Virtual worlds make distance no object for UWS students

‘A-Team’ approach brings campuses together for town planning project

December 5, 2013

Much-maligned virtual worlds are being used to teach groups of students spread across multiple campuses, a conference has heard.

Although Second Life, the best-known online universe featuring digital avatars and landscapes, failed to take off as hoped when it was launched more than a decade ago, other virtual world platforms have been effectively employed by university staff, educators at the 3rd European Immersive Education Summit at King’s College London were told.

Speaking on 28 November, Daniel Livingstone, lecturer in computing at the University of the West of Scotland, said that he had been encouraged by the results of a project in which students from two of the university’s four campuses collaborated using five different virtual world platforms.

Computing students at the university’s Paisley and Hamilton campuses – 35 minutes away from each other by car – were asked to contribute towards an urban regeneration plan for Paisley’s town centre by recreating it within a virtual world, Dr Livingstone explained.

Students’ 3D landscapes, created on OpenSim, Open Wonderland and Minecraft, could be accessed by the public. Dr Livingstone added that viewers were encouraged to comment on proposed changes on discussion boards, opening up a new way to encourage civic engagement in planning issues.

The project also improved undergraduates’ ability to work as part of a team and tested their ability to solve technical, design and conceptual issues together, he added.

“Most of these students relied on public transport, so meeting up in person would mean a two-hour trip by bus or train going through Glasgow,” Dr Livingstone said.

The quality of the students’ projects was “very encouraging”, he noted, adding that the online platforms were a low-cost way to rapidly develop 3D illustrations.

Dr Livingstone said he believed that virtual worlds, along with cloud-based tools such as Google Docs that allow the collaborative editing of documents, could be used by academics of all disciplines to improve their teaching.

“Sometimes people are more interested in teaching about computers than using them to teach,” he said of his own field.

The summit also heard how the University of the West of Scotland had used smartphone technology to improve inductions for first-year students, with undergraduates asked to scan QR barcodes situated around campus during a freshers’ week “treasure hunt” exercise.

Each code contained a link to a YouTube clip about useful facilities and weblinks, as well as a clue to the location of the next code, explained organiser Gerry Creechan, lecturer in computing.

“I did the treasure hunt as a paper-based exercise for three years, but lots of people got fed up and went to the canteen. This was the first time all the group completed the task,” Mr Creechan said.

The treasure hunt was a good team-building exercise that helped to break the ice between students and show them around the campus, but it was the QR codes that highlighted the links between the university’s physical and online resources, he said.

“It’s the A-Team approach, where you have bits and bobs lying about, but if you put them together they work to great effect,” he said.

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