Case Study: The Open University

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Case Study: The Open University
May2009
Providing Geographically Dispersed Students & Faculty A Place to Meet and Learn Together: The Open University in Second Life

Executive Summary

Funded by a Royal Charter in 1969, the Open University (OU) is the largest university in the United Kingdom and the only one dedicated to providing quality university education to the public through visionary distance learning. Over 2 million people have studied with the Open University and there are currently over 150,000 undergraduate and more than 30,000 postgraduate students enrolled in OU programs. For 70 per cent of students who are balancing full-time jobs and their studies, a flexible schedule is a first priority. Although there is only one physical campus - in Milton Keynes, England - OU students living outside of the Milton Keynes area, or the UK, can participate in classes via local tutorials, postal and telephone tuition, the Internet and now Second Life. The OU campus in Second Life offers something completely new and invigorating for this varied and widely dispersed student body - a chance to meet, work and live together in a virtual community.

How it Began: Delivering Immersive Distance Learning Without Driving the Distance

The OU's mission is "to be a world leader in the design, content and delivery of supported open and distance learning through academic research, pedagogic innovation and collaborative partnership." Thus, for decades, OU staff have been at the forefront of innovation in distance and e-learning. It was the visionary instructor Jacquie Bennett at OU who first discovered a new dimension for education - Second Life. Two years later the first OU island was unveiled.

Teaching Fellow with the Centre for Open Learning in Maths, Science, Computing and Technology, Anna Peachey, said her friend and colleague believed the discovery was an important emerging technology with enormous potential to impact traditional education. "Jacquie kept telling me I should go and look at Second Life, so eventually, in October '06, I did. I had an epiphany moment as soon as I logged in. Safe to say that I incorporated Second Life into my teaching from that point forward."

Before she taught in Second Life, Peachey, who lives in rural Devon, would drive up to one and a half hours each way to spend a Saturday morning in a physical classroom. Of 18 students, 3 or 4 might show up. In Second Life, Peachey now reaches nearly triple the student attendance at 10 and 15 students per session and can forgo the commute.

Thoughtful Planning to Ease Students into the Virtual World Dr. Shailey Minocha, Senior Lecturer of Human-Computer Interaction at the OU, has been conducting extensive interviews in Second Life. She has discovered that a gradual transition from familiar to fantastical is the path to building spaces that put students at ease initially.

New visitors to the OU campus are greeted at The NOUbie Center (an OU take on "newbie" or a person new to Second Life). Student volunteers help "NOUbie" students learn how to function within Second Life and familiarize themselves with the six OU environments: Open Life, Open Life Ocean, Open Life Village, FIT Island and Deep Think I & II.

Peachey explained, "Students volunteer to be buddies, and there is usually at least one student buddy in-world, so if you show up at the newbie building needing help, you just click on an active picture and it sends an IM and the buddy comes over."

Minocha leads student tours of spaces beyond the OU campus, such as the Virtual Hallucinations Island, where psychology students can experience first hand the phenomena of mental illness or disorders as described by patients.

"If island themes match with what you are teaching," Minocha said, "then they are a useful instrument for getting over skepticism and triggering creativity."

The Open Life Village: Virtual Student Residences to Foster Social Interactions

The OU's virtual campus program has caught on with such zeal that Peachey constructed Open Life Village, which officially opened in April 2009, to accommodate demand for student housing. "I noticed that when people come in-world they often feel the need to have a home, a house or an apartment. So I decided to offer ‘halls of residence' that students could rent for free for a short period when they first start in SL." This quickly became the focus for a community who wanted longer term rentals and the new island was built to accommodate this. Sixty spots were quickly leased and there is a waitlist of students lobbying for more.

The students have not only adopted Second Life as their classroom and their home, but also their venue for student-planned events. In fact, there are now over 200 OU events and conferences held in Second Life each year.

Of course, education is not just about classrooms or lecture halls. It's about establishing friendships and future professional networks, and those relationships flourish best in a social setting. For OU students, many of whom are physically disabled, are care-takers or work full-time, the ability to participate in a social community of peers from the comfort of home is invigorating. The village green, the "Open Arms" English pub, personal residences and beach area have become vibrant hubs of activity and persistent places for students to just "hang out".

Even Teachers Can Learn in Second Life

After seeing the success of student interaction in Second Life, the OU's Human Resources Department realized that it could also be used for staff training. Steph Broadribb, OU Assistant Director of HR Development, works with HR Project Officer Chris Carter on a program aimed at developing staff skills necessary to effectively give and receive feedback.

"One of the major impacts has been the ability to get groups of staff practicing role-play skills in a confident manner," Broadribb said. "This had been a problem for us in real life as many staff would disengage with the activity and often refuse to take part. With Second Life, participants get very engaged, with a high level of energy. Often they don't want to stop at the end of the activity!"

After the pilot workshop in September 2008, participants said they've never been prompted to "think so much" about the way they say things and approach delicate situations. Three more staff development events have been conducted since, and several more are in the works.

Fertile Ground Remains for OU Advances in Contextual Learning Curriculum

Role-playing could also facilitate curriculum to train humanitarian workers. Peachey and Helen Yanacopulos, a Senior Lecturer in International Development, have collaborated on a paper entitled "Integrating Second Life in Humanitarian and Development Training." It examines the opportunity for mixed-reality learning in Second Life for humanitarian and development workers in direct relation to their Open University course: Working with Conflict: Tools, Skills and Dialogue. They believe that role-playing in Second Life can help students develop sharper and more effective negotiation and collaborative skills to thrive in difficult real life conditions.

Training workers to manage combat or natural disaster is prohibitively expensive and logistically challenging. Peachey and Yanacopulos suggest that training programs in Second Life can foster a new form of deep, cost effective learning: "by enabling students to suspend their own attitudes and beliefs, well-managed role plays can encourage exploration of attitude and actions beyond the personal and familiar in a safe environment."

Now entering its fourth year in Second Life with plans for further expansion, the OU continues to prove that learning in the virtual world has resulted in tremendous real world success for students, faculty, and administrators.

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  • The OU Faculty of Education and Language Studies is planning to use Second life to provide a summer school experience for those students who are not able to attend the mandatory summer schools in Europe.
  • In one 7-day period the OU recorded 130 unique visitors spending a combined total of 216 hours in their virtual campus, Open Life.
  • The OU's Open Life Village residences are currently full and have a wait list.
  • Increasingly, hundreds of students are choosing OU's virtual campus as the venue for the 200 student-planned conferences at the OU each year.
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