Last Friday, we held a joint meeting with our colleagues from the Eduserv Foundation entitled "maximising the effectiveness virtual worlds in teaching and learning". The meeting was a follow on from the joint meeting we held in 2007 and the presenters gave a range of perspectives on the challenges and affordances of using virtual worlds in teaching and learning.
As expected the challenges of getting institutional systems "geared up" for allowing access to virtual worlds was a theme for discussion - particularly during the discussion session during Ren Reynolds' presentation. As with the last meeting, we as organisers had to to struggle to get access to Second Life so we could stream audio in-world. Limited wired access points, weird log-in configurations, sound card issues, emergency USB dongles etc all came into play. Although the room we used has wifi access, users can't log into Second Life over the wireless network. In fact some of our audience had to struggle even to get any access to the internet. I suspect out of experience none of our presenters actually needed to go "in world". But I do wonder if we will ever have ubiquitous access to the internet on campus - wired or not. Conversely we almost has a one woman fail whale situation when Lorna Campbell was kicked out of twitter for sending too many messages in one hour
During most of the presentations notions of identity and presence arose. Of course one of the unique features of virtual worlds is that they allow users to experience different identities. Peter Twinning raised some very interesting points about this in the work he has being doing with school children in Second Life with the Schome Park project, particularly relating to some role play exercise the children participated in. One group of children wanted to "get married" (deliberate quotation marks) and Peter was asked to "give the bride away". A long discussion ensued with the children about the activity and the consequences if certain quarters of the media got hold of the story. The children's reaction to this - "but you do realise that it's not real." So they seemed to have a very clear idea of their real and virtual identities. However I think that this raises a number complex of issues - most of which I'm not really qualified to comment on. There are many people who are immersed in virtual worlds and are increasingly blurring the boundaries between virtual and the non-virtual worlds. I'm sure that they would argue that they have experiences in virtual worlds that in are every sense real. David White (Oxford University) also discussed this in terms of the acceptance/normalization of different types communication e.g. telephone/msn/twitter etc.
One of the best quotes of the day came from Peter when he told us about an inspection the project had. The Schome Park Second Life Island was described as being a dangerous learning environment. The children have very high level of autonomy in the environment which led one inspector to comment "it's like being behind the bike sheds all the time." But maybe that's where we as educators need to be sometimes.
All in all it was a very stimulating day and thanks to everyone who took part and were patient whilst we fought with the technical gremlins. Copies of the presentations are available from the wiki.