Leicester takes radical look at educational value of virtual 3D learning

Researchers want to take a radical look at how learning and teaching in 3D worlds can be best achieved. The Virtual Island will be launched by the University of Leicester on 18 December.

Leicester, one of Britain’s biggest postgraduate distance-learning providers, plans to start with a ‘blank canvas’ upon which a picture can be painted on what works- and what doesn’t – in cyber learning. This could provide a template for educational establishments across the UK and beyond.

The Leicester research project is using the Second Life Virtual World and will examine

What can universities achieve to enhance learning in Second Life that they cannot do on Real Life campuses?

How do learners benefit?

What do educational resources look and feel like in Second Life?

Which disciplines and topics benefit the most?

How do avatars learn?

How do avatars teach?

Could the establishment of Virtual Worlds just be a phase or a gimmick?

Is it divisive to have virtual worlds for educational purposes?

The Beyond Distance Research Alliance team at the University of Leicester say the explosion of interest in Virtual World learning is akin to the impact of the Internet some 15 years ago – and it is therefore critical for institutions to create platforms that are fit for educational purposes, rather than simply placing ‘content’ on for its own sake.

Professor of eLearning and Learning Technologies at the University of Leicester, Gilly Salmon, says:

“We have created an Island in Second Life for communities of learners, teachers, technologists and creative practitioners to explore the educational benefits of 3D worlds. At a time when the ‘buzzword’ is student experience…we must push out the boundaries.

For the first time in the history of higher education, the digital world has offered us a low cost 3D environment for exploration and construction. No-one yet knows whether it’s ‘worth it’ and the nature of the value it will add to learning. But it’s up to us- the educators of the 21st Century- to find out.

“Our Second Life Island is a pleasant and creative environment set up for the groups of learners, researchers and teachers to collaborate and explore. We plan to build on the very best of what we already know about using online environments for teaching and learning and find out the benefits of the new characteristics and opportunities.”

The Leicester Island, created in collaboration with TwoFour Learning, a media and learning company based in Plymouth, is unlike any other in the virtual world. Professor Salmon says:

“The Media Zoo is not a direct replication of physical environments found in real life -instead Leicester took the opportunity to develop something a little more radical.

Leicester’s Island has gone beyond general information and documents. Many Second Life Islands are currently going through the same processes and periods the Internet did with content being uploaded for the sake of content, the Leicester Island to drawing in the latest technologies available in Second Life to add value to the visitors (e.g. RSS Feeds and a Virtual Reality Theatre)

Thinking beyond the psychological and communicative benefits of Island provision, we have to think about we can do in Second Life which we cannot easily do in real life; in which case simulations of events, actions and practices could prove to be the most educational benefit.

We plan that all disciplines will see a benefit, but from initial interest and ideas Second Life will certainly have a large impact on the sciences and all on disciplines with collaborative elements in their teaching. With a huge potential for simulation and experimentation taking student part into scenarios where they previously learnt from conceptual ideas.

For learning communities the environment presents new opportunities, for example in the case of distance learners, Second Life gives them an environment in which they can meet and discuss synchronously whilst giving an identity to the cohort through their avatars.

Our research project is trying to identify preferred and viable futures for formal education and how 3D virtual worlds could enhance the learner experience. The Island allows us to immerse ourselves in a potential environment that could form all or part of that future. The pedagogies and models developed through the research project will be transferable to future 3D environments.”

Richard Wallis, Head of TwoFour Learning, adds: “Second Life presents us with an amazing opportunity to think in entirely new ways about teaching and learning. Whether it's extending the classroom experience, learning through simulation, or exploring new forms of collaborative working, the possibilities are endless, and present major challenges to educators.”

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