Yesterday I attended the first VIrtual Education Worlds Scotland (VIEWS) Forum meeting, hosted by the JISC Regional Support Centre Scotland South and East and facilitated by the irrepressible Kenji Lamb from the JISC RSC Scotland N&E. There were about fifteen of us in total, from a wide range of institutions and organisations, with developers, educators, support services and the simply curious all represented.
I really enjoyed this event, and particularly welcomed the conscious decision of the organisers to focus on virtual worlds other than just Second Life, with demonstrations of Open Sim and Metaplace featuring on the agenda. The discussion sessions covered a range of issues facing educators and developers trying to work with virtual worlds, with a few topics in particular seeming to stand out:
- Lack of support from institutional IT departments for VW-related activities, even to the point of refusing to unblock the ports necessary to actually run them. Here at Strathclyde, for example, we’re in the fortunate position that Second Life runs fine on the wired network, but (as we found at January’s joint event with Eduserv) the ports necessary for voice to run are still blocked. Some institutions apparently blame JISC/Janet policies for this, but the inconsistent application of these supposed policies suggests that there might be other reasons for this…
- Monitoring and evaluation of in-world activities particuarly for the purpose of summative assessment, and tie-in to other systems such as BlackBoard and Moodle to support this and other educational and administrative functions.
- The relatively steep learning curve of SL in particular, especially when contrasted with the high level of useability of alternatives such as Metaplace and commerical games.
- Age-related issues. SL is currently restricted to over-18s only, as is Metaplace, at least during its beta phase. This is a problem nationally for FE, and a significant issue for Scottish HE given the number of students entering university after their Highers at age 17 rather than at 18 after Sixth Year as is more common elsewhere. Open Sim is an obvious solution for this, but the relative obscurity of it and other VWs compared with SL mean that it’s often not an obvious answer for people who are just begining their exploration of how VWs can be used in education. There’s a lot of talk at the moment about Linden Labs merging the adult and teen SL grids which may eventually overcome this, but in the short term it can place apparently insurmountable barriers to adoption.
- Even the basic processes of registering and selecting an avatar can be problematic. Registration for multiple SL accounts from a single location requires advance ‘whitelisting’ of the IP range with Linden Labs, updated every six months, to prevent blocking after just a handful of accounts have been created. Students can be asked to create their account from home in advance of the session, but this has its own problems: students may not have access to a computer capable of running SL, may not get around to doing so, and may require the support of an experienced user that can be provided in a lab session but not at home (no matter how good the documentation prepared for the class may be). Third-party registration sites can allow mass registrations, but pre-made accounts don’t allow students to select their own avatars which may reduce engagement and identification and therefore the effectiveness of using VWs in the first place.
All present agreed that the RSCs should lead support of the VIEWS Forum, at least in these early stages. Plans for the future of the Forum include events showcasing other alternatives to SL, a shared space for discussion and knowledge exchange, and the development of a training package for staff and students including items such as a getting started guide, etc.
So what can CETIS do to support this work? Should it, even? To me there’s no doubt that this is an area with which we need to engage, but I’m not sure what exactly we can do to meet the needs of our communities while allowing this new and exciting field to develop and mature. So please, let us know! Either here, on Twitter, or by getting in touch offline, I’m really keen to know what we can do to help