Presence and Pedagogy: The Potentials of Multi-user Virtual Environments as Learning Spaces

By Lesley Procter.

Published by The International Journal of Humanities Education

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Theoretical concepts in Humanities and Social Science disciplines are notoriously slippery for students to grasp, with often competing sets of discourses. At the Graduate level, teaching faculty often expect that students will be both better prepared, and more willing, to engage with such complexities. This is not always the case, however, leaving faculty searching for methods to facilitate students' understanding. In this paper, I discuss one such method and provide examples of student feedback about its effectiveness. The initiative in question involves a virtual "field trip" in which graduate Sociology students create their own avatar and then write a short reflective field trip report paper on the process of identity construction in a Multi-User Virtual Environment (MUVE) called Second Life™. The exercise requires students to engage in several levels of situated, problem-based learning—a process perhaps best described as praxis. In reflecting on the possibilities and limitations they experience during this particular exercise, students encounter manifestations of theoretical concepts drawn from Symbolic Interaction, identity discourse and the interface between identity and embodiment. In my discussion of this exercise, I provide a brief background to the virtual field trip as a pedagogic strategy and suggest some best practice guidelines. I situate the initiative within the developing field of virtual pedagogy, and argue that the enhanced sense of presence in MUVEs provides students with opportunities to manifest theoretical concepts through praxis and playful experimentation.

Keywords: Multi-user Virtual Environments, Praxis, Problem-based Learning, Second Life, Situated Learning, Virtual Field Trip

The International Journal of Humanities Education, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp.21-37. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 396.855KB).

Dr. Lesley Procter

Undergraduate Coordinator and Lecturer, Department of Sociology, Gender and Social , Work, Division of Humanities, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

My research has a dual focus, deploying a particular theoretical framework broadly described as the sociology of learning. My research has ramifications not only for pedagogy, but also for socio-cultural learning, identity and gender socialisation, covering both academic and socio-cultural contexts for learning. My initial research concerned the development and maximisation of students' generic and discipline-specific academic competencies. Most recently, I have examined the construction of individual identity in online settings through extended participant observation in a virtual environment where individuals interact via avatars. I am specifically interested in how newcomers to virtual environments learn what is expected of them through social processes. In 2006, I won a New Zealand Tertiary Teaching Award for Sustained Excellence.