Measuring the Affordances of Studying in a Virtual World
There has been much interest at the University of Hertfordshire in the teaching and learning in virtual worlds such as Second Life. The School of Computer Science has established a virtual campus within this system where a broad range of learning and teaching activities take place. These include presenting textual, audio and video learning and teaching materials, delivering virtual lectures, providing simulations and group working areas. Recently there has been a great deal of controversy over such initiatives, for example at my own university lecturers are divided as to the efficacy of such an approach. Some see the initiative as an interesting addition to the range of teaching and learning strategies available, likely to motivate learners. Others see it as a trivial attempt to jump on the latest band wagon, with little pedagogical benefit or justification. My own past research in this area, over several years has related to an estimation of the cognitive load imposed by desktop virtual environments and how this affected learning. Several important variables have been identified in several years of research and their effects measured. In the study presented here, a group of 80 final year computer science students used the Second Life virtual environment in order to support their practical project work. Groups of four learners used the university virtual campus especially modified for this purpose to hold meetings and to manage their software development projects. This study reports on how the group areas were established and used by the learners, the types of activities that took place and the effectiveness of the approach in this context. Quantitative and qualitative research was undertaken and it was found that there were benefits to be had by the use of such virtual environments. Recommendations are made as to the affordances of the Second Life virtual environment for teaching and learning in this context and also discussed are the potential problems inherent in this initiative related to individual differences and the cognitive burden imposed on learners.