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PhD accepted for public defence

phd_frontIn November 2016, I finally managed to hand in my dissertation, and earlier this week I received the preliminary assessment, which was positive insofar as the assessment committee unanimously recommends that my dissertation should be accepted for public, oral defence – BIG YAY :-)

The defence will take place at Aalborg University in Copenhagen (AAU-CPH) on January 26th 2017 . The assessment committee consists of the following people:

My PhD-supervisor, Lone Dirckinck-Holmfeld (Aalborg University) will moderate the defence, which is set for three hours:


The abstract of my dissertation reads as follows:

The purpose of this study is to understand and conceptualize the transformation of a particular community of pedagogical practice based on the implementation of the 3D virtual world, Second Life™. The community setting is a course at the Danish online postgraduate Master’s programme on ICT and Learning, which is formally situated at Aalborg University. The study is guided by two research questions focusing on the participants’ responses to the avatar phenomenon and the design of the course.

In order to conduct and theorize about the transformation of this community of practice due to the 3D-remediation a research-led Action Research approach has been chosen to enable research with focus on both actions and critical reflections carried out in four consecutive research cycles from 2007-2011. 53 master students, one main teacher (the author), and several guest teachers have participated in the study. The findings are predominantly based on analysis of asynchronous student discussions in FirstClass™ (1.104 postings) and synchronous participant observation in Second Life (130 hours). A Grounded Theory-inspired approach has been used to generate and analyse the data in this study, meaning that no predefined theoretical framework was used to guide the design of the research cycles from the onset of the study. However, as the research progressed more and more elements from situated learning and the communities of practice theory influenced the design.

The study has demonstrated the importance of the avatar as pedagogical design element given that it is through the avatar the participants identify themselves and others, create meaning and experience learning in the virtual world. Furthermore, the findings show that the avatar cannot be understood devoid of context, devoid of other pedagogical design elements.

In summary, the study contributes with knowledge about 3D Virtual Worlds, the influence of the avatar phenomenon and the consequences of 3D-remediation in relation to teaching and learning in online education. Based on the findings, a conceptual design model, a set of design principles, and a design framework has been developed.

The preliminary assessment is 3 1/2 pages long and includes a summary and a critical evaluation of my dissertation. In my lecture, I will present my research while trying to address some of the critique given by the committee. Based on the evaluation, I anticipate a discussion of some of the following topics:

  • The concept of virtual/virtuality
  • My literature review strategy (State-of-the-art review)
  • My analytical strategy, Grounded Theory (GT) and the role of theory in GT
  • Insider research and positionality
  • The differences and similarities between Action Research (AR) and Design Based Research (DBR)
  • The Communities of Practice framework
  • The challenge of using learning theory for pedagogical design (and perhaps a discussion on the difference between anthropological and psychological perspectives on learning and education)
  • Socio-cultural vs. socio-material theories and approaches to understanding the world (of education)
  • The status and future of SL and other 3D virtual worlds in education

I’m currently in the process of preparing my defence, and I have to admit that I’m somewhat nervous. The main text of my dissertation is approx. 250 pages long, so there are a lot of issues to consider. I am, however, hoping that I will be able to put aside this nervousness and enjoy the whole thing. It truly is a unique opportunity to discuss some of the issues I care deeply about with some very clever people :-)


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.



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.

SL as learning environment for Midwifery education

This is the fourth post of five describing the work of the students from 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 where the students have to do presentations in-world. Background information on the course/the presentation task can be found in this first post, and here’s the link to the second post, and the third post.  On Monday, January 23rd Team D had to present their analysis of SL as teaching and learning environment.

Team D and their focus

Team D; tomsteff, danamaia, mouritzen & Saxodane.

Just like the previous presenting teams, Team D’s members come from very different backgrounds working as College Teacher and IT-consultant, Midwife and Educational consultant, Assistant Engineer and AV-Lab consultant, and finally as Cooperate Psychologist and HR-consultant. danamaia was already familiar with some of the people behind the SLenz Virtual Birthing Unit-project, and the team decided to further investigate the use of SL as a supplement in Midwifery education leading to the following investigation question:

How can immersion facilitate Midwifery students’ learning of clinical skills and competences in a 3D-mediated learning environment?

Team D’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 D’s sandbox:

December 17th; Team D has set up a shared media screen.

January 1st; Team D’s sandbox now only contains my building instructions …

However, a few days later on January 4th Team D’s building process has really taken off.

And a week later on January 11th, Team D’s sandbox is starting to get filled up with a nice addition of phantom walls based on transparent/green binary codes.

January 12th; Plywood here, plywood there – the basic building material of SL now seems to fill up Team D’s sandbox.

January 13th; The Matrix inspiration continues with the addition of a video-trailor for the movie.

On January, 20th part of the sandbox has been removed in the NW corner.

A closer look of the interior of Team D’s sandbox on January, 22nd.

Team D’s presentation

 Team D’s agenda and investigation question on display.

Team D’s agenda looked like this:

  • Intro
  • Historical perspective on 2D and 3D
  • The psychology of immersion
  • Learning in Plato’s cave
  • Didactic Design
  • Tour
  • Reflection/discussion
After we were welcomed in the team’s sandbox, Team C’s mouritzen gave us a brief overview their investigation question and of some influential games/systems in the field of 2D/3D VR/VE.

Posters with some of the influential games in game history,

and Cisco’s TelePresence system .

We were then asked to move up-stairs where Team D’s Saxodane literally walked us through Wirth et al.’s model of Spatial Presence that focusses on the construction of a mental “spatial situation model” as a prerequisite for a satisfactory user-experience in new media and VR-technology.

Team D’s representation of Wirth et al.’s Spatial Presence model.

By the end of Saxodane’s talk we were asked to take a step forward, the floor disappeared, and voila!:

… we were now prisoners in Team D’s Matrix/Plato-inspired cave!

In the cave, Team D’s tomsteff, made a very interesting comparison of Plato’s cave allegory, SL, and Beaudrillard’s thoughts on Simulacra and Simulation.

Plato’s cave allegory displayed on the walls in the cave – meta-meta?

Evidently, ontological questions on reality/virtuality/hyperreality come to mind when entering an environment such as SL, and tomsteff challenged us to consider what impact such issues would have in relation to learning.

Presence and learning – what’s the relationship?

Based on Qvortrup, tomsteff reflected on different kinds of knowledge forms in SL.

Next up was Team D’s own Midwife, danamaia, who gave us a nice introduction to the Midwifery-project in order to set the scene before visiting the place. The project has been well documented, and it was very interesting to hear about some of the research results, and not least how participating students had reacted to the project.

Team D’s danamaia explaining the didactic design behind The Birth Place (displayed on the walls) based on Riis’ model on the floor.

MIL11 students gathering in front of  Te Wāhi Whānau/ The Birth Place .

We were asked to take a tour and explore the premisses. The place is highly informative with many clickable objects leading to the extensive wiki and other materials.

Up-stairs danamaia explained the role-play that two students had to try based on materials from the purple pyramid.

Anina volunteered to become pregnant-in-a-click.

Even an avatar-pregnancy can be exhausting!

Anina gave the tub a try, but no luck in delivering the baby there …

With the help of “midwife”, JaneOlga Anina finally gave birth to a boy :-)

Big congrats from the cheering crowd …

Due to time constraints, we were not able to explore the role-plaing possibilities in full detail, but we did get a good impression of the potentials. After the successful birth of a new Netizen, we all went back to Team D’s sandbox, where Saxodane wrapped-up their presentation.

Saxodane presenting Team D’s final comments on SL as learning environment.

Team D has has had a strong focus on games throughout the course, and as I told them, I don’t think comparing and judging SL too much based on gaming theory/practice is appropriate. In my experience, the absence of a gameplay makes SL a very different VE – especially in terms of teaching and learning potential. Nonetheless, there were many fine elements in the team’s presentation and in their design, and once again, I think we all ended up having a very good and fun joint learning experience.

MIL students celebrating Team D’s presentation with some wine,

… and some dancing :-)