This article was one of the many interesting (and diverse) things I did for the openhabitat project. Many thanks to the editors of the British Journal of Educational Technology. This is being reprinted here based on the “you may use all or part of the Article and abstract, without revision or modification, in personal compilations or other publications of your own work;” section of the Wiley Publishing contract.
MUVE eventedness: An experience like any other
The OpenHabitat project is a Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) Users and Innovation Programme funded project exploring the practical application of multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) to the higher education classroom. This paper discusses ongoing research, drawing tentative conclusions from reporting streams coming out of the project. The researchers have identified that once lecturers have acquired literacy in the MUVEs, there is a threshold afterwhich they become able to see MUVEs in education as offering an experience that allows for the exploration of existing content in a new context and which acts as a focal point for reflection. The ‘otherness’ of the environment provides a ‘mirror’ for practice (for both student and teacher). The otherness, however, does not necessarily call for new pedagogies but rather relies on a long tradition of experiential learning.
The use of MUVEs (Multi User Virtual Environments) in education is no longer the realm of the avant-garde or the charmingly quaint, and is encroaching on the edges of the mainstream. A recent scoping study conducted for JISC tells us that the (educational) ‘use of virtual worlds has accelerated exponentially over the last two or three years’ (de Freitas, 2008).With the increasing prominence of these new tools, we need to start asking what the technology offers for the average classroom, and moving beyond the ‘if ’ of virtual worlds to the ‘when’ and ‘for what reason’. The OpenHabitat project is primarily an attempt to see past the complications of the technology to explore what happens when a virtual world comes to a regular classroom, or in the case of OpenHabitat, two classrooms: Ian Truelove’s art and design class at Leeds Metropolitan and Marianne Talbot’s class at Oxford University overseen by the project’s Principal Investigator David White.
The OpenHabitat project
The project was conceived as a series of two iterative pilots where best practices and lessons learned could be gleaned from the results of the first pilot and used to inform the development of the second pilot. Each of the groups has kept an open, running discussion freely available online and aggregated to www.openhabitat.org using video, photo and text blogs. This reflexive method was chosen for the first pilot in order to track, develop and refine best practices. These practices would then lead to a solid foundation for the second pilot, in addition to offering a preliminary opportunity to test out those best practices and further refine them. This method worked for us, but rather than the second pilot simply being a reinforcement for the first, it also allowed us to ‘see through’ the technology to such a degree that we were able to focus from a clearer standpoint on some of the real advantages of using MUVEs.
That clearer picture is something that we suggest may be the subtler and perhaps more important part of our research with MUVEs. ‘Teaching and learning in virtual worlds is’, according to David White, ‘an experience’ (White, 2008a). In his first blog post on the subject, he explains that it is the intensity and ‘eventedness’ that creates the real value of the MUVE experience. Bringing a virtual world into a classroom serves as a catalyst, a ‘shared event’ that takes learning beyond a simple knowledge transaction between student and instructor. It has the potential to bring students together as a class, and push the material far enough into a new context to allow students a new and, perhaps, more compelling way of approaching the content of a given learning event.
Literacies: identification and acquisition
The planning for the first pilot primarily involved consideration of what we could do with the technology. From the perspective of the project members, researchers designed the platforms, focusing on specific kinds of feedback loops and avatar actions that would allow for an ‘authentic experience’. Best practices were sought that would allow for replication of the immersive experience in other instructors’ teaching spaces.
In the process, we accumulated a great deal of data and found some patterns that we thought (and think) might be important. In reflecting on some of the lessons learned from the first pilot as described, however, we saw a slightly different picture forming. Rather than the skills-based, step-by-step planning typical of a ‘traditional’ approach to Higher Education, we began to see the primacy of social literacies emerging as our lessons learned from the process. We find that the intense curricular and pedagogical/technological planning is less responsible for successful learning ‘experiences’, and that the support of teacher/student dialogue and pre-MUVE socio/pedagogical concepts start to portray themselves as the primary and essential literacies needed for the learning habitat.
The reflections from the project leaders during the first pilot revealed key principles that formed the foundation of the new ‘what we already knew about teaching’ perspective, a move away from focusing on MUVE-specific best practices. Ian Truelove blends in lessons from his arts-based background when discussing identity.
Design education consciously and deliberately strives to achieve a balance between the unrestricted and impulsive (Nobody), the collaborative teamworking, subject specific or audience satisfying (Anybody) and the personal achievement of the author/producer (Somebody). We
glued all this together with many,many ‘Aha!’ moments (Eureka) … . but it is clear that individual and collective identity is bound together with the creative process (Truelove, 2008)
This description could be applied to the MUVE environment aswell as design education. There is some question of whether the issue of identity will really be very different than the identity stretching that happens to students when they come to university. In a designed classroom, where you already know who the people in the class are, flights of identity are going to be less disruptive—and no different than those of art students using other mediums or having other experiences.
There is also a sense in which the foregrounding of ‘natural’ collaboration competes most directly with traditional views of Second Life as a call for a new pedagogy. Truelove wonders if ‘Maybe “collaboration” in these MUVE environments is more about discussion than construction. When people collaborate in world they are rarely to be found wrestling over the same polygons/prims’ (White, 2008a). There is a sense in which thinking through ‘construction plans’ and trying to force the MUVE medium can bring to the fore project member Steven Warburton’s concerns that ‘Second Life can be deceptive … It can seduce one into believing that “teaching” practices that work on the outside can be readily transposed inside. It is a sobering experience when the particular constraints of SL kick back and even the best-laid plans begin to unravel’ (Warburton, 2008).
We took advantage of the two-phased approach and allowed the continuum to flow from the technology and towards the educational experience that the students were going to be having. Discussion among the project planning team moved from considering what we could do with the technology to elicit certain learning behaviours from students (the best laid plans) towards more immersive, experience-based plans that contextually allowed for the realities and limitations of the platform. The experience of working within a MUVE environment brings out some of the key concepts already existing inside the field or topics being covered; it exposes things that might have remained hidden in a more traditional context. This is best represented by Ian Truelove’s screenshot of the virtual houses built by students, with the caption ‘They’re first years. They only left home 3 weeks ago. Of course they want to build themselves homes.’ (see http://www.flickr.com/photos/cubistscarborough/2978733707/)
If David White’s intuitions are correct that the MUVE should be seen as an experience, a form of journey or field trip, where students are travelling in both virtual space and in their personal development, it is possible that the project is only now realising the real fruits of the reflections gained from the first pilot. In this model, each of the students will be able to engage with both the pedagogy push from the lecturer and their reflective journey articulated in student–lecturer and student–student relationships, supporting not only peer learning but peer development. The learning designer might be better served by accepting the chaotic nature of the virtual environment and the value of the field trip for what they are. A positive result from a virtual learning experience actually relies on the chaotic, organic nature of the MUVE and the interactions therein, on the literacy level of the instructor, and more importantly appears to be pedagogically agnostic.
While Steven Warburton’s caution against directly translating real-world book teaching styles into a MUVE is well warranted, this should not preclude the inclusion of teaching styles that are based on other, perhaps less traditional, but still valued experience-based learning pedagogies. Many of the same criticisms levelled against teaching in a MUVE might be made of a classroom in the open air of a park, a lesson taught by mobile phone or a practicum in a hog farm. These are all experiences that do lend some confusion and some chaos, but it is this very unsettling of the learner (and the instructor) that makes a change in habitat such a valuable learning experience.
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546 British Journal of Educational Technology Vol 40 No 3 2009
© 2009 The Author. Journal compilation © 2009 Becta.