Learning from the Games Designers

The designers of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games face a significant educational challenge. They need to efficiently and subtly teach new players how to use their game. This involves teaching players about the environment and the interface whist keeping them motivated and drawing them into the challenges of the game itself. This is situated learning in which the games designer is the ‘master’ and the player is the ‘apprentice’.

This educational challenge is similar to the one faced by those intending to teach in Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVE’s) such as Second Life. There are a significant amount of basic skills that need to be mastered before students can successfully engage in meaningful collaborative activity. The traditional ‘orientation’ process in Second Life is didactic and generic, teaching skills in an abstract technical manner. This has come about because unlike an MMO, Second Life has no shared goal, its possible uses are many and varied. However, a teacher who wishes to use Second Life should have a defined set of goals or learning outcomes they wish to achieve. They should be able to define task orientated activities which are relevant to the students motivations, for example, Art and Design students can be asked to compete to build the tallest monolith as a focus for learning building skills in Second Life rather than being given general instructions on how to create, scale and texture objects. In teaching terms this seems like an obvious approach but often when faced with a complex new platform teaching practitioners will often fall back on a basic instructivst style which may not align well with the approach generally taken at HE level for that discipline.

This is where we can learn from the MMO designers who are careful not to fall into this trap as it is likely to make a players initial engagement in a game seem like a chore. For subscription based MMOS such as World of Warcraft this would mean a high drop out rate and a massive loss of revenue, something that the HE sector can emphathise with.

The JISC funded Habitat project intends to learn from the game designers by capturing the processes in World of Warcraft in its initial stages and mapping the styles and types of task to the learning outcomes they fulfil. The data will be captured using pre and post activity questionnaires and video screen capture synchronised with video of the player at the computer. This data will then be used in the process of designing appropriate orientation sessions for pilots in Second Life with students from two disciplines: Art and Design & Philosophy. The Habitat project recognises that some of the most sophisticated collaborative learning spaces online at the moment are MMOs and that the design of these games can be a relevant model for the pedagogical structures that we put in place for the educational use of MUVEs such as Second Life.

Keep watching http://www.openhabitat.org to see how we get on.

The Habitat Project Launches

No, not an opportunity to test stylish yet knowingly kitsch home furnishings but a research project piloting the use of Multi-User Virtual Environments (think Second Life). TALL heads up a large project team on the project which runs until March 2009. Read the official blurb below or visit www.openhabitat.org for more info.


The JISC funded Habitat project is a collaboration between TALL at the University of Oxford, Leeds Metropolitan University, King’s College London, Essex University and Dave Cormier of Prince Edward Island University. It will take an innovative approach to encouraging creative online collaboration in Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVEs) – the online 3D spaces in which each user is represented by an ‘avatar’ or 3D character.

The project will generate solutions to the challenges of teaching, learning and collaboration in MUVEs. These solutions will be primarily in the form of guidelines, models and exemplars but will also be supported by the development/appropriation of software tools and services in and around the MUVEs themselves.
During discussions with members of the Emerge community, teaching staff and students, it became clear the MUVEs offer a number of interesting opportunities for teaching and learning. These include the ability to collaboratively design and build objects/structures and the sense of presence or ‘being there’ that comes across when interacting in an MUVE.

The Habitat project will build on these principles by running a number of pilots which are integrated into the teaching of art & design and philosophy.

A competition to build a structure in the Second Life MUVE which reflects their current practice will be set as part of the first year art & design undergraduate degree based at Leeds Metropolitan University. Parallel to this the project will facilitate discussions in an MUVE with students who have attended one of the University of Oxford’s online short courses in philosophy. The art & design students will have the opportunity to meet face-to-face during the pilot in contrast to the philosophy students who are distributed around the world.

The pilots are designed to explore the effects of working in an MUVE on collaborative group work and on the effects of being represented as an avatar over and above using text, sound or video to communicate. In addition to this the pilots are designed to encourage communication between the two disciplines to assess the potential of MUVEs to bring together diverse student groups.

Habitat will predominantly be using the Second Life MUVE because of its ubiquity and relative stability. The project will also be experimenting with OpenSim, an open source MUVE and a MUVE provided by IBM. These are representative of the widening range of 3D collaborative environments which are emerging across the web and which afford intriguing opportunities for teaching and learning.

Following Online Society Across Time and Tech

Below is a pitch for a research project that doesn’t exist yet because I can’t describe it properly. The ‘Open Social’ concept and Social Graph API seem to be a tech kind of response to the phenomenon I am attempting to outline. I can’t seem to find an academic tool/framework to help me though…


The web continues to expand and diversify its capacity to support communication and collaboration. This is evident in the expansion and popularity of social networking sites such as FaceBook and communication tools such as Skype. The increase in groups that now straddle the real and the virtual is now having significant cultural impact. Individuals are increasingly part of a network of friends, acquaintances and colleagues that is distributed across multiple locations on and off-line.

These groups of distributed individuals are relatively new in form and are constantly changing in character as advances in online technologies provide new affordances which interplay with individuals aspirations to extend/refine their group and collaborate in novel and useful ways. Despite this being in a constant state of flux it is highly likely that individuals in the first world will be part of a distributed group for the majority of their lives. A 28 year-old in 2008 may have been part of an online group for over 10 years, a group that has morphed as that individual moved through a number of different life stages. The group is likely to have moved across a number of online technologies or environments and may exist across multiple environments at any one time.

Collaborative groups have been characterised in many ways, for example, Affinity Groups (Gee), Communities of Practice (Wenger) and Knotworks (Englestrom). Each theory describes different motivations, goals and structures of groups of people attempting to work together with some sense of shared participation. In each instance the theory in question is based on a particular area or type of collaboration or interaction for example fandom or institutional work. This is not to say that these theories are not applicable in a wider sense rather that their underpinning rational has a specific types or styles of groups. A similar bounding can often be seen in research undertaken in this area which is often focused on activities that take place within a particular tool or environment for example, Second Life, FaceBook or World of Warcraft.

It is increasingly important that we gain a better understanding of the phenomenon of the persistent distributed group, one which is not too closely tied to a particular style of interaction or type of technology. We are at a point in time where it is possible to trace the history of an individuals relationship with these groups, following that individuals changing relationship with other members of the groups they are part of and the technology involved. This would require investigating individuals motivations for being members of a group, their reasons for types and levels of participation and their changing perception of what constitutes the ‘real’ or what Castronova calls the ‘Semi-Permeable Membrane’ between online and offline worlds. The aim being to discover and map the underlying principles that are forming as online technologies facilitate the changing makeup of societies, becoming paradoxically more distributed and fractured while at the same time affording greater flexibility for communication and collaboration. In thinking about this it is important not to bounded by a single technology but to accept that many groups transcend specific technological advances or shifts and morph across the changing online environment. In this way a clearer perspective will be gained and a better understanding of the longer term implications and opportunities for society will be understood.


So there it is. I’m assuming that if you made it this far you are intrigued by the idea. Let me know what you think.

Reaching into the Web

As part of our JISC funded ‘Isthmus’ project we have launched a pilot Facebook group for students on our short online courses. The overall concept is to encourage a ‘community’ of students that exists beyond the run of any single course. It’s been running for 6 days now and so far we have 45 members (about 10% of this term’s students) and around 20 posts.

Deciding to use Facebook and then deciding exactly how to set-up the group was complicated and generated a lot of discussion here at TALL. Our students are generally older than a traditional university student and many of them are retired. The recent OxIS Internet survey reported that 42% of students signed up to a Social Networking site last year but of those in the retired ‘life-stage’ category only 2% signed up. In contrast Saga recently launched a Social Networking site for the over 55s and claimed that ‘Silver Social Networking’ was on the rise. Surveys of our students revealed that not many of them were members of Social Networking sites (around a third) but that only 26% were not interested in communicating with other students after their course had finished.

As well as the difficulty in deciding to run the pilot it was also not clear exactly what form it should take because it cuts across technical, pedagogical, social and legal issues. Each area for consideration pulls the design and principle of the pilot in different directions. The core challenge was how to strike the right balance between supporting and structuring the group without ‘owning’ or managing it. This involved consulting JISC legal, Oxford University’s Legal Services Office and a range of stakeholders (including the students).

So far the group seems to be working, but it is early days. More significantly I feel we have made inroads into how to manage our relationship with third party services such as Facebook. If we can establish some principles in this area then we will be able to take advantage of the wider web much more efficiently in the future.

Poster with bloated title wins award at ALT-C

I gave my talk on ‘Cultural Capital and Community Development in the pursute of Slaying Dragons’ at the ALT-C e-learning conference last week. The talk was well received which was very encouraging. The poster of the talk won a runners-up prize in the poster competition! How much of this was down to tactical voting I cannot say but it would seem that the e-learning community is becoming gradually more interested in the possibleuse of Multi-User Virtual Environments.

Talking about Dragons with Dragons

Last Friday I partook in a stressful but useful event run by JISC. Anyone who could make it had the chance to pitch their project ideas for the Users and Innovation callrun by Lawrie Phipps. The format was similar to the BBC ‘Dragons Den’ programme. Each project had to go before a couple of JISC representatives or ‘dragons’ and pitch their idea in a 5-10 min presentation. The dragons would then feedback on the idea and point out/discuss it’s pros and cons.

I was surprised to find that this process put me into my old ‘exam fear’ mode and I panicked for most of the day. However, there is nothing better for focusing an idea than knowing that you have to explain it to a third party, especially when some of it relates to World of Warcraft! It forced us to look at the marking criteria for the call and to turn vague details into well thought out project plans.

Our actual pitch to the dragons went well and their feedback was very helpful. It seems to make sense to do this kind of grilling before, not after the projects are underway. Hopefully it will lead to a better breed of projects.