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,

Celebrating Machinima

Last weekend, our SWIFT video saw it’s thousandth view. That’s not a lot in YouTube terms, but as a dissemination method for an academic project like SWIFT, it’s really quite impressive. Compare this to a conference presentation: a thousand people in the audience is virtually unheard of. A paper in a high-impact journal is good, but like a presentation only reaches an academic audience in that area. Nowadays, funders want a lot more interest generating for their money.

I first noticed the possibilities for videos filmed within virtual worlds like Second Life (known as “machinima”) when I saw the “Falling Woman Story”, an excellent insight into the reality that can inhabit a virtual world:

That was barely 18 months ago, yet things have moved on very quickly. Linden Labs (Second Life creators) now run a regular “Month of Machinima“, showcase. New techniques are being developed, new standards. Machinima is becoming a separate art form. Here’s an example from the first “Month of Machinima”:

It may be time to rethink ideas about project dissemination. There are now numerous technological ways to raise awareness of an academic project. They all have their place.

In my opinion, a website is a good “shop window” that people can be referred to as a “clearing house” for project information. A blog is about engaging people in dialogue within the project’s area, and needs to be used in conjunction with replying to other people’s blogs in the area. Twitter is good for generating interest in current activities – what’s going on NOW – or for sharing a kind of “stream of consciousness” about the project and its area. Facebook is good for creating and maintaining working relationships between individuals in an area. And video seems to be good for engaging people in the concept of a project, generating interest and getting people talking.

Oh, and it’s good to write some papers too…

Paul Rudman, BDRA

Avatar or Invisible Man?

When I joined the SWIFT project, I began as an experienced Second Lifer. I had seen numerous people arrive in Second Life for the first time, with something like half of them staying and enjoying the experience, while the others never returned. Over time, I developed a hypothesis that there were two things that “hooked” people into returning:

1) those who stayed formed friendships of some kind during their first visit

2) those who stayed were interested in their avatar as a second identity, spending time and money on creating a “look”

Thus, for the first SWIFT experiment, we incorporated a significant amount of avatar personalisation into the Second Life training part of the experiment.

For the second experiment, we did less of this, mainly because it was just too time-consuming for the students to spend a whole hour on learning to use a piece of software that they may only use once.

And an interesting thing happened. When I interviewed the students afterwards, it seems that the avatar wasn’t particularly relevant to their experience. In fact, one person would have been happy to not see the avatar at all. So why the difference?

I’m thinking that it’s because the need for purpose is being satisfied in a different way. For “recreational” use, Second Life is, on the face of it, quite poor; one “arrives” somewhere in-world, and, well, that’s about it! It’s not a “game” – there’s nothing to “do” – so unless you meet someone interesting it seems a very lonely place. For our experiment though, there is something specific to do. We have a virtual genetics lab, and one can perform “simulated” experiments. that is the purpose, in fact, almost, the “game play”.

Which brings us to the question of identification with the avatar. If one is in Second Life with a definite purpose, and it’s neither necessary nor useful to socialise, the avatar doesn’t really have a role. It just, as one participant said, keeps standing in the way of something you’re trying to look at.

If this is the case, then it’s really good news for SWIFT. If the avatar proves to be unimportant for the learning situation we are creating, then we could reduce the training time significantly.

We’ll be reporting on this in our next paper. . .

Paul Rudman, BDRA

Welcoming 2011

This new year sees a number of changes in Beyond Distance, the most significant being the departure of Gilly to take up her new post as Professor of Learning Futures and Executive Director of the Australian Digital Futures Institute at University of Southern Queensland.

(As an aside, Gilly is now living in flood-hit Towoomba, but has reported in safely, as has her new team.)

While we are sorry to see Gilly go, one silver lining to this particular cloud is the collaboration now underway between our two  institutions on the Learning Futures Festival Online 2011, Follow the Sun. With its non-stop, 48-hour, global format, I’m certain this conference will further cement the institutions’ reputations as technology innovators.

Beyond Distance also continues its main work of researching new technologies and pedagogies. Just yesterday, a research pilot project called PELICANS was placed in the Breeding Area of the Media Zoo, and existing projects CALF, SPIDERSWIFTOSTRICH and TIGER progress well.

The Media Zoo continues to disseminate colleagues’ research and, importantly for University of Leicester colleagues, offer hands-on technical advice. The Friday Workshop, a new series of learning technology workshops held every Friday morning 10-12, has just been launched.

Our own Media Zoo will also be collaborating more with the Graduate School Media Zoo (based in the library on the main campus). With its focus on postgraduate students, the GSMZ offers us a chance to bring academics and PhD students together in a single environment  to learn as much from each other as from the Zookeepers.

I’m always amazed by the achievements and knowledge of my colleagues, so I remain certain that 2011 will see everyone build upon Gilly’s hard work to keep Beyond Distance at the forefront of e-learning research in higher education.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

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

Showing the oil rig to the JISC 2010 delegates

JISC delegates receive their briefing

Johnson Zuta, my avatar, has just finished showing some of the delegates of the JISC 2010 conference, Innovating e-Learning, around the oil rig located in the lagoon of the Media Zoo Island in Second Life. The rig was used as part of the very successful JISC-funded DUCKLING project.

After receiving a briefing on the  helipad of the rig, delegates spent 15 minutes or so familiarising themselves with the structure. Johnson had also given them a specific task to do.

Unfortunately, the alarms sounded and everyone was forced to evacuate the rig by boat, re-assembling back at the jetty. Luckily, there were no casualties.

Don't panic!

Following the oil rig scenario, there was still a little bit of time to show the delegates SWIFT‘s new self-directed learning area on the island. This area – in the form of a maze – allows newcomers to Second Life to practise movement, camera control, and other vital in-world skills.

SWIFT's new self-directed learning area

Part of a publicly funded project, Dr Paul Rudman – the maze’s designer and builder – is keen to see it utilised by other institutions and individuals.

Equally, anyone interested in utilising in their teaching the oil rig and its associated artefacts should contact me at simon.kear@le.ac.uk.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

Find the Media Zoo Island at http://slurl.com/secondlife/Media%20Zoo/171/102/25

Redevelopment of the Media Zoo Island in Second Life

In line with the launch of the new Media Zoo website, now with a great new banner designed by Emma, I have started work on redeveloping the Media Zoo Island in Second Life – with help from Paul, of course.

The island was built originally to serve as a place to showcase all the projects of Beyond Distance, as well as specifically to run the Second Life MOOSE project. As we move into 2011, and especially because of the requirements of SWIFT, the time has come to move the island into what I’ve called Phase II of its existence.

Part of the DUCKLING project, the oil rig has proved an popular artefact and simulation, and will be part of the 2010 JISC online conference. It is the main feature in the lagoon and, because it wasn’t needed for Phase II, we removed the boat house. The pier has been kept, and the motor launches used to ferry visitors and students to the rig will moored along it.

boat house

Selecting and removing the boat house

Another significant change in the lagoon has been to move and reshape the beach that formed such an important part of our 2010 Learning Futures Festival. The beach now forms part of the penininsula that contains the Saami tent.


The new beach

The main work, however, will come with readapting what were the Safari Park and Breeding Area domes. One will be used to  showcase the projects from all four quadrants of the Media Zoo while the other – at the moment – is likely to become an auditorium/lecture hall/gathering place.

Phase II, which builds upon the success of Phase I, is partly about adapting the island to current needs, but also preparing it for future work and projects.

Join us on Media Zoo Island at http://slurl.com/secondlife/Media%20Zoo/171/102/25.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

Austerity measures

We’re going to run out of prims.

Our little Media Zoo Island may not be “real”, in the original sense of the word, but it has always managed to have real effects on its visitors. Interest, inspiration, acquiring information, learning, even fun. But with every silver lining comes a cloud, a real effect we could do without – limited resources.

In the physical world, the talk is of “credit crunch” (a dated term already?), economic crisis, cuts. In the virtual world of our Media Zoo Island the limits are much more self-inflicted. We have embarked on a major project, SWIFT, and it’s testing the virtual world of Second Life to its limits. We want to display information in ways this virtual world was never designed for, we want animations that directly support each student’s learning needs at critical moments, and we want a virtual genetics laboratory where 30 students can each have all the equipment they need to practice screening genetic material for inherited diseases. That’s 30 sets of equipment, all in use at the same time.

New SWIFT lab in development

In a physical laboratory, one wouldn’t imagine trying this (at least, not without a multi-millionaire benefactor), but the virtual world is different. Not having to work within the laws of physics – such as time, gravity and cause-and-effect – makes it much easier to create machines than in the physical world. Of course, they only give the illusion of working, but that can be quite sufficient to generate an effective learning experience.

Yet even in the virtual world, there is a cost. Machines and other objects are created using “prims” – malleable building blocks that can be used to create surprisingly effective virtual objects. Even though something like a PCR Thermocycler takes only 44 of these prims, we need twenty such devices, thirty 12-prim UV Transilluminators – the list is long. With everything else on the island, it soon adds up to the 15,000 prim limit.

So, as everywhere, it seems that our virtual world will need some “austerity measures”. We’ve already found enough unused objects to release half the shortfall, and will redesign others to use less resources.

Reaching the limit of virtual resources is certainly not the biggest challenge for the SWIFT team, but it is, perhaps, one of the most contemporary.

Paul Rudman, BDRA

Guide dogs and iPads

The Higher Education Academy’s annual conference was a great opportunity to meet other academics engaged in improving the teaching and learning going on in UK universities. I attended some really interesting presentations, one of which made me think about the nature of “progress”, and how we need to consider the down- as well as the up-sides of new technologies.

It was a presentation on catering for diversity in abilities, in particular about generating and delivering content in forms usable by everyone – so no fancy fonts, text as images, oddly coloured text, that sort of thing.

A questioner asked about possible pitfalls in assuming that one particular type of content was automatically more accessible than another. He cited the dropping of curbs to allow wheelchair users to cross the road more easily. Apparently, this causes problems for visually impaired people, since the curb was a useful marker for the boundary between road and pavement; what’s more, guide dogs are trained to stop at the curb – no curb is confusing.

At the same time, I noticed the chap next to me sporting a shiny new iPad. Every now and then, he would pick it up, start an app, use it for a couple of minutes, go back to the “home” screen, and put the iPad back on the table. Simple enough so far, but the odd thing was, whenever he put it down, he would turn it over, so the screen faced the table. Being a psychologist at heart, I started wondering about the cause of this behaviour.

My conclusion was that he was used to closing a laptop when he finished with it, and placing the iPad face down was the nearest equivalent. Of course, this  doesn’t save power, like closing a laptop, and the home page is hardly confidential data, but somehow he felt the need to turn the iPad over in order for it to support his perceived needs. I’m sure Apple considered (and rejected, for good reason) a big power button on the front, but probably didn’t anticipate users continually turning the device over.

These examples emphasise the need for careful  testing of new technologies with genuine users in real situations before promoting new technologies to the world. The HEA-funded SWIFT project for example, for which Beyond Distance is organising the research, is a major three year project to investigate the use of virtual worlds in the learning and teaching of practical laboratory skills. We are getting a good idea of what virtual worlds do well, but we need to find the hidden drawbacks before we can confidently promote virtual worlds as effective educational tools.

We need to consider the equivalent of white lines on dropped curb edges and big power buttons on the iPad. Only then can we be sure that the advantages outweigh the drawbacks.

Paul Rudman, BDRA

Day 5 at the LFF and still going strong…

Monday 11 January saw another series of extremely stimulating discussions at the Beyond Distance online Learning Futures Festival (Registration still open for late adopters who haven’t got on board yet!) We were privileged to have Professor Ian Jamieson, recently retired VC of the University of Bath, and recipient of an OBE in December, as our keynote speaker. He made a heartfelt plea for speeding up the pace of change in the higher education sector, to keep pace with students’ expectations and changing approaches to learning. An interesting side issue for me in this session was the back channel conversation about student satisfaction surveys, and the point that many students express dissatisfaction when they are being challenged or stretched in their studies, but on later reflection may state that exactly those moments were the most transformational for them.

PD Alchemy and Aallyah then led our intrepid Second Life delegates into the virtual Genetics Lab which is being developed by the SWIFT project at Beyond Distance. Unfortunately my avatar (Daffodil Moonwall) had some connectivity problems and so was unable to join in, but according to a couple of cryptic twitter posts, it seems that certain avatars underwent a spontaneous genetic modification during this session. Indeed in the Second Life Campfire session later in the day, Daff noticed that the general level of whackiness of the conversation had reached unprecedented heights – a possible result of whatever experimentation took place earlier in the day?

Returning to the mainstream programme: at noon Alejandro Armellini and Gilly Salmon led a session on “The Carpe Diem journey: designing for learning transformation”. Carpe Diem is the tried and tested workshop process developed by Beyond Distance at Leicester to support academics in using their VLE (virtual learning environment) effectively. Discussion here centred around the ways in which academics had responded to the training, and the transferability of this process to a range of educational contexts.

We were then treated to a fascinating description by Magdalena de Stefani from Uruguay of a blended teacher development project using Moodle for language teachers in provincial and rural areas of her country. Magdalena shared with us a dilemma she faced in terms of whether to view her students as “customers”, with the concomitant notion that “the customer is always right”. She felt that she had perhaps been too “respectful” of her students in this regard, thereby depriving them of some potentially transformational challenges. (This resonated nicely with the issues arising during the keynote address.)

Shiv Rajendran, a co-founder of languagelab.com, stayed within the theme of English language teaching by sharing his experiences in the use of Second Life as an EFL teaching environment. (See Shiv’s blog here.) The trigger for the establishment of languagelab.com in Second Life was Shiv’s online meeting with a German who could not speak a word of English, but learnt sufficient English within two weeks to be able to participate in online games. How did he do it? By playing online games… Some discussion ensued in the session about whether Second Life is a game or not (Daffodil thinks not, but that’s for another blog post), and this conversation continued almost seamlessly around the campfire in Second Life a couple of hours later.

Alan Cann then led a thought-provoking session on Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) and lifelong learning. He described how he and colleagues had taught students to use some basic Web 2.0 tools such as citeulike and delicious for social bookmarking, as well as Google docs for collaborative writing. This fitted in nicely with Stephen Downes’ Sunday keynote on pedagogical foundations for personal learning and Kathreen Riel and Tami Saj’s presentation, Survive and Thrive in a Social Media Workplace – as well as giving us another opportunity to use the great term coined by Matt Mobbs – the “Social Media Brain“.

The final session of the day was about learning support for mobile learning by Beyond Distance’s Samuel Nikoi and Palitha Edirisingha, with reference to the WOLF project. Sahm made sure we ended the day with a bang, culminating his presentation with a rousing call for 24/7 mobile learning support for learners.

Elluminate recordings of all the sessions are currently available to conference delegates in the conference environment (as mentioned earlier – it’s not too late to enrol!) and selected recordings will shortly also be available in the public domain.

Finally, thanks to our conference delegates who have been blogging about the festival:

Ignatia Webs – on Phil Candy’s keynote address last Friday (“Any Useful Statement about the Future Should At First Appear Ridiculous”: Discuss): http://ignatiawebs.blogspot.com/2010/01/lff10-phil-candy-concentrating-on.html, and on Nick Short’s presentation (“Androids in Africa”) http://ignatiawebs.blogspot.com/2010/01/lff10-androids-in-africa-by-nick-short.html

Brendan’s blog on his journey through the labyrinthine google-opoly task: http://malleablemusings.wordpress.com/2010/01/10/google-opoly-at-lff10/

And mickelous who mentions the LFF in his post about Technology in the snow.

Last but not least, thanks to suchprettyeyes for creating a twapperkeeper archive of the tweets: http://twapperkeeper.com/lff10/

Please do post comments here or tweet to let us know if you have blogged about the Festival 🙂

By Gabi Witthaus, 12 Jan 2010

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