‘Isn’t she in Game of Thrones?’

Darksansastark…said my erstwhile partner when he caught me clapping my hands with same level of enthusiasm a horse-mad 4 year old may display on receiving a pony for her birthday.

I’ll go back a little. It was the 6th July, and I had just received an email from Linden Labs informing me that I had been selected to be among the first to create ‘social VR experiences’ with Sansar, Linden’s virtual world for the virtual reality generation.

It’s been a long time since I was at the forefront of anything techy, so my excitement was entrenched in that little part of me that wants to try everything before anyone else does. The fact that it took me ages to log in, my avatar was about as customisable as a lump of coal, has the face of a corpse and walks like she has done a number 2 in her pants is nothing. Whatever happens, I was one of the first people to log into Sansar. And. most importantly,  as a developer, I can build my own space. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to:


Oh, we learning technology types may scoff at how far behind we think our institutions are compared to the rest of the world, but I’m pretty certain that Cardiff University is (probably one of) the first HE institution(s) that has a presence in Sansar,  though how long it will last, I don’t know.

So how does it look and how does it feel? Graphically, Sansar is so advanced it makes Second Life look like an early Sega Megadrive game, and the quality of the audio is just fantastic: like being in a cutting – edge cinema. I’m even adoring the font style used for messaging (I have thing about fonts. I may need help). But it’s not all beer and skittles, and at the moment it’s really just a triumph of style over substance. Because it’s so new it’s frustratingly limited, it’s laggy, and even the usually simple process of trying to move objects around is a pig. So here we have exactly what he had 12 years ago when Second Life was introduced – something with real promise, and a glimpse of a future that I really want go be a part of, but with more bugs than an NHS hospital. As with Second Life’s early days, Sansar delights and frustrates in equal measure, and in this iteration, the virtual world can’t even be used with VR headsets as yet – despite this being the very premise on which it was founded.

I don’t care. I’m still really excited. Here’s a screenshot of my avatar in her new Cardiff University ‘home’ to tantalise and delight you:


And in other news…Chi Chi the panda has refused to eat school dinners again…

It’s been a pretty busy week, so here’s a roundup of the news a la John Craven’s Newsround, circa 1978.  This reads better if you do the music in your head as you read:

AndyV_john craven


As a result of my last post (If at first you don’t succeed – here), I received a very exciting offer from Liz Falconer of UWE.  She has very kindly offered to meet up and look at how I can start to get Cardiff University on the virtual map (to paraphrase her invitation), initially by having a look at what the UWE is doing on their in-world accreditation: the MA Education in Virtual Worlds, and what Liz’s colleagues in UWE are doing with virtual worlds for simulations in, for example, Finance Auditing, Forensics crime scenes, food poisoning outbreak simulations, et al. I’m hoping that by learning more about these examples and then showing others in my School, I can gently bring round those who aren’t familiar with virtual worlds. Liz has also very kindly asked whether I’d like to partner up on an initial project on one of her islands so that I can show the doubters what can actually be done, so my fingers, legs and eyes are crossed, hoping that this time I finally start to make some headway in Second Life.

As a result of Liz’s message, I went back into Second Life and started to rent a new home. It’s a Victoriana –style skybox reminiscent of the set of BBC 1’s Ripper Street (or early days Eastenders) and it looks like this:


As a result of THAT (can you see a linguistic pattern forming here?) I decided, in a moment of sheer lunacy, to send in a 500 abstract to present at OER14 in Newcastle next April.  Like a dog with a bone (or an idiot who doesn’t know when to quit while they’re ahead) I took an extract from my HEA funding application from earlier this year and tweaked it, then submitted the following for a ‘fringe’ workshop.  Fringe sounds pretty vague and my Second Life work is pretty vague at the moment, so this seemed workable.  And who knows, should my application be accepted, I may even have done something in Second Life to talk about by next spring.


I have finally made a start on finishing my Master’s Degree.  I need to work through three informal, non-accredited tasks before making a start on the final dissertation (or, at least, submitting my official plan and hoping it gets accepted in order to write the final dissertation), and I managed to get the first of these done last week: a brief overview of what I want my research to be about.  This really made me think about my research question and its validity, both as a research topic and within the Action Research paradigm.  It also made me think of about 16 alternative research questions that were linked to the original, but much more specific. And now I just don’t know where to go, so I’m hoping the feedback I get will help me to direct what I want to do.


A few years ago, when involved in the ICE House Project at Cornwall College, I was introduced to Penelope Tobin, a freelance consultant and CEO of Bar­rier Break­ers, jazz musician, educator and all-round brilliant person. Barrier Breakers was originaly foun­ded by Penelope in 2000.  Here’s the online blurb:

Barrier Breakers is an organ­isa­tion ded­ic­ated to inspir­ing human devel­op­ment. Ori­gin­ally estab­lished as a char­ity, the ‘for-more-than-profit’ com­pany was set-up in 2010, with the pur­pose of spread­ing the suc­cess of their approach, Barrier Breakers Methodology (BBM), to other sec­tors, while feed­ing profits back into the char­it­able arm, Bar­rier Break­ers Found­a­tion.

Both sides of Bar­rier Break­ers’ work are dir­ec­ted by the founder, in close col­lab­or­a­tion with asso­ci­ates, part­ners and train­ers, as well as trust­ees and volun­teers. Since 2000, numer­ous highly skilled indi­vidu­als, experts in their own fields and united by a belief in the power of soft skills, have col­lab­or­ated on pro­jects under the Bar­rier Break­ers umbrella, help­ing to shape the meth­od­o­logy, by using it in lead­er­ship, per­sonal, man­age­ment, and organ­isa­tional devel­op­ment pro­jects, coach­ing ses­sions, edu­ca­tion pro­grammes, and con­sultancy. This gives Barrier Breakers an extraordin­ary pool of trus­ted, tal­en­ted and pas­sion­ate pro­fes­sion­als to draw on, so the charity can provide cli­ents with top-quality teams cre­ated spe­cific­ally for their pro­ject and tailored to their needs.

Anyway…I got an email from Penelope in the week outlining something incredibly pertinent and very exciting that she wants to set up and that she thinks I could be a part of.  As it is not my project to share or talk about I shall say no more at this stage, other than I hope to be Skyping with Penelope very soon and then able to say more.  And I’m quite excited…


And finally…I’ve just started a FutureLearn MOOC about Richard III (as in, while writing this post I have just logged into the site to take a first look at the course!).  I like what I have briefly seen, and think that this blog may be a good place to add comments from both an online student and a Learning Technologist viewpoint.  As ever, watch this space.  Or one very close to it…

So, lots of things going on, all of which, if I find the time,  should develop into their own blog ‘streams’.  After months of nothing from me, it looks like, if everything goes according to plan, there will be a glut of blogging from me.  You have been warned…

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.

Second Life, Second Attempt

Back in 2009, the further education institution for which I then worked asked me to head up a project in Second Life.  In essence, I was asked to buy, build and teach on a virtual island in a virtual world.  For two very happy but (admittedly) not entirely successful years, this is exactly what I did.  Not on my own, I hasten to add: I was aided and abetted by a work colleague who, through our love of all things techy, shared sense of (inane) humour and willingness to work around the clock to design, build, tinker with and think of ways to use the virtual space, went on to become one of my closest (real world) friends.  Neither of us works for the institution any more: I’ve moved to Cardiff University and she does incredible work with the Society for Companion Animal Studies.  But, as is typical of me, I digress.

The project wasn’t entirely successful for a couple of reasons: we were fired up with enthusiasm, had a blast building the island…then didn’t really know what to do with it. Remember my advice in a previous post: if you build it they will not come?  This is something I learned the hard way.  That isn’t to say that things weren’t beginning, ever so slowly, to pick up: a lecturer delivering a degree in animation used the island with his students to create 3D art and learn the basics of building in Second Life.  I held a couple of tutorials with real life PGCE students which worked especially well (and could become the basis of a future dissertation), but I also delivered a wholly unsuccessful introductory teaching course for people looking to teach in the real world, but willing to complete their training in a virtual world.  The failure of this course knocked my confidence to the core, and I started to lose faith in my abilities as a teacher trainer and as someone considered to be proficient in learning technology.  At exactly the same time the credit crunch started to take hold.  Funding was slashed from the budgets of further education institutions, and Linden Labs, founders of Second Life, decided to stop offering educators’ discounts for land rental, meaning that the price of renting virtual land doubled overnight.  Had we made any real progress in using a virtual world as an alternative platform for teaching, the college may have found the cash to continue with the project.  However, the project’s overall lack of success meant that we had to abandon the island.  I took this very personally, felt like Second Life was a shining beacon highlighting my complete failure, and vowed never to log into Second Life again.

That is, until a couple of weeks ago.  The team responsible for the PhD in…… asked to meet with me and discuss some of their plans for learning technology within their programme.  We discussed iTunes U, eBooks, vodcasts and podcasts, then I mentioned in passing Second Life.  Not only were they familiar with the virtual world, they already had avatars that they had set up several years previously, but they lay dormant, waiting for something to come along that would allow them to come out of hibernation and use SL as a place for teaching and learning.

Enthusiasm re-ignited with our talk of using SL as a space for tutorials and group discussions, as well as the possibility of using the space as somewhere to carry out medical simulations, I went home feeling hopeful that maybe enough virtual water had gone under the bridge to allow me to go back into Second Life.  As much as anything, I was curious to see what the old place looked like a couple of years after logging out for what I had assumed would be the final time.  I hadn’t followed any news about Linden Labs or Second Life, so to all intents and purposes was a newbie, albeit a newbie with some prior but out of date knowledge.

On logging in, the first thing I noticed was how ropey everything looked.  What, 4 years ago, had looked pretty slick now looked cheap and tacky.  Graphics cards and processors have advanced…but for some reason, Second Life had not and appeared to be stuck in a time warp.  I had heard through the grapevine that there were many advances in scripting and building within the virtual world, and had initially been concerned that my avatar would not have aged well – on logging back in, the first thing I’d assumed I’d have to do was buy a new body, skin and clothing in order to look more ‘up to date’, but there were no other avatars around to compare my prehistoric looks to, so I decided to put plastic surgery on hold and look for those old educational haunts (and virtual bars) I used to frequent.

Typing ‘university’ into the onboard search engine prompted surprise number two – there were not as many educational sims in Second Life as there had been.  To be fair, I had been expecting this:  the effect of Linden’s price hike at a time of global economic uncertainty was bound to result in many establishments jumping ship and moving to cheaper or free virtual worlds such as OpenSim. The real surprise then, when I visited the few familiar places that had survived was that they hadn’t changed. And that they were all empty. Had these universities been in different time zones, I’d understand the silence: while I was wandering around, everyone in the real world would be in bed.  So I tried a few places closer to home.  I teleported to a few ‘local’ universities that I had once had links to.  Like a 2 dimensional Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later, I wandered around empty sims looking at posters advertising workshops that had happened 4 or even 5 years ago.  This confused me.  Why pay huge land rental prices for sims that clearly weren’t being used?  A couple of places were clearly still in use as they had changed appearance and were offering workshops and courses that were current.  Yet even these packets of virtual land were still devoid of any other avatar.

I tried some of the more generic, popular sims.  An Irish bar.  Empty.  A role playing sim for fans of gothic horror.  Empty.  In the past week I have logged into Second Life at least half a dozen times…and so far have seen 5 other avatars, and spoken to absolutely nobody.

So what has happened?  A ‘quick and dirty’ Google search show that after a peak of new signups in 2010, a steady decline has followed, with 2012 having significantly fewer signups than previous years.  The number of regions in Second Life has been steadily decreasing since 2006, and it appears that while there is some stability in Adult regions and even some growth, though PG and Mature regions are decreasing faster than Adult regions are growing. So, more are leaving than coming in. I found the following snippet of information in Natales’ Things and Stuff virtual world blog:

 The best I can say is Second Life is coasting along. Use probably is slowing. There is no doubt that it is down from the earlier 80k peaks. And there is no doubt that we have fewer regions than we once did. Whether those that are left are better quality or not is hard to say.

Furthermore, Second Life commentator Botgirl Questi has this to say:

My guess is that Linden Lab calculated that even if they solved all current issues by investing a million or two on reengineering legacy systems, revenue would still decline over time. OpenSim and other emerging platforms are offering land at a tenth the price of Second Life. As the competition’s communities, economies and capabilities mature, Linden Lab’s customer base will continue to erode. A dramatic cut in land pricing isn’t an answer because that would create a corresponding cut in revenue. There is no sign that the market for sandbox worlds like Second Life will significantly increase in the foreseeable future. So there’s really not a lot of upside for them. It’s no wonder that they made the decision to take advantage of their current cash-rich situation to invest in new products that offer, at least potentially, a much higher return on investment.

It seems then that Second Life is falling out of favour.  As of last year it stopped publishing statistics and its net land size has decreased sizeably. Linden has recently contacted a selection of educators inviting them to return with the old Educators’ discount.  Responses, perhaps understandably, have been negative.  “You let us down before” they say. “What’s to stop you from doing it again?”  Have Linden done this out of desperation, or because they are starting to see that there are uses above and beyond Gorean role-play and virtual nightclubs?

I guess I’ve always believed that where there’s life, there’s hope.  I’m fortunate enough to have some free office space in Second Life (care of the University of Leeds), and my renewed sense of ‘virtual world vigour’ means that I still think there’s a use for virtual worlds in education.  So I, along with my colleagues who want to look into using SL as a space for reflection, discussion and simulation will prepare to take this virtual bull by the horns and see if we can make a difference this time.  Meantime, anyone reading this post who has used or is using Second Life from an educational standpoint, please contact me and let me know your thoughts. Am I on a hiding to nothing (again)?  Is there still some life in Second Life?  Is this a temporary lull or a sign that the virtual world’s days are coming to an end?  And what lessons have you learned in your time in a virtual world?






Educator’s Group in Second Life: Session 5-Stepping Stones (Extract from Robin Heyden’s Blog)

Landing on Cornwall Island

Today was a “tour day” for our intrepid SL Educators group.  We made our way to Cornwall Island to meet up with Bex Ferriday (aka Bex Mavendorf / Hebask Falconer)  and Julia Dando (aka Julala Rexie), both from Cornwall College in England.  Bex is a lead practitioner and subject learning coach working in the School of Education and Training.  Julia is the eLearning Development Manager for the college.

Together, they’ve built most everything you see on Cornwall Island – a lovely replica of a Cornish village, a beautiful beach (complete with hangliders and jet skis), a pier, teaching areas, a farm, a woodland walk, a public sandbox, a Cornish tinmine, a shopping area, and  – of course – a pub.  It’s clear that these two make a formidable team.  They support each other well – while one is leading a class, the other is working in the background to solve technical problems, take snapshots, or record the proceedings. And they clearly collaborate on everything.  I was also struck by their humor and easy-going manner.  You can tell that nothing ruffles these two!

Bex is currently leading and teaching an online course referred to as the “PTLLS” course (which stands for Preparing to Teach in the Life-Long Sector).  This is an 11-week teacher training course designed for people who want to teach in higher education. It is accredited by the UK accreditation board and the graduates earn a provisional license to teach.  In the past, Bex ran this course partly online (using Moodle) and the rest with real life meetings.  Now she’s teaching what was the “real life” portion in the virtual world of Second Life.  In addition to SL and Moodle, Bex uses Flickr, Skype, a wiki, a Posterous blog, and a Twitter group as additional tools for her students.  They use the wiki for lesson plan writing – each student in the course has their own personal wiki page.

The SL class sessions are used for group discussion (for instance talking about examples of good and bad teaching) and teaching practice.  All notes from these discussion go up on their Moodle forum and they sometimes film the session (using QT). Althought its still early days, Bex and Julia are finding that the teaching in SL works just as well as the teaching in real life (with perhaps, a bit more sizzle).

The pub.

After Bex and Julia gave us a tour of their beautiful island, we settled into the pub for a chat.  Our SL Educators had lots of questions for them.  For instance, how many students do they have in their course now? (12)  Where are they based (Italy, Spain, and Portugal mostly, a few from the UK).  Who are they primarily?  (late 30’s mostly, slightly more women than men).  How did they manage assessment in the course?  Bex described two graded assignments that she gives.  The first is to write a 200-300 word theoretical essay. It could be a look at relevant legislation, group management, roles and responsibilities of the teacher, or the boundaries of teaching.  She sets that up on Moodle as an electronic assignment – the students submit online and she provides feedback to them online. The second assignment is a practical one. The students each deliver a 30-minute lesson (referred to as a “microteach”) on any subject.  They give the microteach to their peers and receive feedback.  In the past, this was done in person, in a classroom.  Now, they all do the microteach in Second Life.  Students can choose to incorporate any element of SL into their teaching practical – for instance, their microteach might involve taking the “students” to another location for a relevant experience.  Bex will be filming these so that the students can watch and listen to themselves later.

A particular challenge with this course is that the students come from many different disciplines.  So, in a way, explained Bex, having the huge resources of Second Life is an added advantage.  Whether they plan to teach science, literature, psychology, or business, there are relevant builds for them to investigate and use.  Bex tries to instill in her students the idea of identifying likely resources and using them well – whether online, in a library, in the community…. or in the virtual world.

Groupshot, taken on the student area skybox on Cornwall Island

Julala and I gave an informal overview of the PTLLS course and a tour of Cornwall College Island to a great group of Educators from America (and Cardiff!) this week. Had a really good time chatting to them all and answering their questions about how we use the island to teach and assess, and it’s great to read such positive feedback from Robin via her blog post. Woohoo!!!

Teaching on Cornwall College Island (in Second Life)

It took eleven months of building, tweaking, re-building and planning, months of weekly meetings, discussions, trips to other sims, even other virtual worlds and then more building, more tweaking, more re-building until, on the 1st of February, Cornwall College’s island on the Second Life grid finally sprung into action.In the afternoon a dozen arts and media students started work on individual building and sculpting projects. Their tutor, as well as providing tuition and guidance, is also midway through his own build – a beautiful art deco-esque art gallery (in which I guess he will display the students’ work) which currently sits at the bottom of a lake (whether it will stay there or not remains to be seen!)

The City & Guilds Level 3 Award in Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector is an accredited Initial Teacher Training qualification available to anyone who wishes to teach in Post Compulsory Education. Cornwall College has been running the course successfully for a number of years, and 3 years ago developed a “fast track” version, predominantly for anyone already teaching without a formal qualification, with the bulk of the course delivered online and only four of the 12 sessions it consists of delivered in a traditional classroom setting. Having written developed, delivered and assessed this online version, one thing I am certainly proud of in my career is the success to date of this “blended learning” model, so it seemed a logical step to offer the course internationally, with classroom-based sessions delivered in Second Life and a range of web 2.0 applications such as flickr, Twitter, moodle, PBwiki, Skype and Posterous forming a rich and diverse setting for asynchronous tasks and reflective content.So, on the evening of the 1st February, a group of avatars from around Europe gathered on Cornwall College Island to start what I think (and hope!) is the world’s first Initial Teacher Training course to be delivered using Second Life as the only form of class and group-based delivery.

I have only taught in Second Life on two previous occasions – both sessions as part of my studies on the “muvenation” course of 2009 – a course that trained educators to teach specifically in Multi User Virtual Environments such as Second Life. Both sessions looked at how to build a simple object and took little under an hour each to deliver (though they took days to plan), and both sessions were carried out almost a year ago. As a result, I grew increasingly nervous in the days before the lesson was due to start, and I arrived at the island an hour early – just in case there were any last minute bits that needed to be worked on, or any technical issues with audio, graphics, lag or logging in. I was really grateful that one of my bestest buddies, the island’s co-builder and an elearning developer of some repute (henceforth known as “Julala”) had also arrived early to offer her assistance and talk me through any nerves I had.As it transpired, I needn’t have been nervous. The group (who also arrived early!) were a really great bunch of enthusiastic people, all genuinely happy and excited to be a part of this new venture, and all gave 100% to the activities that made up the session. I really enjoyed the lesson and was buzzing but incredibly tired by the end.

Managing the session involved juggling live speech with several text-based chat windows, furiously scribbling notes on bits of paper as we went along, making sure everyone was happy and able to take part in the sessions and that everyone was getting a chance to participate actively, dropping landmarks and notecards on avatars’ heads, writing and sending group notices and trying to stick to my lesson plan and timings of each activity. I was told by one of my unofficial observers afterwards that teaching in Second Life is more tiring than real world practice, and that it was common to feel so completely wiped out afterwards. This is something I will have to bear in mind for next time!Yesterday I got some feedback from one of my students via Skype. She told me that she had really enjoyed the session and was excited by the course and what is to follow. She also said that she would like to meet with the group more often than the schedule currently allows. Julala had mentioned this only a few hours earlier – that she had felt that the group had bonded really well, and that it would be an idea to maybe add more group activities in the schedule that could be carried out on a voluntary basis inworld. To this end I am planning on holding regular, low key discussions looking at some of the key concepts the course covers.

So, one session in and already I am learning that there are certain elements that need to be put in place to ensure sessions run smoothly:* Encourage students to turn up half an hour before the lesson starts so that any technical issues can be addressed before kick-off
* Have a colleague on standby as technical support. There were a couple of minor issues with microphones that were addressed quickly and smoothly because avatars with issues simply IMd Julala if they had issues, rather than interrupting the flow of the session by contacting me. As well as providing this support, she also kept an eye on any other visitors to the island – because though anyone is welcome to visit and even observe our sessions, I really would not want any X Rated behaviour or “griefing” to happen whilst teaching!
* If possible, film the session and watch retrospectively to see what worked well and what didn’t.
* I was also lucky enough to have another friend who has far more experience teaching in Second Life who sat in on the session so she could give me feedback afterwards. If this can be arranged, do – it’s really useful!

I am not a number! I am a free sample!!!!

I’m really fond of those British 60s shows like Randall and Hopkirk Deceased and The Avengers, though my favourite show of that time and ilk has to be The Prisoner.  I first watched it nearly 20 years ago when it was repeated on Channel 4, and its sinister tone and underlying symbolism (are we all prisoners of our own design? Is the pennyfarthing really a useful form of transport?) blew my mind.  I was especially struck by “The Village” – the iconic setting for the show and, as a result, one of the best examples of man being held hostage in a gilded cage I’d ever seen. I always vowed to go to Portmeirion (the show’s North Wales setting) and last week I finally had the chance to visit.  The fact that it was so quiet (only a handful of visitors were roaming the silent streets) really did make it feel vaguely sinister, but also meant that the shops were closed.  Bit of a shame, as all I managed to come away with was a bowl of mushroom soup and a fridge magnet. Pah!

Moving on…tomorrow I start teaching the City & Guilds Level 3 Award in Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector.  I’ve taught this in the classroom and on moodle for several years now, so this in itself is nothing new…but tomorrow I will start teaching it in Second Life.  I’m still not sure whether real life teaching skills can be delivered in a virtual world then transferred sucessfully back into the real world classroom – I was positive they could until yesterday when an educationalist avatar in SL said he didn’t think it could be done, as ITT needed to be delivered in a face to face setting (though my moodle -heavy versions of the course only have 4 classroom – based sessions, and have all been successful).  So now, at the eleventh hour, I am sure I am going to fall on my face rather than my feet. Gulp…