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,

RE: A literature review of the use of Web 2.0 tools in Higher Education

Thanks to multiple-retweeting, I recently discovered the Higher Education Academy (who fund SWIFT)-commissioned “A literature review of the use of Web 2.0 tools in Higher Education” and it has an interesting section on Virtual Worlds (VWs).

Overall, the report [pg. 40, somewhat reworded] sums up the challenge of benefiting from VWs as:

1. Understanding that “traditional” pedagogic approaches are not always the best

The thing is, university teaching could be much more effective if we were to design it from scratch (see Laurillard, 2002). The VW environments have features that the real world does not have and allow more teaching approaches, but given that we are not utilising much of what we already have, it’s not surprising that too many projects have simply taken traditional teaching and replicated it in VWs. So, when people ask “What’s the point of a lecture hall in a VW?”, my reply tends to be “What’s the point of a lecture hall in real life?”.

2. Finding the most effective way to use this new tool

Virtual worlds are a physical environment that can provide a practical learning experience in context. With reference to my last post, the learner can interact with modelled real world spaces (e.g. Genetics Island, 1920’s Berlin), explore social situations (role play) in the context of those spaces (e.g. virtual hospital, language school) and learn directly from experience (e.g. virtual hallucinations).

3. Developing new VWs

Moodle and Blackboard both benefit from having the other as competitor. The VW of Second Life has benefitted from others such as OpenSim, and vice versa. This should, and will, continue. But really, I see a different type of VW emerging. It needs to be more iPad app style.

4. Removing technical and social barriers to VW use

In 1995, I was studying Psychology and the AI tutor announced that “There’s something new in the library that you should go and see. It will be important. It’s called the World Wide Web.” 15 years later, we can all have that in our pockets. The same, I’m sure, will happen for VWs.

5. Adjusting institutional policies to allow teaching with VWs to be as mainstream as VLEs like Blackboard and Moodle

VWs are easily dismissed as “just a game”, because they look like that at first glance, and first glance is all that some people give them. The technology will always be inferior to the real world that we are used to. Yet what we have in VWs is quite capable of doing what we need. It’s like being used to a bus, wanting a car, and being dismissive of the offer of a bike, when the task is visiting the corner shop on a sunny day.

Institutional policies do not usually change easily. In fact, it may take until we change the way Universities teach in real life before it suddenly becomes helpful to teach with VWs. Maybe the painful process of budget cuts will have this change as a silver lining. Or maybe it won’t. But there are better ways of teaching than simply standing on a stage and lecturing. Sooner or later, change will come.

Paul Rudman, BDRA

Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking University Teaching: a conversational framework for the effective use of learning technologies (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.

The Professors Profess… The Future of British HE in 2020

As everyone is uneasily waiting for the nearly £4 billion cuts to the budget for higher education in the 2010 Spending Review to be announced today, EducationGuardian pre-emptively published the predictions of UK academics about the impact of the funding cuts for the next ten years. Below is a selection of what they thought was coming.

The rise of the “black arts” of enrolment management
Prof. Claire Callender from the Institute of Education in London thinks that universities will be at the core of a quickly developing industry of enrolment management, calculating the number of students that can be recruited at different price rates, rates of discounts for different groups of students, etc. If Tesco can do it, why not universities? Buy one degree in chemistry, get one free in history, anyone?

Socrates in the local chippy
Prof. Gillian Evans from the University of Cambridge was concerned with the recommendation of the Browne’s report to end public funding for all subjects not considered priority, i.e., courses other than science, technology or courses not deemed to be providing “significant social returns.” In her scenario subjects such as palaeography or philosophy will have to vacate the publicly funded buildings and go back to the Aristotelian peripatetic method in the streets.

RyanAir Universities
Roger Brown from the Centre of Higher Education Research Development forecasts the emergence of a tiered system like the one in the USA. At the top there will be a small group of elite institutions which will be charging the highest fees. Then there will be the vast majority of “no-frills” universities, teaching mainly applied courses.

What I found surprising in the scenarios discussed by the Guardian was the lack of mention of learning technologies as a factor which will play a crucial role in helping universities pull through what without a doubt will be a very difficult shake up. A scenario by the BBC did foresee an increase in the provision of online courses, describing the mobile learning experiences of fictional students of the future.

Disturbingly, however, instead of drawing upon the advances in innovative learning and teaching for distance learners for which there are numerous examples amongst British universities (the University of Leicester for example has more than 8000 distance learners, the Open University would be another excellent example), the report seemed to promote the work of a private, for-profit, non-university provider, which “is positioning itself in this market and has already made the content of some courses wholly accessible via mobile phone.”

I think in the climate to come it will be more important than ever for institutions to be able and willing to share their experiences in using learning technologies to offer no-cost or low-cost solutions for learners and teachers, especially those that have been peer-reviewed.

20/10/2010 Sandra Romenska
Creating Academic Learning Futures (CALF) project

Information Literacy

The internet as we know it began for me in early 1995. I was a first year undergraduate studying Psychology and Artificial Intelligence at Middlesex University. One day, the AI tutor commented that “the library has got a computer connected to the ‘World Wide Web’ – you should go look at it, it’s going to be important”. Well, I did, and he was certainly right! Even without any search engines (just some bookmarks someone had set up from reading about sites in the newspaper), and a primitive “Mozaic” browser (now part of IE), the potential was obvious.

(I would like to be able to say that my engagement with AI was similarly stratospheric, but I dropped it like a hot potato in favour of a straight Psychology degree. AI was a good course, and not so difficult, but to me was reminiscent of, well, drying paint  – here’s a clue)

So my first experience of the web was as something you “went” to access. Now we have the iPhone, Android, netbook, iPad and such like. Anyone growing up today will have a different first web experience. Here’s something to try. First, find a pen and some paper. . .

How long did that take? Did it seem an unusual request? If they weren’t immediately to hand did you feel surprised?

That’s what it must be like to someone growing up today when they think about the web. It’s an important difference, because a belief in the web as being ubiquitous shapes the way one goes about many things. Take learning for example (obviously, not a random example. . . ). I grew up with the paradigm that learning was something you did by being taught. Then I went to University and this changed to the idea that learning was something you organised yourself using resources provided by “experts” – books, lectures, tutorials etc. Growing up today is likely to include the assumption that learning resources are already there for every topic, waiting to be used.

As Emma described in a previous blog post, the Beyond Distance Media Zoo recently hosted a presentation by Professor Phil Candy of the University of South Queensland about the Four+ Scholarships in the Digital Age. One of the points made in Phil’s talk was that Universities are moving towards three primary functions: 1) providing a “Road Map” for navigating learning materials a subject (and also a template for building one’s own understanding), 2) Information Literacy (how to use the information effectively), and 3) Accreditation (evidence of successful learning).

I could imagine that someone growing up today may not value 1) and 2), since the information appears readily and freely available, with a free “road map” (Google / YouTube) and no obvious need for training in how to use the information (just read it / watch the video!). This would put the emphasis on 3) Accreditation, making a University course simply a shop for purchasing degrees, paid for by money and, to an extent, time allocated to study.

Yet Information Literacy is crucial. What if two YouTube videos have different messages? “Compare and contrast” may be a cliche, but it’s also a good way to understand different  people’s views, while knowing an abstract representation of  a subject – and how to apply it – allows for an understanding that can be used to question, to evaluate and to predict.

As Phil Candy also pointed out,  it’s easy to focus on the technology (and getting information) and easy to miss the point, which is to gain understanding.

Information Literacy is the next big thing. You might want to jot that down.

Paul Rudman, BDRA

Publishing e-learning research in higher education

If you’ve resolved to publish more of your e-learning research in the New Year, you may find useful a list of peer-reviewed journals that publish papers in our e-learning field with special reference to higher education. I’ve not included US journals because they seldom take foreign contributions, but all on my list have an international readership. Each one contains a statement of themes covered and the preferred types of article. The editor will usually respond to enquiries about the relevance of a new topic to his or her journal.

Some journal web sites carry an ‘impact factor’ related to how often their articles are cited by other authors. Broadly speaking a factor above 1.0 indicates a journal that commands more respect and attention than those with factors below 1.0. There’s more here if you want to understand the virtues and problems of impact factors of journals.

Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education

Association for Learning Technology Journal

British Journal of Educational Technology (1.041)

Computers & Education (2.190)

European Journal of Open, Distance & E-learning

Higher Education Quarterly

Innovations in Education & Teaching International (0.250)

International Review of Research in Open & Distance Learning (Canadian)

Journal of Computer Assisted Learning (1.065)

Journal of Further & Higher Education

Studies in Higher Education (0.938)

Teaching in Higher Education (0.500)

There are also solely online journals, such as the Journal of Interactive Media in Education (JIME, from the Open University).

A good principle to adopt as a researcher is to write up every project you are engaged in and try to find a suitable peer-reviewed journal. When you submit an article, even if it is rejected, you are likely to get some useful feedback, but it’s worth asking a colleague or two to have a look at your article before submission.

BDRA researchers have published recently in:

British Journal of Educational Technology (5 papers)

Electronic Journal of e-Learning (1 paper)

European Journal of Open, Distance & E-learning (1 paper)

International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (1 paper)

Journal of the Higher Education Academy Engineering Subject Centre (1 paper)

Journal of Lifelong Learning in Europe (1 paper)

Reflecting Education (1 paper)

Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education (1 paper)

Good luck!

David Hawkridge

Virtually Futuristic – Attention, Spoilers Ahead…

In line with IMDB’s message board etiquette  I need to warn you that you may find spoilers in the remainder of this post – “remarks or pieces of information which reveal important plot elements, thus ‘spoiling’ a surprise and robbing the viewer of the suspense and enjoyment.” The Creating Academic Learning Futures (CALF) project here at Beyond Distance Research Alliance is all about spoilers. It is attempting to get a glimpse of possible futures of learning and teaching, and “to reveal important elements of the plot” for higher education with the help of students.

All scenarios that students participating in the project have created so far envisage some form of teaching and learning in virtual worlds in the future. Even students, who did not know of Second Life prior to their participation in CALF, believed that in the future people will learn in “worlds in the computer” as one student put it, as much as they do today in the physical world. Is this shared anticipation a spoiler, a signal of a very possible future? I consider it to be.

Recently there has been a wave of big budget Hollywood films about virtual worlds. There was the premiere of the trailer for James Cameron’s Avatar (it will be the most expensive film ever made, apparently) and this week in theatres on is Surrogates with Bruce Willis. Both films are set in futures where humans live their lives through representations of themselves.  Could these movies be the “spoilers” of possible futures?

 If they are, it will not be the first time that something predicted in a sci-fi movie has come true. In Johnny Mnemonic  humans could have their memories removed to free up space within their brains or so that data can be locked in the brain with codes to protect it and only last week the CNN posted a story about a researcher at Microsoft who is converting his brain into e-memory. In Surrogates people live confined in their rooms while controlling through the nerves of their eyes their robot representations in the outside world – recently it was reported that MIT has developed technology that can help blind people see again by projecting visual input directly onto the brain.

 Perhaps the question then is not “If” there will be teaching and learning in virtual worlds, but instead “What if” there is, how will the world change? In getting me to think about this “ripple” effect of new technologies, I found the Surrogates movie to be well worth the £5.50 I paid for my ticket and I recommend it to anyone who is working on virtual worlds. In the future of Surrogates mortality of contactable diseases had dropped with 90% – because people were not in contact with each other anymore. So had mortality of accidents and crime – everyone was safe in their fortified homes. Birth rates had also fallen for obvious reasons and that had solved the overpopulation problem which would have otherwise loomed because of the increased longevity. The movie focused a great deal on the issues to do with identity and identity theft and while these diversions into causes, consequences and possibilities may have diluted the plot, they made for a very inspiring experience from a futurist perspective.

 In the CALF project, analogy has proven a powerful tool for idea generation for “spoilers” for the possible futures ahead. Encouraging students to seek analogies with things they are familiar with, including science fiction movies, in order to generate and ground ideas about possible futures, has yielded scenarios that are structured and easier and quicker to communicate.

I guess what I am trying to say is – It is Friday today, treat yourself to a movie. And do put a comment here if what you see inspires you to think of a possible future…

Sandra Romenska

Beyond Distance Research Alliance, 2 October 2009

Creating to share; promises and pitfalls

Last week I participated in a seminar organized by JISC in Ormskirk. The focus of the seminar was creating and sharing digital content with emphasis on the promises and pitfalls of Open Educational Resources (OER). Representatives from the CETL on Reusable Learning Objects, SOLSTICE, ROCOCO, Q-ROLO, Open Spires and ReFORM spoke about their projects and took part in discussions about the future of OERs. I came away from the meeting with a feeling that whilst Open Educational Resources offer a lot of promise there is the need for a concerted effort to debate and find solutions to some of the drawbacks that threaten the potential benefits of these resources to the HE sector. Here are a few things mentioned regarding benefits and pitfalls:

• Economies of scale in terms of cost benefit analysis
• Improved access and better use of existing resources
• Innovation in the design of teaching and learning materials

• Copyright issues
• Institutional barriers in terms of existing curriculum processes
• Lack of local content repositories
• OER literacy i.e. the capacity of academic staff to create and share open learning resources

I was quite struck by the discussion on how to engage various stakeholders to maximize the benefits of OERs whilst addressing the pitfalls. What was missing in all the discussions was the role of learners in advancing the vision of the OER movement. The Edgeless University report has emphasized the need to engage students in the design of courses to better understand their needs and also determine when and how teaching and learning should happen in the future. Clearly, making OERs more sustainable will require not just institutional commitment to “openness” in teaching and learning, or overcoming copyright hurdles or changing staff attitudes towards “open learning design” but more importantly how we as OER practitioners draw lessons from student experiences in HE to improve the quality of our materials in order to motivate learners locally and international to use these materials.

Samuel Nikoi ( 24 July 2009)

Reflections on the Report of Committee of Enquiry into the Changing Learner Experience.

Melville, D. (2009) Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World: Report of Committee of Enquiry into the Changing Learner Experience, Available at: [Accessed 29 May 2009].

I have been reading the recently published final report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Changing Learner Experience, and thought it would be worth sharing some of the key messages from the report. The Committee has been established and supported by ten principal bodies responsible for UK Higher Education (HE) and headed by Prof Sir David Melville.

The report identifies the crucial issue of undergraduate students’ lack of information literacy and web awareness skills that are needed in a digital age. Students are active users of social web tools and services (generally referred to as Web 2.0 tools); for example, 90% are regular users of social networking sites. However, these students lack the analysis and critical skills for effective use of web-based resources: ‘Students tend to go no further than the first page or so of a website and, if they don’t find what they are looking for there, they move on to another.’ The Report stresses that HE students need help and support both in identifying and in evaluating information on the web, and in ‘understanding and application of good practice in constructing searches, establishing the validity of sources, and by extension, attributing them when appropriate’ (p. 23).
Based on the evidence gathered, the Committee concludes that HE students lack the skills required to make appropriate and ethical use of information available from the Web, and recommended that HEIs should ‘treat information literacies as a priority area and support all students so that they are able to identify, search, locate, retrieve and, especially, critically evaluate information from the range of appropriate sources… and organise and use it effectively, attributed as necessary, in an appropriate medium’ (Melville, 2009, p. 10).

One of the key recommendations of the report is that the HE institutions have responsibility for helping their students to learn information literacies ‘in an age when information is readily available from a multiplicity of [web-based] sources and in a wide range of formats.’

Palitha Edirisingha

E-learning by learners with disabilities

DUCKLING, with its podcasts, e-book readers and Second Life, is a project that has made me think again about how learners with physical or sensory disabilities can cope with and benefit from e-learning at university.

 Years ago, I got interested in what IT could do to help disabled children and adults to learn. With Tom Vincent and Gerald Hales (colleagues in IET at the OU) and a research grant from the Nuffield Foundation I looked into what was happening in the UK and the US at that time1. Later, Tom and I extended our research to study how computers were helping UK and US children and adults with learning difficulties to gain access to the curriculum2.

 That work is now out-of-date in many respects, of course, though most of the difficulties experienced by learners with disabilities remain. Changes in IT, including the arrival of Web 2.0 technologies, have made early solutions obsolete and new ones feasible.

 If BDRA were to become interested in pursuing research in this field, it would be essential to understand first what are today’s chief research questions and what is being done now. For example, it would be essential to talk to TechDis, JISC’s advisory service, which has as its mission to: ‘support the education sector in achieving greater accessibility and inclusion by stimulating innovation and providing expert advice and guidance on disability and technology.’

 It would be important to look for knowledgeable partners, because BDRA has no track record as yet in this field. And look for possible UK funding sources, too. Anyone out there keen to work with us?

 BDRA has exceptional e-learning research experience with able-bodied learners. I believe some of that experience could prove very valuable to disabled learners.  I know that Gilly has a strong interest in learning technologies for dyslexic students- the commonest disability around.




1Hawkridge, David, Vincent, Thomas and Hales, Gerald. New information technology in the education of disabled children and adults. London and San Diego:  Croom Helm and College-Hill Press, 1985.


2Hawkridge, David and Vincent, Tom. Learning difficulties and computers: Access to the curriculum. London: Kingsley, 1992.


How is Free Free?

Open educational resources have been the buzz here at BDRA for some time now so I ran a quick search through the stuff stored in my hard drive for anything with the words Open Source in the title. What I am interested in is what motivates people to put out in the World Wide Web for free things that other people normally sell. Why is free free? And why free is free mainly in the world of Internet and software/technology? By the way I’m not counting mobile phone free minutes as free, they are a Machiavellian extortion plot. Still, why does Google give me all the services provided by Google Mail for free? Why does Mozilla come for free? Open Office? Are educational resources (such as course content and delivery) different or similar to Google Mail, Open Office and my free WAV to MP3 decoder? What does free mean?

MIT’s OpenCourseWare is probably the best known example of open educational content. Recently I came across this resource, which I like much better:

It is a portal, an online hub for videos of university lectures and other educational content. Last time I checked, its first page offered a full video course on The American Novel since 1945 by a Yale academic, a course on Classical Mechanics from MIT which I can only describe as super cool (featuring the professor swaying on a swing in a big lecture hall) and a lecture on political science by the author of The World Is Flat Thomas Friedman. Some of the courses (not all) come with the exam papers and solutions to the exam questions. Truth be told, most of the content is lectures rather than complete courses. And the institutions participating in the project are names that need not fear that prospective students would, instead of enrolling, devour the open educational content and fly to better pastures. Participating institutions are MIT, Yale, Berkeley, Harvard, Princeton and Stanford. Why do institutions participate in initiatives like this? What is the motivation of the institution? Of the author of the content? Well, in the best traditions of adventure movies, I shall leave you with this cliffhanger – watch this space for the answers on the 13th of March (to add to the drama, it will be Friday 13th….).

And if you are interested in cool applications and gadgets for free, these people offer The Best of selection:

Sandra, BDRA 

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