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Sceptics start to see the other side of Second Life

Study finds virtual learning environments taking off despite dogged hostility. Hannah Fearn reports

Hostility between academics who advocate teaching through virtual worlds and those who scorn the idea is being blamed for holding back the evolution of higher education.

The warning comes despite evidence that universities are slowly embracing virtual environments such as Second Life for teaching, according to a report from the Virtual World Watch consultancy.

The report, Zen and the Art of Avatar Maintenance, says that like the two characters in Robert M. Pirsig's 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, academics hold polarised views of learning online.

"Some people take to it with great enthusiasm; others recoil in dismay, horror or anger," writes the study's author, John Kirriemuir.

Enthusiasts do more than welcome the chance to work in a virtual world, they embrace their avatar, or online alter ego, and dress it up in new costumes and designs.

Sceptics, however, view the avatar as an "unnecessary complication" when assessing the potential academic uses of virtual worlds.

"Frustration is increased by seeing other people having a more involved relationship with their avatar ... spending time enhancing the look of the creature, rather than seemingly carrying out the learning objective," the paper says.

Increasing hostility between the two camps is stifling debate over the pedagogic value of virtual worlds, the report claims.

But in today's tighter fiscal climate, the author suggests, sceptics may be forced to relent.

As the cost of travel to international conferences rises, virtual worlds allow scholars a cost-effective way to participate.

"In total, even for a small event held in the country that all the participants reside in, the costs can run to thousands of pounds, and this is against a backdrop of massive cuts (in funding for higher education)," Mr Kirriemuir writes on his blog.

The report says that academics who distrust virtual worlds as a pedagogic tool think they overcomplicate simple tasks and diminish privacy. Some also complain that they appear to be too much like a computer game.

But despite such sentiments, Virtual World Watch says there is evidence that attitudes are changing.

Access to virtual worlds has become easier, and online locations are now being used to connect students across the world.

In one programme, students from the University of Worcester in the UK used Second Life to meet peers from Ball State University in the US and study together.

"These factors all add up to an incredibly persuasive argument for a much greater use of technology in remote teaching, learning, education, meeting, communication and research," the study concludes.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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