SWIFT moves forward

It’s been a busy time for SWIFT lately. Our student volunteers have been taking part in the second of our experiments for this project, using a virtual genetics laboratory to learn about genetic screening techniques.

Over the summer, we built this laboratory using the Second Life virtual world software, along with a Second Life training area.  Our volunteers had two sessions in the virtual world, the first to become familiar with the software, the second to use the virtual laboratory.

SWIFT in the computer lab

SWIFT in the computer lab

The picture shows the system running in the University’s computer lab. The “head-up display” (the overlaid windows at the top) provided a dynamically changing guide. Our student volunteers followed this guide, making decisions about how the genetic screening should proceed, watching representations of the molecular changes taking place and interpreting results.

We were delighted that the system operated just as we had hoped – a testament to the work and care put in by the team here at the University of Leicester, who designed and built the lab, and our commercial partners Daden Ltd. who incorporated the PIVOTE authoring system for us.

The experiment is still in progress, so we can’t say anything about results just yet, but watch this space, as they say…

Paul Rudman, BDRA

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

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