Posts Tagged ‘virtual worlds’

Boom then bust: what’s happened to education in Second Life?

Monday, March 3rd, 2014
Second life view

Second Life has lost popularity as a platform for education

Dr Helen Farley writes:

In 2007, US information technology research and advisory firm, Gartner, predicted that 80% of active internet users would have an avatar in a virtual world by 2011. Educators welcomed the news and flocked to Second Life to set up their virtual classrooms, amphitheatres and lecture halls. Many saw virtual worlds as low cost environments that could afford authentic learning for students. Yet others saw it as a training ground for those activities too expensive or too dangerous to replicate in the real world. Many universities, USQ among them, bought up virtual land to host conferences, tutorials for geographically dispersed students, career fairs and all manner of learning activities.

Well, 2011 has come and gone and Gartner’s optimistic prediction has failed to materialise. With the suspension of the 50% educators’ discount in Second Life, many educational institutions simply left the virtual world. A few set up in other virtual worlds such as various hosted Open Sim environments, but most just chalked the enterprise up to experience and left virtual worlds behind them once and for all.

So, what went wrong? Why didn’t virtual worlds such as Second Life realise their enormous potential for education? I joined with a group of researchers, themselves experienced virtual world educators, to see just what the issues were. I have joined forces with Chris Newman (Queensland University of Technology), Sue Gregory (University of New England), Lisa Jacka (Southern Cross University), Sheila Scutter (University of South Australia) and Marcus McDonald (RMIT University) to investigate just what happened. We began by reflecting on and documenting our own experiences. And we came up with a range of issues that we’ve broadly grouped into the following four categories:

1. Issues relating to the institution

Deploying and supporting any new technology in an educational environment takes a considerable commitment from the institution. Invariably, there is a direct cost associated with purchasing or securing access to the technology. But it doesn’t stop there: educators need technological and pedagogical support. They need release from other duties to accommodate the extra time needed to design meaningful learning experiences and to just get their head around the new technology. Deploying virtual worlds into an institution requires the same kind of commitment and sadly, many institutions failed to adequately support virtual world initiatives.

2. Issues relating to staff

Under this heading we placed a whole grab bag of issues from educators failing to cope with the steep learning curves associated with the environment to lack of knowledge about the technology. Add to this, sensationalist media overemphasising the sordid, sexual side of Second Life, sensitivity to ambivalent student feedback about the virtual world, and spiralling teaching workloads and it becomes easy to understand how the barriers of entry into Second Life might become insurmountable for all but the most determined educators.

3. Issues relating to students

Of course, negative student attitudes to learning in a virtual world could potentially derail even the most well-planned and well-resourced virtual world initiative. There’s been endless discussion, and I’m not going to go over it again here, as to whether today’s students are really digital natives. Certainly, the experiences of the research team threw doubt on the idea, finding that many students just didn’t possess the necessary digital literacies to readily cope with and flourish in the virtual world environment. Additionally, many students didn’t recognise education in these environments as being genuinely educative. And, as mentioned above, when academic promotion is so often dependent on positive student evaluations, educators are very sensitive to negative comments from students.

4. Issues relating to virtual world environments

No discussion of deployment of virtual worlds would be complete without considering the vagaries of the technologies themselves. The research team, along with a myriad of educators right around the world, jumped in feet first to use Second Life for learning and teaching. We were the early adopters and we patiently built our mastery over the environment in the belief that the technology would keep getting better. Well, the technology didn’t keep improving: the lag, sub-optimal graphics, lack of stability and voracious need for bandwidth didn’t abate. In the meantime, gaming engines have continued to improve, making the Second Life environment look and feel like a poor cousin. Additionally, there are severe limits on the scalability of nearly all virtual world environments. For those disciplines characterised by class sizes in the 100s or 1000s, virtual worlds were simply not viable as an alternative venue for learning.

Where to from here …

It’s naïve to believe that we have considered all of the reasons why educators have left virtual worlds in droves. To further plumb the depths of educator experience, we have deployed a survey through social media, mailing lists and also to our virtual world buddies. We want to look at why educators entered virtual worlds initially, what were their experiences and why they left. We’re looking at all sorts of factors that have potentially impacted on their decisions. And it’s not just Second Life we’re looking at but Jibe, Open Sim, Kitely and others. I promise to report back with our findings. In the meantime, take a look at our paper we presented at the recent ascilite Conference in Sydney and see you inworld!

The Journey of Virtual Reality: From Lawnmower Man to Oculus Rift

Thursday, September 26th, 2013
Oculus Rift VR headset

Oculus Rift VR headset

Dr Helen Farley writes:

I can remember sitting on the couch, pillow scrunched under my chin, eyes averted from the TV as I watched Pierce Brosnan battling a virtual reality superbeing and former gardener in The Lawnmower Man. In this movie, Jobe, a simple-minded gardener, was transformed into a telekinetic hypergenius with just a few sessions of Remington Steele’s VR.

The movie foretold a scary future but also one full of promise for virtual reality. Way back in 1992, we believed that our whole field of vision had to be occupied by a virtual space and our movements translated directly onto those of an avatar for us to feel as if we were really there.

This engenders a phenomenon called ‘presence’; it’s like diving into another world. The reality was that VR stereoscopic displays and wired gloves were really too expensive to make much impact on the market. And millions of gamers across the planet amply demonstrated that a joystick and standard computer display were enough to make them feel ‘present’ when the game and accompanying narrative were sufficiently compelling.

With virtual reality almost a relic of this educator’s lost dream, my pulse quickened when I heard the mysterious name of Oculus Rift. Visions of The Lawnmower Man flashed across my mind’s eye, but I also remembered how much I had wanted to be part of an alternate reality, trying on another world or identity on for size. I was excited and had to know more.

Oculus VR is a small start-up focused on enabling virtual reality videogames. The idea is that the Oculus Drift headset plugs into a PC and the virtual environment is displayed right across the field of vision. The ultimate plan is for the display to be HD though this hasn’t been achieved as yet. The other really enticing thing is that the Oculus Drift will hit the stores at around $300; thousands less than most VR headsets.

A lot has happened since The Lawnmower Man graced cinema screens back in 1992. We’ve relived the ‘80s, all manner of crazy dance moves have come and gone, and mobile learning has emerged as the potential panacea for all our learning ills. Is there still a place for virtual reality and the Oculus Rift in a world where mobile is king?

My partner frequently hassles me about my serious case of GAS, and before you move to another page, let me explain. GAS or ‘Gear Acquisition Syndrome’ may manifest in a musician as a prodigious collection of guitars and effects pedals; in a photographer as a surfeit of lenses, filters and camera bodies. In me, it’s mostly mobile devices and gadgets, PDAs, phones of various stripes and eReaders with a range of displays. The Oculus Rift is prime for incorporation into my digital collection but can I justify it?

Naturally enough, to counter the economic arguments of my partner, James, I had to get a justification ready prior to purchase. But I think the creators of the Oculus Rift may be onto something. I find myself in the odd spot of researching virtual worlds and mobile devices.

Maybe you don’t need your field of vision totally occupied to engender presence, but you do need a good part of it. Presence is also more likely if you can shut everything else out too. I’ve wondered how virtual worlds can be used with mobile devices when they necessarily can’t engender presence because the screens are too small.

The great advantage that virtual worlds have over teleconferencing or Skype is that you feel like you’re really sharing a space with someone when you share a space in a virtual world. That just doesn’t happen with Skype. But it’s not going to happen when you’re accessing a virtual world with a mobile phone either. Enter the Oculus Rift.

The developers of the Oculus Rift are also planning to enable the headset to plug into mobile devices. The downside of this is the phone needs to be pretty powerful to run the display. Until now this has just been a pipedream, but with the release of the new iPhone 5c and 5s (also prime for GAS incorporation) this is now tantalisingly close.

As much as virtual worlds accessed on a mobile device and viewed through the Oculus Rift have enormous potential for remote meetings, conferences and so on, the real promise in this configuration lies in augmented reality. In just a few minutes I can think of a number of killer apps: agricultural extension with images superimposed on the crops of pest species displayed in 3D that a farmer can walk around, Indigenous storytelling with characters superimposed over the landscape, workplace training, surgery with dotted lines to show where a less confident surgeon should cut. This is by no means an exhaustive list (I’m saving that for later versions).

I think I’ve amply made my case, and within a short time of the release of the Oculus Rift, I’ll have one of those in my collection. Also exciting, the developers are planning on releasing a version with an embedded Android chip so you won’t need an additional device to power it. Wonder how I’ll justify that? Anyhow, to find out more about Oculus Rift, head to the website

In the meantime, if you’re looking for a cheap PDA with low kilometres, drop me an email.

Image credit: Oculus Rift by Javier Domínguez Ferreiro used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Exploring Next Generation Virtual Worlds

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012
LTQ exploring virtual worlds

The exploration party

Last week, Dr Helen Farley, Dr Amy Antonio and Neil Martin hosted colleagues from USQ’s Learning and Teaching Services team to explore the educational possibilities offered by virtual worlds.

Second Life has gained a lot of traction in the last five years as the world’s leading virtual world platform. However, it is not without its issues: the user must first download and install the software, create an avatar and engage with Second Life culture. For many this is all part of the fun, but for others it’s quite a daunting prospect.

Second Life continues to develop, but there are now some new kids on the block, such as Jibe and Kitely, that are adopting new and innovative approaches to building virtual worlds. Helen spent a couple of hours sharing her knowlege of these platforms (with real examples) and letting the audience explore virtual worlds for themselves.

First up was Second Life. Helen showed off USQ Island which last year hosted the Encke Virtual World Conference with delegates coming together from all over the world. She also gave a guided tour of the UQ Religion Bazaar that she set up a few years ago. The Bazaar allowed students to get a feel for what it is like to experience different religious customs, identities, and rituals. For example, the student’s avatar can go on a Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and circle the Kaaba. These rites are reserved for Muslims  however, in Second Life, a non-Muslim student can get some experience of what it is like to go on the pilgrimage. As Helen pointed out, while you can show videos, there’s nothing like doing it for yourself.

Helen also briefly demonstrated Kitely to the audience. Kitely allows tutors to set up virtual worlds on demand. The virtual world hosting uses Amazon Web Services and is open only when people log in (as opposed to Second Life which is always open). Because it is a controlled environment, it may have some really good applications for schools who may wish to run a science or archaeology class there. The technical requirements to set up the virtual world is lower as the service is hosted off-site, and once a class visit is over, the virtual world is closed.

Finally, everybody explored Jibe. ADFI is particularly excited about Jibe because great efforts have been made by the designers to reduce the barrier of access to this virtual world. It can be accessed through a browser running the Unity 3D plugin and, unlike Second Life, no third party software needs to be downloaded and installed.

Reaction Grid, the company who make Jibe, are exploring the use of mobile devices as gateways to the Virtual World. Jibe is already accessible through an Android app and an iOS one will appear soon. Jibe uses Unity 3D, a development framework that is also heavily used in the gaming industry. This means that high quality materials such as trees, buildings and landscapes are already available for creation of the Virtual World.

For many, it was their first ever visit to a virtual world and it was obvious from the buzz in the room that there was lots of fun being had. There was also a realisation that there are infinite educational possibilities afforded by virtual worlds as they continue to evolve. Students can be immersed in environments that would be difficult or impossible to visit in the real world.

Neil Martin

ENCKE: A Virtual University Collaboration

Friday, November 25th, 2011
Group photo Encke Workshop

Group photo

On the 27th and 28th of October I participated in the Virtual University Collaboration known as ENCKE. This collaboration was conducted in Second Life which is, for those of you who are unfamiliar with Second Life, an online virtual world in which the users, called residents, interact with each other as avatars. I know many of you are probably thinking of James Cameron’s successful 2009 film of the same name but basically, in Second Life, the user is represented as an avatar who can take any form you choose, which need not be a ten-foot-tall, blue-skinned creature from the planet Pandora.

Organised by Dr Helen Farley, this successful online collaboration brought together people from sixteen different institutions from around the world. This collaboration, which was held on USQ Island, comprised of five plenary speakers who discussed, in some form or other, the application and benefits of Second Life for higher education.

The first plenary speaker of the two-day collaboration was Anna Peachey from Open University who discussed the ‘Challenges and Opportunities for University Teaching and Learning in Second Life’. While the USQ contingent sipped lattes in the computer lab at a civilised 9am, we sympathised with Anna who was presenting from the US at one in the morning.

Helen relaxing on bean bag

Helen relaxing

In preparation for the day’s second presentation I manoeuvred my avatar to an available bean bag. Let me just say that Katerina Sylvester (my avatar) was a lot more comfortable lounging in front of the virtual slide show than our little group was in a sweltering S107 which, I am pleased to announce, has since had its air conditioning system attended to.

The second plenary, ‘Learning: a social, group based process’, was presented by Stephen Bronack from Clemson University. Steve commenced his presentation with a discussion of ‘traditional’ teaching methods as singular learning experiences and text books as dead-tree technology. With reference to Marc Prensky’s digital natives, Steve explained that ‘Gen V’ expect everything to be as intuitive as the iPad and that singular teaching and learning experiences  are therefore insufficient for this budding demographic. Second Life is thus a great platform to broaden the way that this generation learns things and interacts with each other.

Amanda Hassett from Top Dingo discussed ‘Building in Second Life’, which rounded out day one of the online collaboration. After a successful day of workshops, tours, teleporting and report back, we returned to our first, real lives for the night before reconvening on USQ Island the following morning.

Amanda Hassett

Amanda on building in Second Life

Michael Callaghan and Kerri McCusker from the University of Ulster kicked off day two of the in-world meeting with a discussion on ‘Practical experiences in designing and building educational sims’. With a particular focus on engineering, Michael and Kerri discussed the application of gaming to engineering education.

After the day’s first plenary our large group of avatars divided into 3 groups and teleported to different places on the island for small group discussions that dealt with three specific topics—bots, mentoring and games. After an hour of brainstorming we reconvened on USQ Island to share our ideas. After an exchange of information and a plan to expand on the ideas in the coming months, the avatars settled in for the final plenary of the virtual collaboration.

Although this collaboration was held in Second Life, this is not the only virtual world available to educators. Thus Kyle Gomboy of Reaction Grid discussed possible alternatives to Second Life which included Unity 3D and Jibe.

The great thing about ENCKE, and what differentiates it from other conferences, is the collaborative nature of the event. Although the two day event has been and gone, the collaboration will continue for an extended three month period during which time a number of workshops will be held to put the ideas discussed into practice. The virtual world will be an ongoing collaborative space to allow for construction and testing of applications of virtual world technologies to teaching and learning.

Dr Amy Antonio

Archaeology in Second Life

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Professor Bryce Barker, USQ’s own Indiana Jones, is looking at the potential of using Second Life for a new lab course he plans to run from 2012. He’s trying to keep the residential component of the course to a minimum so he’s looking for ways to give students ‘real’ experience without them having to be on campus or in a lab.

Pondering this question, I contacted Annie Obscure (real name: Anne Ogborn) of the University of Houston. She had mentioned an archaeological build that she had been working on. Annie and I (my avatar is Helen Frak) met in Second Life to look at the build she had been working on. It took the form of an archaeological dig that had been carefully pegged out. There were a few pots lying suggestively in the dirt. I was able to examine them to try and determine how they got there and what might have happened to them. With the magic of Second Life, I was able to do a day’s digging with just a mouse click. Mind you – every mouse click was counted – I had to be an efficient archaeologist. I was also able to take core samples to examine what lay beneath. Had there been a fire? A flood? I had to be careful though, I could damage any precious artefacts that were there.

In a future iteration of this build – hopefully one we will be involved in – I would be able to take the pots to a lab in a trailer next to the dig and do any number of tests that might give me more information. I could find the composition of the pots or their contents, or maybe even their age.

My time at the dig went all too quickly. A big ‘thank you’ to Annie Obscure for tolerating my dubious archaeological skills!


Dr Helen Farley – Mission Leader (Mobility)