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Social Spaces for Distance Learners

A consideration of the use of virtual world spaces for supporting socialisation in distance learners

On March 18th, 2021, the 14th Virtual World Best Practices in Education (VWBPE) Conference will hold its Kick Off Event with a social get-together, a sharing of some of the upcoming highlights and an official start to the conference with a Ribbon Cutting Ceremony. As is usual for a conference, one signs-in, collects the program schedule and general conference information pack, and maybe even has a quick scrabble through the goodie bag. Then it is time to catch up with old friends and acquaintances and begin the wonderful networking and sharing experience that is the hallmark of a successful conference. And yes, as is fitting for the nature of the conference, it will all occur in a virtual world environment.

The VWBPE Conference, held in the virtual world Second Life, is one that I have often attended and/or presented at, and one that I will definitely be attending again this year. Though my work over the last few years has taken me away from virtual world environments, in the current world climate, where social distancing and remote education has been thrust upon so many, the integration of virtual world environments into the educational toolbox is, in my view, well worth re-investigating.

My first foray into Second Life came about in early 2006, as an editorial investigation into innovative technologies. That early era of Second Life had all the vibrancy and enthusiasm that comes with an early adopters’ community; unfettered collaboration and creativity abounded. Encouraged and ably supported by such co-conspirators as Professor Cynthia Calongne (Lyr Lobo), author, lecturer, and VW researcher, and Dr Clare Atkins (Arwenna Stardust) my dear departed friend and then, research leader and senior lecturer at NMIT, the educational possibilities that we espoused in our many conversations seemed boundless.

This led, in 2009, to Clare and I forming the Second Life Education in New Zealand (SLENZ) inworld group and consequently initiating the SLENZ project, a research project funded by the Tertiary Education Commission to determine how multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs), in this case Second Life, could benefit New Zealand Education. (SLENZ Project, 2009). I will not go into the project in any depth but have provided below two videos that display an overview of the two learning ‘builds’ that formed the basis of the research.

In general, these builds were well received, with the following strengths being identified:

“the increased engagement of learners with a familiar game like environment where learning may intentionally be a product
of serious play”

“the ability to create experiential learning situations not available in ‘real life’”

“The opportunity to learn the skills necessary to operate socially, technically, and ethically in an online global virtual world”

“experience and practice collaborative, cross-cultural problem solving in social networking environments”

(Winter, 2010)

But for all my time in the virtual world Second Life, and for all the different research projects I have been involved with, it is not with the intent of engaging students in any specific subject matter context that I would encourage you to investigate virtual world environments as a possibility. It is more to provide students with the social context that is so lacking in generally asynchronous, online learning environments.

Two of the underlying foundations of Second Life, and its cousin open-source platform OpenSimulator, are the in-built ability to create and the capacity for socialisation. The in-world building and programming tools are a particular strength in terms of personalising one’s environment and experience and creating one’s ‘self’, i.e., individualising the avatar that represents you inworld. In the social realm the in-built tools allow for multiple lines of communication, friending, grouping, main chat, IMs, group chat and voice. In contrast, apart from personalising your Dashboard or selecting an icon to represent you in forums or chats, arranged group chats and IMs, the general LMS provides little affordance for such individually directed depth of ‘being’ in the virtual spaces that users inhabit.

So, I would encourage you to think about how virtual world environments could be used to bring that social engagement back into the lives of students who, in many instances I would suggest, are toughing it out on their own right now. The possibility of creating an environment that is socially and culturally relevant to distance learning students has the potential “to foster the development of community as well as improved performance through authentic learning” (Chapman, and Stone, 2010, p. 666).

Students form a cognitive impression of their learning space, even when virtual, and experience an associated emotional response, so eliciting a positive response is of particular importance in providing for students a sense of attachment to that learning space. And while I am espousing the virtual world engagement as a social space, its connection with a general learning context opens up the possibilities of students also engaging with it as a learning space, if positive connections with the space are made.

If you wish then, to take a step along the virtual environment road and see for yourself how others are engaging with such environments, come along to the 14th VWBPE Conference. And if you see an avatar with the moniker Isa Goodman hanging about, give a shout out. That is I.


Chapman D.D. & Stone S.J. (2010) Measurement of outcomes in virtual environments. Advances in Developing Human Resources [online]. 12 (6), pp. 665-680. [Accessed 4 March 2021].

OpenSimulator (2012) OpenSimulator: Main Page. Available from: http://opensimulator.org/wiki/Main_Page [Accessed 4 March 2021].

pookymedia (2009) Foundation Studies in Second Life – SLENZ. YouTube . September 26. Available from: http://youtu.be/6tIufh6x5Fc [Accessed 4 March 2021].

pookymedia (2009) Te Wāhi Whānau – The Birth Place in Second Life. YouTube . August 26. Available from: https://youtu.be/Kw-KL-lCesE [Accessed 4 March 2021].

Second Life. Explore Second Life. Available from: https://secondlife.com/ [Accessed 4 March 2021].

SLENZ Project (2009) Tripping the Virtual Fantastic. Available from: https://slenz.wordpress.com/slenz-project/ [Accessed 4 March 2021].

Virtual World Best Practices in Education (2021) 14th Annual Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education. Available from: https://www.vwbpe.org/ [Accessed 4 March 2021].

Winter, M. (2010) Second Life Education in New Zealand: Evaluation Research Final Report. Available from: https://slenz.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/slenz-final-report-_milestone-2_-080310cca.pdf [Accessed 4 March 2021].

Aaron Griffiths
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Aaron Griffiths

Freelance Educational Design & Development in Virtual and Online Spaces - Instructional & Learning Design || Immersive Environment Development Simulations & Role Play || Game Play Design

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