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,

Attended Thinking Qualitatively Workshop Series

Familiar in the UK, but not so much in North America, I’m in a ‘research’ programme toward a PhD rather than a ‘taught’ programme with formal courses. However, the absence of courses does not mean an absence of work and learning. A personal research plan is essential, and areas identified for further knowledge require it be obtained in some way. I certainly have a lot to learn. This means I have a choice, but I need to respond to learning opportunities. For one, the Centre for Labour Market Studies, under which the Beyond Distance Research Alliance is located, provides three modules to students. Each can be considered a self study course: Introduction to Ph.D. Research, Qualitative Methods and Analysis, and Quantitative Methods and Analysis. I still have to spend time with the latter two.

The Thinking Qualitatively Workshop Series came to my attention. It was being offered in my home city of Edmonton, Canada, where the  International Institute for Qualitative Methodology is located at the University of Alberta, June 20–24, 2011. While I initially thought to wait until 2012 to attend, I was encouraged by a Ph.D. student colleague whom had attended before, and by a former professor. Reflecting on the week, I am thankful that I listened to their advice and registered. Three of the days were half-day workshops, and two days were full-day workshops, with choices of topics. I understand that a total of about 184 participants represented 14 different countries: Australia, Sweden, South Africa, Ghana, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, Finland, Jamaica, The Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, UK, USA, and Canada.

I attended the following sessions:

  • Introduction to principles of qualitative enquiry (Maria Mayan)
  • An introduction to thinking about questions in qualitative research (Billy Strean)
  • Approaches to qualitative analysis (Maria Mayan & Sarah Wall)
  • Writing your dissertation (Linda Ogivlie)
  • A critical lens as a qualitative method (Jane Sumner)
  • Issues in observational research (Belinda Parke)
  • Introduction to qualitative interviewing (Gina Higginbotttom & Jennifer Pillay)
  • Panel discussion space–space rating proposals for qualitative research (Nick Holt, Kim Raine, Wendy Rodgers & Cam Wild)

My task now is to review my notes and the materials provided in each session, reflecting and determining how each fits with my future research. I know I now have a greater understanding of qualitative research, and I have potential avenues to explore while information is fresh in my mind. This is also a time to open the university research modules and read in greater depth, as I’ve started to do this week.

Unfortunately, the weather and resulting river conditions forced cancellation of our social event, the Edmonton Queen River Boat Dinner Cruise. Perhaps we can try this again, as I am sure to return. The time was right to attend, and next year will offer more including intermediate and advanced sessions.

A.E. (Tony) Ratcliffe
PhD Research Student, BDRA

Announcing the Beyond Distance MSc in Innovative Education and Training

Beyond Distance Research Alliance is very pleased and excited to announce its first degree programme: MSc in Innovative Education and Training. This exciting new course will be conducted by collaborative distance learning. Students will benefit from the tutorial support of our own Professor Gilly Salmon, Dr Alejandro Armellini, and Dr Palitha Edirisingha. The programme will begin October 2010, and can be completed in only 22 months. Study will pursue the themes of learning design, technology, innovation, change, research, and futures. Planned modules include

  1. Learning Innovation
  2. Research to Practice
  3. Looking Back for Moving Forward: Hindsight and Insight
  4. Creating the Future for Learning: Foresight and Oversight
  5. Proposal Preparation and Pilot
  6. Learning Futures Project

Above image is a collage created as an online e-tivity by the international delegates to the Beyond Distance Learning Futures Festival Online 2010

Our goal in this course is to enhance practice and professional development in technology-rich educational environments, giving students the opportunity to consider and critique the developments, likely trajectory and implications of digital technologies for learning. Participants will be encouraged to identify, formulate and debate theoretical and practical insights into education and training at any level and in any country and sector.

If you have been looking for a masters programme that will not only prepare you for the future of learning and training but also to be a leader in this field, this is the course for you!

For more information and to inquire further, visit

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist

Playing in the Same Key

Apparently, I am the ‘new Matthew Mobbs’; at least, this is how I have been introduced to my colleagues in the Attenborough Tower.

Highly flattered as I am to be compared to this articulate educator, software wizard and internationally renowned Mick Jagger impersonator (he really is very good – ask for ‘You Tube’ proof!), I know it will be some time before I am able to fill Matt’s shoes (if ever) and find myself up to speed on the many BDRA projects. But I have made a start. And it has been very exciting.

But today I will wear my other HE hat as a long-in-the-tooth face-to-face tutor and distance learning e-moderator. What is clear is that the emerging e-learning technologies and associated pedagogies that the Alliance rigorously explores allow our students to confront us with differing expectations. For this reason, the skills base required of the modern educator appears daunting.

I see BDRA at the cutting edge of research into these technologies – podcasts, e-books, 3-D MUVES such as Second Life, and so on. It provides the link between research and practice that is so vital in academia. Via its many research dissemination avenues and through innovative practices such as the Media Zoo’s  excellent Carpe Diem two-day workshop, BDRA enables educators to adapt their material to best meet these new student expectations. BDRA offers the reasons why they should or, equally as important, shouldn’t do so.

But I wonder whether there is a danger that the real-world application of these excellent educational innovations will be left far behind the research.

For example, as a tutor, I can see how a short, regular, Audacity-edited podcast on recent global events could add significantly to the International Relations course I teach. The audio could be combined with some animated Powerpoint slides containing website screenshots and URLs to produce a useful Adobe Presentation. A wiki would allow my students to add their own thoughts, or perhaps I could even have them take a small quiz in Blackboard, reinforcing what they have just heard. As a learning technologist, I can do this.

But do I really think an educator – and I’m not trying to be critical here – who indents text on a module reading list by using the Tab key will have (or ever find the time to acquire) the technical ability to do the same?

This is where university administrations have to take up the challenge laid down by research groups such as BDRA, as the potential of what can be done may differ significantly from what is actually offered to the modern (fee-paying and discerning) student. It’s stating the obvious, but this can be achieved only through significant investment in people and training, and an appreciation of the future of HE.

In considering whether universities – and university departments within a university – can afford to be complacent  in giving academics all the help they need in overcoming the gap between research and practice, I turn to the (completely fabricated) words of the Mobbs-ter’s rock mentor: “Hey Keef, man, it sounds better if we all play in the same key, you know?”

As we know, students, the masters of Web 2.0 social networking and inveterate ‘chatters’, have very keen ears.


Learning Technologist

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