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Virtual World Helps University Students

January 14, 2009

Art and media students doing fieldwork in Second Life (SL) and educators wanting to explore creative approaches in the virtual environment are to get a boost from research at the University of Leicester in collaboration with London South Bank University.

Researchers have been exploring the potential of 3-D Multi-User Virtual Environments (3-DMUVEs) in teaching university courses in Digital Photography. This collaboration is part of JISC funded MOOSE (MOdelling Of SecondLife Environments) project.

At Leicester, Beyond Distance Research Alliance, a research centre in e-learning with an international reputation, is examining how groups of students can socialize and engage in virtual environments for more productive information and knowledge exchange and learning.

The results of the study at London South Bank revealed previously unknown perceptions of students’ identity through avatars and how this presence had an impact on group discussion and negotiation.

Matthew Wheeler, from the University of Leicester, said: “Some of the Digital Photography students perceived missing body language and personal cues when communicating with each other through avatars. However, this perception had little impact on their awareness of personal identities because they know each other in real life. They were able to tell who the person was behind the avatar quickly from the appearance of the avatar and how the avatar interacted through group discussion. Deep inside, they were talking to the real people even though they presented themselves through avatars.

“Their group discussion and negotiation worked fast and efficiently due to the fact that they were familiar with each other’s characters and communication styles. They were able to communicate exactly the same way as if they were on Facebook. They were able to have fun and humor and make jokes to each other in a very comfortable way. The results also show the potential of SL for researching into subcultures and promoting students to consider broader ethical issues when conducting photo-based field work in SL.”

Matthew added that for a Digital Photography degree, SL presents a unique environment for teaching and learning: “It is one of the most photographed 3-DMUVE’s, with snapshots (digital images) of its residents (avatars) and locations circulating abundantly online and in the media. Crucially, and in addition to offering its own photographic tools, it is a rich social space with many possibilities for art-based, photographic research.

“However, in spite of the large community of educators now working in SL and the increasing number of Universities extending their presences in SL, pedagogical frameworks to enable art and media students to do their fieldwork in SL are still relatively rare and educators wanting to explore creative approaches may find themselves in a situation similar to other “Ëœnewbies’: with a dressed up avatar”¦but nowhere to go!

The Leicester research project with South Bank will provide:

  • A framework to encourage students’ engagement and socialization in a 3D virtual environment designed for learning.
  • Highlighting positive and negative aspects of student learning and special aspects of ‘presence’ in SL.
  • Guidelines for developing students’ transferable skills through SL including team-working, communication, decision-making, negotiation and collaboration in virtual spaces.
  • A demonstrator to show how learning spaces can be designed in SL for promoting and enabling team activities and group projects.
  • A framework for SL-moderating skills designed for teaching on SL and an exemplar training course.
  • Guidelines for embedding 3DMUVEs in institutional systems and policies.

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