The following is not a report on the whole project – it involves our teaching in Second Life in 2008. The paper we wrote for the ReLive conference (which is also online here at the blog) covers more of the project overall. Thanks to our students for taking part, to Caroline Pelletier and our guest presenters Britta Pollmuller and Marion Walton, and our hosts in Second Life. The reference for this report is:

Carr, D. (2008) ‘Learning to Teach in Second Life’, report for Learning from Online Worlds; Teaching in Second Life. Institute of Education/Eduserv Foundation, April 2008.

Learning to Teach in Second Life

What follows is a summary of the things that we found out by teaching 4 sessions in Second Life between November 2007 and March 2008, as part of the ‘Learning from Social Worlds; Teaching in Second Life’ project (supported by the Eduserv Foundation, June 2007 to May 2008.). The various pieces of research that we undertook alongside our teaching (examining communities of practice, ‘gate-keeping’, the Second Life ‘pain barrier’, etc.) are not covered in this report. Please note that there are lengthy reflections on our teaching in SL at the project blog, as well as links on a page of SL Resources to information from many other educators working in Second Life.

We found that: Second Life can be useful, that Second Life can be ambiguous, and that participants may have very different perspectives on a session. These issues are discussed in the report that follows.

During this study we chat-logged our sessions in Second Life (i.e. recorded the live text-chat that participants typed) conducted post-session interviews the course tutor on one of the modules, and follow-up interviews with students. We also had access to the students’ reports and comments on Blackboard, the conventional VLE used for one of the courses. Our conclusions are based on this material, in addition to our experiences in Second Life.

The students were informed of our research at the start of their module. The sessions in SL were elective. Students who did not wish to be involved with this research could opt out and instead follow the sessions as chat-logs. These were made available to students after sessions. To plan these sessions the project team (Diane Carr, Martin Oliver and Andrew Burn) worked closely with the course tutor for one of the modules, our colleague Caroline Pelletier. For more details on our preparations and data collection, see appendix 5. Appendixes 1 to 4 contain interview excerpts.

Second Life can be useful
We were a bit surprised. We expected that Second Life (or platforms like it) might be useful to students working on collaborative building, scripting or creative arts projects. Our recent experiences suggest that educators working within curricula where such options seem irrelevant might also find Second Life useful.

Our experience suggests that educators can use SL in combination with a conventional VLE to enhance the experiences of distance learners, and benefits can be achieved with relatively little technical expertise. We found that the SL sessions contributed to the social aspects of the distance course, supporting student confidence and engagement (and thus possibly retention) in the process. Students commented, for example, that the SL sessions were

interesting in that I felt as though I was actually meeting the rest of the class for the very first time (from Af’s report).

Other students wrote that:

I could feel the ‘real class’ when I saw bunch of you gathering at the outside of the ground floor. I felt that finally I would meet all my classmates (even though it was not real). Can you imagine in real life when you meet your classmates for the first time and you will automatically introduce and ask around about people? It was fun (Ae’s report)

In all honesty, I felt I learnt more from the single ‘lecture’ in Second Life than I have done through the weekly discussions on Blackboard. That’s not to say Blackboard is of little use or Second Life is a revelation in terms of teaching and learning: the fact it was face-to-face and as close to a real lecture as we have had on this module made a great deal of difference. (G’s report)

The impact of the sessions went beyond the ‘learning’ that took place in terms of content delivered, to alter social dynamics and participation in the course more generally. By supporting informal, social peer-to-peer contact, these sessions enhanced the students’ experience of the course as a whole. The class discussions that took place on the conventional VLE (Blackboard) after the taught sessions in SL support this, as do our interviews with students, and interviews with the course tutor.

As the interview excerpts included in the appendix indicate, the class tutor and students made similar points when they compared SL and Blackboard. Second Life sessions were regarded as anarchic, chaotic, ‘live’, motivating, compelling and nerve wracking. Blackboard, by contrast, was appreciated for the structure it offered. Those making this comparison did not necessarily value one platform over the other. Instead, they emphasized that the two platforms’ strengths and weakness were complementary.

From a post-session interview with a student:

[In Second Life] There is the need to keep up and be seen to be active – little time to think. So I thought the second session was great with the small groups. In comparison to Blackboard, there is that ‘live’ element – instant reactions in SL, compared to a much more structured process of voicing thoughts on Blackboard. Usually when making a posting on Blackboard, I do put a lot of thought into it – I often type them up in Word first, read them, correct mistakes, and then post onto Blackboard. […] Some people, they prefer structure, they prefer things to be organised, in place and structured. It allows for a high attention to detail – and I am that type of person. Blackboard gives me time to think. (Student interview, AM. For a longer excerpt see appendix 2).

And from the class tutor:

But what is missing from blackboard, I think, is the sense of a class as a social entity. The academic [side of it is] really well covered – students read academic journals, and are given tasks that are potentially more intellectually sophisticated than what they might be asked to do in class. In Blackboard I mean
Carr: right…So ‘content’ works well in Bbd…
CP: But the sense of a group going through this together isn’t really there, apart from a few highly enthusiastic students. And my guess is, that must remove some of the pleasure of studying, but also the richness of the experience, of discussion between students
Carr: and that’s partly why they were so ‘buzzed’ about SL?
CP: Yes, they didn’t want to leave the place.
(For a longer excerpt of this interview, see appendix 1).

Not everyone was impressed. Two full-time students who took part in the earlier sessions, who regularly saw their peers and had face-to-face contact with their tutors, tended to compare SL to the classroom, rather than to a conventional VLE. While they did express interest in various creative aspects of SL, in general they concluded that SL does not live up to the hype.

The distance learners were generally very positive. Repeatedly it was the live and social aspects that struck students:

When I got there were a few people already there so I spent a bit of time talking to them. It was good to bump into other people who were in the same boat as me. […] It was good to see avatars helping each other to learn new tricks by giving each other instructions using the chat facility and also showing each other how to actually do something. (Student report, I.)

And from the students ‘module debrief’ comments:

Second Life is great and I’d love to do more in it. I’d never have tried it but for this module. (A’s module debrief)

The most interesting [part of this course] but in the same time the most difficult tasks were about Second Life (weeks 6-7) and the debate (weeks 7-9). In Second Life I had to familiarize myself with a totally new “world” and take part in an unusual discussion. The first time it was very difficult but the second time was easier and funny because we all knew the rules and how to behave. [Things like Second Life were] so interesting because they offered me the opportunity to “meet” the other members of the module and have a closer talk to the teachers. (E’s module debrief)

I found the practical tasks very interesting…especially the SL meetings. (M’s module debrief)

The distance learners also identified drawbacks and limitations (most of our students are teachers). They wondered about the technical restrictions, the difficulties of following typed text, and issues of structure and control.

The Second Life was a good experience but at times I found it to be very confusing when everyone started to say things at the same time. It was also difficult to know who you are talking to as many people gave their avatar a different name to their own. (If’s module debrief)

There was no evidence that students with a gaming background appreciated the SL outings more than their peers. On the contrary, those who made reference to their gaming experiences when first introduced to Second Life were generally scathing. This suggests that it should not be assumed that ‘students like games so they will like Second Life’ – initially, at least.

I initially did not like Second Life because I was familiar with World of Warcraft. WoW felt smooth, [but] Second Life did not feel streamlined. The constant freezes and crashes I have experienced in SL did not help either. The empty nature of the world was a bit disappointing. And I do remember one instance of logging into SL where I walked into an area with music playing that was rather ‘rude’. It did put me off a bit, and I went straight back to WoW! (Student AM interview)

A few of our students (various nationalities, mostly between their early 20’s to their mid 30’s) had played Counterstrike or World of Warcraft, but most had not played online games. All were Second Life ‘newbies’. They had to download SL, start accounts and make it through Orientation Island prior to the taught sessions. As this implies, SL is time consuming, even before classes start. Students collaborated on Blackboard to assist their peers through this process. SL is only accessible to students with access to suitable hardware and broadband. None of the students had (or at least, none made reference to) disabilities that impacted on their access to SL. Some of the students did initially express concerns about the media’s reportage of Second Life and the perceived associated risks relating to pornography, privacy, credit cards and addiction.

Our skills in Second Life are very modest but even so we underestimated the difference between our (limited) competence, and our students’. At the beginning of a class, for instance, in an attempt to evoke classroom conventions, we asked the students to sit down on the grass. A few sat down straight away, but the majority of avatars walked in circles pointing at the sky and bumping into each other, while the text box was deluged with requests for instructions. Those teaching an entire course in SL would face new users at term commencement, and (potentially) expert users by term’s end. It is interesting to consider how such a trajectory might map over and complement course content. This is not to say that ‘SL expertise’ in general is easily quantified (it might be relatively straightforward to assess particular skills in SL, but this was not an area of interest to this research).

One issue that relates to competence that will need to be taken into account when planning sessions is communications and the text box. This involves the lines of text typed by users to ‘chat’ to each other. Users can choose to have the text appear in a box on the screen, or as ‘speech bubbles’ floating over their avatar’s head. Managing to follow and input text-based discussions is an acquired skill. In discussions with experienced groups, the material in the text box tends to ebb and flow, incorporating asides and jokes, as well as serious exchanges, questions and commentary. Following chat involves ‘surfing’ the text. We found ourselves using chat for class content and ‘talking to everyone’ and using the in-world instant messaging (IM, IMing) among ourselves for traffic control, directing lost people or latecomers. We have written about the distribution of these roles across the team on the project blog.

With a text-based discussion in Second Life, when one nominated person ‘talks’, it feels very organised, but it can get boring very quickly. When everyone talks, some students enjoy it, and others feel like they are drowning.

The only disadvantage I found in participating in online virtual worlds it was that when it involves lots of people its harder to know who is talking; you have to rush and write your ideas because the people write their opinions very fast and the subject of the conversation changes rapidly. (Student report, M)

It is possible to impose structures on the spontaneity of group text chat (in the form of an automated or human chair, hand-raising equivalents, or through the use of an architectural ‘hint’ such as a lecture room that suggests a single presenter, etc.). These tools or conventions will slow the text down, rendering it more comprehensible. But these same structures can ‘suck the life’ out of an event, converting a living dialogue into a polite series of mini-monologues (or perhaps this only happens with a serious and yet not particularly experienced SL seminar audience?)

Polite turn taking might help with readability but it can also mean spending time waiting and watching while somebody types, which is not interesting. Anyone contemplating group text comprehension will need to take user-expertise into account, because for users who are familiar with ‘text chat as genre’ these issues might be moot.

We found that discussion ‘tools’ that are improvised and basic can be effective in inserting an unobtrusive degree of structure. For instance, during the presentation on ethics, live comments were mixed with the ‘cutting and pasting’ of short passages from a prepared document. It’s not a technically impressive solution, but it worked (see similar points here). The resulting 3 line entries to the text box were stylistically and visually distinct from the (shorter, less formal) live type. This basic ‘sign-posting’ meant that the students were able to distinguish the ‘taught’ content, from the various comments and questions and answers that were being circulated. Even so, some students felt ‘at sea’.

There may be a host of more sophisticated ways to input content or organise discussion contributions within Second Life, and it would have been important for us to explore these options if a longer series of sessions was planned.

The students were reassured that a chat-log would be posted to Blackboard after the session, in case they ‘missed anything’ during the discussion. This was also for students who declined or were not able to take part in the Second Life sessions.

Many of our students are teachers themselves, which might explain a certain preoccupation with structure and crowd control, and a tendency to ‘put themselves in our shoes’.

I enjoyed the experience of the meeting/lecture with the rest of the class last week although policing such a session (from the leaders point of view) appeared somewhat challenging, especially if there are a few people giving their responses at the same time, or others who were heading off-topic (G’s report).

…so I might ask a question and he might ask another one and ten people can come up with twenty different questions and I think it’s difficult to mediate questions from the point of view of a teacher, I don’t know I’m just guessing, it could be hard to have the full situation under your control (D’s post-session interview)

Some students recognised that problems relating to following text might be a matter of experience. However I do think we had underestimated how ‘alien’ text chat might be to some of our students.

When the session begun it was very nice that we had someone to lead us. However, when we had to give an answer it was difficult to participate in a harmonious way. I mean that everyone gave his answers and we did not have the opportunity to comment on the answers given. Even when we broke in small groups the conversation was not so easy. Some of the participants did give answers, some others made questions, or some of the answers given were so delayed that they were not relayed to the discussion that was taking part. I feel that we had the above problems because we are not used to this way of conversation. With time we all will become more experienced and will handle such situations in an easier way. (E’s report).

One student suggested that using voice technology would have been preferable to text. Following live text may be particularly difficult for those working in a second language. Then again, following a group of voices over mixed quality audio might be just as (or more) challenging. There could be interesting ways to mix these modes, for instance, a presenter uses voice, but a group that ‘talks back’ in text – although the suggested power dynamic would raise questions. We were also wary of the fact that using voice adds an additional ‘layer’ of technology, when SL is still unpredictable in this respect. Some days, bits of it just do not work.

Because following text is demanding it is important to put a time limit on a session, even if it means cutting into an interesting discussion. Sessions can be broken up in various ways of course (different exercises, etc.) and the structuring of a discussion might impact on how demanding it is, so it is difficult to recommend a specific time limit. Student numbers also need to be considered. As the number of participants increases, so will the volume of text and the level of complexity. One option would be to arrange to adjourn to a virtual space ‘marked’ as informal and social at a specified time (i.e. go to the pub after class) so that participants who wish to continue can do so.

A great deal of ‘structuring’ was going on during the sessions – the tutors’ frantically use of Instant Messenger, for instance, that was not visible to the students. Also, there were 2 or 3 tutors at each session, taking on different roles in relation to content and class management. More overt structures might be necessary for a tutor working alone. More information about our various roles during sessions was posted to the project blog (here, for example).

For data relating to the discussion thus far, see appendix 1 for excerpts from an interview with the course tutor, see appendix 2, 3 and 4 for excerpts from student interviews and appendix 5 for course materials and preparation.

Educators considering the pros and cons of voice should probably note that for many long running SL discussion groups, text remains the preferred mode (see this interview with Grog Waydelich posted at the project blog). Obviously, however, there are times when voice would be convenient – such as small group collaborative project work, or language teaching perhaps – assuming that all of the participants are hearing people.

In terms of learning and content, the Second Life sessions were successful in that the topics (ethics in social world research, and ‘reporting back’ from a week of exploring social worlds, for example) were rendered immediate, by which I mean that when the students were considering notions of privacy, consent, avatars, self-presentation and identity, they were themselves in-world, as avatars, at the time. As this suggests, using a platform such as Second Life, can involve shifts in research perspective (and perceptions of research). Such shifts, while very productive, might prove disorientating to some students. This is another reason why issues of framing and structure present particular challenges to educators considering virtual worlds pedagogy.

Second Life can be ambiguous
Second Life can be ambiguous, but frames (in terms of tasks or activities) and framing (in terms of how it ‘fits’ into the curriculum) will manage, open or close the ‘aperture’ of this ambiguity.

Sessions 1 and 2 were connected to our teaching on the Computer Games, Gaming Cultures and Education module on the IOE’s MA in Media and Communications. This module uses First Class (a conventional VLE – or ‘virtual learning environment’ which is sort of like a website with files and postings), combined with face-to-face residential sessions.

Sessions 3 and 4 ‘book-ended’ a week on the topic of virtual world research in a module on Computer Mediated Communications that forms a part of the ICT and Education MA at the IOE. This module has no face-to-face teaching, and uses Blackboard (a conventional VLE).

A first point to make about these sessions is that they were planned to fit into existing MA modules.

For sessions 1 and 2 we were very aware that of the technical difficulties that downloading SL can pose and thus we incorporated the SL sessions as elective. We had two initial trials (touring, practicing teleporting with the students) and then two sessions with invited guest presenters who offered expertise in terms of Second Life and in terms of a specialist subject. We were impressed by the presenters, and also impressed that our students managed to arrive. This is something that the tutors connected with the Second Life sessions shared: a fear that for technical reasons, the planned class would simply not happen, or that half the students would get lost, or the teleport function would not be working on the day, etc.

We were clear that our earlier SL outings were something of an experiment and that they were voluntary. In doing so we managed to undermine our own attempts to frame the sessions with set, preparatory readings – which the students also regarded as elective.

In retrospect, the students’ expectations during the first sessions could have been more emphatically ‘managed’ – although Second Life, with its various technical quirks does not always allow for this. In the first session for example, our presenter’s plans to screen machinima (animations) to the group were thwarted by a technical hitch. We did not see this as a problem – for us the point was that SL made it possible for our class to meet with practitioners in situ. However, it emerged in later interviews that one of the students was confused that machinima was not screened during the talk. Then, during the second session, his thwarted expectations bloomed into full bafflement. He was confused about the topic, and confused about the ‘status’ of the presenter (who was at once a role-player and a researcher of role-playing). Such encounters might be very productive if, for instance, they lead to discussions about the relationship of research ‘subject’ to research ‘object’. It can be challenging for a teacher to identifying such opportunities as they happen, even in a classroom. In SL it might be harder. There may be very little to indicate a student’s engagement, assumptions, pleasure, confusion or boredom.

I thought you go to a machinima studio I thought the first thing they would do is show you – I was surprised that we couldn’t see that. [Then with the Role Playing] it seemed very interesting but I just couldn’t understand, they were in this game world and role playing and then they decide that we want to create the story and they were again role playing so it was quite confusing. It still is. You actually can’t kidnap that person [because of the games rules] but that person is playing as if he is kidnapped so it’s like acting over there so it’s quite confusing.
(An’s student interview with A.Burn, transcribed)

Meanwhile, a fellow student (part-time and based at a distance) reported a very different take on these same sessions. For a longer excerpt from this interview, see appendix 4.

SJ: Having known very little about machinima it was certainly a great introduction. And being in SL you feel more a part of the proceedings than you would in an actual classroom.
Burn: What about the places? The visit to the machinima studio, etc?
SJ: That is what I mean – you get a real feel for what goes on and what they are doing – more so than you would if it were just a person coming in and talking about it.
Burn: How about the second workshop? [On role-playing culture]
[…] Did you get some sense of the culture from her session?
SJ: Absolutely.

The above comments relate to the first two sessions.

The framing of the second set of sessions (3 and 4) was different. It is worth looking at these differences, as they say something about the relationship between structure and ambiguity that anyone planning to teach in SL might have to content with and consider.

Tables: Comparing sessions 1 and 2, to 3 and 4 (which will be inserted when certain technical hiccups have been addressed)…We discuss this material in the paper ‘Learning, Teaching and Ambiguity in Virtual Worlds’ which is now online here at the blog.


Contributing factors - Ambiguity

None of the above factors necessarily translates to success or failure, but the features listed under Sessions 3 and 4 combined to result in a lower degree of ambiguity. What I mean by ‘ambiguity’ relates to notions of context and expectations, not to issues of order, controls or regimentation.

The inter-relating of the various elements mentioned in the above table are the kinds of things that will need to be thought about while planning to work in Second Life. Much of this will sound obvious to teachers. The thing to remember, however, is that classroom practices do not necessarily transfer to Second Life in a predictable fashion. That would be a bit like expecting earth gravity on a different planet.

There might be various ways to think about the managing of expectations during SL experiences. One that interests me is Irving Goffman’s ideas on framing and keys, which relate to the various schema employed when we are making sense of an experience. A similar event (say, one puppy biting another puppy) means a particular thing to the puppies (and anyone watching them) depending on whether the activity is framed as, for instance, a real fight or a play fight. And the way that the puppies and witnesses would know the difference depends on cues informing us about the framing of an activity or experience. It is interesting to think about what might cue us to understand or misinterpret virtual experiences, and how such cues or keys might be constituted and conveyed. (Erving Goffman. 1974. Frame Analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Cambridge: Harvard University Press)

While the oft chanted ‘Second Life is not a game’ is true, it is also true, I think, that gaming and game design relate to these questions as well. I refer to games generally (mobile games, real-space games, board based games or computer games) – whatever the medium, game designers have to think about real-time experience, location and context, signals and feedback, the clear communication of goals and resources pertaining to strategy, alongside clear yet adaptive structures (such as rules) and the timely delivery of information, and the creative adoption of roles. All of which are interesting to consider in relation to teaching in Second Life.

We worked with the course tutor and did a lot of ‘setting up’ before the sessions involving notes about consent, chat-logging, content and pre-session reading, and the obvious things like making sure everyone knew where and when we were meeting (see appendix 5). But students still experienced ambiguity – concerning, for instance, our expectations of them:

The ‘real class’ occurred when we were asked to sit around J and Z. That was the time I could feel the ‘real class’ […] What was playing on my mind on that session was the tutor’s perception towards the students’ participation. Did they give credit to students who answered most of the questions [?…] How about a few students who sometimes give long answers and short answers? How about if one of the students had problem with the computer, like Second Life crashed and it took a long time sometimes to restart? The tutor might think that this student participates less and not very active in the session. (Ae’s report)

The fact that so many things are possible in Second Life also means that every decision is open to question. Why take the appearance of a humanoid? Why ‘sit’ in a chair? Why reproduce a lecture theatre?

Everyone taking part might have very different perspectives on a session, which combines the ‘live’ event aspect of the classroom, with few or none of the familiar cues. If you are taking a class in Second Life it can be difficult to tell who is bored, excited, drunk, anxious, or who has gone off to make a cup of tea.

This is relative however. There are fewer signals than during face-to-face teaching, but there are more than are present in conventional VLEs, which is interesting to think about in relation to things like ‘lurking’ as a legitimate form of participation (this is mentioned in the interview with the course tutor, see appendix 1).

One of the issues that emerged early on is the amount of preparation involved in teaching in SL, and the strong sense of relief that can be experienced if ‘it works’ and everyone can log in and actually meet. This affect also makes it difficult to evaluate the sessions while they are taking place. We might be feeling euphoric. Some students might be completely ‘buzzed’ about sharing a social space in real time. Others might not be. These factors would shift over time, and be subject to experience levels.

One thing that emerged from the interviews is that working in Second Life made students reflect (and critique) pedagogic choices – although many of them are teachers, and are students on an MA called ICT and Education – so clearly they have an existing interest in such questions. Students did wonder about what else might be possible or what might be done next. Students who took part in structured discussion sessions wondered about going on a tour. Students who seated themselves in a row wondered if such a conventional seating arrangement meant that they were ‘missing the point’ of Second Life. Second Life, then, made issues of ‘pedagogic design’ visible to the students.

Based on our experience we suggest that it is possible for those with a limited budget and no programming skills to integrate a number of SL sessions into a course, assuming that teachers and students have time and access to the necessary hardware.

When planning to teach in SL we have to consider our level of expertise, as well as our students’. A new SL user will be impressed if you can pull a chair out of your inventory and sit in it. An experienced SL user will not be. We did not buy a private island or build a campus. Initially we planned to buy land of some description, but this has not yet seemed a priority. This might change if we have an opportunity to extend this work or use SL for a more extended period, in which case we would seek an opportunity to create some form of resource within SL (as we certainly benefited from such resources, including Education UK Island – where sessions 3 and 4 were held, and the Social Simulation Research Lab, where our follow-up interviews took place).

We can’t script, and our building skills are limited. Yet we were able to facilitate sessions that these distance-learners enjoyed and found useful. The feedback from the students was so positive that the tutor who collaborated with the project team intends to integrate Second Life sessions into her courses in the future.
The project team (Diane Carr, Martin Oliver and Andrew Burn) would like to thank all the students that took part, Computer Mediated Communications course tutor Caroline Pelletier, our guest presenters Britta Pollmuller and Marion Walton and our hosts in Second Life. This research was undertaken with the support of the Eduserv Foundation.


Education UK Island, Education UK (227,39,21)
Social Simulation Research Lab, Hyperborea (199,88,23)
Erving Goffman. 1974. Frame Analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Here is a list of directions for possible future research, based on the work thus far:

Further testing of the usefulness of spaces and events in virtual worlds designed specifically to function as a social-support for distance learners.

Further testing of ‘framing’ and ‘keys’ – the relationships between curriculum, content, format and structure when moving to virtual worlds.

Text-box literacy/ies.

Credibility, modality and self-representation: Further exploration of the relationships between our various ‘identities’ as teachers and as students when working in mixed mode (face to face, VLE and graphically rendered social worlds).

What of open source yet accessible/stable alternatives to Second Life?

Virtual worlds and disability: Second Life as a ‘case study’ offers researchers a venue to explore questions of disability as a social construct. In discourse on this topic, disability is continuously framed in terms of technology and interface, and discussed in relation to accessibility. The opportunity posed by virtual worlds and their communities for the examining of disability as a social construct has thus far been largely ignored. Consider, for instance, the anxieties and debates that surrounded the introduction of voice to Second Life, and the manner in which deaf users attempted to intervene in such debates – and the ways that they were effectively silenced, all of which speaks volumes about the social construction of disability. Throughout the discussions about the introduction of voice, for example, disabled (deaf, in this case) users and the business and educational communities were assumed to be distinct. In SL discourse on related issues disabled users tend to be either homogenised as a distant ‘other’, or yanked into sudden prominence in order to be placed in competition – as per the refrain “deaf people can’t complain about voice, because that is unfair to X, Y, Z disabilities who are disenfranchised by text”. This argument appeared on the forums and in Linden Lab PR during the roll out of voice. Such arguments employed disability to silence deaf users, while invariably failing to acknowledge the problems posed by the SL interface as a whole for the very groups that they refer to. While the question of whether SL complies with EU regulations about accessibility is certainly an issue that educators will need to take seriously, the social construction of disability and normative identities in SL is also an area that calls for further investigation. Accessibility in terms of hardware and broadband will also be an issue, more easily resolved in some instances than others depending, for instance, on where our students reside.

Further study of the relationships and tensions between pedagogic innovation in virtual worlds, and student expectations.
What of the gap between what ‘looks good on paper’ and what actually works for students when it comes to teaching in Second Life? Rejecting conventional approaches simply on the basis that they are predictable is easy, but it is also simplistic. Such discourse itself tends rely on a familiar, emotive and evaluative set of dichotomies (eg. open/closed, active/passive, radical/safe, novel/familiar), which rest on assumptions that we should be interrogating rather than simply replicating. For example, I could (if so inclined) point at a virtual lecture theatre in Second Life and critique it as an example of the (closed, safe, conventional, pacifying) replication of institutional architecture and hence and power structures. But what if new Second Life users meeting classmates and tutors are relieved to find themselves in a space that is orientating; that relates to their real-world experience and thus signals what is expected of them, at least initially. Are they wrong? On the other hand and assuming I had the skills and resources, I might build and script an alternative learning tool (open, active, novel) that creeps up behind my students’ avatars and infects them with a individually attuned ‘conundrum virus’ that they must solve collaboratively or their avatars will start to shrink. And thus I might demonstrate my will to boldly go where no educator has gone before. But what if the only other outcomes are miserable students and shrivelled avatars? The point is that I have to think about degree, and relevance, and context – and consider pedagogic strategies that are negotiated with students. Which means that sometimes prosaic or basic solutions might be completely appropriate (and – obviously – there are plenty of options to explore between the extremes of a virtually replicated classroom and a sadistic sci-fi scenario).

The question of considering pedagogic strategies in virtual worlds with students raises another question: what would students (or teachers) need to know in order to make informed decisions about any such strategies? What would a curriculum of learning about Second Life (rather that ‘in Second Life’) consist of?


No. 1: Excerpts from interview with the CMC course tutor, Caroline Pelletier
No 2,3,4: Excerpts from interviews with students
No 5: Sample documents relating to consent and class preparation.

Appendix 1: Interview with course tutor:
These 2 sessions took place in week 6-7 of a semester long module on Computer Mediated Communications, on the MA ICT and Education. The topic in Second Life was ‘ethics and online world research’ and ‘reporting back’ discussion after a week of exploring virtual worlds while investigating either gender, expertise, multi-modalities, communities of practice or learning. For more information, see appendix 5. The first class started with a lecture/discussion, and broke into small groups for further discussion. The second class was more structured. Students formed small groups based on the topic that they had researched, and took turns discussed their findings ‘in the round’ for approx 10 minutes, then with the class as a whole for a further 5. This interview was conducted in Second Life in text.

Carr: So, your fears – Where they realised in the class?
CP: Fears…no. It all went really well. They actually pretty much all turned up – which was the main fear. And the class went really well – I say this in retrospect. At the time, I think it felt like complete anarchy. I was surprised by the comments some students made – one said that he got more out of that first session in SL than out of all the previous week’s activities. Which surprised me…as I thought students might have been quite impatient with the whole thing. But the fact of meeting up seems to have been of immense significance. I thought, personally, that the second session worked better than the first.
Carr: Because of the structure…or?
CP: Because it seemed to make something out of what this environment does. It made something out of the possibility of group chat, with varying levels of participation. It made something out of being able to have several strands and levels of conversation at once. The other thing that seemed significant was the synchronicity of it.
Carr: The ‘live’ sense of potential chaos, fear and just the ‘will it work’ question all seem very productive…
CP: Yes, it’s like face-to-face teaching again…the same nerves
Carr: Then there’s the elation when it actually works (ie people turn up) Which makes me wonder about how difficult it is to get a sense of how the class is working at the time…
CP: Yes. It’s extremely difficult on Blackboard, that’s for sure. There’s a sort of reassurance when the students actually turn up. On Blackboard, most of my interactions with the students are content related. I have no idea whether they are enjoying the course. Whether the stuff has meaning for them
Carr: Would the synchronicity of SL help with that do you think?
CP: It’s the synchronicity, but also the kind of interactions. I was quite ‘jokey’ with the students in SL. It changes your relation with them. I’m not entirely convinced by Blackboard. There’s meant to be space for students to socialise but this isn’t really used. People post, and a handful post a lot and engage in dialogue. When I was teaching the MA module last year, I got the impression that part of the reason students stayed the course was because they met other people. It seems to me that people do the course not because it will advance their career necessarily, but because they are at a stage where they need some intellectual stimulation. Part of the pleasure / meaning of the course is meeting others and sharing interests, sharing life dramas, and so on. But what is missing from blackboard, I think, is the sense of a class as a social entity. The academic [side of it is] really well covered – students read academic journals, and are given tasks that are potentially more intellectually sophisticated than what they might be asked to do in class. In Blackboard I mean
Carr: right…So ‘content’ works well in Bbd…
CP: But the sense of a group going through this together isn’t really there, apart from a few highly enthusiastic students. And my guess is, that must remove some of the pleasure of studying, but also the richness of the experience, of discussion between students
Carr: and that’s partly why they were so ‘buzzed’ about SL?
CP: Yes, they didn’t want to leave the place. Whereas it can take quite a lot of effort to get some of them to post…I think it’s the synchronicity and the visual experience of being a group.
Carr: That’s interesting that you mention the group as a visual experience…
CP: Plus I interacted with them differently, in a somewhat less academic mode…I wasn’t playing the role of regulator or respondent, which is what I do in Blackboard. Also, it felt like what I did made a bit of a difference in the SL session. I have no idea in Blackboard, as students rarely question or challenge me on my posts. They just disappear into thin air and it is harder to gauge if what I’m writing is making sense to them.
Carr: You mentioned synchronous nature of SL in relation to teaching…or in comparison to Bbd…
CP: The synchronous nature of the activity seems to build a sense of a group entity much more quickly than asynchronous activity. Have you seen the module feedback posted on blackboard?
Carr: Not yet
CP: Many of the students note the importance of the SL sessions in clarifying what the module was about. And giving them a stronger sense of purpose. Basically, the SL session seems to be what they’ll remember…Students said that they got frustrated with Blackboard because it was so slow – people might take days to get back to them with any comments. There was an instantaneous-ness to SL. We had a debate in Blackboard in the week after the SL session. Some students said it didn’t go as well as they would have hoped because people simply didn’t participate in the small group discussions. Some said that if it had been in SL, the debate would have been more productive. But this was partly because they felt they could have ‘hounded’ the lurkers. So from the students’ perspective, SL seemed much better at doing group work than Blackboard, because the visibility of other people meant that they could be chased up more easily for their comments. So it’s good for managing a group…to impose some sort of discipline on group work…which is quite funny, as I got the impression that discipline is exactly what is missing from SL. Some students got very irritated with people who didn’t participate in their small group work, and I can see how the visibility of others [in SL] as well as the synchronous aspect of conversation, could have appeared to be a solution. I’m not sure how convinced I am myself of this argument though
Carr: Would you use Second Life again?
CP: Yes, I’m going to use it next term if possible…

Appendix 2: Student interview ‘AM’
AM is a secondary school teacher and a part-time student on the MA in ICT and Education
This interview was conducted in Second Life in text.

Carr: What were your impressions of the classes?
AM: Both classes were very enjoyable. They gave everyone a chance to meet up – having read some of the comments on Blackboard, that was something that students on the course wanted to do, and the sessions in SL gave them that chance. [Session 1] the ethics presentation brought out some excellent considerations. With the way it was organised though, it seemed a bit hectic. In terms of knowing when to speak and contributing – it was easy to get lost in the flow of conversation. It was not something I had a problem with, since I could quite happily follow what was being said, but I can imagine for the organisers it may seem hectic. The second session was different though due to the organisation into groups – made things much easier to follow, where only several people were contributing at once. It also gave people a higher chance to participate and have their say, which I thought was excellent
You: We were concerned that the text might have overwhelmed some people…
AM: It has been mentioned on Blackboard – the need to think about what one posts, to proof read, re-phrase, etc. This can be hard when you are trying to contribute online as quickly as possible in a live environment. There is the need to keep up and be seen to be active – little time to think. So I thought the second session was great with the small groups. In comparison to Blackboard, there is that ‘live’ element – instant reactions in SL, compared to a much more structured process of voicing thoughts on Blackboard. Usually when making a posting on Blackboard, I do put a lot of thought into it – I often type them up in Word first, read them, correct mistakes, and then post onto Blackboard. If we were being assessed on our contributions, I would prefer Blackboard as tool for conveying information, rather than a live tool like SL. Some people, they prefer structure, they prefer things to be organised, in place and structured. It allows for a high attention to detail – and I am that type of person. Blackboard gives me time to think. [But] Blackboard can be dry socially – although, we had a debate recently – and some of the contributions were fascinating. Almost as good as our time in SL! An SL debate [would be like] a f2f debate though. In that it happens during a ‘set time’. There is the organisation aspect to consider but if that can be over come, then I can see great potential. Just like in a classroom where there are set rules, boundaries, etc (i.e. when one person talks, everyone listens) – if that can be replicated in an online environment, and there is potential. The advantage being that everyone can access the debate from the comfort of their own home, and not having to travel for 90 minutes to get to the Institute :-).
You: So, what are the worst and best things about the classes in SL?
AM: the best thing would be the ability to access from anytime and any place – providing you have SL and an internet connection. There is also the motivating aspect of meeting other people. It may not be a f2f meeting like some people wanted, but it was close enough!
You: And the worst?
AM: The worst would be the technical for me – SL was not stable. I have nothing bad to say about the interactive experience – I thoroughly enjoyed it.
You: How do you think the SL sessions worked in terms of the module as a whole?
AM: I think that they worked very well – they added ‘variety’ to the module. In the weeks before the online task, all of the tasks involved reading and posting on Blackboard. The SL session really added something different to the module, and was also positioned well too (allowing a build up towards it). Having two sessions made it seem special – the alternative would have been weekly sessions in SL as well
You: Hmmm, I wonder how that would have worked…
AM: If the weekly sessions had been chaotic, I think some people would have been put off by the end, or those who dislike virtual worlds may have been hesitant. There is also the time commitment – the advantage of the CMC module [on Blackboard] is it can be done as and when you want

Appendix 3: Student Interview, PL.
PL works in HE in the area of adult literacy, and is a part-time student on the Computer Mediated Communications module.
This interview was conducted in Second Life in text.

PL: Well, we are all teachers, so it can be a bit like herding cats. First meeting unstructured, but second one better because everyone more familiar. There’s the issue of time as well. Everything seems to take longer here and that’s something to adjust to. [The SL sessions were] at about the right stage in the weeks. Sooner would have been too early for some people to get the access sorted.
Carr: What was the best part of it – or the worst?
PL: Best part – playing with graphics. Worst – showing people in my office who were incredulous! No, not really. Worst part – none. It’s great to explore in a group. I would like to do more, say – go on a guided visit. In both [SL and Bbd] there’s a risk of redundant chatter but then that’s the same in face to face.
Carr: Can you imagine using it in your own teaching and/or research?
PL: It would be great and I’ve started asking colleagues who do this already. Few in my world are very keen so far but it’s early days. Perhaps we could have a further session and interview a visiting speaker?

Appendix 4, Student Interview, SJ
A distance learner based in the US, who is a full time teacher of film and media practice. This interview was conducted in Second Life, in text.

SJ: I think that there is a ton of potential for SL in education. The technology just needs to improve to make it work better for everyone. I suppose that as time goes on you get past all of that [the novelty], though I am still quite amazed – even now – that we are 3,000 miles away and sitting next to one another on a bench having a conversation.
Burn: I know – it’s extraordinary! How did SL affect your relationships with tutors?
SJ: Having actually met them in real life I think it is great, particularly with me being so far away. I would have liked to have done more SL classes, helps me to feel engaged. The potential to have guest lecturer from anywhere in the world has amazing potential. The fact that you can fill a classroom with students and lecturers who are in various far-flung corners of the world is huge.
Burn: In terms of learning, what do you think you ‘learnt’ from the first session – the machinima one?
SJ: Having known very little about machinima it was certainly a great introduction. And being in SL you feel more a part of the proceedings than you would in an actual classroom.
Burn: What about the places? The visit to the machinima studio, etc?
SJ: That is what I mean – you get a real feel for what goes on and what they are doing – more so than you would if it were just a person coming in and talking about it.
Burn: How about the second workshop? [On role-playing culture]
SJ: I am always very interested in fanatical fan behaviour, and fan fiction and the like certainly fits the bill – having obsessively collected various things throughout my life I can relate, though I am not particularly interested in fantasy gaming, fiction or movies
Burn: Did you get some sense of the culture from her session?
SJ: Absolutely.

Appendix 5:
Sample documentation relating to ethics, consent and class preparation (from Blackboard, designed in collaboration with the class tutor Caroline Pelletier, and the project team)
Please note that this is not a full record and does not represent all the discussion that took place on the VLE – or the mails and SL notecards distributed during this time.

Meeting in Second Life
On Monday 18th February at 7.30 pm, we will meet in Second Life, the virtual environment downloadable from This meeting will last an hour. We will meet on the Education UK Island. (SLURL provided). If you paste this into your web browser once you have loaded Second Life and have completed Orientation Island, you will be asked if you want to teleport to this address (try this before the time set for the meeting). Please be there by 7.30.
Before the meeting, please familiarise yourself with Second Life’s basic commands by working your way round the orientation island – you should beware that loading and exploring orientation island will take some time. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the ethics of internet research. Please read the following paper prior to the meeting:, Ethical decision-making and Internet research. Recommendations from the aoir ethics working committee 1
Copyright © 2002 by Charles Ess and the Association of Internet Researchers.

The meeting will be recorded, and either a video or a chatlog and screenshots will be uploaded to Blackboard, for the benefit of those who cannot attend. The synchronous meetings in Second Life have been made possible by a research project conducted at the Institute of Education, by Diane Carr, Martin Oliver and Andrew Burn. You can find out about the project here: The catch is that the meeting and activities you undertake are of interest to us as part of that project’s research. As a result, we would like to use the video footage and your notes from your activities as data within the project. (All such use will be anonymised and treated confidentially.) If you are concerned about this, please contact one of us (Martin Oliver or Diane Carr) to discuss it. If you do not wish your data to be used in the project, then simply tell us and we will not use your involvement as data. Note that participation in the meetings is not an obligatory aspect of the course. Those who do not participate should still carry out the week’s tasks.

Following the first meeting in Second Life, your task for the week is to research ONE immersive virtual community, from the following list: Second Life, World Of Warcraft Anarchy Online Kingdom of Loathing Habbo Hotel You can research your virtual community in terms of ONE of the following themes [these linked to separate documents with a summary of the theme] Expertise, Policy and regulation, Gender, Identity and Role-Play, Mode and Modalities […] this exercise is not simply about investigating what others do in online worlds, but also about reflecting on your own experience of participating in such worlds.

Summary of first session in Second Life and handouts
[re last nights meeting in SL 18/2] I have attached above (1) a chatlog of the discussion which may be of interest to those who were not able to make the meeting, (2) a handout which Diane has produced on research ethics – which is of relevance to everyone.

Meeting up again in Second Life – 25th February
We are meeting up again in Second Life on 25th February at 7.30, at the Education UK island – same place as before. The plan for tonight’s session is as follows: People will be broken up into groups, according to the research theme you investigated… Each group will hold a discussion ‘in the round’ – meaning that each topic group will have an uninterrupted discussion in the centre, while the rest of the class acts as an audience (and does not interrupt the speakers). The groups are, in running order: Gender, Identity, Expertise and then Miscellaneous (which is anyone not in the above groups)
Each groups has 10 mins and should address these questions:
1. which world were you investigating and what did you find?
2. how have you reflected on your experience as a researcher in this context?
3. How can we identify or value the kind of “learning” that might be taking place?
4. What are the implications for educators?
We will put a big red rug on the ground and that’ll be the spotlight/stage for the group who is talking. After each group has spoken for 10 mins, the class can join in for 5 mins. Then the next group takes the stage.

Please note that as with last week’s session, participation in this session in Second Life is not compulsory. We might collect screenshots of the session. The session will be chat-logged for students who cannot or do not wish to take part. We may refer to this data during our research into learning in social worlds but if we do, the material will be made anonymous. Details of our research are online at (along with some SL and WoW resources and reading).

Second Life – following up
Thank you very much to everyone who took part in the meetings in Second Life. We will be writing about these sessions as part of our ongoing research into learning in virtual worlds. For this reason we would very much like to collect your impressions and perspectives on the session/s, and on Second Life itself. We would appreciate an opportunity to speak with you – individually or in small groups – about your experience. The interviews will be held in Second Life, and we will aim to take up no more than 20-30 mins of your time. Please contact me (Diane) to arrange a convenient time (email). Note that these interviews are voluntary and are not connected to CMC course assessment.


7 Responses to “1. Learning to teach”

  1. Fleep Tuque Says:

    Thank you for an excellent and thoughtful analysis of your teaching experience. This post is wonderful! Is it available as a Word or PDF document for broader sharing? I think every teacher thinking about using Second Life in a course should read this!!

  2. Jan Herder Says:

    Thanks for this thorough post, I’ll take it as a guide as i develop my course.

  3. socialworlds Says:

    Thanks so much for your comments Fleep and Jan – our plans are to re-work this draft into an article.

  4. Paul Penfold Says:

    Appreciated your sharing this experience, it helps those of us teaching or planning to do so in SL.

  5. […] prepared for teaching in this new environment. Some of the articles I found recently are here: here, and a research from the BBC which is done on children using BBC adventure island is SL. How amazing […]

  6. […] Annie Mullins (Vodatone/TeachToday), Andrew Burn (University of London), Anna Peachy (The Open University) and Andy Powell (EDUserv) discussed the learning potential of virtual worlds. Andrew Burn told of differentiated experiences, with improved effects in distance learning, the use of virtual worlds as new, expressive media and the possibility of virtual field trips and role play. And in general many positive reactions from different types of students, except some on-campus students, who really did prefer face-to-face encounters. In the midst of the discussion, we received a very interesting link to a paper on experiences with teaching in SL by Diane Carr. […]

  7. […] This is a very thoughtful essay by Diane Carr of the London Knowledge Lab on adapting to Second Life as a teaching environment. […]

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