Adventures in the Virtual World

Warning: this blog post is incredibly long, so probably best digested in manageable pieces.  It charts the history of my work in Second Life to date, then moves on to look at provisional plans colleagues and I are working on in order to have a virtual world presence for Cardiff University’s School of Nursing and Midwifery Studies.  Included are bid application notes and costings which the casual reader may find very dull – but incredibly useful if suffering from insomnia.

There’s a twofold reason for writing this post: to consolidate my thoughts in one place and to fulfill a request from my colleagues to give some background into my past virtual life and put our fevered jottings into one place.

I’d also like some feedback from you.  If any of you with experience of working in Second Life in an educational capacity have any suggestions or comments, please stick them on my Facebook page which you’ll find here.

Part 1

At the start of 2009 I held in a dual role in the Further Education sector: officially I was a Teacher Educator, managing and delivering a range of teaching qualifications to pre and in-service staff. As my then line manager and I were both obsessed with technology, I also became an unofficial learning technologist of sorts. 

I was approached by my line manager at the end of 2008 and he asked me if I had ever heard of Second Life.  I had, though knew very little: it was an online, virtual world with its own economy and currency.  People had been known to make real-world money from trading in virtual goods, and users had complete freedom to do anything they wanted. That was the sum total of my knowledge.  I agreed to set up an avatar – a playable character of sorts – and explore this virtual world with a view to investigating possible uses within education.  After a few weeks spent getting to grips by ostensibly playing a video game with no rails, looking at what other real world educational institutes were doing and talking to a variety of Second Life-based educators and students, I reported back to my line manager.  It seemed that Second Life had potential, and that many real-world universities already had virtual campuses in which teaching and learning were taking place.

In February of 2009 my institution (Cornwall College) bought an island in Second Life. Teaming up with the college’s then eLearning Manager we started to build, initially through a process of trial and error, but later with a more concrete idea of what we wanted: an online campus that would make an innovative and engaging learning space.

Not for us were exact, digital copies of real world campuses or classrooms.  Building in Second Life is constrained only by the builder’s technical skills and imagination: classrooms can be underwater or floating thousands of feet in the sky; they can look like spaceships or jellyfish or enormous coffee cups.  However, not wanting to freak out potential students with anything too ‘way out’, we reigned in our imaginations and decided that Cornwall College Island would fulfil a dual purpose: be a place of learning, but also a virtual homage to all things Cornish – somewhere where students and educators could work, but also where any Second Life avatar could learn about the history, politics and culture of Cornwall.

After spending those initial weeks building the island around our nine-to-five jobs, often staying up until the small hours of the morning and working every weekend, the island was finished.  It looked great (for 2009 – Second Life has become a little more sophisticated in visual terms since then) but in all the excitement of making this a (virtually) living, breathing representation of Cornwall we hadn’t thought about how exactly we were going to use it in education. 

This was addressed (to a point) by introducing the island to teachers at a college-wide Information Learning Technology Fair.  We delivered six workshops to staff in the blistering heat of July 2009 – all, hearteningly, oversubscribed and based around logging into Cornwall College Island and meeting ‘inworld’ with other educators.  This enabled us to give our audience guided tours of both the college’s virtual space and those of other institutions but importantly gave staff the chance to think about how they could use the island in their practice.

Deviating slightly from this, I actually spent the next few years speaking at a number of conferences about the work I’d done in Second Life – even long after the island had been returned to Linden Labs and the project had ended.  More about that later.

There was a groundswell of interest from staff delivering a range of vocational and academic curricula: hair and beauty lecturers talked of making a giant, walk around hair follicle, business lecturers discussed the possibility of using some of the empty gift shops we had built in our virtual fishing village as a ‘virtual start up’ – with a plan to give students 500 Linden dollars and 3 months then meet up at the end of the project to see who had accrued the most money on top of their initial fund.  BA Arts and Media students started to use the island to develop and showcase their digital art, with their lecturer using his teaching practice on the island as a basis for his MA dissertation.  He also, as I remember, built a rather beautiful Art Deco style art gallery under (our virtual) Dozmary Pool.

At this point my official and unofficial job roles converged.  I started to use the island as a setting for virtual tutorials with my *PGCE students.   This worked out rather well, so my line manager and I decided to take a risk and run an entire initial teacher training course online, using Second Life for group sessions, regular drop in discussions, asynchronous activities and tutorials and Moodle for supplementary course materials and the uploading of summative assignments. In effect we were delivering a world first: a teaching qualification for real people who wanted to teach in real classrooms, but studied online in its entirety. My excitement levels reached fever pitch.

To this day I think it could have worked.  As it turns out, it didn’t.  I have a few theories as to why it didn’t: we offered it to qualified, in-service teachers rather than people who wanted to train as teachers.  I have a BA in Art and Design: if I was asked to do a GCSE in the same subject today – effectively what we were asking our students to do – I think my motivation just wouldn’t be there.  That’s not to say our in world cohort weren’t motivated at the start:  the first session went incredibly well – everyone turned up, it was managed effectively and without interruption (with my erstwhile partner in crime, co-builder and colleague managing any technical issues students may have had in the background as I delivered the session as a bearded avatar with waist length dreadlocks and a leather trench coat.  There’s either a mental issue or a thesis in there).  For days afterwards I received emails and messages in world from happy students who talked about how much they had enjoyed the session and how much they were looking forward to the next one. But only three students turned up to the next session.  And by the end of the course, one solitary student had made any attempt to write an assignment or deliver the required 30 minute practice teaching session.  Dr. Mark Childs: I still have the greatest respect for your tenacity, encouragement and support.

Decreasing levels of motivation aside, there were other major factors that contributed to the course’s failings.  We offered the course free of charge, but I wonder if students had been asked to invest their own money in even a nominal fee, they would have felt that they had more ownership of their learning and that there was ‘more to lose’ by not engaging?

Our timing was pretty bad too – though not intentionally.  We offered this course just as the first wave of recession-fueled budget cuts started to dig in both nationally and internationally.  Our students suddenly had much more important things going on in their lives: sudden loss of job security for example, and having to subsume the workload of ‘fallen comrades’ into their own posts, thereby having little or no time to concentrate on working through a course they didn’t actually need to do.

I’ll be honest: this hit me hard, and I took the course’s failure personally.  Budget cuts were affecting the college and Linden Labs, the company in charge of Second Life, suddenly decided to score a tremendous own goal by getting rid of the educators’ discount that gave institutions the ability to invest in virtual land at half the usual price.  Faced with a huge cut in our own budget and the effective overnight doubling of land rental prices along with the fact that the island wasn’t the bustling educational utopia we’d assumed it would be, we decided to pack up and leave.  This left a nasty taste in my mouth, and as I returned the island’s contents to my avatar’s TARDIS-like inventory, I will admit to crying like a girl and vowing never to return.

Part 2

When an opportunity arose in December of last year to apply for the post of Learning Technologist at Cardiff University’s School of Nursing and Midwifery Studies and School of Healthcare Studies  I jumped at the chance, though did assume that as I came from a Further Education background, I wouldn’t be university material.  Pessimism aside I got the job, mentioned Second Life in passing to a couple of new colleagues whose enthusiasm for innovative technology got me pretty fired up…and here I am about to try a second foray into Second Life.  But what’s the plan this time?  And what lessons have I learned from past experiences?

The most important thing  – and yes, this does sound logical but initially I was too excited about using Second Life to think about how to use Second Life – is to get a firm idea of what we want to do before building an island and don’t let the tail wag the dog.  Here’s what my colleagues and I have drawn up so far:

Supporting Doctoral Students using Second life

As an initial port of call, we intend to apply for a Higher Education Academy Teaching Development Grant.

“The Departmental grant scheme invites proposals from single departments in HEIs that encourage cooperation between colleagues to support the enhancement of learning and teaching.

Successful applications will demonstrate team impact across a department; there will be scope for long-term impact, and provision for evaluation and dissemination will be clearly defined. The hosting institution will be expected to contribute funds towards the project.

Applications are invited from any academic departments in an HEA-subscribing institution in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Proposals submitted under the Departmental scheme may request up to £30,000 from the Higher Education Academy. Projects will run for fifteen months.” (HEA Website.  Why am I referencing this?  It’s a blog post, not a PhD thesis!)

  • Student engagement and a robust dissemination strategy are key to this application, and linked to these points are the following suggestions, specific to the students we want to engage in Second Life and to their programmes of study:
  • Flexible learning: at PhD level students are wholly autonomous so work at their own pace.  This means that they will reach key milestones at different times.  Therefore, this approach will allow them to ‘dip in’ to Second Life when they need extra support. It would be of added benefit to future students if they stay in touch and keep developing – even if they have completed their studies – by way of writing for publications or informally supporting newer students.
  • Retention and success: PhD students need different forms of support and at different times.  Part-time students in particular often have a difficult time, are usually isolated and are most vulnerable to dropping out. Our proposed Second Life space gives these students access to support when they are time poor and gives them access to a network and on-line tools.  An example of this would be the proposed ‘Panic Room’: a space where students can meet privately, share concerns, peer assist and access a variety of links to helpful sites and read a range of useful electronic materials.  In addition, international students have particular needs and these will be catered for – a virtual Writing Room and Systematic Review Room will play a key part in the development of their writing, critical thinking and reviewing skills. In addition, it will provide support when they are away for long periods of time conducting their fieldwork in their home country.
  • Sustainable development: by way of starting small with a key group.  Once this becomes established, it can grow or other groups can be formed.
  • Internationalization: via links to other institutions nationally and internationally and through invited speakers.

 Aims, objectives and ideas

  • To build an in world Community of Practice (after Etienne Wenger) offering a safe learning environment and a place to share experiences and give mutual support
  • Using the Cornwall College design template, build a virtual representation of a local landmark: for example Cardiff Castle, wherein each space/room will have bespoke, targeted content built in. In order to increase student engagement and ownership, there is an expectation that content will grow in collaboration with the users.
  • Linked to this, make the space a robust and distinctive learning environment- as with Cornwall College Island, this is not instantly recognizable as an ‘education space’- but ideally people will want to join- making for a broader, more inclusive learning environment.
  • Host a regular programme of events – both monthly and annually.
  • A range of symposia, poster sessions, presentations and seminars and meetings to develop ideas could also be held / delivered in the virtual space.
  • One to one supervision meetings could be held in private areas, along with individual and group tutorials.
  • At the end of year 1 use focus groups and a survey with users in Second Life to plan for further development of content in collaboration with the users.
  • Ensure this is a flexible space that allows for expansion.
  • Importantly, after this phased roll out to the postgraduate group other courses and departments within the university will be invited to use the space.  More about this at the end of this post.

Strategy for Establishing our Presence

  • One thing I certainly learned from my previous work in Second Life is that if you build it they will not (always) come.  However, the School’s PhD students are keen to engage with technology, and the School already has an active, student led blog.
  • Regular workshops will get our students in and (ideally), keep them coming back.  Initially we could run two workshops at launch, then a session at each intake, so four per year in January, April, June and October. (October being the key date for the start of a PhD programme).
  • All of our on-line presence together will be tied together, so there will be links to podcasts, lectures filmed then screened both in-world and in the real world, avatar led tutorials could be filmed or a transcript of conversation between tutor and student could be provided via an electronic ‘notecard’. There will also be a link to the aforementioned blog, and students will be encouraged to write their blog posts in Second Life.
  • All our doctoral students (and tutors / supervisors) will be provided with a customizable avatar linked to their Cardiff University email account and they will be given a small allowance of Lindens Dollars in order to personalize their avatar.
  • They will also be given ‘driving lessons’ in a one to one or small group setting,  rather than being asked to start at a crowded ‘Newbie Island’ which can often be a stressful experience and make the already steep learning curve seem insurmountable.
  • Students are with us for up to 7 years and we would also like to see them continue to be part of the community after they have completed their programme. 
  • Students would be partners in this project as opposed to following the traditional, didactic ‘student – teacher’ paradigm.  This means they would not only be able to make suggestions for ongoing use of the virtual space, but invited to make changes to the space as well.

Cardiff Castle in Second Life

Modelled on the famous Cardiff Castle, this will initially include:

  • A Welcome space introducing the island to visitors and students,
  • An Avatar Driving School: a peaceful area in the castle grounds where users new to Second Life can learn to ‘drive’ their avatars
  • Gallery space for poster presentations, journal articles and profiles for each student
  • Cardiff Castle Pub: a social space doubling up as an area for tutorials, this relaxed environment should be conducive to talk rather than a more formal ‘classroom’ space.
  • Starting Out resource room, with content to cover concepts such as ‘What is a PhD?’, ‘Planning my work- what do I need to do in year one?’ etc. These will take the form of links to web pages, electronic notecards that go into the avatar’s inventory, links to eBooks or presentations authored in PowerPoint, SlideRocket, Prezi (or similar).
  • A Walk in the PhD Park will be an interactive but literal walk through a virtual park (Bute Park seems logical) highlighting key points on the PhD journey.  The overall message of this activity will be that it’s not that difficult and by including rest points, milestones and achievements it will highlight to the students what they have achieved and how they have grown.  It will also mark the work students have already done that eventually contributes to their final dissertation.
  • Symposium space (looking, perhaps, like a Grand Hall or Banqueting Hall, in keeping with the spirit of Cardiff Castle) will be used as a large meeting space for conferences and larger group work.
  • The Panic Room will be designed deliberately to make students feel calm and at ease – so will be an almost meditative space.  This will contain a video screen displaying a number of short pieces to camera that can be shown to students.  The content of these pieces (though they may also take the form of links to images or an eBook, so not necessarily in video format) will be based around the title: ‘One Hundred Lessons in how to get your PhD’.
  • The Writing Room will provide guidance regarding the rules of academic writing, referencing, dealing with writer’s block, critical skills and how to tell a story as well as advice about getting published.
  • The So you Want to Write a Protocol? room will examine the development of  research ideas and look at concepts such as what a protocol should contain, the development of aims and objectives, methods that will answer a student’s question and an analysis of which theoretical perspective/s will work for the student.
  • The Torture Chamber (!) will explain theory and look at how students should apply it to their study.
  • Systematic Review Room (content to be discussed with relevant member of lecturing team)
  • Ethics and Governance Room (content to be discussed with relevant member of lecturing team)
  • The Research Skills Room will look at what an interview is, how to interview and how to observe.  Having spoken to Liz Falconer of the University of the West of England (UWE) with a view to possible collaboration with UWE, the University of Birmingham and Weston College, it may be that we make use of UWE’s  pre-existing Research Hub in Second Life rather than recreating something that already exists in the virtual world.
  • The Analysis Room will examine how to look at data, what to look for, how to write up an analysis and what some of the key things to look for in data.

Dissemination Strategy

Throughout the project we will focus on looking at who the virtual space will benefit above and beyond our own students.  As mentioned previously, we will host symposia and poster presentations as a teaching and learning tool but we will invite other universities and students to join our Second Life events. Continuing from my previous Second Life existence, I’d like to present our work and findings at a variety of real and virtual world conferences.


  • Grant application of anything up to and including £30,000 (with the amount we intend to apply for to be confirmed).
  • Buy-in of my time for 2 days per month (though this could increase / decrease as and when required).
  • Buy-in of junior academic time to write the content of rooms listed above for an initial 6 months. A suite of fully functional rooms / interactive spaces with preliminary content of five ‘pieces’ per room (as listed above). This could then grow organically over and certainly after the initial fifteen months included in the funded part of the project.
  • Second phase to add content after twelve months. This content will be created after student feedback and a survey of users and will further enhance and refine the site.
  • ‘Stable’ of 60 avatars: all free to set up, but with a ‘wardrobe allowance’ of 5000 Lindens (approx. £13) each, enabling students to personalise their avatar’s body, skin, features and clothing. 
  • Buying land: now that the Educator’s Discount has been reinstated by Linden Labs (I wonder whether they realized just how much educational business they lost as a result of ending it on the first place) the cost of an island (at the time of writing) is approximately £1162 for one year or £2324 for two years.
  • However, it will cost money to either employ a builder to construct the Castle and surrounding virtual parkland or to buy in my time so that I can build it. Possible in world building companies include Citrus Virtual Ltd, though there is also the option to use the Second Life in world Employment list to find someone who could construct the builds that we want.
  • Invited speakers will also need their own avatar (if they don’t already have one), my avatar can be employed to provide technical support (meaning a possible buy in of more of my time) and, of course, the speakers will need to be a paid a fee in real world money.  Incidentally, these speakers will be filmed as an archive source.
  • Advertising – in and outside of Second Life- via media such as School / College and University newsletters and journal articles.
  • Nominal budget for uploading of images from real to virtual world – at £L10 per image (0.3p), even a very small budget of £20 would equate to £L7, 716!

Part 3: Collaboration with other Institutions

After almost 2 years of ‘Second Life avoidance’, I wanted to log back in, revise my ‘driving skills’ and see just how much the virtual world had changed in my absence (I’d heard tell of something called ‘Mesh’ sculptures, which gave builders the ability to make far more realistic and complex objects than before).  Indeed, I’d heard that Second Life in general looked more sophisticated, so was worried that my machine wouldn’t be up to the job of running the viewer (and if my machine has difficulties, would students’ machines have the same issues?)  As well as getting back into the swing of things, I wanted to find out what was happening in world at Higher Education level, but also whether there were any clinical simulations running for student nurses, midwives and healthcare professionals.  In my travels I found two useful spaces v- one that I had first discovered in my very first foray into Second Life back in 2009, and one that fitted the simulation brief very well:

The University of the West of England (UWE) has rented an island in Second Life since 2008.  Here’s some information copied from its in world covenant:

“ELearning at UWE is owned by the University of the West of England, Bristol.  It is a place where staff and students can experiment with and utilise the many educational opportunities that are offered by immersive virtual worlds.  It is our intention that the sim is a place for experimentation and development of the educational use of immersive virtual worlds…there is a communal sandbox for UWE members on the public part of the island, and we would strongly suggest that experimentation is carried out there, prior to building on individual plots.”

It’s both heartening to see that it is still actively being used 5 years after its inception, and encouraging to see that the island’s managers invite collaboration with other institutions: to that end, it has formed a  virtual archipelago with two other islands: those belonging to the University of Birmingham and Weston College.  I met up with the island’s founder, Liz Falconer on the UWE Island and we talked about the prospect of Cardiff University’s island joining this community.  Possible collaborative plans include making use of their Research Hub (which may negate the need to build our own Research Room), making use of simulation activities that link with clinical skills (a food poisoning outbreak in a children’s’ nursery, a virtual explosion that examines how medical teams deal with casualties, counselling simulations) and building (or adapting a pre-existing) a midwifery simulation suite for use by all the institutions involved in this collaboration.   And talking of simulation…

…Part 5: Clinical Simulations in Second Life

My recent explorations also took me to a very interesting sim with a lot of potential: The SLENZ (Second Life Education in New Zealand) Project Birthing Centre.  To prove that it’s a small virtual world, the Centre’s creator and manger Aaron Griffiths is a past student of Liz Falconer’s – something that I wasn’t aware of until meeting up with Liz. The sim features a Birthing Room, Treatment Room, Midwives’ room – and the whole build is available free of charge to anyone in Second Life.  That really encapsulates the spirit of Second Life for me – and of ‘techy’ people as a whole.  They love what they do, and once they have developed something, be it an iPhone app, a piece of Flash animation, a use for a Raspberry Pi or a set of objects for use in Second Life, they just want to share it with as many likeminded people as possible, usually for no profit.  Some of my favourite inventory items have been freebies given to me by incredibly clever educators in world. Now excuse me while I go grab myself a free Birthing Centre…

Part 5: Links:

In order to pull everything together, here are links to some of the work I’ve done in and around Second Life.

Cornwall College Island: Slideshow on Flickr

Cornwall College: Enriching the Learning Environment through a 3D Virtual World (An Excellence Gateway Case Study)

Daden Limited: Virtual Worlds for Education and Training

Teacher Training for Second Life

Virtual World Activity in UK Universities and Colleges Snapshot 7

Virtual World Activity in UK Universities and Colleges Snapshot 8

Virtual World Activity in UK Universities and Colleges Snapshot 9

*Directly linked to this, as soon as I have the go-ahead for any financial assistance from my current employers, my own Masters dissertation will look at how students’ behaviour changes when taken out of the confines of a real life tutorial room and placed in the virtual parameters of a traditional fisherman’s pub with a pint of Scrumpy in hand rather than the more traditional cup of tea.

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