Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 13 July 2008   Monday, July 21, 2008

ISSN 1748-3603

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How avatars learn together: an immersive experience
Social networking: connect-ing students and staff
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How avatars learn together: an immersive experience
by Matthew Wheeler, Ming Nie and Gilly Salmon

At the University of Leicester we have three versions of what we call ‘The Media Zoo’- safe and informative areas for staff to consider and try out learning technologies and research findings.
  • A physical space on campus where we welcome visitors to play with the technological ‘wildlife’ on offer.
  • A web based space ( to accommodate and disseminate our research-practice projects.
  • An immersive 3-D space on Second Life (SL).

Screenshot from the MOOSE SL project

Figure 1: Media Zoo Boat House

One of our SL projects - MOOSE – focuses on enabling groups of students, represented as avatars, to achieve socialisation and engagement for more productive information and knowledge exchange in SL – the basis of learning together in-world no less!

We started with networking and skills development, in recognition of the ‘perceived wisdom’ that SL is difficult (scary even). First, we developed a clear and simple training programme, using two pdf guides: one for tutors to become what we call SL-Moderators and one for the participants who are engaging in learning activities in SL.  Both guides are in draft format and we welcome feedback!

Screenshot from the MOOSE SL project

Figure 2: Contrasting avatar appearances

The guides utilise existing YouTube videos on how to use SL to provide a visual guide to the core technical skills which the platform demands that avatars should master. The training programme and guides cover: setting-up SL accounts, creating avatars, getting around in SL, beginning in-world activities, engaging in in-world events and preparing to take part in avatar group learning.

The student training programme began in May 2008 with eight volunteers from Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History, all studying at a distance from the campus. None of the students had used SL before, and only one had previous experience of virtual worlds.

After distributing the training material, we organised an hour’s in-world session for them to cover basic skills. The training proved to be successful, and, with the exception of some early problems with setting up accounts, there were few technical difficulties. We observed the students’ confidence growing by the minute as they learnt the required skills. Many of these can be related to abilities they already had, e.g. keyboard shortcuts and movements controlled through the mouse wheel. At the end of the session, all of the student’s avatars were excited about what lay ahead when the real learning events began.

Screen shot from the MOOSE SL project

Figure 3: Seminar Dome during a session

Communication was mainly achieved through SL’s text-based chat, with specific support provided to individuals through the Instant Message (IM) facility. This process was manageable, though slightly time-consuming. Archived transcripts of each session were particularly beneficial, as students could review the hints and practise later. The transcripts also provided us with a script to work from for future training events and informed our research.

We took a slightly different approach with the tutor training. Face-to-face training was provided in the physical Media Zoo to accommodate the staff’s existing skills and time restrictions. Staff picked and embedded the skills easily, despite little prior experience of learning technologies.  Supportive working with colleagues eased the initial anxiety and enabled the tutor’s progression to becoming SL-moderators.

Training is now underway for the second cohort - MBA students and their tutors from the University of Ulster, to further test and refine our development programme and guides.

To enable an immersive experience for the Archaeology students, some new additions to the Media Zoo Island were required. We produced an artefact based on a Saami Tent. The tent structure has been used as a temporary dwelling by nomadic Reindeer herders of northern Scandinavia for the last 2500 years. Saami tents are divided into social spaces, access to which depends upon an individual’s gender and status in the group. The purpose of the SL Saami tent was to familiarise avatars with the concept of social space. For example, there are two entrances: one at the front for females, children and servants; and one at the back for the men in the group. To give the students as close to a real-life experience, permissions were added to the tent based on these criteria, which added a significantly authentic value to the learning experience.

Screenshot from MOOSE

Figure 4: Kalasha village during an immersive activity

Another SL second creation for the Archaeology courses uses the valleys to the north of the Media Zoo Island to replicate a Kalasha Village, another example of social space. The Kalasha are an ethnic group from the Hindu Kush Mountains in the north-west of Pakistan. The Kalasha divide space based on gender. In SL, the avatars were taken on a tour up the side of the valley, similarly to the way that they might on a real-life field trip. The avatars immersed themselves in the cultural perspective in the Kalasha environment.

Initial research outcomes
Interviews with the tutors and students suggest that SL is suitable for teaching subjects such as Archaeology, where the uses of space and landscape require visual 3-D elements that are not easily replicated or demonstrated in real-life. SL offers a medium where artefacts and landscapes can be built and created easily, allowing students to see, explore and interact in role. For example, participants described how ‘being’ in the Saami tent and Kalasha valley allowed them to ‘see’ the layout of the place, ‘touch’ the artefacts, and ‘experience’ where they can venture and where they can’t. They reported that this immersive experience extended and reinforced what they had learned from the textbook.

All the students who participated as avatars appreciated the opportunity of meeting the tutors and other students in SL, from their course. They expressed their feelings as having enjoyed and engaged in the experience. Students felt a sense of belonging and were no longer distant from others. One said,

“It’s really interesting and I … enjoyed it! Before, I usually sat at home and read the text and thought about things on my own. It’s good to meet others who study the same things in Second Life, and I do not feel alone. It’s good to meet the lecturer. You do not feel distant anymore.”

Another said,

“Second Life is a really good way to hold a class. It added an extra way to distance learning. It offers an opportunity to meet others. I felt I was part of this group even though it's a virtual world, rather than doing it alone at home. It's an interactive experience being able to talk through the text with some of my classmates. It makes me feel more connected to the class. It was a good experience to interact with the tutors. This is the first time I had interaction with them. Being able to ask questions directly and to have their response right away helped me understand the material better.”

Two students said that they had developed a friendship in SL, and they will talk to each other more either in SL or through email. Students appreciated the opportunities for synchronised communication offered by SL, by exchanging ideas, learning the subject from each other’s perspectives and asking questions instantly.

Tutors and students expressed some frustrations when communicating and interacting with others through their avatars. They felt the interaction was slower and perhaps more restricted in SL compared to real-life due to missing body language and facial expressions. This may potentially slow down the process of building confidence in each other and will be a continuing topic for our study.

Screenshot from MOOSE

Figure 5: Informal learning environment

Some technical challenges were also highlighted, for instance, the time required to get used to a new environment and acquiring the basic skills for SL. Both the tutors and students appreciated the training guide and particularly the training sessions that took place in SL. The guides, training sessions and events helped maintain interest among the participants, some of whom went on to participate in other in-world events.

A final problem faced by the tutors was limited access to SL from the University of Leicester’s campus network. The growing popularity of SL and its educational application are now leading to the re-examination of institutional policies on making such emerging technologies available to both staff members and students.

Tips for Moderating in Second Life

  • Utilise the capabilities of SL to do something that you cannot offer in real-life.
  • Train your tutors in the skills successfully to moderate in SL and to prepare SL-tivities.
  • Practise and use key moderating skills especially summarising, weaving and group feedback.
  • Manage technical anxiety or frustration with simple resources, such as interactive guides and offer short in-world training and development sessions.
  • Use the most appropriate communication mechanisms: group text is easy to use but can be time-consuming, whilst audio is quicker but adds another level of complexity for both staff and students. Try both but use text first for novices.
  • Pre-prepare scripts for easy cutting and pasting into the chat field and thus reduce the time in composing and typographical mistakes.
  • Ask your students to compose their responses but to wait for an indication that it is their turn to speak during group work. This manages participants’ questions during activities, limits the disruption of the flow of text and makes participation easier and clearer. 

Matthew Wheeler (SL name, Humphrey Kohime),
Dr Ming Nie (SL name, Ming Cham)
Prof Gilly Salmon (SL name, Genevieve Simons)
University of Leicester

Beyond Distance Research Alliance:
Media Zoo:
Training Guides: 

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