Researching Learning in Virtual Worlds (Peachey et al, Eds.)

I’ve been reading Researching Learning in Virtual Worlds this week. Things that spoke to me included:

– the « pain barrier » (Carr, Oliver and Burn, Ch.2)

Carr, Oliver and Burn’s description of the « pain barrier » which they describe as  » the moment when sufficient learning or competence has been accrued to tip the new user from bafflement and annoyance to pleaseure or even flow » (pg19). The cost of entering Second Life is certainly high and much learning research draws attention to this and the suitability of this new type of environment for learning because of the time it takes to become accustomed to the environment.

In another paper, I just re-read this week, Deutschmann, Panichi and  Molka-Danielson (2009) describe how they perhaps assumed that students were, or would soon be familiar with the affordances of SL to the detriment of the activities. They felt that the students could not concentrate on the role-playing activities because they were too involved with trying to decipher the functions of the interface and therefore the human-machine interaction was taking up too much of the working memory leaving too little for human-human interaction. This really seems to stress the importance of including introductory training sessions with the students (and teachers!) as part of any course taught in SL.

The way David Richardson approaches this in his Spoken Business English course (presented at SLanguages10, see picture) is really great: he pairs up his Scandinavian students with students from a twin University in the US, who are more experienced SL users and asks them to meet regularly during one week to be shown around. He described that typically the students were taken clothes shopping or hair shopping. The American students are given credit for describing their outings in a paper and the Scandinavian students use this as oral English practice: I think this discovery method, rather than formal introductory teaching sessions is probably really effective as personally, I feel that I am getting somewhere to breaking the pain barrier in learning by doing.


– the chapter entitled « The Second Life Researcher Toolkit » (Moschini, Ch.3)

This chapter sets out some considerations for the design of any research project in Second Life. These include  the type of project, the learning activity to investigate, the research questions, the venue, the participants, research methods, ethical considerations, data analysis and dissemination. Moschini draws the readers attention to SL Terms of Service and community standards and gives some advice on data collection. She recomments adquiring a SL camera kit should researchers wish to ‘video’ SL sessions as it allows you to produce more accurate video documentation and suggests the programmes Fraps for PC and CaptureMe for Macs.  Moschini also talks about tracking devices which were new to me. These tracking systems can keep quantitative data on avatars’ origins, beahviour and frequency of visits including measuring avatars’ itneractions with existing objects. Hoping to study Second Life from a multimodal viewpoint this could be of interest; although cost will most likely be an issue.  Lastly, Moschini suggested that questionnaire kiosks or simply questionnaires written out on notecards were a good data collection method to use to evaluate your study.

– the design of SL spaces (Peachey, Ch.6)

Lastly, Peachey’s secrtion on key points to take into consideration in designing attractive SL spaces was interesting. These points are from informal interviews with in-world educators.

1. Ambient sounds, as long as they’re not too intrusive, add richness and depth.

2. Places that reflect physical world nature, with lots of green, are seen as welcoming. The physical world generally helps visitors feel grounded and safe. (This makes me think of the kamiko island.)

3. The island should not reveal itself all at once. It should not be flat.

4. Paths that link key spaces will encourage visitors to explore. (This makes me think of Avalon’s design and also the use of paths to guide visitors at the London School of Economics’ French Art Exhibition in SL.)

5.Finding small things which surprise visitors encourages them to return.

Summary: Coming of Age in Second Life – Boellstorff, T. (2008)

I’ve just finished reading anthropologist Boellstorff’s account of two years of fieldwork within Second Life ‘Coming of Age in Second Life.’ The author’s ‘stance’ in studying Second Life, from an ethnographic point of view, is to treat virtual worlds not as contrasting with the real world but with the actual. The author’s two main explorations into this idea are through, firstly, the notion that the avatars’ manipulators are never within the virtual world (cf. the elaborate section within the book about being ‘afk’ absent from keyboard) and secondly, the notion that the world represents a ‘techne’ culture where humans engage with the world and create the world illustrating a craft-based culture rather than a knowledge-based culture.

In the book, Boellstorff, or Tom Bukowski (his SL avatar), dedicates the first section to outlining the history of virtual worlds before turning to the methodological approach he undertook to conduct his fieldwork. This chapter’s underlying message is that virtual worlds must be studied in their own terms but that this does not mean ignoring ways in which ideas and practices from the actual world impinge on the virtual world but rather examining how they manifest themselves within the virtual world.

In section two, the author examines the culture of second life under the chapter headings of a) place and time b) personhood c) intimacy and d) community. Within the first sub-section, Boellstorff underlines the importance of the visual aspects of Second Life and how a sense of place, increased through landscape and home-ownership, is fundamental to residents. He also comes to understand how sociality is a key reason why the majority of residents remain in Second Life and that this is largely due to the possibility for synchronous interaction with other residents. The effects of lag and afk on social interaction are discussed.

In the second sub-section ‘Personhood,’ Boellstorff looks at senses of virtual personhood and how avatars create selfhood by their choice of name and by placing themselves on a ‘life course’. The author discusses how residents can identify ‘newbies’ and how actual life events can impact on virtual personhood, relationships and emotions. The section also looks at embodiment (and how this is used by physically disabled in the actual world) as well as race and gender.

Within the section on intimacy, the author investigates language within SL. He discusses the use of acronyms, different turn-taking practices and how residents code-switch between group instant messaging within a specific location and one-one- instant messaging between avatars (NB. At the time of writing audio chat was not incorporated into SL). Boellstorff then turns to describing how friendship is the primary relationship form with SL and that SL friendships, are often considered as more real than actual world friendships, due to the lack of prejudges based on gender, race, age etc and the idea that SL friendships are accelerated friendships due to their intensity. The different sexual communities which exist in SL are then examined as are romantic relationships.

The last chapter, within section two of the book, is dedicated to ‘community’. The main idea within this section is to reiterate that virtual worlds are places, which become sites of culture as residents interact and that with time they become communities.  Boellstorff describes how, in general, kindness is common in SL but that problems of ‘griefing’ (harassment and trouble-making) do exist. He then examines how ‘griefers’ are a specific SL community themselves. The author also looks at communities which extend over several virtual worlds and the importance of forums and blogs which constitute part of the SL community.

Finally, in section three of the book, ‘The Age of Techne’ Boellstorff addresses the issues of politics, economy and governance before concluding with a chapter on ‘the virtual’ describing what SL is and what SL is not. Perhaps the strongest messages within this final chapter are, firstly, that SL, despite drawing on aspects of the actual world, is not a simulation, as the world does not seek to become a replicate of the actual world, and secondly, that SL is not a social network. Rather, the author describes the virtual world of Second Life as a place of sociality where culture can be crafted.