but not so easy to learn) and Maya (if you have a big budget!) Sketchup took a few hours to learn, but now I could recreate the pyramid in a few minutes – much quicker than using the building tools in SL.

Then, it’s a simple matter to export the shape as a file and import into SL. . . and, voila! A 3D pyramid in SL.

For the first SWIFT experiment I created a virtual PCR machine which, as I recall, took a whole afternoon to create out of textured prims. Even though much of the time was taken in preparing the textures (images taken in the real lab), drawing it using lines would definitely have been easier than shaping individual blocks, and the level of detail possible would have been greater too.

Mesh is still new, and there will be drawbacks for a while (there seems to be a bug that doesn’t let me walk to the far corner inside the pyramid, for example). Nonetheless, I’m really very impressed by the possibilities Mesh has to offer. I’m sure it won’t be so long before all the OpenSim grids support Mesh too.

So, if you were thinking of using virtual worlds for teaching and learning, things just got easier!

Paul Rudman,

The EduApps Collections

The blog post is a shameless plug for one of my favourite JISC project outputs, EduApps. I hope it will direct readers to these terrific resources (if they haven’t already encountered them).

Developed by the JISC Regional Support Centre Scotland North & East , EduApps are free-to-use programs that can be run off a USB stick. Many are portable versions of existing mainstream technologies such as Skype and Firefox, or scaled-down alternatives to large, expensive packages (e.g. Portable-Artweaver instead of Photoshop).  

EduApps listing

Some of the EduApps on my USB stick

For anyone who has ever had to request a software installation from an IT department,  running programs from a stick is a fantastic idea. I’ve lost track of the number of times I have used my EduApps to make a call on Skype, quickly edit a sound file with Audacity,  or unzip an archive with 7-ZipPortable. I always include a selection of EduApps on the Media Zoo USB sticks I give to participants in our Carpe Diem workshops.

The programs are divided into eight collections that focus on specific needs. TeachApps, for example, is a collection of software specifically designed for teachers or lecturers, while the LearnApps  collection is specifically designed for learners.

A recent addition has been the Create&Convert collection for Word and OpenOffice, which “brings together in one neat package a range of open source programs that can quickly and capably translate electronic documents into an accessible alternative format, such as audio or a talking book. All of the tools are the outputs of the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) Consortium, and are therefore completely free to use and distribute.”

All EduApps have been tested and copyright-cleared by the RSC team, and are ready to go.

So excuse this plug, and please use these wonderful tools. And let me know if there are other free (and stable!) programs not included in the EduApps collections.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

Confessions of a PhD Student (9): “I created a monster”

Doing my PhD has been an adventure. I began with a very general idea of what I wanted to do. My work was fuzzy, vague. I was lost in a labyrinth of information. After doing a literature review and having several discussions with my supervisor, I was able to narrow down my topic to something specific and manageable… or so I thought.


Based on my research questions, I worked on ways of getting some answers. I chose a mixed approach. I included different instruments and methods to triangulate the information: interviews, surveys, document analysis, business metrics and more. I decided to consider the perspectives of all relevant stakeholders to obtain a more thorough understanding: students, teachers, course designers and managers. To organize myself, I divided the data collection in several stages, each of which could be considered an independent study…


…And my project grew out of proportions. One day I looked at my methodology chapter and thought: “I created a monster.”


My supervisor once told me that I want to fix the world. I do, one research project at a time… But maybe I exaggerated with my thesis… I had heard it before: “You want to do too much”. They told me a couple of times. Ok, ok. They told me LOTS of times.


I didn’t really understand it until I saw my plan written down and got scared by its monstrous dimensions. I can now accept that it encompasses too much. I do want to fix the world. But I cannot study everything right now. I have human, resource and time constraints.


So I will take control and narrow down my methodology.


I will fight and conquer my research.

No more monsters for me.

– Brenda Padilla

Are Tablets and E-Readers Now Educational Requirements?

I read a very informative blog post today, “Tablets and E-Readers in Education”. The post discusses a recent Pearson Foundation Survey on Students and Tablets.  The survey is a real eye-opener. USA college and university students and high school students soon to enter college or university were questioned on the use of tablets such as the iPad. While the numbers of surveyed students who actually own tablets is low, 73% of those who do own tablets prefer digital format over print for reading textbooks. And 86% of all in the survey believe that tablets help students to study more efficiently. While it has been clear that the number of ebook sales of novels on Amazon is outstripping the sales of paper novels, there has not been much data regarding educational ebooks and e-textbooks.  It is worth knowing that Pearson has launched an e-textbook  initiative aimed at the iPad, entitled Inkling, and therefore has a special interest in looking for evidence of pro-e-textbook attitudes amongst students.

It is also eye-opening that the author of the blog post states that the use of an e-reader is now required in his college course. I recall an event reported this past July, in which a Chinese professor Weibo-messaged his students to basically say, ‘Get an iPad or get out of my class.’ It was no surprise that this demand attracted a huge amount of controversy, especially because the iPad is not a cheap item, and students everywhere struggle to afford one.

Inkling Textbook on iPad. Photo courtesy of mikecogh on Flickr

In our DUCKLING project, which ran from October 2008 through October 2010, we loaded several modules’ worth of learning material onto Sony e-readers and posted them out to masters-level distance students, for use in Occupational Psychology and TESOL-Linguistics courses. Students reported they found the e-readers a very convenient way to manage course readings, and enabled them to make use of any spare time during the day to continue with their readings. Some commented that they found the inability to take notes on the e-reader a hindrance, although a subset of these later concluded that they did not miss the lack of note-taking capability. This last comment brings me back to the the”Tablets and E-Readers in Education” article, which notes a useful iPad app for textbooks, ‘Kno’ which apparently facilitates note-taking. I will have to try Kno, maybe in time for our next University of Leicester Tablet Users’ Group meeting.

Terese Bird

Learning Technologist and SCORE Fellow

Why Google plus will fail

Before I began my first degree in Psychology, I read a book about how friendships work. It goes like this:

“The development of friendship occurs through the skills of partners in revealing or disclosing their attitudes first and later their personalities, inner characters and true selves. This must be done in a reciprocal manner, turn-by-turn, in a way that keeps pace with revelations and disclosures made by the partner” (Duck S. 1983 pg67)

When the first big social network (Facebook) began it was based on the idea of a college yearbook (Name, Photo, Personal information). That’s fine for a yearbook, because everybody who reads it will likely be part of the same social network. In the real world even this “basic” information can vary radically according to who we interact with.

For example, I have no single photo suitable for everyone I know. Work colleagues expect a professional photo (at a desk with Second Life running); personal friends want something more about me (Capsule hotel, Tokyo, 2001); Second Life friends expect, well, an avatar…

Then there’s my name. Surely that’s consistent? Well, again, the same three groups probably expect, respectively, Dr Rudman, Paul, PD Alchemi. Think about it. What does your boss call you? Your mother? Your partner at 1am?

Revealing one’s full name and work identity could be way too much of a leap for a new social acquaintance. A photo that somehow reveals religious or political views could be a shock for work colleagues who may have assumed something completely different. It’s not that these things are “secret”, just that they need to be shared appropriately.

We are all at some stage in the friendship forming process with each of our “friends”. For some it will be a temporary stage as we move forward. For others it will be a stage from which we prefer not to move further forward. But whatever the stage, we need to be careful not to jump too far ahead, not to reveal something which that particular friendship is not yet ready for.

Google plus – Google’s foray into the world of social networking – allows people to be allocated to “circles”, i.e. groups for filtering information. It’s a significant step forward, but alas, I suspect it will not be enough. Not all friends are equal. Some can be told about the club last night, some can’t; some can know about holiday exploits, others cannot. There needs to be some form of categorisation system that matches up individuals and information, so people can slowly move from strangers to “inner circle” – or not, as desired.

Google plus’s twitter-esque ability of one-sided friendships, also known as “following” people, or putting strangers in one’s circle, is another good move, but without a new system for controlling who sees what it’s just Twitter@Google.

One complaint about Google plus is that it won’t let people create an account for their avatar. An avatar is a mechanism for social relationships, whether Google like it or not. We recently saw the beginnings of a social network for avatars in Second Life. It’s pretty rudimentary at present, but it will probably survive, maybe even thrive, because it partly fills this gap.

The fundamental problem is one of revealing personal information appropriate to the depth of each social relationship. *Everything* needs to be tailored to the people who will receive it. Everything you post, your name, your photo, the other people in your network – who they are, what they represent and what they post – all say a lot more than most people realise. All can damage the delicate sequence and balance of a social relationship.

Circles were a great idea, but they just don’t go far enough. There needs a finer grained definition of who should know what. Like a leaking bucket, it’s not the bucket that needs fixing, it’s the leak.

And that’s why Google plus fails to improve on Facebook and Twitter, and ultimately will fail to become the new dominant social network.

Comments please…

Paul Rudman, BDRA

Duck, Steve. 1983. Friends, for life: the psychology of close relationships. Harvester Press, Brighton, Sussex

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