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Real Learning in Virtual Worlds

Mark Childs, Warwick Institute of Education/Learning & Development Centre

Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVEs) are computer-generated worlds represented in 2D or 3D to which users connect over the Internet. Users choose a computer-generated character, called an avatar, to represent themselves within this environment and can then move this avatar around the world. Other users do the same from other locations, and then interact with each other within this environment. A list on the Virtual Worlds Review website (2007) lists 28 current MUVEs. This article focuses on the use of Second Life in learning and teaching, since this is the environment used in the projects with which the author has been involved, however the principle of virtual presence and how this supports interaction, applies to MUVEs in general. Most also allow the adding of user-generated material, which is another reason why MUVEs have been adopted in learning and teaching.

Second Life is a MUVE developed by Linden Labs and consists of two continents and many small islands (figure 1). It was launched in 2003 at the time of writing (November 2007), has over 10 million people registered with it of whom 1.5 million are active. Land can be bought on the continent, or for more privacy (and more prestige) an island can be bought. Currency consists of Linden dollars, which can be exchanged for US dollars (the exchange rate is about 300 Linden dollars to a US dollar. Users (called “residents”) can create their own objects within the space. These are built from adding together many basic geometric shapes (known as prims – short for primitives). An active economy exists buying and selling these objects, both inworld (in shopping malls) and through websites such as slexchange (


Fig 1. A map of Second Life.  

The shift from these environments from being purely social networking platforms to being a means to conduct educational activities has already started. Around 100 higher education institutions already have a space within Second Life; estimates vary (see Collins [2007] and the SimTeach wiki [2007]).

The question then arises, why? What are the advantages of connecting students together using a visual representation of space and participants, rather than a purely text-based environment?One of the answers is the capacity to embed three-dimensional objects within the space. These objects can be explored by movement through and around. Some of these three-dimensional recreations include:

  • planets of the solar system (figures 2 and 3)
  • buildings (figures 4 and 5)
  • city areas (figures 6 and 7)


Fig 2. Virtual life on Mars

Fig 3

Fig 3. An avatar with his foot in Uranus

Fig 4

Fig 4. A Moroccan Mosque

Fig 5

Fig 5. An Egyptian Temple

Fig 6

Fig 6. Knightsbridge

Fig 7

Fig 7. Manchester

In addition, media objects such as jpegs, flash, PowerPoint and QuickTime files can be placed within the environment. Textures, clothing and other designs can be created in CAD (computer-aided design) systems and uploaded (Polvinen, 2007).

This, in itself, does not constitute an important advance in the development of learning platforms, since three-dimensional recreations, and media objects, can be embedded in webpages. Similarly, design students have long been using CAD systems for prototyping and developing products. Interaction with other learners can already be integrated with these objects by linking the webpages with discussion boards or chat rooms. The difference, and the suggested advantage, that virtual worlds such as Second Life provide is the inclusion of avatars.

The word “avatar” in this sense means a digital representation of a person within a virtual world, and has been employed in this context for a little over 20 years (Sheidlower, 2007). As the use of the word in this meaning has become commonplace, it is frequently truncated to “av”, and has also led to the retronym “ratava”, meaning our offline self.

Within virtual worlds such as Second Life, participants create an avatar to represent themselves digitally and their exploration of the world is conducted through the movement of the avatar. The avatar is also then visible to other users who may be simultaneously exploring the same area, and, if their avatars are in close proximity to each other, the two participants may communicate (usually through text). Some virtual worlds, such as Dreamscape, permit ghosting, that is being able to view the virtual space without having to be represented as an avatar (Taylor, 2002; 47), however, this isn’t the case with Second Life.

The virtual world can then be viewed either in first person mode, i.e. from the point of view of the avatar, or in third person mode, viewing the world from a position behind and slightly above the avatar (figures, 4, 6 and 7 above). Interaction with the virtual world, and with the other virtual participants, is then entirely conducted via this digital representation. One’s avatar will have its movement blocked by objects, can collide with other users, will fall if it steps off the edges of buildings and can pick up and drop objects.

The avatar one chooses can also be changed. It is common for users to select one main avatar, usually as realistic as possible, and have a range of other avatars for different circumstances, which may vary enormously (see figures 8 to 12). One’s avatar name remains constant, however, therefore conferring a persistent identity upon residents.

Figs 8-12 

Figs 8 to 12. Range of Avatars

In virtual representations, such as computer animations, it is possible to experience virtual presence, that is, “the sense of being present in a simulated virtual environment” (Sheridan, 1992; quoted in Zhao, 2003: 445) without an avatar. However, having a digital representation of oneself within the environment enables the participant to also be embodied, that is, have “a mental model of themselves inside the virtual world” (Biocca, 1997). Embodiment is possible (for most people – discussed below) because, according to Biocca, the mental representation of the body (the phenomenal body) can be located within the physical body, or within an extended body.

Increases in embodiment within an environment, it is assumed “are correlated with higher levels of cognitive performance, and, possibly, emotional development” (Biocca, 1997).   This is possibly because, as Taylor (2002, 42) notes “it is through a performance of the body, in this case via the avatar, that one is rooted in the virtual environment”, i.e. acting and interacting within the environment reinforces the reality of the environment. If we therefore want our students to feel that they are experiencing the three-dimensional simulations as fully as possible, and effectively interacting with each other as much as possible, then providing them with the most “real” virtual experience of their surroundings and the other participants would be of benefit. Hence, reasoning suggests, providing them with a means to be embodied within that environment will help achieve that.

There are, however, difficulties with directly importing the experience of people who are social networking to those who are engaged in learning and teaching. Studies of virtual worlds, for example, Becker and Mark (2002: 21), Taylor (2002; 41) and Jakobsson (2002; 79) are of participants who were taking part in these virtual worlds because of their own interest in these worlds, and thus are a very particular set of people. Studies such as those by Bayne (2004) and Thomas (2004) of learning and teaching situations show the participants displaying a set of anxieties and problems with the environment not shown in these earlier studies. This is possibly because the participants were involved because of their desire to attend the course, and were therefore not pre-selected because of their engagement with the virtual environment. The students in Bayne’s study showed no tendency towards embodiment within the environment; Thomas’s students had a range of different tendencies.

In a study by Heeter (1995) in which the participants’ image was superimposed over computer-generated images projected on a screen, the participants were asked whether their off-screen physical body, their image on the screen, or both, felt like their real self. Heeter found that 29% to 31 % of respondents “felt as if ‘the being on the screen’ was their real self”, 26% to 29% felt that their physical body was their real self and 40% to 42% felt that both were real (Heeter, 1995; 200). Heeter comments:

 “The percentages were surprisingly consistent across different audiences and different virtual experiences. … About one fourth of the population is so strongly situated in the real world and their real body that they have a difficult time becoming involved in a virtual world.” (Heeter, 1995; 200).

If this indeed holds to be true across all virtual experiences, then we may find a substantial proportion of our students, and our colleagues, are disadvantaged by using virtual worlds as a medium in which to learn. Hand-in-hand with providing a new learning experience, we may also be creating a new set of disadvantaged students, even though these participants are being disadvantaged by a disability that could not have existed twenty years ago.

If so, it is important to identify this, as there are a growing number of educational uses to which the environment is being put. These fall broadly into the categories of either augmentation or immersion (Bennetson, 2006). Augmentation can be by providing a greater sense of presence of the other participants in a meeting or (in the case of education) a lecture. For example, figure 13 shows a discussion taking place between the author located at his home (in real life), and students located at King’s College, London (in real life), but all located at the author’s home in Second Life.

Fig 13

Fig 13. Students interacting with the author is his virtual living room.

The enhancement can also be through the provision of simulations that convey some educational value, for example the recreation of buildings of an archaeological interest (e.g. figure 14).

Fig 14

Fig 14. The Virtual Theatre of Pompey

Immersionist activities are those in which the learning is through the opportunity the pseudonymity of Second Life, together with the ability to change ones appearance and enter into a fictitious world, gives users. By immersing themselves in the world, and becoming someone else, participants can roleplay effectively, or experiment with identity. An example is the work of Lee and Hoadley (2007) in which students took on avatars of different races and genders in order to experience at first hand racism and sexism.

By designing either augmentation or immersion learning activities, and exploring the application of Second Life and other MUVEs further, these first steps into this new learning and teaching technology may lead to new experiences, and more novel approaches to education.

The experience of learning within virtual worlds, and the differences between learners that may have an effect on these experiences, is part of an ongoing research study at the Warwick Institute of Education. There are many other factors, besides virtual presence and embodiment, that the environment supports, and many other traits of students besides embodiment tendencies that influence the experience than there is space to discuss here. These are summarised at the research website at . Further information is available from or look out for Gann McGann inworld at Second Life at his Second Life home by following this link


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Citation for this Article
Childs, M. (2007) Real Learning in Virtual Worlds. Warwick Interactions Journal 30 (2). Available online at:
(Accessed on )