Research on “Ways of Virtual World-making – Actors and Avatars”

Sisse Siggaard Jensen, Professor, Ph.D. of Digital Communication at Roskilde University, Denmark has had her dissertation “Ways of Virtual World-making – Actors and Avatars” accepted for defense for the doctorate degree Dr. Phil. Sisse truly is one of the leading pioneers in this emerging research field, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her many times during my PhD-work, and this is just wonderful news – big congrats Sisse :-)

The dissertation can be purchased as e-book here

UPDATE: Non-native Danish speakers can order the book by sending a request to:

l bought the dissertation yesterday and I have been unable to put it aside – it really is fascinating reading for those interested in research in VWs! The dissertation contributes to the research field with an interpretive, constructivist, and semiotic understanding of human actors’ engagement with the virtual worlds of EverQuest and Second Life. The study is aimed at empirical analysis of different ways of engaging with VWs, and it is based on longtime participatory observation and video interviews (from 2002-2009). The overall research question is: In what ways do actors make sense of situations of engagement with virtual worlds? 

Key theoretical and methodological influences in the study are:

  • The concept of metaphors (i.e. Lakoff & Johnson 1980, Johnson 1987)
  • The sense-making approach (i.e. Dervin 2003)
  • The optic of actor-network theory (i.e. Latour 2005)
  • The emphasis on ways of seeing in relation to video analysis (i.e. Grimshaw 2001, 2005)

Besides contributing with models of her own (actor-network diagram, sense-making triangle) that I need to study further, I also noted that Sisse provides some very good overviews of key points of interest in VW research such as; history of VWs, and overviews of research in relation to avatars, identity, and engagement. Further, Sisse’s work with video interviews and analysis hereof also makes this dissertation interesting from a methodological point of view, and in general it is a valuable resource and important contribution to the field.

Sisse will defend her dissertation on Friday June 1, 2012 at 1 – 5 PM (GMT+1) in building 00, at Roskilde University, and it will be streamed on Roskilde university’s website: as well as on the blog:, which is the blog of the Danish research project “Sense-making strategies of the innovations of Virtual Worlds”.

The opponents for the defense are: Professor Jay D. Bolter, Georgia Institute of Technology, Professor Andrew Burn, London University, Professor Kim C. Schrøder, Roskilde University (chair).



  • Dervin, B. (2003): Sense-Making’s journey from metatheory to methodology to method: An example using information seeking and use as research focus. In Dervin, B.; Foreman-Wernet; L & Lauterbach; E.  (Eds.). (2003). Sense-Making Methodology reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin (pp. 133-164). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
  • Grimshaw, A. (2001): The Ethnographer’s Eye: Ways of Seeing in Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    Grimshaw, A. (2005):  Eyeing the Field: New Horizons for Visual Anthropology. In: A. Grimshaw & A. Ravetz (Eds.), Visualizing Anthropology (pp. 17-31). Bristol, UK: New Media Intellect.
  • Johnson, M. (1987): The Body in the Mind. The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980): Conceptual Metaphor in Everyday Language. The Journal of Philisophy, 77(8), 453-486.
  • Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2003 [1980]): Metaphors we live by. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Latour, B. (2005): Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Using SL to facilitate a design process in group work

In the PD class, I’ve been running since December 5th, 2011 with students from the Master’s Program on ICT & Learning (MIL) at Aalborg University, the students have to do presentations in-world, and this is the first post of five describing  their work.

As part of the assessment criteria in the course, the students are asked to do an analysis of SL as teaching and learning environment, and instead of doing a traditional written report, the students have to present their analyses synchronously in SL as highlighted  in this slide:

The MIL11 assignment.

The analysis has to be based on both theory (general course literature combined with literature the students choose for their particular topic), and practice. For the latter part, the students have to explore, experiment, and use SL, and they can also draw on the experiences they get from the other course activities in SL. Since all educational programs at Aalborg University are founded on a PBL pedagogy, they students also have to identify and work with RL problems – the students typically choose to focus on problems they encounter in their work settings. In this MIL11 class, the students have been working in 5 teams, and on Wednesday, January 11th the first team A had to present their analysis.

Team A and their focus

Team A: RickDJ, Ingma, MrsJJ, Ilikespace & Merlin –  all dressed up in similar clothes to highlight the team affiliation.

Team A’s members come from very different professional backgrounds, three of them are working in formal teaching (from K-12 to college), one is working in the central economic section of the city of Copenhagen, and the final member works within a special section of the law enforcement. All of the team members work with development and implementation of ICT and learning at some level in their organizations, and this is also why the signed up for the MIL Program. For their analysis/presentation, team A decided to focus on one team member’s work place, an “e-Design” educational program, and based on this context they settled for the following question to guide their investigations:

Can SL be used to facilitate a design process in project work?

In their work, the team tried to rethink and redesign an existing course for 3rd semester students, and they looked specifically at how SL can be used as a supplement to f2f and other technologies. The Team A students were interested in analyzing the particular affordances of SL that could promote certain parts of a design process for students working in groups in a blended environment.

Team A’s sandbox
To support the MIL students’ work in SL, each team was assigned a sandbox on December 9th (after they had learned the most basic SL skills), and the pictures below show the progression in team A’s sandbox.

December 17th; the team has begun rezzing and building all sorts of objects.

December 19th; the team’s presentation screen is set up for experimentation.

December 21st; One side of the team’s sandbox is filled up with objects creating a radical setting.

December 21st; Part of the interior design in the radical setting.

On December 22nd, I had an ad hoc meeting with some of team A’s members discussing the assignment and their design.

December 31st; the more respectful setting started to appear in the other side of the team’s sandbox.

One January 3rd, all teams were encouraged to present a status on their work, and get some feedback from me, my co-facilitator, Inge and their  fellow classmates –  and Team A chose to do so.

January 3rd; team A presenting some of their theoretical considerations for their upcoming presentation.

Team A’s presentation
Before  their presentation, Team A sent out instructions and an agenda in both SL and our regular 2D platform. The agenda looked like this:

  • 8:00 PM: Introduction in Team A’s sandbox
  • 8:30 PM: Inspiration trips
  • 8:45 PM: Group work in Team A’s sandbox
  • 9:10 PM: Presentation of the groups’ work
  • 9:20 PM: Theoretical input
  • 9:35 PM: Closing debate
  • 9:45 PM: Evaluation and feedback
During the introduction, we were given an overview of some of the theories and concepts the team has focused on, and we were given a brief insight into the pedagogical set-up, the students at the e-Design program etc. The team members explained how they saw a close relation between Problem Oriented Project Pedagogy and the design process in general, and they continued explaining how they wanted to illustrate this by giving us small tasks to solve as examples of a typical design process. We had to go to designated locations and take photos for later inspiration. Back in the team’s sandbox, we had to build “a work table for multiple persons”, and present it.
An overview of a typical design process with the research and idea generation phases highlighted.

The team felt that SL could be particularly useful in some of the more creative phases of a design process, and this was why we were asked to do tasks common to these phases. Because the students are not (due to time constraints) able to try out their hypothesis/ideas on their chosen target groups, it is common in theses presentations to ask the fellow students to act as the target group.

Among the theoretical concepts Team A chose to focus on, remediation and redesign of an existing pedagogical practice, were central – also in the way the team had designed their sandbox. The continuum between respectful and radical remediation permeated both design and activities, and in this way the team managed to visualize what otherwise may seem as quite abstract theoretical ideas.

As part of the research phase in a design process it is important to go out into the “real world” and gather information, and Team A had planned four different locations where each of the remaining teams had to go and take pictures for the following phase. The locations were two respectfully remediated places: Bartlett & Nielsen and Virtual Harlem, and two more radical places: Torley Island  and Mysterious Wave .

Team A’s Ingma acted as supervisor at Bartlett & Nielsen.

The time allocated for the inspirational trips was limited and I only managed to go to one of the four places, but judging from the following activities where the teams had to put their photos up for display, and based on this start working on designing a table, all the teams succeeded in completing the tasks despite time and technical (audio) challenges:

Back in Team A’s sandbox the other teams had to put their photos up for display.

Team C putting their photos on display.

Team D building a table.
… and team B building a table.

Team E presenting their flexible table, which clearly was inspired by their trip to Torleys.

After the presentation of the teams’ photos and tables, Team A continued talking about their theoretical considerations.

Team A discussing Childs, 2010 model on learners’ participation in virtual worlds.

The way Team A had planned their presentation was meant to showcase how SL potentially can be used in social constructivist learning, and even though the activities were limited due to time constraints, I think the team managed to do so. Evidently, in a short presentation like this, it is difficult to get the full experience, but by way of using the exemplary principle, it was my impression that Team A managed to make a very convincing case.

During the final part of Team A’s presentation concepts from Wenger’s 1998 social theory of learning were appropriately displayed on the floor.

In summary, I think all of the participants ended up having a very good joint learning experience, not least because Team A’s members beautifully demonstrated the value of genuine collaboration, and as one of the students from another team concluded afterwards it will be: “A hard act to follow … :)”

Next week teams B and C will be presenting – and I can hardly wait :-)


The Identity Maze – showcasing some PhD findings

Since December 5th, I’ve been running an in-world PD-class for students from The Master’s Program on ICT and Learning (MIL) at Aalborg University. It is my fifth course of this kind for the MIL Program, but this time around there are some significant changes. First of all, I have the great pleasure of running the course with my friend and kindred spirit, Inge Qunhua – a very talented Danish educator and in-world designer. Secondly, I will not be using this course for my PhD, but as a researcher I have of course set some research goals, and in this case I have been investigating the use of different classroom settings. As part of this, I have just finished a build I call  “The Identity Maze” that I will be using in a forthcoming in-world class.

The Identity Maze – as of December 31st, 2011

In my PhD-project, I have three analytical units; people, places, and practices, and the maze is based on some of the key findings regarding the people unit. In this sense, the maze is meant to showcase some findings consisting of impressions from the students that participated in my PhD-work from 2007-2010 combined with relevant theoretical input that I also refer to in my PhD.

The theoretical foundations of my PhD-work is showcased on the sides of the maze.

The people unit deals with the avatar phenomenon, with what it means to learn through a virtual 3D body, and how this affects the identity of the learners. In my PhD, I use a combination of theories ranging from learning theory (primarily Wenger, 1998), media theory (primarily Bolter & Grusin, 1999) and theories from the field of tele-presence (primarily Schroeder, 2010 and the MIT journal on Presence). In Wenger’s Social Theory on Learning, Identity plays an important role in the learning process – learning is basically an ongoing identity process, a process of becoming. Since the beginning of my PhD-work back in 2007, it has been evident that a medium such as SL challenges the learners’ identities in a manner I’ve never seen in more traditional 2D Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), and so it makes perfect sense to focus on Identity when learning in and about 3D Virtual Worlds.

Some important aspects of the 3D virtual body experience.

I’m definitely an amateur when it comes to building in SL, but I do build from time to time, and the process of visualizing/materializing your thoughts and ideas, is really what sets SL apart from other VLEs. It can be fun, engaging, frustrating (where’s the undo button!? ;-), and sometimes very rewarding. The pictures below show the process of building the maze.

lnge lets me have a small sky-sandbox that I use to experiment, and this was where I started building the maze.

I did create a paper-draft with measurements of the maze, but as usual when it comes to creative work, the work itself tends to rule on its own, and standing in the build, feeling it so to speak, forced me to reconsider parts of the maze. Once again, I was reminded that what works in theory, doesn’t necessarily work in practice!

When the foundation of the maze was done, I moved it to the common sandbox, we use for the course.

Determining where to put posters, pictures, and questions for reflection was very much a work based on intuition.

I decided to use a mixture of textures, most of which are transparent (blank, red, and white). Walking in a maze can be quite claustrophobic, so I decided to make all walls transparent. I also think the transparency gives you a nice feel of the surroundings and of other avatars. Because of transparent textures, the maze looks different from different angles/POVs – and I think that aligns well with the whole identity issue. Some of the transparent textures are deliberately white, indicating that there is more to be seen, and hopefully this will poke the curiosity of the visitor. Evidently, skilled SL-users can overlook the whole maze with their cameras, but still …

Anyways, being an amateur isn’t always easy; when I wanted to share the build with Inge, I somehow messed up the permissions, and now this original is copy only – no edit :-( So, Inge has kindly offered to rebuild the maze (based on my blank prims), and hopefully we’ll soon have a fully editable copy …

Inge’s rebuild next to the original.

So, what’s the point of all this? Well, I intend to use the maze in a class on Thursday, 5th of January. In this class the theme is Identity, and we will focus on the students’ impressions of being avatars, and what this means in relation to learning. On our regular classroom platform, I’ve set up a couple of slides that focus on some theoretical issues (based on the course literature). After this short introduction, we’ll walk-and-talk in the maze.

Back on the platform, I’ve created a 20-question-board. For now, when you click on the question marks, you’ll see a Joker, but on Thursday, 17 of the Jokers will be replaced with relevant questions (there are 17 students). If the student chooses what turns out to be one of the remaining three Jokers, the student can talk about anything in relation to the theme, otherwise there’ll be a tricky predefined question.

And so, on this final day of the year 2011, I leave you to pause and reflect on this quote by  Chuck Palahniuk:

“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.”

Happy New Year to all of those who have shaped me; especially my precious in-world friends who appreciate mixed realities and thus mixed identities – I cherish you all :-)