Interview – Denise Wood, University of South Australia

unisa-oct2009-2-smlDenise Wood (SL: Denlee Wobbit) is Senior Lecturer in the Bachelor of Media Arts program at the University of South Australia and the Teaching and Portfolio Leader of the School of Communication, International Studies and Languages. As one of Australia’s many educators who are utilising virtual environments in their roles, I was aware of Denise’s work in regards to disabilities and accessibility, so I asked her to have a chat about her efforts to date in Second Life.

As you’ll see below, that discussion covered a number of areas in detail. It’s yet another example of the promising work being done by Australian educators. I was particularly struck by the growing level of collaboration between institutions, which is imperative for ongoing success.

If you’d like to see the University of South Australia’s Second Life presence for yourself, here’s where to go.

Lowell: To start off, can you give a little history of how you got involved with Second Life at first?

Denlee: Sure – We initially became involved out of interest in the possibilities that virtual worlds offer for experiential learning. As an educator in the field of media arts, I was interested in exploring possibilities for engaging students in problem solving activities within a flexible environment that facilitates collaborative learning activities. So we applied for a University of South Australia (UniSA) Teaching and Learning Grant initially to fund the purchase of the island and to maintain it for a year while we conducted trials with some identified courses. That grant was successful and that is how we initially funded purchase and upkeep of the UniSA island.

Once I was teaching in Second Life (SL) I became concerned at the issues for students with disabilities. As someone with many years experience working with people who have disabilities and as an educator teaching in a University that prides itself on access and equity that was a concern. So we applied to the Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) for a grant to develop an open source environment to enhance accessibility in virtual worlds

Lowell: So how much experience with SL did you have prior to making the grant application i.e. was there a key event or experience that ‘turned the light on’ so to speak?

Denlee: I had very little experience in SL prior to applying for the grant. Most of my knowledge was based initially on review of the literature. I spent some time exploring SL prior to applying – and enrolled in building classes and so on, and of course visited education sims, but most came from reading case studies and my own knowledge of simulated learning environments.

Lowell: So how were those first days and weeks in SL for you – did you find it an incredible eye-opener for its opportunities or did it seem a natural extension for you on previous work you’d done?

Denlee: It was a wonderful experience – naturally a little overwhelming initially. Having applied for the grant and received the funding close to the end of the academic year was rather fortunate as it meant that I was able to spend many, many hours over the summer break immersed in SL – I was in SL every day – 7 days a week for about 6 weeks and really did become part of the community through that process. Knowing that we would be trialling courses the next semester was also great motivation to spend the time and make the commitment. I knew I would need to feel very confident myself before attempting to teach students in this environment. And attending building classes gave me the skills but also ideas about what works and what doesn’t in teaching in this context.

Lowell: Let’s talk about the first courses you taught involving SL – what were the educational objectives you were looking to achieve?

Denlee: I trialled two initially. One was a course focusing on games design so SL seemed a perfect environment for achieving the learning objectives relating to that course, which focused on problem solving, team work, collaboration and communication. Students (5 or 6 per team including external students) created immersive games using holodecks on sky platforms.

The other course was one in which students create online portfolios to market their design skills. They created Websites and built complementary portfolios (kiosks) in SL that linked to their websites. The aim was for the students to understand the changing nature of designing for electronic media and the relationship between Web design and the future potential of virtual worlds as an extension of that. What surprised me was that students at first seemed to enjoy the activities and they did some fabulous work, but they were not as positive about the learning experience as we had anticipated.

Lowell: What were the issues they seemed to be unhappy with?

Denlee: Some of the issues seemed to be about the platform (buggy issues and so on) but that didn’t explain it all. And when we really analysed the evaluation data it appeared to be related to their inability to see the connection between the learning activities and their future career aspirations. Many said they would prefer to have created the game in another platform like Flash or Director or another gaming platform. And some of the web design students said they couldn’t see the value as they didn’t believe the future predictions that 3D virtual worlds would become more popular for businesses and marketing.

Lowell: Did they perhaps see SL as less graphically appealing, so more like ‘work’ than play?

Denise-woodDenlee: Actually it was the reverse. Some saw it as inappropriate because it was too much like play – almost as if they had preconceived ideas about what is a valid or authentic learning environment.

Lowell: Ok that’s interesting! So are those courses still being taught in that context – has SL become part of the core work done given the mixed feedback?

Denlee: Well after that experience I was unsure of how to next proceed. But I decided to try again with a different course this semester, only this time I gave students the option of choosing to work with a “real client” in actual life or a client in SL. So in this course, students learn how to create accessible Web sites that are W3C compliant. They are required to work with a client organisation and either redesign an existing website or create a new site that meets very high standards in accessible design. Out of the 20 students in this course, 7 chose to work in SL and that course has proved very successful. The seven students meet with their clients in SL every week and attend a tutorial I facilitate in SL every Saturday. They are also working with disability groups in SL. And some of the tutes are conducted with Gentle Heron from Virtual Ability Island.

The difference – and this is the eye opener for me about virtual worlds – is that they are not focusing on the platform but using it as a conduit to engage on “real” work with “real” clients. What is particularly interesting is that in the previous trials we put enormous effort into running tutorials on how to use SL and we had mentors to help the students, yet they still complained it was hard to navigate and so on. However, in this class the students have had no training in SL at all – I left them to their own devices. They have taught themselves and helped each other. This has shown me that students will engage in learning activities when they are focusing on “real” world issues and not on the technology. The previous courses focused a lot on building in SL, and it appears that perhaps the students would have been more engaged in those courses if they had undertaken projects for clients and not focused so much on learning to build and script. In other words, problem solving can be more effective when students are focused on the project not the skills required to achieve the overall aim of the project.

Lowell: So let’s move over to your area of interest, accessibility. What specifically led you to that research area?

Denlee: I worked in the disability sector for many years prior to being appointed as an academic at UniSA. I was a researcher for an organisation that provides services for children with disabilities and then moved on and established a Govt funded organisation providing training in multimedia for young adults with disabilities. We provided contract work on multimedia projects to graduates of that program. While working in the field I was also actively involved with other organisations providing training in accessible web design. So when I came to UniSA it was only logical that I would want to redesign courses so that our students (future designers) would be equally skilled and committed to accessible Web design and I was able to progress my research at the same time.

Lowell: So did SL seem a natural progression for the work you;d been doing in that area?

Denlee: Yes, very much so. Many of the same principles apply – but we do need more creative solutions to tackle some of the challenges imposed by such highly graphical and multimedia rich environments. Once we received the ALTC funding, we embarked on ethnographic research with people in SL who identify as disabled. I leased an apartment on the Wheelies SIM and conducted many interviews from there. I was interested in identifying the benefits experienced by people with disabilities in virtual worlds as well as the accessibility challenges.

Lowell: Virtual environments are often touted as a boon for individuals with disabilities that may restrict some real world experiences. What’s the more objective view on the challenges and opportunities?

Denlee: The virtual communities provide a wonderful place for people with disabilities to socialise, gain information and for advocacy. The virtual environment also provides a place for people to experiment with identity and so they can choose to represent themselves as someone with a disability or not. It’s their choice – and those who choose not to appear “disabled” find they are more likely to be accepted for who they are, not judged by appearances. For those who are not able to get out of the house much, environments like SL provide a wonderful means for meeting others and also for providing the opportunity foe people in that situation to contribute to the virtual communities in SL. And what really fascinates me are the ways in which these communities have worked together to create their own solutions to some of the challenges.

Lowell: And on the other side of the coin, what are the accessibility challenges that stand out?

Denlee: Obviously SL is a very visual environment – so those with significant visual impairments find it difficult or impossible to navigate. Those who use screen readers for example, can’t access SL without assistive technologies in world as objects and inventory, and locations are not exposed to a screen reader. Then of course most multimedia is not captioned in SL. As voice has become more popular, the environment has become less accessible for those with hearing impairments when they are communicating with residents using voice and not text chat.

Lowell: So with these shortcomings, is there significant momentum toward solutions? And if so, is it primarily community driven or are Linden Lab actively driving some enhancements?

Denlee: Linden Lab has started to show greater interest of late because of the initiatives taken by residents themselves. A good example was the awareness raised by the Helen Keller Day event hosted by Virtual Helping Hands.

Lowell: What are some of the community driven activities that have inspired you?

Denlee: Well, groups like Virtual Ability Inc (VAI) who set up Virtual Ability Island, and of course Virtual Helping Hands and their virtual guide dog you see here. Wheelies and Cape Able (now owned by VAI) and the Health Support Coalition – all these groups show the power that comes when people who share common goals work together on solutions. What we are doing is building on that knowledge using the funding from ALTC to design an open source client that is accessible and can be used with SL and OpenSim. So we are working with these groups to ensure what we create is suitable and informed by their significant knowledge.

Lowell: Ok so how’s that progressing? Can you give a synopsis of key groups involved in its development?

Denlee: We are working with all the groups really – Virtual Ability, Virtual Helping Hands and members of Wheelies. Our contracted programmer is a member of VHH and we meet regularly with others from VHH as we proceed with design and development. We are also working with ReactionGrid, which is based on OpenSim, and they have provided us with four sims for our development work. They are very supportive of the importance of accessibility in virtual worlds.

Lowell: What does OpenSim offer that appeals in lieu of SL?

Denlee: The fact that it is open source. We can work with the open source community on solutions. Everything we do contributes to that open source community as well. We can work on the open source client when it comes to SL, but not at the server level, whereas we can tackle both with OpenSim. But, we are very mindful of the very large following of SL so we want to work at both levels since SL is still a wonderful conduit for linking people together given that large population base. The ideal solution is what I believe Linden Lab always envisaged, a grid with various virtual worlds linked together.

Lowell: Onto UniSA’s presence here – can you give an overview of what’s offered here and what any future plans are?

unisa-oct2009-1-smlDenlee: We will no doubt continue to maintain our UniSA island here – we are planning to trial using our island to facilitate career building – running careers fairs and so on. We are also undertaking research in the area of performing arts and hybrid performance. Intermediality – where actors on a “real life” stage perform with actors in SL.

Lowell: Is the UniSA presence a cross-faculty collaboration or predominantly your faculty?

Denlee: UniSA island is managed by me, but there are several other faculties (we call them Divisions), which plan to trial courses on our island including education and health sciences, and our computer science school also has a presence on SL. We are also doing collaborative work with many other universities. Our ALTC project is a collaboration involving UniSA as lead institution with Monash University, Edith Cowan University, the University of Sydney, RMIT and Flinders University, as well as the University of Sheffield in the UK. And we are also in communication with other Australian universities which have ALTC grants relating to this area.

Lowell: What’s your perspective on the Australian research momentum in relation to virtual worlds – are we leaders or followers?

Denlee: I think Australia is certainly undertaking significant research in this space – so definitely not just following the lead of international universities. We have a very strong presence in virtual worlds in both teaching and learning, and innovative research. Australia is certainly an important international player and making a significant contribution to the field. I think we will see that activity escalate in a short space of time as so many universities are now collaborating and sharing their expertise across many diverse disciplinary areas. A good example of the level of this activity is evident each year at the annual ASCILITE conference, which has attracted a rapidly increasing number of high quality research papers focusing on teaching and learning in virtual worlds.

Lowell: Do you feel there are solid collaborative structures in place to support the growing interest in a way that will be effective?

Denlee: We are seeing that happen I think at a number of levels. Firstly, the ALTC has funded quite a few projects relating to teaching and learning in virtual worlds so this is recognition of the importance of these environments. The ALTC requires universities to collaborate and so these projects bring together teams from universities across Australia. They also provide a mechanism for bringing projects together – so all that bodes very well for supporting collaboration. Also, we have seen a growth in interest in the informal networks recently established and AARNET is playing a major role in supporting collaboration among universities – it is well positioned to do so as the major internet service provider to universities across Australia. is becoming very active in this space as well and has shown great interest in working collaboratively with us.

Lowell: One area that seems to have a long way to go is public-private partnerships, including research. Do you think Australian business is being too hesitant or are there some structural issues more broadly that make collaborations like that difficult?

Denlee: Many of us are looking at the opportunities in that space and one obvious funding source that can assist research in this area is the Australian Research Council (ARC) through their linkage funding scheme. While the ARC does not fund teaching and learning projects, there is considerable interest from academics in undertaking high quality research relating to virtual worlds in partnership with industry groups, and I think you will see increasing uptake of research in this area in the foreseeable future.

Lowell: A final question. What are your plans over the coming 12-18 months?

Denlee: We will be continuing our research into accessibility solutions – that project is funded until the end of 2010. We will also be trialling careers fairs and industry engagement in the coming few months. I will be continuing to teach in SL focusing more on using SL as a platform for facilitating interaction between my students and clients via SL. We are furthering our research into mixed media performance in virtual worlds and we are currently working on a pilot project with the University of Adelaide focusing on entrepreneurship training in virtual worlds. I am working with Professor Noel Lindsay from the Entrepreneurship, Commercialisation and Innovation Centre at the University of Adelaide on that project.

Lowell: Any last words?

Denlee: I guess for me the most powerful thing about a virtual world like SL is that it provides a medium by which researchers, academics and students can come together to collaborate, undertake research and also for providing experiential learning opportunities for students within a global platform. The other significant aspect of this environment is the flexibility it affords for engaging people who might otherwise not be able to meet, whether due to disability, geographical location or other circumstances.

Check it out in-world

Trademark protection gone mad: Linden Lab takes aim at educators

sl-wikispacesI’ve had the pleasure of having a chat to Jokay Wollongong in RL on one occasion, and hope to again in the future. I was more than aware of her work in Second Life prior to that catch-up, but only then did I realise her passion for the work she does. Sure, it’s part of making a living but it’s also a lot more than that – she is fundamentally driven by seeing the outcomes virtual environments can provide in education. In that, she’s no different to hundreds of other educators in Second Life.

That’s primarily why I’m gobsmacked and somewhat angry at a move Linden Lab has made, as reported by Tateru Nino over at Massively. Essentially, Jokay’s use of the URL has come under attack by Linden Lab, who’ve asked Jokay to take it down because of the use of ‘sl’ in the URL. As Tateru Nino outlines:

Under the Lanham Act, which controls the registration, usage and control of trademarks in the United States of America, Wollongong’s usage appears to fall squarely under nominative fair use, and thus legally unable to be counted as dilution of Linden Lab’s trademark which finally saw registration on 22 September this year.

Aside from the questionable legalities, I just can’t get past the apparent futility of issuing a takedown notice for a wiki site devoted to showcasing some of Second Life’s main strengths.  Sure, I can understand protecting a trademark makes exceptions difficult, but this has the whiff of a scorched earth policy. To that end, I’ve contacted the ever-helpful Pete at Linden Lab to get his thoughts on four specific questions:

1. What was the impetus for Linden Lab tackling Jokay’s Wiki specifically?

2. Does Linden Lab see it’s in its interest to issue takedown notices to educators showcasing one of SL’s strengths (i.e. it’s power as en educational platform)?

3. How much confidence should educators have that further trademarks won’t be registered, leading to a further change of landscape that can’t be forseen?

4. How would Linden Lab respond to claims that actions like this provide further motivation for people to move to other grids or platforms outside of SL?

Linden Lab deserve full right of reply and they’ll certainly get it (Update 2: you can read their response here).  My guess is that the takedown was instigated by Linden Lab legal people without a lot of consultation with others. Time will tell. I also had a brief chat to Jokay in-world late this evening, and although insistent on keeping positive about things, she made one key point that sums up the senselessness of this decision:

I’ll also be working to consolidate and publish my research on other platforms and will seek to diversify the wiki.  In the end all of this only strengthens my desire to establish presence in a broader range of virtual worlds, and we’ll be working on that over the coming months.

Then again, expanding the outcomes derived from Second Life into other platforms can only be a good thing. Perhaps it’s been Linden Lab’s intention the whole time 😉

Update: Jokay has posted her thoughts in more detail on her blog

A Second Life success story: NCI

It has been in Second Life for four years (having just celebrated its fourth anniversary), has over 150 staff, costs about US$13,000 each year to operate, holds 46,592 square metres of Second Life land (and rents quite a bit more), and is among the virtual environment’s most well-trafficked organizations.

It isn’t one of those corporate sites you read about, though. It’s a non-profit group, with little existence outside of Second Life. It’s NCI, a volunteer organisation that ranks among the most successful groups in Linden Lab’s virtual world.


NCI’s basic mission is to assist and support newcomers to Second Life. Originally founded by Brace Coral in April 2005, Coral named the organisation New Citizens Incorporated (though the ‘incorporated’ part was merely in jest), and founded it on the principle that everyone in Second Life was able to contribute to the orientation and support of new users. Even those with only a few days of experience would have answers and information that newer users lacked.

Originally a self-help facility with social events and a building sandbox, the scope of NCI was already expanding by the time Carl Metropolitan took over as executive director in a popular vote in September 2005, when Brace Coral scaled back her Second Life activities.

With Metropolitan at the helm of the organization, NCI expanded significantly both in land and personnel, offering large numbers of classes and events, funded by advertising and donations, and standalone ‘aid stations’ called Infonodes scattered all over Second Life near areas where new users are likely to be found. NCI’s financial picture isn’t always a rosy one, however.

Advertising and donations don’t quite meet the operational bills each year, usually falling about US$1,500 short, which necessitates periodic fundraising activities to make up the shortfall, often in the form of charity auctions. NCI’s charity fundraisers are supported by quite a number of Second Life creators, as well as some corporations, such as Microsoft who donated software to the last big fundraising auction.

In an environment where users only have a limited number of group memberships available, NCI’s free-to-join group sports nearly 9000 members at present, and provides round-the-clock live-help for new users with questions and queries.

The NCI’s watch-words are civility, respect and courtesy, but maintaining a safe space for new users, protected from those who would exploit them or intentionally disrupt or harass them isn’t easy. NCI maintains strict rules of conduct, and enforces them swiftly when staff feel that new users may become upset or disturbed by the actions of a disruptive or abusive visitor. Indeed, one of the main pillars of NCI’s popularity is swift and strong enforcement of local conduct rules.

Keeping an organization like NCI running isn’t an easy job either. While class instructors and event hosts recieve payments from the organisation for their duties, nobody is getting a wage from the process. Senior staff can be under tremendous amounts of pressure. In the wake of NCI’s 4th anniversary celebration on 18 April, executive director, Carl Metropolitan decided that he needed a sabbatical, partly from the daily pressure of work, and partly due to unavoidable circumstances related to the USA’s economic downturn.

Presently, a new interim management team are settling in, with Afon Shepherd and Gramma Fiddlesticks cooperatively managing the organisation until Metropolitan’s return to duty. That NCI works at all is something of a surprise, being an expensive operation, with so many people from all walks of life, from most of the countries in the world, bonded primarily only by the willingness to help others and to donate their spare time.

NCI does work, however, and it works well. If you’re new to Second Life, it’s one of those must-visit places.


NCI Major Locations

Skoolaborate: a growing success, despite government ineptitude

I spent this morning at a session organised for a team of French innovators called ‘Lead Educators : Virtual Worlds and the Immersive Web’ . I’ll talk more about that in another post but I wanted to devote this one to a topic we’ve covered previously: Skoolaborate.

Since that time, there’s been some incredible progress, with more than forty schools now involved. I had the opportunity to see Skoolaborate up close at Sydney’s MLC School today. Director of Online Learning at MLC and Skoolaborate‘s founder, Westley Field, spent an hour or so presenting the outcomes to date from the project, which was established in 2007. Essentially, the outcomes demonstrate the power of a well designed 2D content delivery system combined with the use of Skoolaborate‘s islands in Second Life. Here’s a small example of such an outcome:

The main messages I took out of the session aren’t news to educators working regularly with virtual worlds, but they bear repeating for the rest of us:

1. Virtual worlds provide a powerful complementary role within the broader learning context

2. Some students immerse themselves in the virtual world aspects, others don’t like it, and most fall somewhere in the middle

3. Having an evangelist within a school for learning innovations like Skoolaborate is crucial, but having a supportive Principal is even more important

It’s not an entirely rosy picture for Skoolaborate though. Funding has improved although it remains an ongoing battle, and the time commitment from educators involved is significant. Most importantly, I detected a level of frustration around some inequalities existing in accessing Skoolaborate. One of the most stark illustrations of inequality with it is due purely to State Government ineptitude.

Let’s use the NSW Department of Education and Training (DET) as an example. Essentially, no NSW (or Australian) public schools are involved with Skoolaborate. The reason: schools falling under the control of the NSW DET cannot access Second Life. Why? The usual response on blocking content is around protecting children from unwanted information. The thing is, in the case of Skoolaborate, educators have already identified the issue and solved it. Participating schools are set up in Second Life so that only authenticated students and teachers can access in-world activities. In NSW, the private schools involved have mandatory ‘working with children’ checks and worldwide each participating school must complete their own relevant police checks for each adult participant. In fact, successful registration to access any content requires completion of the police check. This would have to make Skoolaborate one of the most child-secure online learning environments in existence.


Westley Field – MLC and Skoolaborate

What makes this issue particularly frustrating is that key bodies within the NSW DET actually understand that initiatives like Skoolaborate are delivering for students. The NSW DET’s own Centre for Learning Innovation (CLI) has staff well and truly across virtual worlds, and there’s recognition from its General Manager down that immersive worlds will be key to further online learning initiatives. 
Given that any school should be attempting to prepare its students for the realities of the outside world, and that units like the CLI already see the potential of virtual worlds for education, why would the DET have a policy of preventing access? It’s either a politically motivated call or a case of plain ignorance at the higher levels of the DET.

Either way, some serious questions need to be asked on how long the situation will occur. This may be a case of failing to protect children by not equipping them with appropriate knowledge. How will kids know how to navigate emerging technologies if they have no exposure in their schooling?

Update: Westley Field has contacted me to correct the assertion that no Australian public schools are involved with Skoolaborate – there are in fact public schools involved, just none from NSW. He also added: “The National Government , through its values in action program is leading the way by supporting us. This support partially based on the fact that we have all three sectors involved. We are very proud of that fact.”

Virtual Worlds Research Discussion Group


Whilst Linden Lab list their education highlights for 2008, a standout from the past year in an Australian context has been the successful establishment of the Virtual Worlds Research Discussion Group.

Organised by organized by Greg Wadley (Uni of Melbourne), Deb McCormick (Monash Uni) and, Sabine Lawless-Reljic (San Diego State), there are weekly meetings held at alternate locations. The 2009 seminars kick off next Tuesday the 20th January with a presentation by Don Wen titled ‘A study of Avatar Personalization Systems in Three Virtual Worlds’.

Whether you’re actively involved in conducting research yourself or interested in hearing about research underway, these seminars are hard to go past. You can view to future schedule of seminars here. Second Life may be the venue of the discussions but they explore much wider horizons than that.

Education Faire and School of the Air

At The Metaverse Journal we’ve repeatedly discussed specific education projects in virtual worlds and also argued that Australian educators are key drivers in the adoption of virtual worlds in a widespread way.

Tateru Nino at Massively asks the question: does virtual education have to get dreadful before there’s widespread adoption by those who determine budgets in the education community? She uses the well-known Aussie icon, the School of the Air to demonstrate how education funding can be used in innovative ways. It’s generated quite a bit of discussion and links to our prediction that there’s unlikely to be a mainstream adoption by the tertiary sector this year.

Monash University’s Virtual Learning Research Project

Whilst the budget and policy-makers drag their feet, Linden Lab are holding their Inaugural Education Support Faire. Aimed at educators and those who provide learning support, it’s being held on the 25th-30th January this year. Linden Lab are inviting educators to present / demonstrate at the event as well.

Over to you: if you’re an educator, how do you see the barriers being broken down at the higher levels so that the self-evident opportunities of virtual worlds become clear to those not at the coalface?

Interview – Lee Hopkins, Business Communicator and PhD Student (Part 2)

Continuing on with our discussion (Part 1 can be found here), we discuss brand identity in virtual worlds, get deep into a discussion of virtual world PhD research and talk about governmental cluelessness.


Lowell: One of the more controversial aspects of business in virtual worlds is brand identity. For regular virtual world users, the overt imposition of brand awareness initiatives can cause some backlash. For business there’s a nearly automatic skepticism of the potential for gains combined with a concern for loss of brand control. How do you see this impasse being solved and which companies to date have done the better job in that regard?

Lee: Fabulous question. Next (laughs). Actually, the whole ‘control’ thing is being played out across social media in general, not just SL, as we all know. What was interesting about the corporate entrance into SL and subsequent backlash was that the corporates just believed that ‘if you build it they will come’, which of course we know just doesn’t work in this new era. When you are the only player in town – the only newspaper, the only tv station, the only record company – there is little choice but for people to come to you, but these days YouTube has usurped TV, iTunes has usurped the record company and many bloggers have audiences far bigger than even the ‘big’ newspaper empires. So these days it is a question of, as Janet Jackson famously sang a couple of decades ago, “What have you done for me lately?”

We are all tuned into radio WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) and unless I can add value to your life you are highly unlikely to pay me any attention. Having said that, I am aware that we are culturally empowered to take that view. I’ve just finished reading Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’, where he points out that many cultures have less ‘open’ relationships to authority. Some cultures are very hierarchical and reverent, and so the mindset that we enjoy in the West, where freedom to challenge authority and demand ‘a fair suck of the savaloy’ is not a globally-shared mindset.

The challenge that corporations face when considering any sort of social media initiative is the thorny question of ‘ROI’. For years, any investment of time or resources by a company has needed to be measured against financial yardsticks to see if the reward is worth it. But social media itself is about relationships, not immediate sales or column inches in the business press, and so measuring the true influence of social media can be tricky, with lots of arguments from both sides of the fence.

We can measure largely inconsequential things, like visitor numbers, repeat traffic, keyword analysis, and so on, but the longer-term relationship nature of social media defies such simplistic pigeon-holes. A more nuanced approach needs to be taken, looking at not only how many people have visited but *what they thought*; not only who is talking about us but *what they are saying* and if what they are saying is positive or negative. We need to consider how influential those who talk about us are in their own communities.

All of this content analysis requires time and resource, for which the pure ‘numbers-focused’ senior management teams and boards have scant regard. But slowly that is changing, in the same way that the climate is changing: inch by inch but getting ever-so-slowly faster and faster.

Companies that are ‘doing it right’ are those who are wise enough to not treat their virtual world markets as comprising a bunch of socially-inept idiots but, as decades of academic research has proven, socially-skilled, highly-networked early adopters. In Second Life’s case we could argue some psychographics as a result of the published demographics Linden Lab releases. Start here for a great place to begin your journey into the adoption of innovation

Here’s my take on the average Second Lifer:

One – they are intelligent, because you have to be to be able to learn how to navigate your avatar around the world. I would hazard a guess and say that they are more likely to have finished high school and perhaps also have completed, be undertaking or are contemplating tertiary studies.

Two – they have strong characteristics of patience and perseverance, because if you had a short attention span or limited patience you’d never get past the bloody Orientation Island!

Three – they are time-rich, because they spend an average of 50 hours a month in-world.

Four – they are cash-rich, because to get the best experience from SL you need a fast broadband connection, a fast computer and a powerful graphics card, none of which are cheap.

All of these would suggest that the average Aussie battler, with two kids and a mortgage and a poorly-paid job, is unlikely to be a dedicated Second Lifer. That is *not* a blanket generalisation, but it is less likely that such an individual would have the time and money freedom to engage in Second Life for so long without detriment to their immediate social relations.

Now, as for the companies that *are* doing it right, you could number them in several ways. Obviously there are the IBMs and Sun Microsystems and their like, who use Second Life as test beds for their own customer service initiatives, for meeting places and so on. I know of one IBMer who mentioned that each year around nine man years of productivity were saved by holding meetings in Second Life or other virtual worlds, rather than hang around waiting for teleconferences and webinars to start and finish and being unproductive in those five-minute periods.

Microsoft also announced that it was making significant savings by holding product launches in-world; once the initial design and build costs of the virtual space were paid for, all subsequent launches were practically free. When it comes to smaller, lesser known enterprises, then I guess I must point to my ‘other’ industry – academia – as it is the one with which I have most recently engaged.

I recently attended the second Australian Virtual Worlds Workshop in Melbourne and was stunned by the number of academics who were keenly interested in virtual world developments. It was slightly disconcerting and incongruous to see those who – when I was at high school I would have labelled ancient, decrepit and clothed from op-shop rejects – being passionate about a technology that by rights only ‘young-uns’ should be into ☺. The fact that I am now one of those ancient and decrepit people has nothing to do with it! (laughs)

The take-up of virtual world technology in order to find new ways of reaching out to children is surprising and to me really encouraging about the state of innovation in the day-care system we call ‘primary and secondary education’. But it is not just primary and secondary educational establishments who are engaging with the 3D virtual world, of course – major tertiary institutions are also using the space for traditional and non-traditional work, for research and for skills-based training. As you would know, the training of nursing staff in important life-risking procedures and practices is something that usually cannot be undertaken (sorry for the pun) on ‘live’ patients. Having a virtual patient to practice on is invaluable.

I am looking forward to working with some organisations on helping less-able bodied individuals develop entrepreneurial skills, principally through designing and launching their own businesses in Second Life (or another platform if a better one comes along).

I’m also going to begin researching the whole social media environment to see if academia can make better day-to-day use of it. Both projects begin early in 2009.

Lowell: Which leads nicely to the fact you’re currently doing a PhD – can you describe the overall topic of your research?

Lee: My research started a couple of years ago and has progressed much, much slower than I either anticipated or would have preferred.

I began with the idea of taking two SMEs (Small to Medium sized Enterprises) into Second Life, working with them through the marketing and philosophical issues about whether they should be there or not before, if acceptable to them, helping them ‘go into’ the space. I wanted to see if there *was* any value for SMEs in the virtual space. Although I believed there was, I wanted to put ‘real business numbers’ around my intuitions.

Alas, my innovative and principal contact at one SME left the company and the company itself had no interest in pursuing the research; the other company found its real world business ‘take off’ so that it had no time or space to consider a virtual environment – all hands were needed ‘on deck’ to cope with the sudden surge of interest globally for their product.

So for a long while I have twiddled my thumbs, read lots, written far too little, and annoyed my supervisors by not handing up potential drafts of academic papers for publication.

But with the new projects coming along early next year all should move along at a far more cracking pace…

Lowell: What methodological approach are you taking for your doctorate?

Lee: This is where I get to talk all ‘academic’-like ☺.

I am using an auto-ethnographical approach based on Kozinet’s idea of ‘Netnography’ and which I have taken one stage further and labelled ‘Autoethnetnography’ (see this and this for more background). The idea is that I not only spend my time in-world, but that I document my time, my feelings and thoughts (the ‘autoethnographic’ component) online (the ‘net’ component).

However, I have yet to completely decide on my methodological approach for the two projects next year – ‘The Exciting Adventures of Penny and Isabella’ will figure into it somehow! ☺

Lowell: How easy have you found it to review the literature on the area given its relative infancy as a research topic?

Lee: Second Life itself is a growing area of research, but its antecedents have a long history in the man-machine interaction landscape. Remember that Sherry Turkle was talking about the psychology and sociology of life in a virtual world a couple of decades ago, so too was Howard Rheingold. Add in the ‘traditional’ virtual reality literature on haptic interfaces (‘sex gloves’ as we probably most think of those early experimenters) and you have a literature that starts to become quite ‘weighty’.

If you then add in any of the business literature, such as marketing, marketing psychology, public relations, branding, inter alia and you start to become overwhelmed with choice.

Whereas two years ago ‘Second Life’ as a search term returned little result in the academic search engines, nowadays that body of literature is growing at a cracking pace.


Lowell: Moving beyond Second Life, what virtual worlds have caught your interest recently?

Lee:Twinity looks interesting, as does VastPark. Sun’s Wonderland platform is, of course, worth watching and I have no doubt that Roo Reynolds and his fellow metaversian rascals at IBM have something up their sleeve ☺ I was recently taken with how simple ExitReality is but how visually powerful it could be. Of course, ExitReality and VastPark are good ol’ Aussie innovations, so it’s nice to be able to talk about something great that *hasn’t* come out of the sun-drenched plains and hills of San Francisco.

I have a *very* strong suspicion, a belief if you like, that Second Life will not be the ‘killer app’ it would like to be. I remember the early days of the web when the company I worked for, Digital, owned and ran ‘AltaVista’. It was the number one search engine around and nothing was ever going to replace it.

Of course, along came Yahoo! and ‘AltaVista’ joined the ranks of ‘Whatever happened to…’. Naturally, we all knew that *nothing* would ever knock Yahoo! off the top perch of the search world, you could guarantee it. So along came two Stanford programmers and a couple of their mates and the rest is history, as they say.

So I strongly believe that something will come out of ‘left field’ and knock Second Life for six, while at the same time bringing scalability and simplicity of use to the masses. And if anyone has a time machine that could put me forward five years to see who ‘won the race’, then allow me to return so I could invest in them, I’ll be your best friend! ☺

Equally, if anyone has a time machine that can transport me back to the early 1980s so I can pick up some cheap Microsoft and Apple stock, then bring me back to the here and now, I’ll reward you with a few thousand shares in them.

Lowell: In the Australian context there’s still a fairly low adoption rate by business of virtual worlds – what do you see emerging as the game-changers that will provide some more momentum?

Lee: Nothing at the moment, I’m afraid. I spend a lot of time talking with businesses about social media, which is still a long way from their thinking but they are slowly beginning to understand that they need to pay attention to it. Second Life and 3D virtual worlds are so far off their radar as to not even be blips.

Even though Australians as individuals are recognised worldwide as important early adopters — and Forrester’s latest report, ‘Australian Adult Social Technographics Revealed’ asserts that Australia is the perfect launch pad for global brands launching social media initiatives, to which I agree. We can see this when we look at Second Life’s demographics (we are 52nd in the real world population ranks, yet 11th in Second Life, showing that we are ‘punching well above our weight’), the business community in Australia is highly conservative. Add into the mix the reality that most CEOs are ex CFOs (Chief Financial Officers, aka ‘bean counters’) and we see a business environment where fiscal economics are the determinants of business strategy, not environmental nor human economics.

I don’t forsee any takeup by corporate Australia of virtual worlds any time soon, not until the marketplace is demanding it and their competitors are doing it and showing some success. It never ceases to frustrate yet at the same time greatly amuse me that Australian businesses love to talk about ‘competitive advantage’ yet never actually want to do anything to give them it ‘until others are showing that it works’.

Lowell: Educators have led the way with virtual worlds. What’s inspired you in the education sphere?

Lee: The work of Jokay Wollongong and Lindy McKeown in particular stand out here. They are pushing the envelope of what academically can be done with 3D virtual worlds. Being around them, even virtually, is intimidating – what they have achieved, what they are doing, where they are going… all is phenomenally impressive and make me feel like a complete slacker! ☺

Lowell Cremorne: Can you name the presences in Second Life you keep coming back to?

Lee: Sure, but bear in mind that often I don’t visit these places for a month and they’ve moved location, which is really frustrating. It would be nice of SL automatically updated one’s SLURL picks, but that may be a database too far.

I most often frequent my own two properties, the beach hut retreat of the Better Communication Results empire or the Better Communication Results office. Otherwise:

ABC Island
Dedric Mauriac’s shop – great tools
Hydro Homes – great offices and houses
Market Truths – great research on SL
Just for Him – men’s clothing and accessories
Crucial Creations – great Italian design work for female shoes in particular, but clothing in general
Influence Hair – the best hair for women in SL, IMHO
ALady Island – absolutely gorgeous female skins
Lindy McKeown (aka Decka Mah)’s teaching and action research island in SL

Lowell: Prediction time – what do you believe will happen in virtual worlds over the coming year?

Lee: The revolt against Second Life will continue, in that landowners will increasingly be less likely to pay for increases in land rental, especially since other, cheaper alternatives will become more plentiful. Additionally, the lack of scalability of Second Life will start to bite harder. Again, I hold to my prediction that someone will bring something out of left field, so we will all have our breath taken away by its simplicity.

But the learning we have all undergone in Second Life will not be wasted, not in the slightest. Part of my reasoning to companies for becoming involved with virtual worlds like Second Life is based on history: we thought we could take the ‘language’ of print and put it on the web yet technology (dial up, online reading styles, for example) showed that we had to adapt our communication styles to fit this new media. So too with 3D virtual worlds; we cannot just take the existing communication paradigms of the 2D online world and expect them to work equally well in the 3D environment – we need to take into account the spatial environment and visual and non-verbal characteristics of the other ‘players’ in the conversation and of those who are adjacent to us.

We have barely begun to figure out how to communicate effectively in this new communication landscape that allows everyone to own their own tv station, their own radio station, their own newspaper and magazine… we are some considerable way off from learning how to communicate effectively when you add in individual- and machine-controlled movement, three dimensionality and non-verbal, non-textual clues into the mix!

Lowell: Back to Australia again, what’s your take on our Federal Government’s grasp of social media more broadly, and virtual worlds more specifically.

Lee: There is a great movie that encapsulates it all in just one word: “Clueless”.

Bless ‘em, they are trying, but Governments are driven by politicians who look for short-term gains to keep themselves in positions of power, not technocrats and innovators who look to the longer-term for societal gain.

Change will, as always, be driven by the zealots, the ranters, the ravers, the ungentlemanly shouters from rooftops, the inconsiderate individuals who refuse to take a relentless and increasingly strident and often-times dismissive ‘No!’ for an answer.

NZ: Literature review on virtual worlds

The dynamos at SLENZ have published a literature review titled Engaging with Second Life: Real Education in a Virtual World.

Written by Ben Salt, Clare Atkins and Leigh Blackall, it provides a superb overview of research undertaken to date and covers a wide range of education-related topics including learning design in Second Life, applying behavioural and cognitive theories and the science applications of virtual worlds.

If you’re an educator or someone just interested in the academic underpinnings or work being done in Second Life, this is a more than worthwhile read.

Distance education close-up

Coat of arms of Finland

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.

AVWW 2008 – registrations open

The Australasian Virtual Worlds Workshop and (AVWW) is back again in 2008 and it’s looking like a fascinating two-day program. It’s being held at Swinburne University in Melbourne on the 28th and 29th November.

Keynote presenters include the New Media Consortium’s Larry Johnson, SLCN‘s Keren Flavell, Linden Lab’s Chris Collins and VastPark CEO Bruce Joy.

We’re proud to be a media partner for the event and will be covering both the real-world and Second Life proceedings. If you’ve got any interest in virtual worlds and education, health and business then think about registering.

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