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Reviewing Perspectives on Virtual Worlds



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Australasian Journal of
Educational Technology
2012, 28(Special issue, 3), 522-545
Unpacking frames of reference to inform the design of
virtual world learning in higher education
Katherine Wimpenny, Maggi Savin-Baden, Matt Mawer,
Nicole Steils and Gemma Tombs
Coventry University
In the changing context of globalised higher education, a series of pedagogical shifts
have occurred, and with them, a number of interactive learning approaches have
emerged. This article reports on findings taken from a large-scale study that explored
the socio-political impact of virtual world learning on higher education in the UK,
specifically with regard to Second Life. Three dominant frames of reference emerged
following analysis of data gathered from student and staff perspectives of their
experience and use of Second Life, namely: (i) games and gaming media; (ii)
disciplinary learning; and (iii) institutional space and ownership. Such frames of
reference were evident in the practices of those involved in using virtual worlds, but it
is suggested here that they have largely been overlooked in the literature in terms of
their impact and how they may inform learner understandings. We argue that these
frames of reference need to be recognised and located in the design and use of virtual
worlds in higher education. Throughout the article we present our findings in relation
to perspectives emanating from Europe as well as Australasia and the wider Asia
This article brings together data from a large-scale project that sought to understand
the impact of virtual worlds on teaching and learning in higher education. While initial
findings from a literature review related to the study (Savin-Baden, Gourlay, Mawer,
Steils & Tombs, 2010) suggest that the use of pedagogically informed models may offer
some purchase on the complex issues and implications involved, this article offers a
collation of the findings from across the data sets indicating that particular frames of
reference need to be acknowledged when adopting the technology.
Learning in virtual worlds such as Second Life has received significant attention to date.
Research and academic discourse across the UK and Europe, as well as Australasia
and the Asia Pacific, has explored interaction in virtual worlds, the nature of
embodiment in multiplayer games and virtual worlds, as well as the impact of
immersion in these environments on learning (e.g. Kang, Kim, Choi & Park, 2007;
Mount, Chambers, Weaver & Priestnall, 2009; Richardson & Newby, 2006). Academics
have investigated the potential of virtual worlds for offering new educational
approaches and learning designs (e.g. in the UK, de Freitas & Neumann, 2009; in
Australia and New Zealand, Dalgarno, Lee, Carlson, Gregory & Tynan, 2011; in New
Zealand, Thomassen & Rive, 2010; Winter, 2010; in Hong Kong, Penfold, 2008). In
Australia, learning affordances of virtual worlds have been examined (Dalgarno & Lee,
Wimpenny, Savin-Baden, Mawer, Steils and Tombs 523
2010), and similarly, in the UK, Warburton (2009) has highlighted their potential to
create effective settings for learning along with the barriers to their use, with a specific
focus on Second Life.
Despite the range of research being carried out, relatively few studies have attempted
to comprehend the multiple personal perspectives brought to bear on the learning
encounter, including how such perspectives influence the ways in which tutors make
pedagogical design decisions and students make sense of and respond to learning in
virtual worlds ('tutor' is used in this article to refer to academic teaching staff or
lecturers at higher education institutions). In this article, we draw on three distinct but
inter-related studies that have explored the socio-political impact of virtual world
learning on UK higher education. The focus of the grant proposal for the study was on
examining the student experience, learner identity and pedagogical design, with a
particular emphasis on Second Life. However, this article presents findings that
emerged across the three studies, and which also seem to reflect the arguments
proposed by Dalgarno and Lee (2010), who suggested that future research needs to
seek to provide a better understanding of the relationship between virtual worlds and
their potential learning benefits. Considering relationships and their influence(s), we
argue here that there are multiple frames of reference which inform students' and
academics' responses to the design of and experiences of using virtual worlds as
learning technologies, but as yet these are seldom realised in curricula today. Three
particular frames of reference were found to be evident across the three individual
studies that were part of the large-scale study, and they provide the focus for this
1. Understandings of games and gaming media;
2. Disciplinary learning;
3. Institutional space and ownership.
We have considered O'Donoghue's interpretivist position on 'perspective' in our use of
the term 'frame of reference' (O'Donoghue, 2007, p. 26). The notion of 'frames of
reference' has been adopted as a lens "through which meaning is construed" (Mezirow,
1991, p. 4), and through which it is possible to see the impact of different stances,
approaches and beliefs on the use of virtual worlds in higher education. Taken
together, we assert that these frames of reference may help to inform understandings
of the variation in approaches taken by students and tutors when making use of
virtual worlds for teaching and learning purposes.
Relevant literature
Criticism is often raised about the use of virtual worlds failing to create effective
settings for learning. Reasons cited for this are diverse, as reflected in the writings of
authors from the UK, Australasia, the Asia Pacific and elsewhere. Such criticism
includes ease of access (Herold, 2010), weighing up the relative advantages and
disadvantages of virtual worlds against other available (e.g. non-3D) alternatives (Lee,
2009), and ensuring that pedagogical initiatives drive the implementation of virtual
world technologies rather than the 'university' (Waycott, Bennett, Kennedy, Dalgarno
& Gray, 2010). Noble (2001), Reeves (2002), and Oliver and Herrington (2003) have
called for a re-engineering of the concept of learning design as opposed to just a
simplistic repackaging of course content into electronic media formats. McWilliam
(2005) similarly contends that new possibilities for teaching and learning necessitate a
524 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 2012, 28(Special issue, 3)
rethinking of curriculum design; new technologies themselves cannot be relied upon
to change anything. It would seem then that attention has been centred on the
relationship between the pedagogy and the technology rather than the multiple
perspectives that individuals bring to the learning encounter based upon prior
experience, knowledge, and the influence of culture and world view (Gergen, 2003). It
is examining how the student and tutor participants described, explained or otherwise
accounted for their actions, interactions and experiences within Second Life with which
this article is most concerned. In the subsections below, we proceed to review extant
literature within the field that relates to the three identified frames of reference.
Understandings of games and gaming media
Play has been recognised in both the schools and higher education sectors as being a
powerful means of engaging learners (Bruner, 1990; Dewey, 1938; Gee, 2003). Recent
multi-user educational games such as Quest Atlantis (Barab et al., 2007) and River City
(Galas & Ketelhut, 2006) have embraced play as a key component of learning. While
play has been central to discussion and explorations of virtual reality and serious
games, it is less prominent within the virtual worlds for higher education arena. Our
contention is that there is a complex range of perspectives that needs unravelling in
order to understand personal responses towards learning and play, considering the
influence of 3D gaming and creating learning in virtual worlds that specifically
employs a gaming pedagogy, or not. The broader international literature is certainly
rife with suggestions that the user's attention is captivated in-world, and that this can
result in a sense of immersion or presence (in North America, Robertson, Czerwinski &
van Dantzich, 1997; Steuer, 1992; in Europe, Childs, 2010; Mikropoulos & Strouboulis,
2004; Mount et al., 2009). The review conducted by Mount et al. (2009), in particular,
explored immersion in 3D virtual worlds. The research began by looking at the
relationship between immersion, presence and engagement based on previously
published studies. The outcomes of this exploration were then used to code the results
from student focus groups in which participants were asked to explain their
understandings of immersion and engagement with respect to a particular set of
learning activities. The authors put forward the argument that
The clear danger... is that educators expend significant resources in developing
learning spaces and learning activities in 3D virtual worlds that fail to engage learners
properly because inadequate account of what it is to be engaged in a 3D virtual world
has been taken, and the factors that prevent and obstruct engagement in such
environments have not been assessed. (Mount et al., 2009, p. 40)
Mount et al.' s review draws on a number of interesting and useful sources, but does
not entirely succeed in unpacking and delineating terms such as 'immersion',
'engagement' and 'presence' in ways that can be generalised or used specifically in
relation to 3D virtual worlds. Further, the relationship between digital games and
educational uses of virtual worlds has been charted explicitly in the UK literature (e.g.
Dittmer, 2010). Yet, there are challenging elements to these relationships. Firstly, the
implication of continuity between digital games and virtual worlds appears to create a
demographic 'black box' of sorts (see Law, 1992), wherein the translation of gaming
elements, practices and literacies to the virtual world domain is assumed rather than
thoroughly investigated (e.g. Toro-Troconis, Meeran, Higham, Mellstrom & Partridge,
2010). Secondly, the assumed continuity between digital games and virtual worlds
tends to eradicate other possible interpretations and positionalities. For example,
several UK authors have acknowledged the contentious game/non-game status of a
Wimpenny, Savin-Baden, Mawer, Steils and Tombs 525
virtual world (e.g. Carr, Oliver & Burn, 2010; Livingstone, 2007; Toro-Troconis et al.,
2010), yet it is rare that alternative conceptualisations are looked upon as being
significant and useful.
Disciplinary learning
Although there is a body of literature that reflects diverse disciplinary use of virtual
worlds (as exemplified in the UK by Savin-Baden, 2010a, 2010b), there are few
expositions of the complexities of the use of Second Life, or indeed, transdisciplinary
research studies in this area. Yet, other studies might be overlaid to assist our
understanding of how responses to disciplinary learning using Second Life, beyond the
design of specific learning activities, may be examined. Understanding discipline-
based pedagogy, we believe, requires more than just paying attention to the design of
the learning activities. It calls for a recognition and understanding of the impact of
disciplinary norms and values and the way in which these are played out through
teaching. Moreover, as UK academics Jenkins and Zetter (2003) argue, disciplines
shape the nature of pedagogy, and such pedagogies reflect the practices and culture of
the discipline. Consequently, teacher knowledge and beliefs about what to do, and
under which circumstances, can affect how students learn particular subject matter.
Translating the disciplinary traditions and understandings individuals bring into
virtual world learning is complex, not always transparent, and thus susceptible to
misinterpretation. Yet Chee (2007), writing from Singapore, discusses how virtual
worlds provide experiential spaces in which users learn their subject area through new
and creative ways of doing, observing the outcomes of their actions and reflecting
upon these to further their disciplinary understandings.
Shulman's (2005) work in the USA provides a useful framework for understanding the
translation of disciplinary understandings through teacher knowledge, which he
describes as several layers that include both subject knowledge and pedagogical
knowledge. From a learner perspective, Trowler and Trowler (2010), in their review of
the international literature on student engagement, identify three dimensions of
engagement, namely student perceptions of their own learning processes, engagement
with structure and process, and understanding of their learner identity. However,
there does appear to be a decontextualisation of teaching methods and technical
developments from both the learners and the disciplines, resulting in a worrying trend
towards ignoring the particularities of what can be understood about conveying
disciplinary learning (Becher & Trowler, 2001), along with the assumption that
teaching and learning are necessarily the same thing.
Institutional space and ownership
Although there has been discussion about the relationship between the use of Second
Life as a social space and its use as a higher education learning space, there have been
only isolated pockets of research taking place on this topic (e.g. in Europe, De Lucia,
Francese, Passero & Tortora, 2008). As noted by Temple (2008, p. 239), the university's
use of space is intimately connected to the student learning experience, and thus the
implications of spatial practice should be carefully considered. We suggest that as new
spaces - including virtual spaces - emerge in higher education, they must be shown the
same regard. What the literature has so far highlighted is that understandings of the
use of space, along with the impact of representations of space in virtual worlds,
526 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 2012, 28(Special issue, 3)
remain an area worthy of attention (e.g. from Singapore, Sourin, Sourina & Prasolova-
Førland, 2006; from a UK perspective, Minocha & Reeves, 2010).
There have been a number of studies on proxemics in virtual worlds in the North
American literature (Beale & Creed, 2009; Särkelä, Takatalo, May, Laakso & Nyman,
2009; Yee & Bailenson, 2009), and several studies have explored issues related to
identity - although the latter is often conceptualised in diverse and competing ways
(Dickey, 2005; Herold, 2010; Peterson, 2006). While some parts of the literature inform
understandings of spatiality in virtual worlds, these do not extend far enough in terms
of examining how teachers and learners approach, utilise and make sense of spatiality
and spatial practices.
As a result of the difficult issues in the literature that highlight a tendency to neglect
the impact and complexity presented by multiple personal perspectives on virtual
worlds and their use for learning and teaching, we set out to bring together the work
of the three studies in an effort to examine the challenge of pedagogies and practices,
using virtual worlds, 'in action'. Hence this article examines the ways in which
particular frames of reference relating to virtual worlds might affect the way learning
and design are approached in higher education. Specifically, the following questions
were investigated:
* How do perspectives articulated around gaming and virtual worlds influence
expectations and engagement with Second Life?
* What disciplinary learning issues are prominent for students in their use of Second
* How do tutors' perceptions of ownership of space within Second Life inform
approaches to pedagogy?
Research design
The three studies have each made use of different qualitative methodologies, including
case study (Simons, 2009), narrative inquiry (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000) and
constructivist grounded theory (Charmaz, 2006). While separate in their study design,
examples of data from the three studies have been brought together for the purposes
of this article to form a 'synthesis' through a constructivist lens. Thus both the
experiences and structures reported upon by research participants have been
examined in context. This synthesis of such accounts has demanded naturalistic
approaches to the translation of field data and emerging concepts from the individual
studies into one another, thereby evolving overarching concepts. We have termed this
process 'participatory action synthesis' (Wimpenny & Savin-Baden, in press), which we
explain in more detail below.
Participatory action synthesis
Participatory action synthesis is valuable as a methodology for synthesising primary
research data from associated studies because of its explicit participatory element and
the way in which it allows for the collation of data through multiple perspectives. It is
a collaborative approach to data analysis, synthesis, interpretation and knowledge
construction that enables the generation of data and results for communal analysis.
Wimpenny, Savin-Baden, Mawer, Steils and Tombs 527
More than purely combining qualitative data sets from across the three studies that
form the basis of the present research, participatory action synthesis has provided a
means of integrating forms of knowledge and of making (meta-)interpretations
between the data sets. This was accomplished through a team process of analysis,
synthesis and interpretation, whereby themes and subthemes that emerged from the
data were re-examined and renegotiated by the research team, which in turn led to a
considered translation of concepts into a new whole.
Important features of the synthesis process included the research team:
Focussing on research questions that transcended the discrete studies;
Having access to all the primary data from the three studies;
Working with data across the whole data set;
Taking a constructivist stance.
Data collection
Data were gathered over an 18-month period by three PhD students (who were
themselves familiar with both teaching and learning in Second Life), through individual
and group interviews with students and tutors. Known experts who had extensive
experience of Second Life teaching and research were also interviewed. This included 90
interviews, conducted individually, in pairs and through focus groups, as well as over
130 hours of observation. Table 1 provides more detail regarding the discipline,
activities undertaken in Second Life and profile of staff and students included in the
data set. Research sites included higher education institutions across the UK. This
enabled the research themes to be explored and the impact of pedagogical design to be
studied across both disciplinary and institutional boundaries.
Data analysis, synthesis and interpretation
The participatory action synthesis process involved simultaneous phases of data
collection and inductive approaches to analysis, building on the reciprocal
translational analysis (RTA) methods as outlined by Noblit and Hare (1988). This work
was carried out initially at the individual level by the three PhD students as they
collected the data, and then at the group level, with involvement of supervisory team
members, in order to examine and share the data sets and to compare and integrate the
findings constructively.
The synthesis process consisted of cycles of focused action and reflection. The steps
undertaken included the following:
1. The primary data (sets) were read by the research team within an agreed
timeframe, with accompanying contextual information regarding the circumstances
around why, how and when the data were gathered.
2. Analysis involved comparing and examining the relationships between data sets,
including listing and organising themes to develop first- and second-order themes.
Themes identified from across the studies were then developed.
3. Next, the emphasis was shifted from comparison and examination of relationships
between themes and team members' perspectives, to integration of themes. At this
stage of the process, the research team was able to identify what could be said
about the overall data sets.
528 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 2012, 28(Special issue, 3)
Table 1: Details of data set
(level; mode)
Virtual world
learning activities
Teaching staff
on campus)
Development of media
production skills through
3D modelling, DVD
production and
machinima production
3 females (aged 18-24);
13 males (7 aged 18-24, 6
aged 31-40)
2 tutors, 1 male and 1
female, both highly
experienced technical
developers and tutors in
Second Life
on campus)
3D modelling of objects
pertaining to the
discipline (e.g. atoms,
DNA strands)
Research carried out with
staff member, thus no
detailed student profile
information available
1 male tutor, highly
experienced in teaching
in Second Life
Exploration of
educational applications
of Second Life through
seminar discussions and
game-based learning
Mature students, often
mid-career professionals
6 highly experienced
practitioners in the fields
of educational theory and
practice, 4 of whom were
female and 2 of whom
were male
on campus)
Development of
employability skills
through project
management in-world
6 females (aged 18-24);
8 males (aged 18-24)
2 male tutors, a course
leader and a lecturer,
both highly experienced
in designing in Second Life
on campus and
Risk management
development skills
through simulated
accident investigations in
Second Life
9 females (7 aged 25-30, 2
aged 31-40);
3 males (2 aged 25-30,
1 aged 41-50)
1 female tutor, a highly
experienced developer
and designer in e-
learning who also used to
be a practitioner in
environmental health
on campus)
Exploration of the
relevance of geographical
concepts to virtual
worlds through in-world
field trips
3 females (1 aged 25-30, 2
aged 31-40);
11 males (8 aged 18-24, 1
aged 25-30, 2 aged 41-50)
1 male guest lecturer
experienced in Second Life
research, but with no
prior experience teaching
in Second Life;
2 male tutors with limited
previous experience of
teaching with Second Life
Exploration of uses and
cultures of virtual worlds
through in-world
discussion groups and
field trips
4 females (2 aged 18-24, 1
aged 31-40, 1 aged 51-60);
6 males (2 aged 18-24, 3
aged 31-40, 1 aged 41-50)
1 male tutor, highly
experienced in
researching and teaching
by distance in Second Life
on campus)
Theatre practice in Second
Life through productions
of performances in-world
2 males (aged 18-24);
2 females (aged 18-24)
1 male tutor experienced
in Second Life;
1 experienced female
theatre practitioner
teaching with Second Life
for the first time
Figure 1 illustrates the process used to locate knowledge gaps by making connections
between findings and themes, moving beyond breaking down, reassembling and
describing the findings to attempt to offer new forms of representation, contextualised
by the literature, as suggested by Major and Savin-Baden (2011).
Wimpenny, Savin-Baden, Mawer, Steils and Tombs 529
Figure 1: Participatory action synthesis process
Ethical approval
Approval was obtained from the research ethics committee at Coventry University and
negotiated with all other university research sites.
Evaluation criteria
We acknowledge that the researcher, as a subjective individual, plays an integral part
in the data analysis process (Finlay & Gough, 2003; Smith & Deemer, 2000). Thus to
ensure rigour when conducting the participatory action synthesis, special attention
was paid to:
What was not said, and ensuring shared views were not privileged;
What expressed realities were accepted without any scrutiny;
Which experiences/opinions initially seemed improbable, and what conditions
might have shown those to be real;
What contradictions were revealed.
The findings presented here reflect the frames of reference that emerged through the
participatory action synthesis. It should be noted at the outset that these 'frames' were
not imposed on the data, but rather emerged as issues of tension across the studies.
While other cross-study themes are present, it is these frames of reference that stood
out to us as being most poignant and are therefore reported here.
530 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 2012, 28(Special issue, 3)
Understandings of games and gaming media
In exploring the frames of reference articulated around gaming and virtual worlds,
three elements of the relationship are presented:
1. What meaningful expectations and practices are translated from digital games to
virtual worlds?
2. To what extent are digital games a universal frame of reference for situating virtual
worlds such as Second Life?
3. Is the implied continuity between digital games and virtual worlds reflective of
participants' perspectives?
In each case, these frames of reference were derived from students with some degree
of gaming history (although this was also diverse), yet the relationships between
digital games and virtual worlds were not straightforward. Similarly, these frames of
reference were not always mutually exclusive.
Within our data, seven references to digital games emerged: console first-person
shooters (FPS), online FPS, beat-'em-up/fighting games, online casual games (e.g.
Facebook games), role-playing games, simulation and world builders, and virtual world
platforms (both gaming and metaverse). Individuals' prior experience of gaming was
varied, as was how that experience was translated from digital games to virtual
worlds. Frames of reference appeared to influence behavioural norms of nearly all the
students in the study, as seen in the following remark made by one mature-aged,
female student studying part time on a masters-level geography course:
I've only ever played games when you beat people up. So someone would be in front
of me and I'd be like, "Oh, how do I hit them, how do I hit them?!"
Here, the individual's previous gaming history is rooted in a specific type of game (a
beat 'em up), where behavioural norms (such as hitting) are quite specific. Translating
this behaviour into the virtual world of Second Life therefore gave rise to issues. Not
only were there disparities in systems of action (i.e. how to hit someone), but such
actions carried differing significance within much of Second Life as compared with a
fighting-oriented digital game. While orientation sessions may aim to support
students' understanding of how learning is designed or intended to occur within the
virtual world, the translation at an individual level can still be problematic,
particularly as many students in the study expected Second Life to be a gaming
Frames of reference were also evident in students' estimations of personal competence:
I used to play [The] Sims, but I was never good at it... and so, when they were, like,
"Oh, you're going to be able to build a set and you're going to," I was, like, "Oh
[expletive], it's like [The] Sims!" And it was, it was just daunting to think that, like, I
was going in this place.
Here, a digital game norm, drawn from a frame of reference (The Sims), influenced
both the expectations of action in-world as well as this female student's perceived
personal ability to successfully complete those actions. Previous experiences with The
Sims appeared to have lowered her confidence in the possibility of a positive
engagement with Second Life, leading to anxiety on encountering it as part of the
theatre degree she was pursuing full-time. The sense of apprehension evident in this
Wimpenny, Savin-Baden, Mawer, Steils and Tombs 531
quote highlights how a gaming history can affect motivation and self-belief in a
deleterious manner when previous experiences have been difficult or challenging.
In addition to the diversity in the types of and ways in which digital games affect
engagement with the virtual world, we found virtual worlds were positioned by
student participants in a variety of ways. These included the virtual world as a digital
game, a non-game, a replication of the physical ('real') world, an augmentation of the
physical world, or a distinct and separate fantasy world. The link to digital gaming
was sometimes made explicitly, as this next quote from a male information science
student (who also held a tutor role) illustrates:
I was probably one of those people that, prior to the course, that was guilty of thinking
that virtual worlds were just games, effectively.
In this case, the 'game' as a frame of reference is applied to understand the virtual
world. The use of 'guilty' and 'prior' are of significant interest as they are indicative of
a shift in perspectives between frames of reference - that is, away from games towards
other possibilities. Similar shifts were observed among numerous other students who
also began from this position:
Well, I keep saying RPG [role-playing game] because I do see Second Life as an RPG to
some degree. Um, it's not a game, I know that, I'm very aware of that, but it is in that
same category.
Yet, here the continuity between digital games and virtual worlds is less clear. From a
cognitive perspective what we are seeing here is the individual locating the virtual
world in relation to his/her cognitive frame of reference, and trying to make sense of it
based on prior learning and experience (Ausubel, Novak & Hanesian, 1978).
While some students' positioning of the virtual world resonated with the perceived
attributes of a game, others attempted to relate to the virtual world by drawing upon a
hybrid framework of digital games and other media:
[Second Life] seems to me like a sort of mix between Facebook and The Sims or
something like that...
The permeability of 'fantasy' and 'reality' in frames of reference was more apparent
here, with the idea of a virtual world being a coalescence of a social network and a
digital game. The type of digital game being drawn upon became increasingly relevant
also, as did the notion of fantasy simulation represented by The Sims, and connectivity
with other 'real' people as reflected through social networking sites like Facebook.
It became clear that frames of reference were particularly murky at the interstices
between gaming and non-gaming media, and fantasy and reality. The virtual world
appeared to be part 'chimera' (like a clone - Friese, 2010, p. 145) and part 'shape shifter'
(potentially like its users - Savin-Baden, 2010a, p. 35) - a positional conundrum. Thus
although the frame of reference related to games and gaming media tended to shift as
the students' experience moved and changed, there was a sense that students who had
previously experienced gaming held prior conceptions that virtual worlds would be
like a gaming environment. Such frames of reference at an individual level were also
affected by the particular disciplines in which virtual worlds were being used; it is this
aspect to which we now turn.
532 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 2012, 28(Special issue, 3)
Disciplinary learning
Disciplinary learning is used here to refer not only to the impact that acquiring
disciplinary knowledge, skills and attributes has on learning and teaching, but also to
the way in which disciplinary traditions and beliefs have an effect on what it means to
learn within a given discipline.
The findings from the data revealed that initially, many of the students interviewed did
not make the connection between what they could gain and how they were expected to
learn about their discipline when using Second Life. For example, individual frames of
reference students appeared to hold and draw upon related to pre-existing images,
knowledge and experience of the particular discipline, with varying degrees of
relevance. What was of note here was whether tutors were able to help students make
connections between complex subject matter and constructive ways of learning in the
virtual world, especially if the tutors themselves were uncertain of the learning
technology that required a radical transformation of their practice (Kalogiannakis,
2004). In our data, we found students and tutors framed their experience alike, in that
many were not able to make use of Second Life intuitively. Some showed signs of
reservation or resistance, as commented upon here by an e-learning designer:
Prior to this I'd tried it out at home on the PS3 [PlayStation 3] for kind of five minutes;
I'd tried Second Life for minutes and kind of run away screaming, "This is just rubbish!"
While evidence of resistance varied depending on the individual and level of the
course, there was a tendency for an enhanced and applied understanding of learning
in Second Life to emerge as students became more familiar with the application, as
demonstrated in this quote from a rather sceptical environmental health management
But it was definitely better than I thought, easier than I thought. Although yeah, in the
beginning I thought, this is rubbish, I'm not going to learn anything from this and that
changed. ... They're not going to make us do anything that's going, that's going to have
no benefit or no use. So yeah, definitely changed my mind on that.
Similarly, a student studying a second-year employability module shifted her
perspective from not being able to see the value in the use of Second Life to having a
more insightful outlook:
I don't think necessarily I would get a job somewhere else because I'd taken part in
Second Life. But I could still say I demonstrated teamwork, I demonstrated
organisational skills and presentation work, and whatever, and so those are the
positives for me.
Here we see a clear link between the use of Second Life and the values implicit in the
discipline - teamwork and presentations, for example. Yet in contrast, the framing of
experience shared by a performing arts student, who is commenting upon engaging in
role-playing activities within Second Life, suggests more of a struggle to make
disciplinary links:
I was a bit like, "That's, that's not theatre!" but then, I was left working with it for a
while and that was it, it is, it's, in its own little way, it can be used as a performance
tool, as well as a lot of other things.
Wimpenny, Savin-Baden, Mawer, Steils and Tombs 533
What became apparent by such frames of reference was that the use of Second Life did
not provide immediate disciplinary 'fit'. By this we mean that when students came into
these learning spaces, they did not immediately recognise the disciplinary shape of
them, nor were they able to marry them with previous experiences of disciplinary
values and discipline-based pedagogy. Being introduced to learning in a virtual world
was framed as territory that was seen as troublesome, as in foreign and conceptually
difficult to understand (Perkins, 2006). Certainly it would appear that conveying the
purpose and the design of the Second Life-based activity to students in advance arose as
a repeated challenge for tutors. What seemed to happen was that as barriers were
overcome, frames of reference shifted. Former disciplinary images/definitions became
more refined, and learning was viewed as more comparable to that of other real-world
'classroom' activities such as group or project work.
With the above said, there were some examples that demonstrated a clear fit between
disciplinary learning and the use of virtual worlds. One such example was the use of
Second Life to simulate a disaster scenario for environmental health managers. In this
instance, the potential benefits of Second Life were clear: an in-world simulation
provided a safe but complex space for trainees to practise their future professional
roles, and the transferability of the training into the 'real world' was obvious. As two
students acknowledged:
Second Life was a good starting point. Great to try things out first before doing it in
reality. It's safe preparation for placement. I'll be able to bring some skills in and try
them out again.
[It] was a bit like a role-play, because we don't get to do any kind of practical things
[sic] really, or that many, so as it was, it was a good kind of tool to use, where we
could actually put skills into practice without actually physically having to go and do
it, and we've got not [sic] anything like that, so that was, that was really good.
Second Life was framed as a space that provided opportunities for the development of
disciplinary values and capabilities (such as 'soft'-skills practice, building, designing)
within a specific discipline. Yet, as Savin-Baden (2008) questions, does it also provide
scope for the level of critique necessary for life and work? Tutors and students tended
to build and visit spaces within Second Life that reflected their discipline, and such
spaces were designed within disciplinary assumptions. However, our data also
suggest that the intricacy of how disciplinary learning may be conveyed warrants
more thoughtful consideration beyond how the environment and learning activities
are designed. Virtual worlds offer new possibilities and the impetus to do things
differently, while also confirming and imbuing a sense of disciplinary learning.
Nonetheless, at the same time, understandings of games and ways of learning within a
discipline are also affected by the institutional spaces into which they are placed, and it
is this we next explore.
Institutional space and ownership
Our findings pertaining to institutional space and ownership have been drawn from
interviews with tutors involved in teaching in Second Life, and they represent the
complex understandings of ownership that frame the rationales for and approaches to
the use of the technology. Here, we draw upon Lefebvre's (1991) notion of social space
- specifically, space as a means of control, through which some understanding of
ownership is developed. Lefebvre's constitution, along with territorial, disciplinary
534 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 2012, 28(Special issue, 3)
and institutional spaces, impact upon spaces for learning by preventing or enhancing
their creative development. Yet, an understanding of the diversity and complexity of
learning spaces can inform the ways that they are (re)created, managed and owned.
In our data, tutors often viewed Second Life 'islands' as encompassing multiple frames
of reference, thus precluding an easily discernible notion of ownership, and it was
evident that ownership seemed to relate to 'everyday life' and spatial practice.
According to Lefebvre (1991), social space may be seen as comprising a conceptual
triad of spatial practice, representations of space and representational spaces. Spatial
practice signifies the way in which space is produced and reproduced in particular
locations and social formations. Yet, in the context of Second Life, it would seem that
such a formulation of space has created different and diverse spatial zones, along with
imaginary geographies. For the purposes of this article, two distinct but interrelated
frames of reference are delineated: Second Life as an institutionally owned space and
Second Life as a student-owned space.
Assumptions of institutional ownership in virtual worlds have often been linked to the
representation of space and the recreation of physical university buildings within the
virtual environment (see, for example, Jennings & Collins, 2007; Savin-Baden, 2010b).
However, as representations of space have altered throughout Second Life's lifespan,
with a trend towards creation of new fantasy spaces as opposed to recreation
(Kirriemuir, 2010), assertions of institutional ownership have altered too. For
participants in this project, the framing of Second Life as an institutionally owned space
often related to the level of control exerted by the institution. This was couched in
terms of scalability and top-down implementation, as opposed to bottom-up, or 'un-
risking', of virtual world practices. In terms of the findings from our study, Second Life
was largely seen to be exempt from such 'political' control thus far, depending on the
institution. Nevertheless, the introduction of greater control was considered to be
inevitable, often paralleled to the scaling of the learning management system. Thus
ownership and control in this sense was viewed through the establishment and
enactment of networks and processes within the institution.
From a different perspective, the structuring and formalising influence of the
institution through such control and ownership was also recognised, as articulated by
one tutor:
It's somewhere where you get that nice crossover between the informal and the
formal... You know, it's one of those places where you can see the bringing together of
those two spaces.
Here, Second Life was framed as a space in between the formal (the institution) and the
informal (social media), as a way to bring the two spaces together. However, the
control and authority implicit in this quote characterise the educator's views, implying
an ease of unity, which we suggest does not exist in practice, where routine and ritual
prevail. Tutors' perceptions of student ownership of space in Second Life represented a
range of complexities, two examples of which are now presented.
Staff often promoted the use of Second Life as a way to engage with students in a
'shared', informal space, although in the case of one tutor, his students' social use of
Second Life was perceived to be a key factor in safeguarding their ownership as
opposed to the institution's ownership and control:
Wimpenny, Savin-Baden, Mawer, Steils and Tombs 535
But when they [students] go down to the student union bar then, well that's fair
enough, they can do what they want to do. They might be chatting about the learning
stuff, discussing assignments - that's their environment, their space, and that's what I
think of Facebook as being like. And in a way that's what I think of Second Life as being
like. It's that it's not a space that we [tutors] can intervene in too forcefully, or interfere
with. You know, it's fine for us to pop in every now and again, but - a sense of
ownership I guess it is, over different environments.
The comparison of Second Life to the student union bar and to Facebook - seen as both
learning and social spaces, but definitively student-owned spaces - for this participant,
was seen as demanding a 'light touch' from the institution. Students did not actively
exert control or authority in the claiming of Second Life as 'their' space; rather, this
participant saw it as being the institution's responsibility to ensure it did not encroach
on that ownership.
An alternative view of ownership emerged through the use of other islands than those
belonging to the educator or institution for learning activities. These activities were
often referred to as 'field trips', thus automatically situating the relevant Second Life
spaces as owned by another. However, this also represented a further claim to
institutionally owned space. The use of the term 'field trip' automatically presupposes
that there is a space to leave that is not in the field'. In naming the visit to another
island's space as a field trip, the tutor and students' own institutional island becomes
the Second Life 'home' from which they leave and to which they will return. This was
viewed both positively and negatively. Field trips in Second Life offered a way to
explore other in-world spaces and a means by which to engage with work produced
by others. The fact that many islands are public made this sharing of space and work
possible for many of the participants in the study. Yet for one tutor working in a
science-based discipline, the use of other Second Life islands was perceived as a
challenge to student ownership of space and of learning:
I do feel that the eye-candy aspect of Second Life can lead to a degree of 'tourism'. I
want... to get students to modify the environment. To achieve their own ends... So it is
important for me that they generate physical artefacts.
Here, student ownership of the Second Life space was supposed through the creation of
the objects and the modification of the environment. Framing ownership in this way
entails a move away from the ownership of physical space as discussed thus far
(ownership of a Second Life island, ownership of the Second Life technology or platform
as a whole) and establishes ownership as the enactment of spatial practices in
Lefebvre's (1991) terms. When ownership is interpreted in this manner, students can be
said to 'own' any Second Life space in which they are able to build - for example, public
sandboxes, their institution's island and the sandboxes of other institutions' islands.
The findings of this article indicate, in our view, that participants' multiple frames of
reference can inform the use of virtual worlds for teaching and learning in higher
education for staff through:
1. a recognition that positioning virtual world learning as akin to games is not
particularly helpful to students;
536 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 2012, 28(Special issue, 3)
2. an appreciation that students struggle to see the relationship between disciplinary
values and the forms of learning and pedagogies presented to them through Second
3. an acknowledgment that using virtual worlds for learning in particular ways can
help students to learn about the cultural values of their discipline and signature
4. a realisation that there needs to be a balance between Second Life as a learning space
and as a social space.
These key findings will now be discussed.
While our data analysis revealed that prior experience of gaming influenced certain
students' reactions to being exposed to learning opportunities presented in Second Life,
the range of responses suggests it is not easy to predict precisely what influence the
positioning of virtual worlds as akin to games has.
The findings from Duffy and Penfold's (2010) study highlight that when learning in
Second Life is positioned in terms of a game the learning outcomes may conflict with
the intended pedagogical ideas, which is also consistent with the findings from our
study. It was clear that while the use of game concepts was seen to motivate and assist
students through the program of study, students expressed disappointment that
Second Life was not as dynamic as other games they had played. This resulted in
disjunction between educational gains and the social/play aspects of learning in
Second Life.
On another level, a tension was apparent in terms of the perceived usefulness of
learning using Second Life, including how willing students (and tutors) were to persist
with usability hurdles when the technology did not match user expectations. Saeed,
Yang and Sinnappan's (2008) (Australian) study utilising media richness theory may
offer a useful lens through which to examine gaming frames of reference in their
consideration of user perceptions of usefulness and ease of use. Similar to findings
from our data, positions can shift when gaming frames of reference move away from
games and towards other possibilities.
Ultimately, then, it appears the literature that implies gaming media and virtual world
learning technologies are continuous - rather than merely contiguous - risks portraying
a rather unsophisticated view of an extraordinarily complex and sophisticated set of
relations, which includes prior experience, behavioural norms, expectations of
personal competence, cognitive ability and the influence of context. Situating virtual
worlds as an extension of games and gaming (either as a game or non-game) seems to
exclude numerous other potential frames of reference that might assume primacy with
specific users in specific places. The continuity of frames of reference between digital
games as a media and virtual worlds as a media cannot be assumed - some
participants in our study viewed virtual worlds as a type of game while others held
alternate positions and meanings, and understandings were not necessarily translated
in straightforward ways.
The findings in this study indicate that students struggle to see the disciplinary
relevance of their learning in Second Life, and staff do not always realise the impact of
discipline-based pedagogy on their use of Second Life. The consequence is that
individually held disciplinary assumptions result in students holding different
positions regarding professional understandings, which are not translated in
Wimpenny, Savin-Baden, Mawer, Steils and Tombs 537
straightforward ways. Although the play elements and visual stimulus of Second Life
are explored in the literature - see, for example, Edirisingha, Nie, Pluciennik and
Young (2009), who report on the use of Second Life by archaeology students to explore
aspects of civilisations that no longer exist, and Lang and Bradley (2011), who tell of
how the technology can be used to allow chemistry students to visualise and interact
with 3D molecular models - what remains hidden is the projection of disciplinary
understandings, enabling students to see the relevance for their subject field. Such
findings echo other studies conducted internationally, such as Penfold's (2008) study,
which focused on the main challenges faced by tutors (at a hospitality and tourism
school in Hong Kong) in designing and delivering disciplinary education using Second
Life. In Penfold's study, when faced with unpredictable, open-ended and/or less-
structured activities students reported being less engaged, even bored. The
opportunity of learning in new and different ways was seemingly lost or missed.
Our findings also suggest that tutor confidence and competence in using Second Life
within the disciplines were central to practical application and understanding.
Practices within Australia, likewise, emphasise the role of the tutor as central. The
Australian Flexible Learning Framework action research project titled 'Virtual worlds -
real learning!' (Bradshaw, 2006) identified how the tutor needs to be fully present,
engaged and alert; in addition, tutors need to be given adequate support as they
venture into what, for many, is unknown territory, as both the guides and 'guardians'
of their students. Our findings reveal that learning within Second Life can help students
to learn their discipline, affording them opportunities to share cultural values and
collaborate productively with one another. In this respect, our work reinforces the
findings of other published studies (e.g. in relation to problem solving in clinical
simulations, Rogers, 2011; language learning, Wang, Song, Stone & Yan, 2009; see also
Hew & Cheung, 2010).
Thus what appears to be of prime importance when designing virtual world learning
is not only knowing 'how to do it', but also how to do it well, under which
circumstances and with whom, and how these can affect the way that particular
subject matter is learnt. As Lim (2009, p. 6) argues, care should be taken to ensure
learning environments are not just defensible from the perspective of the subject
discipline, but also provide opportunities for learners to invest meaning (and therefore
time and effort). Shulman's (2005) work on signature pedagogies is also useful here in
terms of the tutor making learning expectations explicit to students and helping them
foster social connections. Tutor decisions should reflect the underpinning pedagogy in
action, and aid in promoting disciplinary values through implicit structures that can
support development of professional beliefs and attitudes.
It also is interesting to consider what is not seen as a component of signature
pedagogy. Data from our study suggest there were instances where participants
framed disciplinary values within Second Life as offering "a good starting point" for
"trying things out before doing it in reality". In other examples, students' framing of
their experiences suggested the absence of adequate disciplinary 'fit'. The issue here is
whether space and time has been made available to facilitate engagement in the
necessary level of critique about what the learning intervention has offered and what
has been achieved. If disciplines shape the nature of pedagogy and such pedagogies
reflect the practices and culture of the discipline, how can use of a virtual world
learning environment influence teaching practices and the methods by which future
practitioners will be educated for their profession?
538 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 2012, 28(Special issue, 3)
It is apparent that Second Life takes time to adapt to, and may be overwhelming,
strange and troublesome (Bayne, 2008; Savin-Baden, 2010b); what was especially
notable to us was how participants' frames of reference were modified or changed as a
result of their action and experience within Second Life. Yet, we suggest that this may
also relate to the impact of space and ownership on individuals. We submit that when
designing learning for the disciplines within a virtual world there is a tension between,
on the one hand, the desire to make best use of the creative space by capitalising on a
sense of novelty and surprise (Jankowska & Atlay, 2008), and on the other, the need to
be aware of expectations and reference points for the learner. As identified by Savin-
Baden (2008), the opportunity to do things differently when designing for disciplinary
learning within these new environments, in which there is less order than in
traditional learning environments, forces a reconsideration of how learning spaces are
to be constituted. Additionally, understandings of ownership play a role in how
practitioners perceive virtual worlds as tools for learning, and how this can influence
their pedagogy and learning design.
Yet the balancing of Second Life as a social space and Second Life as a learning space
necessitates consideration of issues of ownership. Within the study, ownership (and
associated themes of implied control and power exertion) emerged as a complex frame
of reference that differed from individual to individual, and characterised different
aspects of Second Life. Such a range of perspectives in turn raised questions about what
is allowed or disallowed, including how tutors may seek to control and contain space.
For example, Second Life was viewed by many participants as an institutionally owned
extension of the campus, as a replicated classroom, and as a useful marketing feature.
Such perspectives were due in part to the design of the space, but arguably were more
a reflection of views of ownership framed by self-positioning. One tutor framed Second
Life as offering a useful crossover space in which to bring together social media and the
institution; in other instances, Second Life was framed as a type of game, or seen as both
a learning and social space, but definitively a student-owned one.
Representations of space are, according to Lefebvre (1991), related to the relationships
between the sites of production and the way in which signs and codes are used within
those representations. These spaces in the physical world are conceived spaces and are
the spaces of the planners and architects. In Second Life, however, 'real' spaces are not
necessarily defined by physical-world aspects such as the design of buildings and the
space that exists between and within structures shaped by the organisation's function
and activity. Zhao and Elesh (2008) argue that the ownership of space also has to do
with being in the right region, based on affinity, common interests, even rules and
regulations - and yet, a sense of ownership of a space does not guarantee engagement
in of itself.
However, what was also enlightening was that the institution exerted its influence
more markedly, whereas students did not appear to be as overtly aware of, nor
consciously exert, ownership. This is pertinent when examining the claim that Second
Life promotes the levelling of power and control (e.g. de Freitas & Neumann, 2009).
Arguably, spaces for learning within Second Life remain 'sites of enclosure', a term used
by Taylor (1999, p. 11) to describe attempts by institutions to create contexts in which
only the occupants define the rules and practices that govern internal operations.
While not the only reason, such tensions arguably reflect an ethical/moral dimension
facing institutions and educators regarding risk and dilemmas surrounding the
troublesome of the Internet and world wide web, which prompts a retreat into familiar
Wimpenny, Savin-Baden, Mawer, Steils and Tombs 539
forms of control. Such perspectives somewhat mirror Roth's (2010) concerns regarding
political decision taking in terms of cyber security and selection of filtering systems,
which she views as obstructing and threatening Australia's virtual world
development. Yet the novelty of learning in an immersive world brings with it
distractions, framed by one tutor as 'eye candy', and this can challenge assumptions
about what learning should be and look like (Savin-Baden, 2008). For some students,
the safety and security represented by institutional space is appreciated, but nomadic
use of space also can be stimulating. Our findings demonstrate that tensions were
experienced by tutors, who sought to push boundaries of structure and appearance
and to encourage students to make wide use of Second Life spaces, yet also wanted
students to get something from their learning, in ways they believed they knew best.
The outcomes of the participatory action synthesis we conducted across the three data
sets from our large-scale study point to the fact that previous explorations of learning
in virtual worlds have neglected to look more closely at frames of reference and how
these serve to inform expectations. We simultaneously also recognise that frames of
reference may interfere and/or collide with one another, with complex consequences
during the student-tutor encounter. Our findings suggest that sound pedagogical
decisions and careful consideration about the reasons for using virtual worlds are
needed to ensure that the technology can be transformative in its application rather
than merely being used as a replacement way of doing something tutors typically do
(Hughes, 2005; Mount et al., 2009). Indeed, as Dalgarno and Lee (2010) contend,
ongoing development of and investment in 3D virtual worlds for learning should be
contingent on understanding how such environments provide advantages over other
pedagogical techniques, including those offered by their non-3D counterparts.
Ultimately, what we have uncovered is complex, but positive. We propose that the
relationship between digital games, social media and virtual worlds is often mutable.
As a result, multiple conceptualisations can exist within a single group of students,
which is both a challenge and an opportunity. On the one hand, we propose that
multiple frames of reference will inevitably be brought to a learning and teaching
situation, and that these will impact on action and understandings in ways that are not
easily predictable - for example, simply aligning virtual worlds and games
discursively and then arguing that motivation and engagement can be translated
across the two domains is unlikely to provide a suitable 'remedy'. Conversely, we
suggest that frames of reference frequently evolve, hybridise, combine, refigure or are
reconceptualised temporally, and this can make learning and curricula less rigid.
There is no universal frame of reference based on digital games that makes for ease of
access to Second Life. Further, without conveying the particularities of teaching within a
specific discipline and questioning the contribution of Second Life, the expectations and
assumptions students bring may interfere with disciplinary enactment. In addition, the
self-positioning of tutors' perceptions of ownership of space can heavily influence their
approaches to pedagogy. Overall, in light of the findings of this study, it is our belief
that there is a the need to see learning spaces and curricula as more fluid - our
perspectives resonate with Bauman's (2009, p. 157) 'liquid modernity' and call for the
destabilising and rethinking of time-honoured pedagogical practices.
540 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 2012, 28(Special issue, 3)
The authors would like to thank the participants of this study for allowing us to use
their data, and for sharing their experiences with us. We are also grateful to The
Leverhulme Trust for funding the study.
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Authors: Dr Katherine Wimpenny, Research Fellow
Learning Innovation Applied Research Group
Coventry University Enterprise Centre, Coventry University Technology Park
Puma Way, Coventry CV1 2TT, UK. Email:
Professor Maggi Savin-Baden, Director
Learning Innovation Applied Research Group
Coventry University Enterprise Centre, Coventry University Technology Park
Puma Way, Coventry CV1 2TT, UK. Email:
Matt Mawer, PhD Student
Learning Innovation Applied Research Group, Coventry University
Enterprise Centre, Coventry University Technology Park
Puma Way, Coventry CV1 2TT, UK. Email:
Nicole Steils, PhD Student
Learning Innovation Applied Research Group
Coventry University Enterprise Centre, Coventry University Technology Park
Puma Way, Coventry CV1 2TT, UK. Email:
Gemma Tombs, PhD Student
Learning Innovation Applied Research Group
Coventry University Enterprise Centre, Coventry University Technology Park
Puma Way, Coventry CV1 2TT, UK. Email:
Please cite as: Wimpenny, K., Savin-Baden, M., Mawer, M., Steils, N. & Tombs, G.
(2012). Unpacking frames of reference to inform the design of virtual world learning in
higher education. In M. J. W. Lee, B. Dalgarno & H. Farley (Eds), Virtual worlds in
tertiary education: An Australasian perspective. Australasian Journal of Educational
Technology, 28(Special issue, 3), 522-545.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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