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Draft Proposal – April 2008


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Over the past 2-3 years there has been an increasing interest in the education community in the potential for using MUVEs (Multi-User Virtual Environments) in learning and teaching.  There has been a particular interest in the virtual environment known as Second Life and a strong community of education professionals is developing. That this is not just an interest of a few individuals on the margins is evidenced by the recent £200,000 JISC funding to PREVIEW, a joint project of Coventry University, St George’s University of London and Kingston University to “investigate and evaluate a user-focused approach, linking the emerging technologies of virtual worlds with interactive PBLonline, to create immersive collaborative tutorials”. [i]

During the past 12 months there have been a number of major education conferences focussing on MUVEs and Second Life and more are planned in the coming months. Some of these have been held entirely within the virtual environment – Second Life Best Practices in Education: Teaching, Learning, and Research 2007 International Conference, some have been held in the real world and streamed into the virtual world – Eduserv Foundation Symposium 2007: Virtual worlds, real learning? and others take place in the real world with workshops in the virtual world – Researching Learning in Virtual Environments – ReLIVE08.

I have been involved personally in Second Life for about 18 months.  During that time, I have explored the virtual world, visited many of the educational facilities, engaged in discussion on the SLED (Second Life Educators) list, and been involved in facilitating projects in Second Life through The Open University, the University of Sussex and the Sussex Learning Network.  In general, I have been disappointed by the tendency of much of the educational presence in Second Life to replicate real life educational facilities and environments rather than make use of the possibilities inherent in the virtual world.

Focus of research

Following on from the ILE 08 project undertaken with the University of Sussex, I intend to further explore the potential of Second Life as a learning environment.  It has been suggested that Second Life provides an opportunity to reinvent problem based learning in an environment free of many of the constraints of the real world. [ii] In the same paper, Savin-Baden begins to explore the relationship between Second Life as a transitional learning space and threshold concepts as discussed by Meyer and Land. [iii]  In reading this discussion I was strongly reminded of the language I encountered in therapy and personal growth circles in the 1980s, for example “Transitional spaces are places where shifts in learner experience occur, caused by a challenge to the person’s life-world in particular areas of their lives, at different times and in distinct ways. The notion of transition carries with it the idea of movement from one place to another and with it the necessity of taking up a new position in a different place. Leaving the position and entering the transition may also be fraught with difficulties that may result in further disjunction for the student….” If in the same passage, the words “learner” and “student” were replaced by “patient” or “client”, the passage would not be out of place in a psycho-therapy or counselling text.

ILE 08 presented students with the task of developing learning experiences in Second Life for real life clients. The clients were asked to identify learning themes which were difficult, dangerous or impossible to teach in real life.  In ILE 09 it is proposed to look for clients within the University of Sussex, but instead of presenting problems which are difficult to teach, identifying projects where learners experience problems, including disjunction. ILE 09 students will be asked to develop learning experiences in the virtual space relevant to these areas of troublesome knowledge, and may themselves undergo a learning transition in order to understand the concept they are working with.

Contribution to knowledge

The research project will explore:

  • The potential of Second Life for developing learning environments in areas where students experience problematic learning experiences;
  • Whether learning experiences in a virtual environment can affect the degree of disjunction experienced by students confronted with threshold concepts;
  • Whether the experience of learning does in any way correlate with the experience of therapeutic change


ILE 08 gave an opportunity to pilot the development of learning experiences in Second Life. This needs to be reflected on and lessons learned identified before proceeding to ILE 09. Areas to be considered are the preparation and infrastructure of the project as well as the actual content and how the products have been utilised.

ILE09 provides an opportunity for a more structured approach:

Second Life for developing learning environments

Second Life as a learning space for threshold concepts

Relating  personal learning journey with therapeutic models

  • Preparation of infrastructure for ILE 09
  • Preparation of students for working in Second Life
  • Observation of students’ responses to task
  • Analysis of reflective accounts of process by students
  • Identifying stakeholders/clients
  • Identifying projects dealing with troublesome learning
  • Some kind of comparison of learning experience in traditional environment and in virtual world learning space
  • Literature surveys with a focus on the language and nature of the learning journey
  • Questionnaires to learners involved in troublesome learning experience
  • Some structured interviews as follow up to questionnaires


There are 3 distinct areas of activity which are of interest:

  • The ILE students, their response to a problem based learning scenario and their use of Second Life
  • The learning experience of students on other courses when experience in a virtual world is offered – including the need to distinguish the learning curve of getting into Second Life with the learning experience being presented in Second Life
  • The nature of learning experiences themselves and the extent to which therapeutic language is appropriate in describing the movement from “stuckness” to ownership of knowledge

Relevant Work by others

There is a considerable amount of work being undertaken in Second Life by academic institutions in the UK, the USA and elsewhere. There is a need to clarify which of this is most relevant to this project and to engage in networking with others involved in the field.

Meyer and Land have provided the lead on thinking about threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge.  The Teaching and Learning Network at the University of Cambridge has been extending this work through projects undertaken by the Centre for Applied Research into Educational Technologies (CARET).[iv]



[i] http://www.coventry.ac.uk/researchnet/d/467/a/4432


[ii] Savin-Baden, M. (2007) Second Life PBL: Liminality, Liquidity and Lurking


[iii] Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: issues of liminality, in Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2006) (eds) Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge. Abingdon: RoutledgeFalmer


[iv] http://www.caret.cam.ac.uk/tel/index.html


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