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Learning together apart: Distance education in a virtual world – Kim Holmburg and Isto Huvila

Holmburg and Huvila’s study, as related in the article link above, focuses on distributed learning opportunities for distance education students, ‘distributed learning’ meaning that multiple tools are used.

Background information

Some of the tools compared in the study were traditional face-to-face classroom teaching –  asynchronous systems such as blogs, wikis and discussion forums. Synchronous systems include chat rooms, video conferences, and lectures and classroom teaching in digital environments like Second Life.

Overall, students in the past have reported that the use of distributed learning has caused them to be more engaged with the class material. This seems unsurprising – the more learning modalities they are exposed to, the more learning styles a student has access to. Synchronous systems in particular were useful for encouraging interaction between students.

Lectures run in Second Life were found to be distinctly advantageous for distance education students. Students report preferring face-to-face classes, however they also found Second Life to be a more ‘fun’ learning experience compared to the other modalities they were exposed to. Additionally, lecturers found that students were more likely to participate in lectures run in Second Life than in face-to-face classes.

Using Second Life creates an interreality for the users – users are immersed in a digital environment, but are also making use of the real world. They are neither in one reality or the other completely. Digital environment experiences, being used the way they are at present, are best interleaved with real world experiences – students getting solely one set of experiences or the other will be missing out.

The major reason for students to prefer face-to-face education over distance education is because of perceived technical problems with remote connections, rather than a difference in perceived quality of overall educational experiences.

Some researchers have found that digital environments that the students engage well with, will positively impact on students’ emotions. Others fear that digitally mediated distance education will lead to emotional distance.

Holmburg and Huvila’s Study

This study had 30 participants – 28 female, 2 male. Of those, 6 had technical difficulties responding to the survey. Moodle, Second Life and one day of face-to-face teaching were used during the course. A classroom was built in Second Life, in which the lectures were held; the classroom closely resembled real-world classrooms to increase familiarity and emotional engagement. The course was arranged by the Centre for Open University Education at Åbo Akademi University.

Respondents were born between 1952 and 1984.

Each student was given instructions about how to use Second Life, and was expected to get to grips with it before commencing lectures.

Respondents felt that the Second Life client was not too difficult to use. Face-to-face education still rated as ‘better’, though Second Life rated as ‘better’ than web-based educational methods. Second Life was rated as the most fun method. Sixty percent of respondents felt that Second Life lectures could replace face-to-face lectures.

The assumption was made at the outset of the study that using Second Life – manoeuvring an avatar – might be challenging for students who were non-gamers. This turned out to be incorrect.

Second Life itself provides many opportunities for different modes of learning, however there are still benefits to be gained from face-to-face communication, when that is easy to organise, since this adds yet more modes.

Second Life provides significant benefits where distance education is involved. If travel time is short and travelling easy, face-to-face teaching is to be preferred. Nonetheless, Second Life increases the fun in learning, an outcome which in and of itself increases engagement and participation amongst students.

In conclusion

The authors of the study state that fun “is always a desired outcome.” This does not always seem to be the case: for many years, anything ‘fun’ has been questionable in educational circles. Hopefully, studies like this in which the fun of an activity is shown to have a positive impact on learning outcomes will go to show that education can be fun and worthwhile at the same time.

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