Virtual world training in 30 minutes

An interesting quesion arose from my ALT-C talk last week. It was basically “How can you use Second Life for teaching when it takes two hours to learn how to use it?”
Which isn’t really a question, of course. It’s a statement. Along the lines of “It takes my students two hours to learn to use Second Life”.

So, here’s a question in reply: Do you expect your students to be able to use MS Word? Yes? Including MailMerge? Macro programming? I suspect not. They probably just need basic formatting. Maybe headings. An index for the really advanced. And it’s the same with learning to use Second Life. Thirty minutes training is all that’s needed for most learners in Higher Education.

The key is to consider training as part of the overall design. Here’s what we did for SWIFT.
1) Define the Learning Objectives. For our second lab it was to practice evaluating experimental results and to learn the connection between theory and practice.

2) Design activities that will best support those Learning Objectives. In our second lab, the activity was to work through a sequence of experimental steps and results, answering quesions about procedure, interpreting results and seeing animations of molecular processes at critical moments.

SWIFT learner's avatar showing virtual lab and HUD and animation

3) Design the environment necessary for those activities. We created individual lab benches with replica equipment, and a Head-Up Display that acted as the automated guide.

4) Define the SL competencies necessary to accomplish those activities. So,

a) Walk – well enough to position the avatar in one place
b) Close the sidebar
c) Touch (click on) objects
d Chat
e) Zoom the camera in on one spot
f) Put on / remove a lab coat
g) Attach the HUD

Now, most of these only need to be done  once, and some will already be understood (like clicking on things) so there’s no need for lots of practice. All that learners really need to be good at is zooming the camera. So the 30 minutes is something like 10 minutes for the easy things, 10 minutes for the lab coat and 10 minutes for the camera.

Visitors in the SWIFT training area

5) Create or adapt a training area suitable for learning and practicing those skills (and only those skills, so the training area may need adjusting for different groups). There are many training areas in SL, some better than others. Ours is here. Basically, the avatar needs to be constrained until they can walk properly, instructions must be very clear to all, and tasks must be in a logical progression. We have adjusted our training area over the last 12 months using observation and in-world interviews and questionnaires.

And that’s it! We don’t teach them how to run, fly, IM, search, teleport, build, offer friendship, use weapons, drive vehicles … there’s quite a list, and if they choose to continue using SL in their own time and outside of the University island they will probably want to use many of these. And they may need MailMerge in MS Word for running their own business…

So, ask learners new to SL to sign up for an SL account on the web site in advance. Then in the class, when they first use SL, ask them to enter the location of your training area at the SL login screen (so they don’t wander round some public place) and the half-hour training will pretty much run itself. (Yes, really, you just need someone hovering to help the occasional student who uses existing knowledge or expectation in place of the instructions.) We would expect similar success with OpenSim implementations, but can’t speak from experience with these.

How well the actual lesson goes depends on many things, from what’s to be learned and how that’s represented in the virtual world, to how well the environment is built and how motivated the students (and teacher) are. Some things can be learned well in virtual spaces, others not. Some virtual world use is embarked upon with enthusiasm, some not. What we can say with some certainty though, is that SL training need not be a problem.

Paul Rudman,

OTTERs, DUCKLINGs and other creatures at ALT-C 2010

Between 7 and 9 September 2010, colleagues from all projects at Beyond Distance attended the ALT-C annual conference in Nottingham. DUCKLING was represented via 3 well attended and very well received papers – one presented by Gabi Witthaus on the use of Second Life in the School of Education, one by Ming Nie on e-books and e-book readers and one by myself on podcasting in curriculum delivery.

I also presented a paper on the lessons learned and deliverables from the OTTER project, with a focus on the CORRE framework for transforming teaching materials into open educational resources (OERs). This paper also attracted a very good audience. I took that opportunity to fly the flag of our Phase 2 OER projects, OSTRICH (under the ‘cascade’ strand) and TIGER (‘new release’ strand). Other Beyond Distance colleagues contributed excellent papers on SWIFT and CALF, two of our other research projects.

ALT-C was again a highly successful conference – where once more, the Media Zoo wildlife was prominent.

Dr A Armellini
Beyond Distance Research Alliance
University of Leicester

Follow the Sun with Sugata Mitra

One of the highlights of the ALT-C conference this year was the keynote by Sugata Mitra, whose famous ‘hole-in-the-wall’ projects in India, Cambodia and Africa have provided astounding evidence of how children can teach themselves, given access to a computer with an internet connection and little or no structured guidance from any adults. Children, it seems, have a remarkable ability to transcend language barriers and lack of technical know-how, in their desire to satisfy their curiosity.

Beyond Distance's very own Highly Commended Terese Bird with Sugata Mitra

Beyond Distance's very own highly commended Terese Bird with Sugata Mitra at ALT-C

One of the most interesting aspects of Sugata’s research into how children teach themselves is his focus on ‘self-organising systems’, particularly the systems that emerge when children are left to their own devices to find information to solve a problem – for example, how the labour is divided up, and how each child’s strengths are brought into play. He has found that, whether in rural India or suburban England, optimal results are obtained when children work in groups of four around a single computer.

We at Beyond Distance are thrilled that Sugata has accepted our invitation to be a keynote speaker at our next Learning Futures Festival (13-15 April 2011), ‘Follow the Sun’. As Emma has mentioned, this non-stop 48-hour online conference, hosted in collaboration with our colleagues in USQ, promises to be a great opportunity for knowledge sharing across the globe. It will be organised and managed along the same lines as the hugely successful LFF 2010, one of the projects for which our colleague Terese Bird was Highly Commended in the ALT-C Learning Technologist awards last week.

Thanks to Mark Gregory for the picture. (More ALT-C photos available here.)

Gabi Witthaus, 16 Sept 2010

Disseminate from Day One

I recently attended the ALT-C conference “Into something rich and strange – making sense of the sea-change” (7-9 September in Nottingham). As usual, it was a really good conference; I felt that every session was packed full of information on good practice, experimentation, research, and innovation in learning technology. Although I heard a most inspiring keynote from Sugata Mitra on his life’s work beginning with the installation of ‘hole-in-the-wall’ computers for children in rural India, and although I heard the winning research paper about 5 years of data-gathering on students’ use and purchase of mobile devices, probably the most practical take-home message I received was from a ‘graveyard-shift’ session by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) on the importance of dissemination and sharing our findings. The HEA was asking us, “What else can we do to get the word out regarding some of the great work that is being done?” They pointed out that many funded projects treat dissemination as something done only at the end of the project, when a paper is written and presented at a conference. In fact, there is so much lost with that approach, so much discussion that is forfeited, so much networking and reflection which could enhance and improve and extend the reach of the study. Dissemination should be done from day one.

This resonates with the drip-drip theory of publicity — that if you often, even daily, put out little drips of information about a project or event, it is more effective than just a few big informational outputs.

I’ve had opportunity to discuss these issues with postgraduate students, especially those working on PhDs.  I often hear them say that they don’t think they should talk about their work at all with anyone outside their team. I can understand not wanting to reveal one’s research secrets in advance of publication. However, I think this reticence denies them valuable opportunities to bounce ideas off other experts and receive support from others.

I for one left ALT-C realising that I need to approach each of my projects with the willingness to ‘disseminate from day one.’ We at Beyond Distance are pretty good at disseminating our findings, with this blog and blogs for each of our research projects as well as workshops and other activities, but we can always improve. I need to be much more faithful in my blogging. A little bit, and more often is better than stressing over fewer, bigger communications. Twitter, of which I am already an avid user (I am tbirdcymru and the Beyond Distance Media Zoo is BDMediaZoo), is built for exactly this. Because the bottom line is: if we do great work but don’t effectively communicate it, have we actually completed the great work?

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and Assistant Media ZooKeeper

Beyond Distance Research Alliance


Late summer and early autumn are upon us. Summer holidays are moving from present reality to fond memory. Holiday time is precious and necessary for us to muse, in hopefully less stressful and more beautiful surroundings, upon our work, its meaning, and how we can improve, enhance, and develop it. Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that early autumn is the time for many academic conferences. Several Beyond Distance colleagues and I will be attending the ALT-C Conference 7-9 September in Nottingham, and I am really looking forward to a time of sharing with and learning from other learning technology practitioners. I expect to come away from the conference with fresh ideas and insights to apply to my work.

I spent part of my holiday time in Edinburgh, where I enjoyed visiting the Camera Obscura,the main attraction in a museum of fascinating optical exhibits. Not having heard the term camera obscura before, I learnt it was much like a periscope, located on the 5th floor in the charming old building’s tower, in which a mirror picks up and directs images from around Edinburgh Castle down to a round table where observers can enjoy a 360 degree virtual guided tour of Edinburgh. Patrick Geddes, the town planner who in 1892 bought the tower and promoted it to the public, used to rush visitors up the steps to the top in the belief that the blood rush to their heads would heighten their experience of the camera obscura’s images. In addition to this exhibit, he included displays of biological and zoological topics, so as to encourage visitors to think about all the wonders of the world around them in a holistic sense. After viewing these, he would guide visitors to a meditation room, where they could think through and personalise the images they had seen and the facts they had learnt. Geddes believed in the power of reflection to enrich the inner person and to bring learning to the practical and personal realm.


The photo is from another exhibit within the Camera Obscura museum; I think its name is Infinity. It was produced by two large boxes of mirrors containing many LED lights. The lights and images seemed to go on infinitely. That makes for a lot of reflection.

I wish you a lovely early autumn and I hope it is a time of productive and enriching reflection for you. And maybe I’ll see you at ALT-C!

Terese Bird

A quiet defence of Second Life

With the recent arrival of Paul (who is of course DT from one of my earlier posts), our two Second Life projects, SWIFT and DUCKLING, have been making great progress. (Apart from some interesting conversations about the nature of realism, I’ve picked up some great building tips from Paul.)

The adapting of the DUCKLING oil rig to Kelly’s and her colleague’s requirements is going well, and SWIFT’s genetics lab is taking shape nicely. Recent visitors to the Alliance have been reassuringly complimentary about the simple and effective pedagogy behind both.

I also saw several excellent Second Life papers at ALT-C in Manchester last month. Luke Woodham has been designing some great virtual patients for health professionals to practise on, while the wonderfully quirky Lego Mindstorms have been used by Michael Vallance to allow constructive collaboration in robot design between students in Japan and Hull. Both seem to be simple and effective uses of Second Life.

I accept that I’m fairly new to this educational tool, and almost certainly have much to learn still (I expect I’m too positive about Second Life), but I was nevertheless intrigued to read the recent blog by Alan Cann, a University of Leicester colleague. Reading the posted comments and those on the FOTE09 panel page, Alan clearly has triggered a passionate debate and I think probably makes one or two good points.

But I disagree with most of what he says. For me, Second Life is a stable environment (certainly as stable as any other technology we use) that is intuitive and easy to use. It is cheap (our oil rig was given free by Sky Maruti), open to anyone and learning to build doesn’t take long. It offers an immersive, collaborative place  for learning to take place. Most of all, though, it offers the potential for innovative learning. This innovation is probably beyond me – at present –  to devise, yet I would be very reluctant to dismiss Second Life for my failings as a learning designer.

I’m sure other virtual environments do the same thing, and perhaps even better, but right now Second Life is fit for purpose, even with the tightening up by Linden Labs on its trademark. There may come a time to move to another virtual world such as OpenSim, but I can’t see any reason why that time is now. Good work is being done now  in Second Life, and this will continue into the future.

However, as well as pointing out the hassle for educators in getting ports opened, Alan is right to demand evidence that Second Life is a pedagogically useful and cost-effective educational tool. But I firmly believe this evidence is being generated.

The groups of students in our research projects do report genuine benefit from using Second Life. The students in Luke’s and Michael’s cohorts reported the same.

Similarly, Luke was involved in the development of the PIVOTE system with Daden. We intend to use PIVOTE in SWIFT, and, as it is open source, the only cost will be my time and Paul’s. And I know it will be a very useful tool.

Set-up costs exist in any endeavour, but how many follow this with free unrestricted access, free artefacts and open-source software? These are pretty good reasons for staying.

Like other institutions, the University of Leicester is undertaking exacting and exciting research in Second Life that I’m certain will lead to its evidence-based, widespread application in teaching and learning. Sandra’s CALF project already is throwing some light on this possible learning future.

The only question I can’t answer is how long this will take, but I hope you’ll follow our journey on the Second Life Twitter tag #UoLinSL.

Or better still, come and visit us in our new physical Media Zoo, and we can show you what we mean.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

Mobile Learning, Handheld Learning

Whilst on the train returning from ALT-C 2009, I read John Traxler’s excellent thought piece “Students and mobile devices: choosing which dream”. John describes the conundrum of using mobile devices such as mp3 players and mobile phones for learning: so many students have them that it seems obvious that we should include them as learning technology. However, not all students have them, and students don’t all have devices with the same capability, and students may not wish to use their own mobile devices as learning tools. To quote, “Student devices unlock the dreams of agency, control, ownership and choice amongst students but put the dreams of equity, access and participation at risk. Universities cannot afford, procure, provide nor control these devices but they cannot ignore them either. Clearly such a stark choice is an over-simplification; there is no simple question and no simple answer.”

I am not so sure I agree, however, that universities cannot afford or procure these devices. Fifteen or so years ago we were discussing whether universities could afford the numbers of computers needed for students to be assured computer access. Today many universities offer students the free use of laptops, cameras and digital camcorders in addition to fixed desktop computers.

Today I discovered the website for the Handheld Learning Conference. Apple appears to be taking the lead on the conference this year, which seems only to be expected given the iPhone and iPod derivatives (as well as the rumoured iTablet). The development first of iStanford (by which Stanford students can check grades, registration, and the whereabouts of the campus shuttle bus on their iPhones), and now of MobilEdu with Blackboard elevate the handheld device to the status of a VLE. At the same time, Sony has just released its updated models of e-book reader, and new eReaders from IREX and CoolReaders will surely appeal to students looking for a way to consolidate required readings into one digital package.

The Burnt Oak Junior School in Kent recently gave out iPod Touches to 32 8-year-old students for general school use. A short film describing the project can be seen here. Whilst watching it, I was reminded that it was only a few short years ago we were first hearing about schools buying fleets of laptops for uses not unlike this school’s use of the iPod Touch — but the iPod costs a fraction of the price of a laptop. Schools and universities are indeed investing in handheld-learning hardware as well as software. Students will begin to consider an iPhone or whatever handheld of choice to be as much a required purchase as a rucksack.

Terese Bird

ALT-C 2009: a great conference, a winning team and open-source laptops

Winning the ALT Learning Technologist team award of the year wasn’t the only reason why the ALT conference in Manchester was truly enjoyable. Inspiring keynotes, highly interactive seminars, effective networking and loads of fresh ideas made this event a success.

Martin Bean‘s keynote address was excellent. There was one point, however, that I would like to challenge. Martin said that he’s had many discussions with high-profile politicians such as Education ministers. Martin referred to them as “idiots” for even contemplating the idea of giving laptops to schoolchildren on a large scale. He cited some of the issues associated with programmes such as One Laptop per Child – challenges we have known for years and that are unlikely to go away, especially in the developing world. These include pedagogy, technical support, training for staff, logistics and designing for online environments. But more to the point, wearing his previous hat, maybe he didn’t like it that those devices do not contain Microsoft software?

We know that many politicians’ agendas may have little to do with benefiting children or enhancing education through appropriate uses of technology. We also know that with a few additional elements in place, the impact of projects like OLPC can be significantly amplified. David Cavallo’s keynote address in ALT-C 2008 may provide a few answers to Martin’s concerns.  

I was born and bred in Uruguay, where a version of OLPC is running and will be extended to other aspects of learning technology and connectivity. Despite my own initial doubts (in line with Martin’s), I can now see that the project has changed the lives of many children and families – forever. How the change has taken place and how it continues to take place has been extensively documented and is a matter for another blog post – suffice it to say that 4 years ago you never saw children sitting with their laptops outside their schools on a Saturday afternoon. Now there is something in the air that attracts them there: a wireless signal… and a range of skills that most of those kids will need in future but didn’t have before.

Sorry, Martin, much as I enjoyed your presentation, I cannot agree with you on this one. Giving a $100 laptop to each child does not make someone an idiot. In fact, it could be money very wisely spent.

A. Armellini
15 September 2009

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