Virtual worlds in education

Author/Producer Fiona Littleton and Sian Bayne
Published in Newsletter No 10, Spring 2008
Date Published 28 February 2008
Pages 2


The use of virtual worlds within education for simulation, research, performance, design, collaboration and communication has been increasing recently, with many UK universities setting up a virtual presence in Second Life .


Second Life, an online 3D virtual world developed by Linden Lab and launched in 2003, is currently the most popular internet-based virtual world. Its users (residents) interact with each other through avatars (graphical representations of themselves) and residents can explore, communicate and socialise with other residents and build (or buy) items. Second Life currently has over 1.5 million active residents worldwide spending over 1.5 million US dollars in-world daily.

The Eduserv Foundation commissioned a report[1] in the summer of 2007 to investigate the use and uptake of Second Life by UK Higher and Further education. This snapshot revealed a significant body of Second Life activity in UK Higher and Further education, with just over 40 universities actively involved to varying degrees. An update on this report will be provided in March 2008, which will focus more on the impact of using Second Life within formal higher and further education.

Virtual University of Edinburgh

The Virtual University of Edinburgh[2] (or ‘Vue’) is a virtual educational and research institute bringing together all those interested in the use of virtual worlds for teaching, research and outreach related to the University. With 18 departments actively involved in Vue and at least five more becoming involved in early 2008, our Second Life presence has grown from a few scattered acres in early 2005 to a micro continent made up of five islands and four open spaces. The University was one of the first in the UK to build its own island in Second Life and create an in-world presence. We have found it to be an excellent environment for community forming among students, for formal teaching, and for forging new partnerships and collaborations among colleagues within and beyond our university.


The MSc in E-learning[3], based in the School of Education, launched in 2006. It is a fully online course, with around 100 part-time and full-time students currently enrolled. We began investigating and researching virtual worlds, such as Active worlds[4], Palace[5] and[6], as potential learning environments in early 2004 and began developing in Second Life after borrowing an acre of land on Campus island in early 2005. The appeal of using virtual worlds stems from the opportunity to help nurture digital co-presence among distance learners; to redefine how learning spaces can be when liberated from the constraints of the brick and mortar campus; and also to foreground some key issues in online learning – in particular the way in which we forge identity online, and the ways in which new media inform social presence and communicative practices differently.

The single acre of land on Campus Island, called ‘Holyrood Park’, was a waterfront setting with a grove and a beach, and created for the exclusive use of the MSc students. Holyrood Park has since moved to the southwest area of the Vue continent to an open 16-acre plot.

The design of the new Holyrood Park, came about as a result of student feedback and the teaching needs of staff on the MSc. As most residents fly or teleport in Second Life, it was hoped that Holyrood Park would be distinctive from the air (when flying) and easily identifiable on the Second Life map (when searching and teleporting). Since the main purpose of using Second Life within the course is for learning, intimate, small, private teaching spaces were designed in which students could feel comfortable communicating with each other and small group teaching could take place. The Grove of Academe, Garden of Learning and Paradise Beach were created as our three teaching spaces. Student feedback also stressed that the social aspects were very important to them as distance learners, and so a cafe area was included called Filter Café. A student sandpit called Vue Sandbox, where students could create and produce virtual items, was also added. No buildings have been created, because we are primarily interested in Second Life as a communicative environment in which teaching space can be reconfigured, rather than in seeing it as an environment where existing teaching spaces and practices are simply reproduced.

When discussing the educational potential of Second Life on the course weblog our students echoed this desire.

"Some of the [educational] ideas, like recreating places and experiences that are impossible for students to visit made a lot of sense. The idea of role-play seems like a natural fit. Other ideas seemed to contradict the whole idea of Second Life. Isn't the idea that you are not constrained by the concepts and rules of the real world? The suggestions to build a virtual classroom with chairs and show the students a Powerpoint slideshow seemed particularly disappointing. I can't see what the benefit of doing that in Second Life would be at all. If you wanted to do something non-interactive, why use a platform that is designed to be interactive?" (Student comment, November 2007)

In Conclusion

Currently, the main problem with using Second Life is that its very high system and bandwidth requirements create access problems for a significant minority of students (both on campus and distance learners). Because of this we do not (and cannot) use Second Life as a core learning environment within our programme. We hope with time these access problems will become less acute, and have in fact already noticed an increase from year to year in the number of students who can use Second Life.

Using virtual worlds in education presents new opportunities for learning, teaching, research and collaboration which are still largely emergent. However, student feedback about Holyrood Park and our work in Second Life to date has been, for the main, very positive.

Useful Web Resources

Holyrood Park Second Life URL (Slurl):

MSc in E-learning, University of Edinburgh:

Kirriemuir, J. (2007) An update of the July 2007 “snapshot” of UK Higher and Further Education Developments in Second Life.

Second Life in Education: