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Yet another OLDS-MOOC narrative

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Peter Miller
3 March 2013

This project was intended to develop a taster session for a small group of Masters students on the use of virtual worlds for collaborative working. In case you think that's odd, see this very recent paper on the professional use of virtual worlds (paywalled, alas) and then reflect on how much has changed over the past 10 years and how much is likely to change in the next decade or so.

The academic context saw this as the last iteration of the class as the relevant skills module (of which this session is but a small part) is not running next year. Unfortunately, for logistical reasons (change of grid) I couldn't reuse last year's class. The situation is also complicated by the fact that the students come from a wide range of science backgrounds so something subject-neutral or inter/trans-disciplinary was preferable with the former arguably simpler. As I am both developer and “deliverer”, simple is good. It also fits with the virtual worlds expertise of the students which, understandably, approaches zero.

While virtual worlds had some vogue 5-6 years ago, they have failed to thrive in the public consciousness although I clearly feel they have some virtues if used appropriately. Moreover, some of the barriers to adoption (cost, usability) have diminished. Nevertheless, they still languish in the post-hype Trough of Disillusionment in the Gartner Hype Curve and I was quite open about this with the students and in the briefing discussed a range of alternative approaches as well. The session, incidentally, was optional so students who had a particular aversion could do something different if they wished (it was actually quite a popular option).

Students tend to have varied reactions to virtual worlds, not least in the freedoms they afford to fly (away), change your avatar’s appearance (drastically), and build inworld (anywhere). This can be both overwhelming (what’s the point?) and underwhelming (where’s the game-quality graphics?). My initial thoughts were that I needed to have some kind of group-oriented narrative to give the students an objective and some cohesion as a group (there were eventually 11 in all so I was planning to run sub-groups). This would see each sub-group role-playing amateur detectives in a mystery set in a Victorian realization of part of our city. The aim was to get them working as a team without making a big deal of it.

While I haven’t abandoned the Victorian builds, I did fairly rapidly change focus when I saw the (increasingly tenuous) story begin to take over from the broader pedagogic aims. I restarted the project, this time with the simplest of builds, an empty desert dunescape (this first surfaced in the context of the Dreambazaar as an alternative landscape for self-organisation). This had the virtue of being low lag (not much to show/build) and supporting a whole range of possible application areas (desertification, desert greening, desert/dune ecology, solar energy farms, etc). While I ultimately abandoned that tack as well, I did at least have the opportunity to make the point to the students that the ability to inhabit a model as an avatar can sponsor interesting perspectives. Your mileage may vary!

Ultimately I decided to focus on the somewhat abstract themes of Competition, Cooperation, Collaboration and Co-creation (the 4Cs, not a novel concept) and attempted to source examples of each from virtual worlds (possibly a mis-step). Competition, for example, involved students racing around a flight circuit in a time trial, Cooperation saw them work independently around a group base (teams of 3-4) to create teleport boards to other worlds/regions that illustrated their group’s 4Cs theme (provided on an inworld notecard and occasionally a bit of a stretch). Collaboration involved their working together to build a single path (defined using inworld planting of system trees etc) between their base and the next. Co-creation was supposed to involve their providing a backchannel in the context of watching videos about Google Glass (augmented reality) and Qualcomm Gimbal (Internet of Things).

The context was provided by the Metaverse Roadmap of 2007 which semi-incorporated these technologies alongside virtual worlds. At one time I thought I could shoehorn some science outreach in there too but it didn't happen. Likewise, use of virtual worlds to model the Roadmap 2015-style didn't happen overly either. A bridge too far basically.

I had originally planned to release a get-you-started introductory video in advance of the class but time constraints stopped that happening. Instead the students had an introductory talk on the principles and practice of virtual worlds, with a bit of a science bias, accompanied by printed instructions on what was to come. Both were delivered in a PC centre; I used to show my slides only to discover that users are now capped at 10 (there are alternatives available but now wasn’t the time so a couple of students had to share screens).

How did it go? Technically not so bad if you count teleport boards and paths completed as useful metrics. That implies that the students practised a fairly wide range of skills. Beyond that, it's "no comment".

From the perspective of the OLDS-MOOC, I realistically had to plough my own furrow as I was responsible for delivering actual teaching to a fairly tight timescale with multiple competing demands on my time. Accordingly, I wasn’t especially encouraging to potential collaborators though I did comment a little from a virtual worlds perspective where it seemed apposite. Time limitations meant that I could only address the MOOC objectives with the lightest of touches and even so I felt guilty about the time it took. However, the pMOOC aspect did help drive my own courseware development efforts, even if many of the ideas that surfaced ultimately led down blind alleys. Moreover, the MOOC has enhanced my understanding of Learning Design and, under expert tuition from course organisers and fellow students, identified a number of tools and approaches that I would not otherwise have considered. From a professional development perspective, I value it highly and reckon the selective, structured, sequential format preferable to a wiki-style smorgasbord approach. I haven’t sought or earned any badges (the brief yearning was readily overcome) and have not created anything like the requisite number of clouds, preferring to focus on the original scenario cloud to avoid ideas getting lost.

I’ve started a fair number of xMOOCs and cMOOCs, including the original CCK08, but  haven’t finished any yet. Let’s hope this is the first!

Extra content

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Art Oglesby
4:10pm 3 March 2013


I am amazed that the Learning Design in that first CCK08 MOOC by Stephen Downes and George Siemens at first glance seems to be the same as what I have decided is best for my PLE for digital literacies project. 

When I was trying out free blogging services in 2005, I got a comment from an organic chemistry teacher who had his students building human scaled organic molecules in Second Life. How cool is that. I can see how virtual worlds could motivate participation. Cooperation, reflection, discussion, sharing, etc. could be built into the exercise. Doesn't the creation of virtual worlds require 100s of hours and perhaps speciallized creation software?

I also saw this week that some virtual classrooms had tables and chairs in a room and as student avatars entered they could form groups at different tables with text balloons for communication. I think hangouts would be easier (and more real).

Peter Miller
4:44pm 3 March 2013 (Edited 7:29pm 3 March 2013)

Hi Art

Well, I never completed that first MOOC so draw your own conclusions ;)

Yes, over the years there have been a few tools that have been used to generate molecular structures. Writing the tools is skilled work but generating the structures subsequently is something anyone could do given half an hour's instruction.  These days large structures can also be approximated using mesh exported from standard molecular visualization tools. There are limitations in terms of the mesh size and texturing but the end-product is sufficient for many purposes.

"100s of hours" pre-supposes that you intend creating all the content yourself. There is a lot of free, appropriately licensed content as well as content you can purchase. I didn't create the dunescape terrain and textures, for example; just downloaded them from a website and uploaded them to the region I used. Less than 5 minutes.

Of course, there are also high end tools which, as you say, require time and/or training to use well but most teachers don't bother. If you want something complex and original done, pay someone to do it.

If you still think it's too complex, see this.

I'm sure hangouts have their uses but they have their limitations too -- I see them as complementary to virtual worlds, not an alternative. As to reality, well that's arguably in the eyes and brain of the beholder so doesn't worry me overly. I tend to deal with abstract concepts rather than things you can physically see or touch.

Art Oglesby
8:16pm 3 March 2013


In respect to Learning Design, can you think of a design change that would have enabled you to stay in those MOOCs?

Peter Miller
9:28pm 3 March 2013

I think that's tricky, Art, but I guess it goes back to the Scenario. Clearly I had both motivation and alignment working for me this time. Finishing for a certificate, badges or for its own sake doesn't work for me personally under current circumstances. I can imagine a situation where I wasn't so time-poor that I'd do it for pure interest/curiosity but still want to make it a pMOOC. Creating visual summaries and blogging are staples of cMOOCs but neither were sufficient to keep me going in the past. I think it has to be something you have a better than 50% chance of using constructively in the future.

Being part of a group would be fun and possibly motivating but again it means you have an additional overhead that I couldn't sustain this time round.

Art Oglesby
9:31pm 3 March 2013 (Edited 9:35pm 3 March 2013)

Oooppps, Page refresh double post

Nothing to see here,  move along. 

Joshua Underwood
4:53pm 7 March 2013

Great to have a narrative around a project that was designed, implemented and enacted under real constraints and great that you value the overall experience for professional development :-)

Can you identify any specifics of tools, techniques, approaches, design ideas, etc you think you may use in future tasks or that you would like to come back to an look at in more detail, given time?


Peter Miller
6:44pm 7 March 2013

Hi Josh!

Well, I feel like a mole, blinking in bright sunlight after some serious OLDS-MOOC burrowing activity so some quality time for reflection and projection is in order. One of things I felt the Larnaca Declaration was lacking (possibly purposely) was a focus on the learner. So I will try to think about what I did in terms of scenarios, force maps, ecology of resources, etc. Tools weren't greatly in evidence there so it might be fun to model some of the diagrams in a virtual world as I did with the course feature cards (which need finishing, memo to self) to make them a little more malleable. As I'm potentially involved in some module redesign in the near future the cards are certainly of interest.

In terms of useful tools etc, I was intrigued by LdShake but for some reason couldn't get the demo to run in author mode -- I need to check out the week 8 extension software too. On a more micro level, Open Attribute looked useful and, having registered, I should give Bibsonomy a fair trial too.

I think what I'm still struggling with slightly is a strategy that encompasses both course-level macro- and lesson-level micro-LD.

Anyways, thanks for your comments generally -- much appreciated.

Penny Bentley
8:52pm 7 March 2013

Hi Peter

I've limited experience of virtual worlds and until recently couldnt't see a use for them in Secondary Science background.

I've discovered, but not yet explored, "Science and Technology" in Second Life. What appeals to me is the potential to immerse students "inside a cell" such as on Genome Island, rather than put them to sleep with a textbook. If I had my time in the classroom again I'd love to toss the glossy textbooks out the window and jump onto a range of Second Life Educational Islands.

A huge problem here in Aus is convincing admin and teaching staff that Virtual Worlds can have educational applications.

Well done with your OLDS MOOC project. 



Peter Miller
10:20pm 7 March 2013 (Edited 10:21pm 7 March 2013)

Hi Penny

Thanks for the comment. Yes, I started in SL and, indeed, visited Genome Island many times. I suspect there are still a couple of structures there I made for Max if you look closely. There was very much a culture of sharing in SL as well as an active economy. Incidentally, I believe she is moving out as well, to an OpenSim grid called VIBE.

I'm sure it's all relative but I look on Oz as quite active in this area. You have the PLANE project who use OpenSim as one of their platforms, some great work using OpenSim sim-on-a-stick at Coffs Harbour, and the most prominent education-oriented OpenSim grid, jokaydiaGrid (which, among others, houses this project based on Edinburgh and built by an American contractor -- have to love the global reach of the platform!).

Hmm, I'm not sure congrats are in order re my project but thanks anyway -- I rate it as a decent enough attempt under the circumstances. A couple more iterations and it might be quite good but sadly continuity seems in short supply these days so I think it is most likely a one-off. The less-is-more design was very much in keeping with that.

Let me say that I've very much enjoyed following your work and tweets as well. I think people will need orientation, especially for cMOOCs and pMOOCs, and the better it is, the more folk will stay with the course. Great stuff :)

Jane Nkosi
8:14am 8 March 2013

Hi Peter,

I have not followed your work that much but like the narrative especially lookin at learning and teaching through the virtual worlds. I think virtual worlds like second life somehow makes learninf fun as the learner identifies with the second life character and can step back and be a critic.

Thanks for a great post.

Jane Nkosi

Peter Miller
8:50am 8 March 2013

Hi Jane

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Yes, I think there's a definite need for reflection and hopefully I built that into the assignment.

Incidentally, I use an OpenSim grid called Kitely rather than SL. They have a freemium model that worked quite nicely for this workshop. The technical and pedagogical aspects are very similar.

Penny Bentley
11:36am 8 March 2013

Thanks Peter:)

Sheila MacNeill
1:37pm 8 March 2013

Hi Peter

Another great narrative which clearly articulates the problems of juggling real world delivery (even if it is happening in a virtual world) and trying to integrate new learning design concepts.  Do you think the experience will allow you to re-design the course more effectively for another iteration? 

Best wishes


Peter Miller
5:23pm 8 March 2013

Hi Sheila

Thanks for your comment. The question is, of course, far too perceptive for late on a Friday!

That course is actually  disappearing entirely due to knock-on consequences of an internal reorganisation; the course redesign is happening elsewhere. As to whether I will be better-placed to design courses and lessons more effectively, I think the answer is a "definite maybe". Indeed, at a personal level I'd go as far as "quite possibly" but I really do need to go back and mould the concepts and tools into some kind of personal mindset to make it a natural default approach -- I'm not convinced that I'm entirely there yet but I am hopeful.

Anyway, congratulations on making it to the end of the MOOC -- I've enjoyed reading your blog and ideas for Son-of-Cloudworks. Plenty to think about, for sure.

Tiffany Crosby
4:03pm 9 March 2013

Peter, The approach you've described is the most typical path of innovation. There are a lot of course corrections, starts and stops, junked work, etc. But with each exploration, you learn what works and what doesn't, you gain additional clarity into your priorities and desired outcomes, and you broaden your perspective. Even with the MOOCs that you started and didn't finish, the same innovative thought processes likely occurred which makes it a success in and of itself. Of course, when we are talking about awarding college credit or becoming certified, incompletion is as an issue. Your consumption pattern for MOOCs begs the question as to what is success and what is the proper role with the learning and continuing education process.

Peter Miller
4:53pm 9 March 2013 (Edited 5:48pm 9 March 2013)

Hi Tiffany

Thanks for the comment. When you say "most typical path of innovation", I guess the unusual aspect is that some of the blind alleys are actually documented here and elsewhere. Oddly, I've found that quite useful and it's something I may carry on in private. Not using an idea or a build in  a particular context doesn't imply that idea has failed, just that I found something with a "better" fit.

It will be interesting to see whether failing to complete one or more MOOCs affects future enrollment behaviour. It may be just me but I don't feel good about failing to complete MOOCs -- it seems like an opportunity wasted and an affront to the hard work put in by the tutor. I suspect I sign up for MOOCs as a way of laying a path even if it ends up being more for the future than the present.

Diana Laurilllard
5:24pm 9 March 2013

This is a significant observation, Peter: "the selective, structured, sequential format preferable to a wiki-style smorgasbord approach" - I prefer that too, as a student, and as a teacher it helps to have participants' comments building up in a more structured way. Even for a sophisticated peer group such as this, having that structure and sequence helps to focus the discussions. Obviously the wiki has a role, but it's good to hear that this type of approach is productive for at least some participants.

I wonder if others feel the same?

Peter Miller
5:58pm 9 March 2013 (Edited 4:48pm 10 March 2013)

Hi Diana

Many thanks for your comment. I think MOOCs are often undertaken in "spare" time and there is a danger of being overwhelmed rather than energised by contributions from teachers (via resource wikis) and particularly by fellow students in forums. As a student, I would say I have benefited greatly from expert direction through the subject content though, equally, tutors need to be able to respond to what is happening "on the ground" and I think OLDS-MOOC has provided a good opportunity to practise that. I would, however, think that scaling such interventions (as conversation, as it were) would be a challenge.

Ida Brandão
8:58am 11 March 2013

Hi Peter,

I must confess my ambivalent feelings about Second Life learning environments. From an adult learning perspective I've never felt attracted by the childlike design animations, and I wouldn't choose a SL platform for tertiary/adult training/learning. 

However, I believe in its potential for lower secondary schools, like the australian example that you highlight (Coffs Harbour Public School - Many SL projects on sciences seem quite interesting. 

I also believe in the potential of Second Life for Special Needs, where actors/avatars play on an equal and non-differentiated level. 

It seems strange my lack of motivation towards Second Life environments since I'm very enthusiastic about CGI and After Effects and appreciate pictures such as The Lord of Rings and AVATAR. Perhaps it's ignorance and lack of immersion in n SL experience. It's not a mainstream environment used in schools.

I have subscribed a SL environment but as it was nothing organized with a purpose, just a trial of the tool, I  took no interest.


Peter Miller
10:21am 11 March 2013 (Edited 12:29pm 11 March 2013)

Hi Ida

Thanks for your comment. It's interesting that people so frequently talk about their personal feelings when it comes to environments like this rather than how their students might respond. I appreciate that the  environment does not suit all staff and students but that is true of many modalities. I think people who are tightly tied to text, e.g. bloggers, or the physical environment, e.g. actors and dancers, find the environment particularly alien. On the other hand, students who are quiet in real-life and readily overlooked are often the ones who benefit most -- but they don't shout about it! For staff, there is also an element of ceding control and purpose to students that can be hard to negotiate and I don't always claim to have got it right. I think the risk in not doing "more of the same" puts teachers off.

However, the one thing that has struck me lately is that the need to provide an extensive skills orientation has diminished considerably -- the students acquire the basics very, very quickly, presumably due to their use of a first-person avatar that is the basis of many games.

When you talk about "childlike design animations", I would point out that the opportunities for experiential learning are nevertheless significant, e.g. in this award-winning midwifery role-play.and in this hurricane emergency response simulation. You can also reconstruct locations that no longer exist such as pre-earthquake Lisbon.

Virtual worlds are also well-placed to intersect with developments in augmented reality and 3D printing.

I should stress that I no longer use SL at all and that my teaching makes use of the open source OpenSim technology.

Joshua Underwood
11:00am 12 March 2013

Hi Peter,

I think I struggle with this too: "I think what I'm still struggling with slightly is a strategy that encompasses both course-level macro- and lesson-level micro-LD."

There is Learning Design work that is trying to address this, though I'm not sure how successfully (e.g. Orchestrating Classroom CSCL: A Multi-level Pattern Approach for Design and Enactment by L. P. Prieto, S. Villagrá-Sobrino, Y. Dimitriadis, I. Jorrín-Abellán - I think in one of the weeks I missed someone from the group that wrote that spoke at one of the convergence sessions ?).

For design strategy I'm thinking in terms of narratives (hence inclusion of scenarios in week 2) that connect micro activity narratives across episodes into experiences and eventually to learners' life narratives. Then of course you need to think about your designed narrative trajectories, how to 'detect' the trajectories learners are actually enacting and how to influence their ongoing 'narrative construction' through 'narrative guidance' at design time and run time. None of that is very clear but it is what I am trying to make clear in my modifications to the Ecology of Resources Design Framework.

Anyway, I'd love to see what you do (if anything) with representing the EoR in virtual worlds particularly with the temporal dimension of how designed and enacted learning trajectories play out...

Hope to stay in touch with what you do.


Peter Miller
9:21pm 12 March 2013

Hi Josh

Thanks for this. As ever,. lots to think about. Hopefully I'll get around to doing something with EoR  and OpenSim in a few weeks or so -- again, I'm motivated by (i) a talk/workshop I'm giving at the university's learning & teaching day, (ii) the possibility of insightful feedback to inform same!

Ida Brandão
12:20pm 17 March 2013

Dear Peter,

Thanks for reminding me of this excellent SL project on Lisbon city by 1755 earthquake. I've revisited the youtube video - and the website .

This is a great example of how a tool fits so well the purpose.

Peter Miller
6:44pm 17 March 2013

Most welcome, Ida. Just to remind you, this is not in SL but on the Kitely OpenSim grid.

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