Virtual worlds at the Open University


My role was as author of Powering up: are computer games changing our lives?

I’ve just got back from a two-day OU conference – ReLIVE11 – Researching Learning in Virtual Environments, where I was part of a panel Q&A with the great-haired Bill Thompson of the BBC, Focus etc, and metaverse evangelist (and ITV technowizard) Ian Hughes. We had a lot of fun discussing why there’s still opposition to virtual worlds, how they may change, what they’re currently best and worst at, how virtual museum archives might be a good trend, and whether social worlds actually make us less sociable.  Chair Paul Hollins kept us in line and our conversation probably flowed better because nobody interrupted us with Twitter questions as the Wifi was down. (Sorry.) Bill’s point that ‘if you’re not programming, you’re probably being programmed’ chimed perfectly with the similarly knowing quote I’ve heard since; namely that ‘if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product being sold’. I think the whole session is available on the OU site, although I can’t find it at the moment.

Our session was midway through an action-packed programme, with many highlights.

Keynote speaker Robin Wight, the ad-man responsible for 118118, talked about how agencies such as The Engine Group create virtual worlds in our head – simply with a well-chosen image, model or piece of music. If marketing moves into virtual worlds – as Audi is starting to do, along with kids’ brands like Moshi Monsters – will this be the ultimate form of immersive advertising?

Margaret Derrington shared her experience using a free Second-Life-like world, Open Sim, to teach English as a second language. Her idea of making people practice their skills as they worked together to build houses sounded very cunning – and a lot more realistic (peversely) than the scenarios you’re usually given to play out in real-life language classes. Margaret also said she’d been asked by a group of Saudi women to set up a private world where they could learn English without fear of a man overhearing them.

Her description of gaining the skills to build a world in which to teach language included the memorable phrase ‘I can make vehicles, but I can’t make ladies’ breasts bounce up and down. Not that I have any need to do that.’

Simone Wesner presented her findings from the real-life world of arts management, in which MA students need to run a real project to complete their studies – but can’t get the funds to do so. By running their projects in Second Life, they still gain the skills they need – and according to Simone, find it no less rewarding and just as much of a learning experience. Some students still set up galleries or concerts in a facsimile of RL – but others explored the additional dimensions of a virtual world to organise entirely new artistic experiences (in one case, like going around with an enormous cuddly rabbit stuck to her).

Bernard Horan shared an EU citizenship project, in which he is using virtual worlds to help governments understand how to develop effective public policy and understand public opinion. My favourite phrase from his presentation was: ‘They fall through a Galactic Wormhole and then stand on the Debating Carpet’ – and his ideas, played out in a virtual world, had a great resonance with the TalkScience project at the Science Museum which promotes contemporary science debate in the classroom.

Two presentations looked at how students behave in virtual worlds – the outcome, it would seem, depending very much on ‘what they thought they were there to do’. In the first case, two groups given very different tasks were unable to find common ground in their conversation, ending up constantly at odds. In the second case, a group of computer science students brilliantly worked together to solve programming problems presented as obstacles within a game (i.e. questing). I wondered how differently the second case would have turned out if the lecturer had presented the task as competitive, rather than collaborative. The presenter of this second example, Brian Burton, pointed out that 600 school districts in his area of the US are investing in tablet computers for their students – virtual learning application developers take note.

Andreas Schmeil shared his experiences of organising a fully virtual conference – and how, second time round, he plans to lay it out less like a real conference arena, allow Twitter ‘chat’ throughout all presentations, and have powerpoint slides flying off into the sky. Spacey.

Derek Jones, an architect and lecturer in the OU’s Design Thinking module, kept the airborne theme with his opening question of ‘why do we have gravity in virtual worlds?’ His beautiful presentation proposed that there is no difference between the conception of real and virtual realities – and so, just as we feel more creative in a real high-ceilinged room, we can set our minds free by designing new kinds of virtual spaces. In the real world, he suggested, we have stopped designing ‘for conception’.

Mike Hobbs pointed out that Virtual Worlds are currently in ‘the pit of despond’ and ‘the trough of disillusionment’ according to the fantastic Gartner Hype Cycle graph. According to several speakers, various issues dog the use of virtual worlds in education – cost, privacy and the problem that students take so long preening their avatar seem to be big factors.

Indeed, the way we see ourselves in virtual worlds is the topic of the academic volume freshly published at the conference: Reinventing Ourselves: Contemporary Concepts of Identity in Virtual Worlds, has fascinating contributions and is edited by Anna Peachey, who chaired the conference and directs the company that manages The Open University’s own presence in virtual worlds. How does appearance affect authority? What happens if a student chooses to look like a giraffe? If you tell students in virtual worlds that they are brilliant, do they become brilliant? Do virtual worlds increase a sense of ‘flow’ in learning, or does the technology get in the way of flow? This reminded me of research I included in my book’s chapter on whether computer games can affect our identity, with projects that looked at how avatar height (Nick Yee), and clothing colour (Jorge Pena), can change your behaviour (and the response of others).

As we came towards the end of the event, Paul Hollins and Mark Childs led a hilarious, and fortunately high-energy ‘Delphi Horizon Scanning’ event in which small groups of delegates came up with issues that will affect learning in virtual environments in the next 6 months, 3-5 years and 5-10 years. As a member of the group that ‘gamified’ the whole experience, we were delighted to win this particular meeting with more of our ideas voted into the final selection than any other group (don’t think the other groups noticed, so a hollow victory).

Andy Piper’s well-illustrated keynote to finish the event looked at the question ‘where next?’ for technology, with plenty of past predictions (hoverboards being one that hasn’t come true; Star Trek iPad things one that has) as well as – bravely, I thought – his own ‘5 in 5’ forecast of things that will change how we work and play in the next few years. You can keep in touch with whether it all comes true here.

For me, the whole conference was great – not just because it was well-organised, full of interesting people and had copious breaks for tea and scones – but because it was in the sweet spot where I knew enough to join in, but not enough that I could predict what anyone was going to say next. I didn’t know, for example, what a prim was before, or a Raspberry Pi, but I do now. And I may not quite know what Derek meant when he said he was an ’embodied phenomenologist’ but it sounded interesting and that is sometimes enough.

Find my book here, and my blog here.

The virtual conference location in Second Life

The virtual conference location in Second Life