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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 :-)


Alice and Dorothy play together – but what about Wendy?

In a recent post I wrote about why I don’t consider SL a game, Richard Bartle was very kind to comment and point my attention to one of his articles entitled “Alice and Dorothy play together” (Bartle, 2009). I’ve now read it and together with some of Bartle’s other works, I find it very useful in relation to my own work with what I prefer to call open-ended Virtual Worlds – so thank you again, Richard for stopping by and pointing to various resources :-)

In the article, Bartle describes three philosophies or design approaches that have influenced the work of designing Virtual Worlds. Based on three major fictional works, Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy from Oz, and Wendy in Neverland, Bartle identifies differences and commonalities and discusses their ability to “play together”. It’s important to notice that Bartle is addressing a game (world) designer audience, and that Bartle’s work in general has focused on Virtual Worlds designed with the explicit intent to entertain the players – fun is the key motivation for using such worlds. In the table below, I’ve tried to summarize some of Bartle’s points.

Without going too much into detail with the table here in this post, I think it’s important to notice a couple of things in order to understand what follows. In terms of “appeal” this should be seen in the light of immediate attraction, does the world attract and more importantly retain newbies? Evidently, a Dorothy world like WoW (with millions of active players) also appeals to oldbies, the kind of players who find joy and interest in “leveling up”, the kind Bartle calls “Achievers” (as we shall see further down). The table also shows why SL has problems when it comes to retaining users (with approx. 20 mio. accounts, but less than 100.000 concurrent users on a daily basis, there is a problem). Judging from the table, SL’s credo “Your World, Your Imagination” becomes a double-edged sword. The lack of a fixed narrative leaves the SL-user completely on his/her own to come up with a reason to play/stay. This problem, however, is not unique to SL, but points to a classic dilemma between the different needs of newbies and oldbies. Following from this, the next question that comes to mind then is: what motivates Wendy? or more precisely, why do users find interest in SL and what do they do in SL?

In “Designing Virtual Worlds” Bartle explains how he in the early 90’s, based on a long-lasting debate between senior players of MUD2 regarding the motives for playing, analyzed the ideas of what constituted fun and found that players could be categorized into four major types:

  • Achievers, who are interested in doing things to the game, i.e. in ACTING on the WORLD. (later sub-categorized in Opportunists and Planners)
  • Explorers, who are interested in having the game surprise them, i.e. in INTERACTING with the WORLD. (later sub-categorized in Scientists and Hackers*)
  • Socializers, who are interested in INTERACTING with other PLAYERS. (later sub-categorized in Networkers and Friends)
  • Killers, who are interested in doing things to people, ie. in ACTING on other PLAYERS. (later sub-categorized in Griefers and Politicians)

Based on continued refinement of these categories, Bartle created the so-called Player Interest Graph depicted below:

The Original Player Interest Graph (Bartle, 1996/2004 – see references)

The graph describes players in terms of two dimensions: how they prefer acting on things as opposed to interacting with, and how they prefer to direct their attentions toward other players. When trying to apply this graph to SL, I see three issues that don’t match.

  • The term “players” indicates that there is a game to be played**.
  • The category “killers” implies a combat game-type world.
  • The category “achievers” is also closely tied to the existence of a game – Bartle highlights their motivation: “These people put the game-like aspect of the virtual world to the fore. They like doing things that achieve defined goals, thereby progressing their character through the world’s built-in ranking system.” (Bartle, 2004, p. 130)

Regardless of this, I still think the principal idea of the graph can be used in relation to SL, and so I have re-designed the graph:

SL User Interest Graph

  • Users is my personal preference. Linden Lab calls its users “residents”, and many experienced users in SL refer to themselves as “residents” – I do too. It is, however, a problematic term. My observations and research data clearly show that many (especially newbies, but not only) feel homeless and marginalized from the general SL community (but this has to be the topic of another post).
  • Griefers is a term borrowed from the game worlds, it is, however, how we define trouble-makers in SL too, and the term is also used in academic writings on SL (i.e. Boellstorff, 2008). I did consider the Internet term “troll”, but since trolls seem to be deliberately malicious, and my experience with (some) griefers is that they often have more humorous intentions (albeit still annoying to those they act upon), I discarded it.
  • Designers refers to the SL users, who well … design things (buildings, art, clothes, animations etc.). I did consider the term “producers”, but in my opinion the socializers also produce and contribute to the content of SL. Compared to Bartle’s achievers, there are some interesting similarities. Designers also aim at mastering and acting upon the world, and even though there is no leveling system in SL, the mastery also results in high scores in terms of social capital (cf. Huvila et al, 2010).

Given my particular focus on education, I would also categorize teachers (and to some extent students) as designers – we design for learning, but that’s another story :-)


*) Bartle uses the term to refer to skills, rather than (malicious) intentions.

**) Yes, I’m aware of Linden Realms and the many RP-communities in SL, but that still doesn’t make it a game per se.


Bartle, R.A. (no date): Virtual Worlds: Why People Play.

Bartle, R.A. (1996): Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who suit MUDs.

Bartle, R.A. (2004): Designing Virtual Worlds. New Riders.

Bartle, R.A. (2009): Alice and Dorothy play together. In: Harrigan, P. & Wardrip-Fruin, N. (eds) Third Person – authoring and exploring vast narratives. The MIT Press. p. 105-117

Boellstorff, T. (2008): Coming of age in Second Life. An anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton University Press.

Huvila, I.; Holmberg, K.; Ek, S. & Widen-Wulff (2010): Social capital in Second Life. In: Emeralindsight, Vol. 34, No. 2, 2010. p. 295-316

Psychological Relativism – perspectives on reality/virtuality

Yesterday, in a talk at The Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds (FCVW) conference, Jim Blascovich spoke about reality, virtuality, and our perceptions hereof. Blascovich made some interesting and provocative claims about reality, starting with the question: “What is reality?” and answering it by saying: “No one knows!” Blascovich then presented a photo of the Earth and a photo from SL, and asked are they both real? Yes! Are they both virtual? Yes!

Um, so at first glance this may seem confusing, but as far as I understood it Blascovich’ point was that our perceptions (of anything) are idiosyncratic hallucinations, and we see/perceive things that are not there and things that cannot be there – the human brain adapts and “right things” (cf. the work of George Stratton on perceptual adaptation). Together with Cade McCall, Blascovich explains this in a paper on “Attitudes in Virtual Reality“:

“In contrast to the continuing struggle and debate among interested scholars over the hard consciousness problem, many scholars from many fields concerned with the question, “What is reality?” agree that what people think of as reality is an hallucination; that is, a cognitive construction. Together with religious gurus and mystics, philosophers (Huxley, 1954) and experimental psychologists (e.g., Shepard, 1984), maintain that perceptions are invariably idiosyncratic hallucinations, albeit often assumed and treated as collective. (Blascovich & McCall, 2009, p. 3 – my emphasis)”

I don’t know … I think this is difficult to comprehend, and I couldn’t help but think about Plato and his cave-analogy. Based on a question from the twitter-audience, I did get the impression that Blascovich recognizes the empirical world (our Earth) as real though; because he went on to make the distinction between “grounded reality” and “virtual reality”. However, the tricky part is that what we consider “real” or “virtual” depends on our individual perspectives, and this is referred to as the principle of psychological relativism:

“Analogous to Einstein’s theory of special relativity regarding time and space, psychological relativity theory states that what is mentally processed (i.e., perceived or thought of) as real and what is mentally processed (and thought of) as not real (i.e., virtual) depends on one’s point of view. People contrast a particular “grounded reality”— what they believe to be the natural or physical world—with other realities they perceive—what at times they believe to be imaginary or “virtual” worlds. However, what is thought to be grounded reality and what is thought to be virtual reality is often muddled or even reversed. (Blascovich & McCall, 2009, p. 4 – my emphasis)”

While I really appreciate Blascovich’ emphasis on “context” as being crucial to our perceptions, I think the problem with relativity is that it makes it very hard to reach consensus on anything, or to achieve “collective hallucinations” so to speak – and for many people the uncertainty of relativism is unsettling. Whenever I bring students into SL, they clearly struggle with such ontological questions, and I think the uncertainty about what is/isn’t real can become a barrier to adaptation of the medium.

Fortunately, it isn’t all completely relative. The research done by Blascovich and colleagues (not least Jeremy Bailenson – cf. Infinite Reality) shows how i.e. movement, anthropometric, and photographic variables influence our perceptions. And by studying such results, we – as VW designers/users – can accommodate different perceptions and it gives us a more informed starting point for some very interesting discussions on the ontology of VWs.

Admittedly, I’m still processing some of Blascovich’ points in terms of consequences for VWs design, and I’m not sure if it makes sense or if I can make sense of it … according to Blascovich “reality is a state of mind”, and mine sure is messy!

Without diminishing the work of Blascovich et al. I still think that one of the best explanations of “real” stems from a dialogue between a rabbit and a wise old skin horse: