Under development: VWVLE

The VWVLE project, or Supporting Education in Virtual Worlds with Virtual Learning Environments to give it its full name, has been funded as part of the JISC Learning and Teaching Innovation Grants round 5 to examine the wide range of emerging pedagogical opportunities offered through the integration of virtual worlds and web-based virtual learning environments.

Led by the University of the West of Scotland, with partners including Imperial College London, The Open University and the University of Ulster, the project builds on the considerable experience and expertise the project team have developed through their work on SLOODLE and the use of games for learning within virtual environments.  SLOODLE (Simulation Linked Object Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment) provides seamless integration between the virtual world Second Life and Moodle, the popular open source VLE.  Pilot courses will see students in engineering, computing and medicine explore aspects of the core question of how web-based virtual learning environments can effectively support learning and teaching in virtual worlds, particularly focusing on personalisation and reuse of content, and gaming in VWs, and demonstrating the applicability of such technologies across different institutional and disciplinary contexts.

A number of outputs will be produced, including guidance for practitioners, a range of extensions or plug-ins for Moodle/SLOODLE, and a guide to producing reusable content in virtual worlds which will attempt to address some of the issues that present a significant barrier to the easy and effective exchange of such resources.  The emphasis on the integration of VWs and games with educational systems such as VLEs will both highlight the pedagogic benefits of such integration and attempt to clarify and address the challenges of doing so.  By making explicit the range of technologies and support resources relied upon by educators working with VWs, and identifying and sharing good practice, the project can make a real impact on practice in this area and future activities.

ReLIVE11 call for abstracts open

The dates and call for abstracts for Researching Learning in Immersive Virtual Environments 2011: Creative Solutions for New Futures (ReLIVE11) have now been released. Running at the Open University in Milton Keynes on 21 and 22 September, the conference will explore issues around innovation in teaching and learning through immersive virtual worlds, building on the outcomes of and lessons learned since the previous ReLIVE conference in 2008.

The call for abstracts is now open, with submissions due to be submitted by 21 May 2011. Proposals will be considered within three core themes:

  • Concepts: conceptual and explanatory frameworks for research processes and outcomes;
  • Methods: opportunities and challenges around researching learning in immersive environments;
  • Implementations: the technical aspects and challenges in the implementation of VWs in learning, teaching and research.

The Implementations theme is being run in conjunction with us here at JISC CETIS, with Paul Hollins and myself leading our input to it. We’d love to see papers or workshops addressing issues such as the challenges of the integration of VEs with other institutional systems, the interoperability of content and avatars across different VWs, open v proprietary platforms and content, and the use of technical standards within VWs. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and any relevant proposals are welcome!

Registration for the conference opens on 21 June and it’s likely to be a popular and well-attended event. An inworld Virtual Festival on 20 September will similarly feature a range of workshops, symposia, poster sessions and other events. ReLIVE11 is also linked to the Virtual World Conference taking place in Second Life on 14 September.

Assessment of games based learning

It was well worth the early start today to attend a fascinating webinar presented by Nicola Whitton of MMU on ‘assessment of game based learning’.  Part of the successful series of webinars hosted by the Transforming Assessment project funded by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council and based at the University of Adelaide, this was the second of two events focusing particularly on games in education.

While the previous seminar looked less at assessment and more generally at games and pseudo-games such as Second Life, Nicola’s talk drew a sharp distinction between play, play worlds and simulations.  Games don’t need to have awesome graphics or vast budgets to succeed: great learning designs may be gamelike without the author ever consciously intending to design a game.  Games might ‘mashup the real world and the game world’ in imaginative and creative ways, but

lecture theatres aren’t particularly effective in real life, so reproducing them in a world where you can fly just seems really strange

I feel as though I’m SL-bashing again, but I found it really refreshing to have someone state so clearly that no, just because something’s virtual doesn’t make it a game, its the nature of the interaction between learner and content that does.  It doesn’t make it a more or less legitimate learning tool either, but the distinction is important as they both have valuable but different things to offer, and represent very different learning models.

Nicola distinguished between the use of games as an assessment tool and the assessment of games based learning, an important distinction that often seems to be overlooked.

Assessment within games offers some valuable elements: it can be automated, repeatable, potentially integrated in the learning process, impartial.  External assessment, defined here as any non-game assessment activity, by contrast, is capable of greater creativity, more tutor control, but is also more time-intensive and can be unconsciously partial.  Higher levels of learning such as analysis and critical thinking are far more difficult to assess by any automated method, including games, as they attempt to use quantitative methods to assess qualitative outcomes.

Games often have a binary, win or lose outcome that doesn’t accurately reflect the subtleties of degrees of competence or ability, and which can be counterproductive to learning through play when used as assessment.  By using external assessment processes and disassociating game performance from course grade, games can provide a safe learning environment in which failure in the immediate game context can actually be invaluable for further learning and growth.

As with any other form of assessment, including pen and paper tests, expertise in the assessment format – in this case, gaming literacy – can significantly alter the outcome of the assessment.  As always, assessment must genuinely assess the intended learning outcomes and not, for example, the ability to navigate effortlessly through the game world (a major issue even for experienced gamers when it comes to Second Life) or familiarity with general gaming conventions.  This suggests that assessing game based learning within the game environment would be a preferred approach, but while teachers may find it relatively easy to integrate innovative approaches within their teaching practice, applying this to assessment, particularly higher-stakes assessment, can provoke hostility from higher authorities.  Nicola did, however, reference the SQA’s GamesSpace initiative, presented at a CETIS special event earlier this year, as an example of a national assessment authority embracing such technologies for a major qualification strand.  GamesSpace is particularly worth noting as it allows the assessment of process and not simply product and incorporates human rather than automated marking: the candidate uses an avatar to progress through a series of role-related tasks, priorities and activities which are recorded in a format identical to the pen and paper alternative for manual human marking.

Learners too may demonstrate some hostility towards games as teaching aids – but this resistance is something that has been observed in relation to other innovative approaches too. Anything that appears to trivialise learning or that can be interpreted as trying to make learners ‘not feel they’re learning‘ can provoke scepticism and resistance in learners.  It can be hard to get away from the priviliging of traditional models of teaching and learning, from the scholars seated at the feet of the master, from the three essays in three hours make-or-break finals paper.  When learners can see the value in using such approaches, they are generally very willing to engage with them – learners are in general pragmatic, strategic and outcomes-orientated, whether their teachers like it or not.  Interestingly, Nicola’s research has demonstrated that a ‘propensity to play games for fun is in no way related to an inclination to play games for learning.’  She also cast some healthy scepticism on the oft-quoted finding that women play puzzles while men play shooters, pointing out that these findings come from surveys completed by self-selecting groups and can’t be taken as gospel; as a women who’d far rather shoot pigs than click cows I find it good to have my preferences acknowledged :)

The two sessions offered very different views of a sometimes controvertial field, and regardless of personal opinion these varied perspectives were invaluable.  This excellent series of seminars will be continuing for the rest of this year and into 2011 and is well worth engaging with, as is the rest of the project’s extensive and highly informative site.

X3D working group goes open

X3D logo

The Web3D Consortium has just announced that its standardisation activities will now be open to the public, enabling non-members to participate in development of the specification at all stages rather than just during the public review prior to final approval.   There is still the opportunity for private discussion limited to consortium members for those concerned about commercial or other factors, but the overall emphasis is clearly on making this as open as possible.

X3D is an open ISO standard for representing information about computer generated 3D environments and objects.  Unlike its predecessor, Virtual Reality Modelling (or Markup) Language (VRML), X3D features integration with HTML, and extends the range of effects supported.  X3D is supported by some high profile systems such as the Blender design tool and Sun’s Project Wonderland.

At a time when closed, proprietary players such as Linden Labs are seeing large numbers of layoffs, with inevitable concern from Second Life’s active education community about the potential loss of a huge amount of work and resources should this trend continue, adopting an open approach to development seems a very sensible decision.

Whatever happened to the future?

I enjoyed this presentation by Francesco Dorazio of Makers of Universes.  Originally delievered at MetaMeets 09 in Amsterdam, Everything You Know About Virtual Worlds Is WRONG looks at some of the predictions made about virtual worlds and how they’ve actually transpired in reality.

Dorazio also talks about virtual world interoperability (38-9) and introduces the concept of outeroperability (52-3): a gateway service or ‘hub’ that enables visibility of avatars across worlds without supporting portability between worlds which seems to be a version of existing or forthcoming services such as Xfire or RealID (and surely the latter is sinister enough to be going on with).

Thanks to Don Brutzman on the X3D-Public list for highlighting this.

Transforming Assessment webinar series 2010

The Transforming Assessment project funded by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council and led by Professor Geoffrey Crisp of the University of Adelaide is examining the use of eassessment in online learning, particularly in the context of Web 2.0 and virtual world technologies.

A series of free public webinars has just been announced, starting with a session led by Geoffrey on Wednesday 12 May at 08:00h London time. Sessions will be held in Wimba and run approximately monthly. A number of speakers have already been confirmed, but the team are still interested in hearing from potential presenters.

More information on the seminar series can be found at http://transformingassessment.com/

JISC resources on MUVEs and gaming in education

JISC have released several new publications recently looking at ways in which multi-user virtual environments and alternative reality games can be used in education.

Alternate reality games for orientation, socialisation and induction by Nicola Whitton of Manchester Metropolitan University reports on the experiences of the ARGOSI project, with which our own Scott Wilson was involved.  The project aimed to support student induction in university and acquisition of required library and information skills using a range of resources such as character blogs and supporting websites.  Student participation in the activity was disappointing, although consistent with participation in such games in general, and the report is possibly most useful for its analysis of where things did not go right – for example, the this is not a game aesthetic  that is fundamental to ARG design may actually be rather inappropriate in a resource designed for students who are already in an unfamiliar and potentially challenging environment.  The lessons learned from this project, and the extensive resources produced by it, make this a very useful study.

Second Life is the undisputed MUVE leader in terms of uptake both within and beyond HE,  and three JISC publications look at how newcomers and the more experienced can develop their practice within the system.  Getting started with Second Life offers exactly what you’d expect, a guide to everything new users need to know from how to register and log in for the first time to some guidance on teaching and course design, some advice on how to address institutional concerns, and a few useful pointers to further reading.  One significant omission is the lack of a list of relevant educational sims (impermanent though they may be) and support systems such as the SLED and Virtual Worlds mailing lists – as the guide itself observes, loneliness and the inability to find interesting locations are two of the biggest factors underlying SL’s massive new user attrition rate.

Modelling of Second Life environments reports on the MOOSE project based at the University of Leicester, which looks more deeply at design and delivery issues around learning in MUVEs and identity and socialisation issues arising from the use of avatars in virtual worlds.

Finally, Open habitat: multi-user virtual environments for teaching and learning points to the Open Habitat magazine, an attractive report on how MUVEs were used with students of art and design and philosophy to understand the nature of virtual group interaction and community building.

All these reports provide valuable information and insights into using MUVEs and aspects of gaming in education, and help to demonstrate the increasing significance of both in current educational practice.

VIEWS of the future

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 :)

A rose by any other name…

New year, same old stories, as Tuesday’s Guardian recycled last year’s claims by Deborah Taylor Tate of the US’s Federal Communications Commission that games like World of Warcraft are so addictive that college students are dropping out of their courses to devote themselves to them.  There’s a rather more balanced response today from Aleks Krotoski pointing to the likelihood that an innate predisposition towards excessive behaviour coupled with poor parenting or poor self-control result in behaviour which appears addictive.

Students have always dropped out, so perhaps we should have learned by now to look for the underlying causes rather than how they manifest.  When I was teaching, the most common causes of students dropping out were financial, such as being obliged to take on increasing amounts of part-time work in order to be able to afford to attend university – a nightmarish, catch-22 situation that government policy actively encourages.  Illness, either their own or a family member’s, or simply being completely unsuited to their course and having very little interest in the subject matter or faith in the mythical graduate employment market were also recurring factors.  Too many students are pushed into higher education straight from school by parents and other social factors, rather than waiting until they as individuals are in the best place to benefit most from higher education, while others are pushed (or push themselves) into academic rather than vocational courses because academic snobbery is allowed to take precedence over common sense.

This same snobbery appears to dictate what forms of excessive behaviour are and are not considered problematic: avid reading and extensive involvement in athletics, for example, are approved and indulged, while avid television viewing and extensive involvement in gaming are frowned on.  Ultimately, however, the book worm and the couch potato are the same creature, displaying the same basic behaviour in different forms.  Surely it’s time to stop blaming the way in which an individual’s unhappiness, discontent or psychological makeup manifest, and to try to address the actual causes of those truly undesirable feelings and problems.

A few more places available for our MUVEs event

Due to the level of interest in our forthcoming joint event with Eduserv, Maximising the effectiveness of virtual worlds in teaching and learning, we’ve managed to make a few more places available.  If you’d like to attend, please make sure you register as soon as possible to secure your place!

Update: This is event is now fully booked.  We’ll be maintaining a reserve list in case any places become available; if you’d like to be added to this list please contact Sheila via the event link above.  If you’ve registered and now find that you’re unable to attend, please let us know so that we can make your place available to someone else.  Thanks!