MUVEs for learning

In the beginning of his book “Being There Together – Social interaction in Virtual Environments” Ralph Schroeder (2011) provides a definition of Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVEs):

The VEs discussed here relate to virtual reality (VR) technologies. In a previous book, I defined virtual reality technology as ” a computer-generated display that allows or compels the user (or users) to have a feeling of being present in an environment other than the one that they are actually in and to interact with that environment” (Schroeder 1996: 25; see also Ellis 1995) – in short, “being there”. (Schroeder, 2011, p. 4 – original emphasis)

And from this follows that MUVEs can be defined:

(…) as those [virtual environments] in which users experience other participants as being present in the same environment and interacting with them – or as “being there together.” (Schroeder, 2011, p. 4 – my emphasis)

In line with Schroeder’s definition, the term MUVEs is sometimes used exclusively to characterize virtual environments designed on a 3D spatial metaphor (i.e. Ketelhut, Dede, Clarke & Nelson, 2006), because this is seen as a precondition for experiencing presence when there is an emphasis on the “there” component in the understanding of presence. However, in the field of distance education, the concept of presence has been debated for decades, and has included the sense of self and sense of others that do/do not occur also in 2D virtual environments. Most notably the work of a Canadian research project referred to as “Community of Inquiry” (COI) that ran from 1997-2001,  managed to bring focus to the concepts of cognitive, social, and teaching presence as being essential to especially distance educational experiences. The COI project started with a focus on presence in text-based computer-mediated communication (i.e. Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000; Rourke, Anderson, Garrison & Archer, 2001), but has since moved on to also study these particular types of presence in 3D virtual environments such as Second Life (i.e. McKerlich & Anderson, 2007; McKerlich, Riis, Anderson & Eastman, 2011). The difference, between Schroeder’s perception of the presence concept and that of COI research, highlights the fact that there is no (cross-disciplinary) consensus on the definition.  In fact, many definitions and sub-categories of presence can be identified, and this is evidently something I’ll discuss thoroughly in my PhD.

It is important to notice that the primary focus of my study is on Second Life. Nonetheless, other types of MUVEs cannot be ignored simply because both the research literature and the participants in my study often refer to these other types in an attempt to make sense of Second Life. In the table below, I’ve provided an overview of the different types of MUVEs that are relevant to have in mind as part of the overall context of my study.

Clearly, learning happens in all these MUVEs, but from a formal educational perspective, there are some very interesting differences between these different types of MUVEs. Among critics of VWs, I’ve often heard the argument that “VWs are just virtual learning environments based on a spatial metaphor”, and while it is true that VWs, such as Second Life, are based on a 3D spatial metaphor and that this is an important difference, it is not the only one. To me, the communication modalities, the interaction frequency, and not least the content creation possibilities offered in these types of virtual environments, are just as important.

In my study, the teaching and learning processes have been situated in a blended environment consisting primarily of a combination of Second Life and the more conventional 2D virtual environment called FirstClass. At the Master’s Program of ICT and Learning (MIL) that I have used as case for my study, FirstClass provides the ICT infrastructure in this distance ed program, this is were the majority of the administrative and teaching activities take place – the students tend to use complementing technologies for their learning processes. During my research period (2007-2011), the use of FirstClass and Second Life has changed: in the first research cycle, the majority of both teaching and learning activities took place in FirstClass, whereas in the final, fourth research cycle, Second Life provided the setting for the majority of the activities. Regardless of this, I still believe both environments contribute with some unique affordances that are important to ensure high quality teaching and learning – and ideally, none of them should be used as stand-alone environments.

/Mariis

References

Garrison, D., Anderson T. &  Archer, W (2000): Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2: 87–105

Ketelhut, D. J., Dede, C., Clarke, J., & Nelson, B. (2006): A multi-user virtual environment for building higher order inquiry skills in science.Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA.

McKerlich, R. & Anderson, T. (2007): Community of inquiry and learning in immersive environments. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks. 11(4).

Rourke, L, Anderson, T., Garrison, D.R., Archer, W. (2001): Assessing social presence in asynchronous text based computer conferencing. Journal of Distance Education, 14(2), 50-71.

Lego Universe; I ran out of imagination!

Disclosure; this is by no means intended to be an analysis of Lego Universe – that would not be fair at all. It is simply a reflection on my first experience with this MUVE.

I’m not a Gamer, I never have been, and I doubt that I ever will become one. Nonetheless, I do try to keep an eye on what colleagues are doing in the gaming sector, and yesterday I had the opportunity to try out Lego Universe in relation to the 2011 Virtual Worlds Graduate UnSymposium (VWGUS).

The Virtual Worlds Graduate UnSymposium’s blog.

The VWGUS is organized by a team of dedicated educators who have a special interest in using different kinds of MUVEs like MMORPGs and Virtual Worlds. This year’s symposium ran for two days, and I joined in for the session about Lego Universe conducted by Knowclue Kidd.


Knowclue’s wiki – Marianne Malmstrom’s bio.

I don’t know Knowclue personally, but I’ve heard of her work and seen her at the Virtual Worlds Best Practice in Education conference.


Participants at the VWGUS2011 in the ARVEL CAVE area.


Knowclue Kidd talking about her work with LegoU.

Even though I didn’t know the first thing about Lego Universe, I was definitely smitten by Knowlue’s enthusiasm; you could easily tell that she’s a dedicated teacher! While Knowclue was talking about her work, we were encouraged to create accounts, download clients, and log in to the game. So, as I understood it, the gameplay is that inside the Lego Galaxy some sort of evil force is tearing through the galaxy and breaking everything. It’s the player’s job to join Nexus Force and save the universe, and the first stop is to build a Lego brick rocket that will enable you to leave the starting point and join the other players in groups and quests.


Download in progress – using my favorite name.

Initially, I was very happy to see that I could use my regular online name – for me this really is my first point of identification.


My character – customizable.

Ok, so in this universe, I’d be a small brick figure. No worries, from playing around with my alts in SL I’m used to experimenting with different appearances. Also, if we had not been pressed on time, there seemed to be plenty of possibilities to customize the look. But then the next step was to choose a new name!? Why, what was up with that? How was I to find the other players (avatars from SL), hmmm ….


My new name …

Reluctantly I accepted a new name, and the game could begin.


First impression of the universe – kids can handle a lot more information than you would expect.

Wauw! The first thing that struck me was how beautiful this universe is. Let’s face it; regardless of how much I appreciate SL, the first impression is oftentimes very grey and very laggy. In this universe I was almost overwhelmed by the colors, sounds, moving objects, dialogue boxes, and all the many things happening all at once. My fingers immediately hit alt + arrow keys in an attempt to control the camera/my POV. I had no luck with this, but it could be simply because of my inexperience. Another thing that struck me was the pace; everything seemed to happen in a very upbeat tempo, other characters were running around fast and furious trying to smash “enemies”. Not knowing exactly what to do, I tried to do the same, but with the unexpected consequence that I often found myself lashing out/hitting other characters, when all I wanted was to chat with them – no, I’m really not a gamer ;-)


Talking to “Bob” – apparently my first mission was to unlock my imagination.

I noticed that many of the other characters were running up towards a platform in the distance, and so I followed, smashing everything I met on my way. Here we met, Bob, a NPC, who told us to unlock our imagination by collecting 6 “imagination power ups”. Still not having a clue, I simply watched and copied some of the other characters’ actions, smashed some more objects, and actually managed to complete this first mission resulting in moving up a level. Very motivating to be able to progress so early in the game :-)


First mission complete – so far, so good.

According to Bob, the next mission was to find Sky Lane, who could teach me how to build a rocket that I would need to leave this place and join the others in the Nexus Force. Again, I looked at the other characters, and I did spot Mrs. Lane, but I simply couldn’t figure out how to get to her. I went back to Bob, but he was not very helpful … and so I gave up. Anyways, it was time to leave the game and go back to SL to finish the session.


Alas! I ran out of imagination :-(

Evidently, I had spent a little too much time in the Lego Universe, because the in-world session was ending, and I decided not to participate in the next session that was about Quest Atlantis. One game was enough for me in one day.

So, what’s the takeaway from this experience? Well, if nothing else, I learned about my own shortcomings and habits/expectations when it comes to MUVEs. It should be noted that I only spent about 20 min. in the Lego Universe, so my reservations are not targeted against this particular environment. Yet, having been in SL since 2007, I’ve become accustomed to some in-world/in-game features that proved to be very important for my initial (and perhaps overall) experience.

First of all, there is the name-thing. When I entered SL, I could choose at least my first name almost freely (provided someone else hadn’t already taken it), which gave me the opportunity to use my regular handle and that way establish the first connection/identification with my avatar. Entering a (Lego) universe, where “my” name had absolutely no reference to me, seemed like a setback. However, I suspect that in the case of Lego this has to do with issues of security, a way of protecting the youngsters for whom this game is intended. In time, I’m sure the players learn to identify with their new names.

Second, my positive experience of SL is very much depending on my ability to change my POV. To me the embodiment in SL is mainly based on vision, sure there is the build-in sound of walking, but that seems more like a distraction because it doesn’t really resemble walking (at least not compared to my RL). There are also the build-in sounds of flying and teleporting, but again I find it hard to relate to those (probably because I obviously lack RL comparison). So, to obtain the sense of embodiment that to me relates to the degree of immersion, I usually rely on vision. Further, the ability to change POV, zoom and orbit influences my orientation and navigation. As mentioned above, it could be that it is possible to control the POV in Lego Universe, I just didn’t figure out how to during my short visit …

Third, in SL there is no gameplay, nobody tells me what to do, what the purpose of being there is, how I should interact etc. In SL, it is still “my world, my imagination” on a whole different level than in other MUVEs. When entering a game-world it is crucial that the gameplay appeals to you, that you find it relevant, accept the terms, and literally play by the rules. In all fairness, I’m not exactly the target group for Lego Universe and judging from the talk by Knowclue, her pupils clearly like this universe very much. Sadly, Lego announced just a few days ago that they will be terminating Lego Universe by the end of January 2012. I don’t know where that leaves Knowclue, but given her engagement and enthusiasm about this, I’m sure she will find other virtual universes to explore to the benefit of her pupils and colleagues :-)

While humbly accepting “Bob’s” harsh verdict on my lack of imagination in that particular universe, I leave you with this machinima created by Knowclue and some of her pupils:

/Mariis