First Monday

Learning together apart: Distance education in a virtual world by Kim Holmberg and Isto Huvila

A course in information studies was partly held in the virtual world of Second Life. Second Life was used as a platform to deliver lectures and as a place for organizing group assignments and having discussions. Students’ opinions about Second Life were studied and compared to their opinions about more traditional methods in education. The results show a lower threshold for participation in lectures. According to the students, Second Life should not replace face–to–face education, but it could serve as an excellent addition to other more traditional methods and platforms used in education. The students also considered that lectures held in Second Life were much more “fun” than those using other methods. This particular aspect, and its effect on learning outcomes, requires further research. This research demonstrates that Second Life has potential as a learning environment in distance education.


The virtual world of Second Life
Learning in virtual worlds
The notion of distance




When people can earn their living in virtual worlds, attend classes or visit art exhibitions and concerts, the barrier between the physical and virtual worlds begins to fade (de Nood and Attema, 2006). Van Kokswijk (2003) sees this as a hybrid of two worlds, as these worlds become integrated in users’ experiences and describes this phenomenon as interreality. Users are in both virtual and “real worlds” at the same time, but yet not complete in either. We suggest that using virtual worlds and the interreality they create may be an advantage in distance education if it can bring distance education closer to face–to–face education. Unlike some who treat classroom and distance education as distinct, the emergence of interreality in education suggests an option to effectively bring them together.

Following the reasoning of Gintautas and Huber (2007), we propose explicating in practice the outcomes of a bi–directional immediate coupling of inputs from the real and virtual worlds. If the inputs from both realities are highly correlated in reducing distance (Duval, 2006; Hargreaves, 2001; Nooteboom, 2000) in education, the resulting hybrid state of interreality could contribute to its success. The goal of this research is to study whether lectures in virtual worlds could bring this experience closer to face–to–face education and hence enhance distance education.



The virtual world of Second Life

MMO, MMORPG, MUVE, VE, VLE and other acronyms are frequently used to describe virtual worlds. Castronova (2006) examined “synthetic worlds”, claiming that the term “virtual” has been inflated because of early unrealized promises. In spite of the ambiguities of “virtual”, it is widely used and it is still perhaps the most used term for online spaces. Virtual environments (VEs) or virtual learning environments (VLEs) are often used in a way that incorporates learning platforms such as Moodle or Blackboard (e.g., Patten, et al., 2006). According to popular connotations of three–dimensionality, describing a two–dimensional system that can be accessed with a Web browser as “virtual” may be slightly incorrect. Moore (1995) divided the concept of virtual reality into three categories: text–based, desktop– and sensory–immersive virtual reality. According to Moore, text–based virtual realities are places on the Internet where people interact and communicate with each other through messaging. A desktop virtual reality involves three–dimensional images and it could be said to be an “extension of interactive multimedia.” According to this categorization, Second Life [1] would be a desktop virtual reality. Sensory–immersive virtual realities are mixtures of hardware (e.g., data gloves and head–mounted displays) and software, and they engage more human senses than the other two types of virtual realities. Moore (1995) focused on these sensory–immersive virtual realities and concluded that, at that time, virtual realities of the sensory–immersive type only have a limited application in education.

Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs) or Massively Multiplayer Online Role–Playing Games (MMORPGs) typically have goals for specific players. The goal may be collecting objects or points for activities in–world (Ermi and Mäyrä, 2005). Typically there is also a point where the game is over. None of these are present in non–game virtual worlds, like Second Life. Second Life ( is a user–created, three–dimensional online digital world, a virtual world that manifests its users’ interests and imagination. “User–created” means in this context that registered users, or residents, can collaboratively or individually create everything from their own avatars, structures and vehicles to social groups, games and experiences. An indication of this separation between games and Second Life is also the fact that people spending time in Second Life are referred to as residents, not as players. A better descriptor of Second Life might be Multi–User Virtual Environment (MUVE) or simply to call it a virtual environment rather than a game.

Linden Labs, the creators of Second Life, gave residents a world to fill with objects and experiences along with a rich variety of tools. This is very different from most MUVEs (and MOOs). Typically users have only limited possibilities to shape (and reshape) their environment and the objects around them. The possibilities to create objects and to script them to interact with other users in–world and external information sources are essential to the educational use of MUVEs. Educators must be able to insert their teaching materials into these new learning environments. This is possible in Second Life. Hence these factors explain why Second Life is of special interest to schools, universities and libraries and why many individuals have used Second Life in various ways (e.g., Livingstone and Kemp, 2006).

In February 2007 Second Life had almost 3.8 million registered users; about a year later the number of users rose above 10 million (Linden Labs, 2008a). Not all 10 million are active users. Some may have registered for an account but never logged in, or just logged in once and never returned. Others may have multiple accounts with different avatars for different purposes. A better measure describing the usage of Second Life might be the number of people logged on to Second Life at any given time of the day. At any given time there are between 20,000 and 50,000 users logged into Second Life and sometimes even over 60,000 (Linden Labs, 2008b).

Residents navigate in Second Life with their avatar, manipulated via keyboards. An avatar is a resident’s representation and can be modified in various ways. Indeed, users create emotional bonds to their avatars which can be seen in their behavior in–world or more correctly, in the behavior of their avatars. For example, if someone comes too close to your avatar, you back away. The sense of presence is very high in this world. Residents are very aware of their own avatars but they are also aware of the presence of others (Gilman, et al., 2007). People transfer their social behavior, social skills and even our own personalities to Second Life (Tashner, et al., 2005). According to Dickey (2005a), the use of avatars gives students a comfortable level of anonymity and, at the same time, the unique names of avatars increase trust and aid recognition.

In order to efficiently use MUVEs in education, they need to support content interoperability (Jones, 2004). At the time of writing this paper, Linden Labs integrated a Web browser inside Second Life, making it possible to access a variety of content from within Second Life. This opens possibilities to combine existing material and platforms with Second Life. It seems that so far most educators today have just transferred methods that are proven efficient in the classroom — or other forms of distance education — into Second Life. The ultimate value of these virtual worlds and games in education has not yet been fully discovered (Oblinger; 2006).



Learning in virtual worlds

Large scale education in virtual worlds is an emerging phenomenon. The subject has been discussed in the literature for almost two decades but there is little agreement on how to design an effective virtual environment for learning (Cobb and Fraser, 2005). Many of the existing research projects have taken a social constructivist approach to learning in virtual worlds (e.g., Dede, et al., 2003; Dickey, 2005a; 2005b; Bronnack, et al., 2006). Social constructivist learning looks at the students as “constructors and producers of personal knowledge” (Jonassen, 1996). Knowledge, from a social constructivist perspective, is more of a social activity than an individual cognitive process. The students do not just listen and receive information to create knowledge, but they actively seek information, to build their own knowledge in collaboration with others.

Bronnack, et al. (2006) wrote that “virtual worlds … are uniquely situated to serve as rich environments for engaging students in meaningful communities of practice”. The fact that distributed learning provides more opportunities for engagement and means for interaction with more individuals have been proved to be beneficial to the learning experiences of students (Gilman, et al., 2007; Dickey, 2005a; Riedl, et al., 2005; Dede, et al., 2003). Distributed learning basically means using multiple tools to support learning. These tools in turn give students various ways to participate with students finding those ways that suit them best.

Dede, et al. (2003) studied students learning experiences with both asynchronous and synchronous interactive media. Asynchronous online systems allow participants to interact with each other without all participants online at the same time. In contrast, synchronous systems require everyone to participate at the same time. Examples of asynchronous online systems are blogs, wikis and discussion forums. Some synchronous systems include chat rooms and video conferences. In Dede, et al. (2003), students reported that their distributed learning experience positively affected their participation, engaging them in class–related material. In addition, the use of synchronous media helped students to get to better know and interact with their classmates. Most of the 30 respondents in Dede, et al. felt that something would be missing if their learning environment was only virtual. However less than half of the respondents chose face–to–face education as their first choice of learning. Dede, et al. (2003) summarizes their results by noting that “the full range of students’ learning styles is undercut when interaction is limited to classroom settings rather than distributed across multiple media”. Bronack, et al. (2006) studied the communication between students and teachers and among students and discovered that interaction was easier when using different interactive media.

Jones, et al. (2005) examined how the immersive nature of virtual worlds might affect students’ attitudes towards these learning environments. According to Jones, et al., virtual worlds have the potential to bring the experience of distance education closer to face–to–face education. Jones, et al. noted that each time students logged into their virtual world, they scattered about in the environment to explore it. There was some difficulty in getting all students to the same virtual place at the same time.

Delwiche (2006) studied the use of Everquest and Second Life in two separate courses and found that the learning curve for Everquest was quite steep. He recommends that accessibility should be a deciding factor when choosing which MUVE to use in education. Other important factors are the genre of the MUVE and its extensibility. Students in Delwiche’s courses wrote a course blog describing their experiences. Blog entries revealed that students thought that the course had been informative and enjoyable and that the students learned something. According to Delwiche’s own assessment, the students had produced good quality research during the course. From the students’ blog entries and from a survey conducted after the courses, Delwiche could conclude that virtual worlds are most effective when they are used as “a bridge between overlapping communities of practice” situated both in the physical and virtual worlds, but not completely in either.

Mayrath, et al. (2007) shared their experience of using Second Life in education and gave an extensive list of best practices for instructional activities. They emphasized the importance of careful planning and preparation of courses in Second Life as well as the need for on–going evaluation. Mayrath, et al. wrote that “course learning goals and students’ needs should be considered first and foremost when adopting new technology”. New technology should not be used just because it’s new and available.

Nummenmaa (2007) studied emotions in a Web-based learning environment. She discovered that interactions on the Web have an emotional aspect that is derived from social interactions. Nummenmaa categorized the varied behavior of students into three categories depending on their activity. These partially overlapping categories are: 1) collaborative visible; 2) non–collaborative invisible activities; and, 3) lurking. The emotions of students affected their level of activity and participation, suggesting that more effort should be placed on students’ emotions in courses that occur in Web–based environments. Riva, et al. (2007) found that the feeling of presence was greater in more emotional virtual environments, suggesting the importance of design and appearance in these environments. Engaging virtual environments may have a positive effect on students’ emotions, which in turn affects students’ engagement and activity in courses (Nummenmaa, 2007).

Yellowlees and Cook (2006) demonstrated that the environment and structures of virtual worlds, such as Second Life, can be used efficiently to teach and simulate activities that otherwise would be very difficult to achieve in reality. Yellowlees and Cook built a house in Second Life where visitors could experience visual and auditory hallucinations of individuals with schizophrenia. Most (75 percent, n=549) visiting this virtual house remarked that the experience improved their understanding of schizophrenia.

Boulos, et al. (2007) provided an overview of the potential of Second Life in health education. They indicated that Second Life provides an environment where students can practice skills and make mistakes without serious consequences. The immersive nature of Second Life makes simulations very realistic. As a result, Boulos, et al. think that Second Life may be an ideal place for simulation and practice.



The notion of distance

Distance education (Keegan, 1980) is becoming increasingly common in higher education. Various network–based methods are now used to complement classroom education to reduce the affects of distance, making it independent of time and physical location (Holmberg, 1995; Bates, 2005). Much effort has been placed in overcoming distance and studying its effects on learning outcomes and satisfaction. Comparative studies of classroom and distance education settings have largely found no significant differences in outcomes or satisfaction (Gorsky and Caspi, 2005). However physical and temporal distances remain significant practical variables, affecting the motivation to participate in distance education.

According to Paquette–Frenette (2006), physical presence serves primarily a pragmatic function. In her study, students preferred physical presence, because of perceived technical problems with remote connections. Another advantage of physical presence was the possibility to ask peers for explanations without interrupting the instructor. However, in this study, unequal participation created significant problems. When some students participate alone or in small groups at a distance while other students are physically located together with the instructor, emotional and social distance increases between the different groups.

In response Moore (1993) proposed that significant distance is not temporal or spatial but transactional. Moore argued that transactional distance is a function of three variables — dialogue, structure and learner autonomy. According to this model transactional distance is a continuum between dialogue and structure. More structure means less dialogue and vice versa. In spite of issues related to this notion of transactional distance, distance education is not solely dependent on physical distance (Dron, 2004; Gorsky and Caspi, 2005). Instead of considering distance as a single relational entity, another possible approach is to conceptualize it as a function of physical and human distances. Within the framework of Bandura’s (1986) social cognitive theory, human behavior is seen as an interaction of 1) personal factors (cognitive, affective and biological); 2) behavior; and, 3) environment. Hence distances can be seen as measures of proximity and remoteness of these three elements.

The Bandurian environment has an instrumental effect on the (direct or mediated) context of learning in the form of physical distance. It consists of elements from (physical) environmental and biological factors of interactivity based on human behavior. Similarly learning is affected by cognitive (Nooteboom, 2000; Duval, 2006) and emotional (i.e., affective; Hargreaves, 2001) distances between individuals as well as by social (Garrison, et al., 2000) distance, which reflects overall behavioral proximity. Swartz and Biggs (1999) have argued that computer–mediated learning runs risks of building up emotional distance, because personal expressions are limited by the lack of social abrasion to other means of nurturing social participation.




For this research we bought a small piece of virtual land in Second Life and built a virtual classroom on it in which to hold lectures. Following Riva, et al. (2007) we tried to build a virtual classroom so that it would not distract students but rather enhance a sense of familiarity. The classroom was constructed to resemble a real–world classroom so that it would feel as familiar as possible. We also used some educational aids especially designed for Second Life such as a screen to display slides and pictures and a tool to record text–based discussions for later distribution to participants. The lectures were part of a course for continued education for library personnel in different locations on the west coast of Finland. The course was arranged by the Centre for Open University Education at Åbo Akademi University. During the course there was one day of face–to–face teaching that required that students to travel to a given specific location. Moodle was used as a repository for different course documents and also as a communication channel between teachers and students. Because of the multiple methods used in this course it may be called a distributed learning experience (Dede, et al., 2003), with Second Life being a part of it.

Students were instructed to use their real first names as the first name of their avatars and then according to the registration procedure of Second Life, choose a last name from a list provided by Linden Labs. In this way the names provided students some level of anonymity but also trust and recognition (Dickey, 2005a). We gave the students written instructions, a manual about how to register for an account and how to find to the in–world classroom. Before we started any lectures we had two appointments for discussion and practice in Second Life. This procedure ensured that a certain level of functionality within Second Life, reducing a lack of orientation.

All students who participated in the Second Life sessions were asked about their views and opinions on these sessions and on Second Life as a learning environment. Responses were collected using a Web–based survey and all responses were anonymous. The survey included 33 questions on a five–point Likert scale as well as three open–ended questions and some background questions.




The survey was answered by 30 respondents. Six students stated that they had some technical difficulties that hindered them from participating in the lectures in–world. Most of the problems appeared to be related to computer graphics cards that did not meet the technical requirements of Second Life client software. Technical problems with Second Life software were reported in some earlier studies (e.g., Lindeberg, 2006). Of the respondents 28 were female and two were male. The youngest respondent was born in 1984 and the oldest respondent was born in 1952. Half of the respondents were born before 1967. All of them were participating in a 60 ECTS credits Open University education course in information studies and had completed many of the required modules. The course was based on distributed learning, giving all respondents fresh knowledge and experience about face–to–face education, Web–based learning environments and learning in Second Life. All respondents considered themselves to be familiar with using computers.

Respondents didn’t feel that using the Second Life client was too difficult. The majority of the respondents answered that moving (73.3 percent) and navigating (66.7 percent) in Second Life was easy or fairly easy. Almost all of the respondents felt that it was easy to take part in Second Life–based lectures and discussions, and that they gained additional information from other students in discussions.

Respondents were asked to estimate the usability of Second Life as a learning environment by comparing it to other learning methods. When compared with face–to–face education, the respondents felt that learning in Second Life was somewhat more difficult. Face–to–face education was considered overall as a “better” (versus worse, as literally asked in the survey) form of education. But learning in Second Life was considered to be clearly more fun. Nevertheless, 60 percent of the respondents answered that lectures in Second Life could replace face–to–face lectures. This question raised strong opinions. In addition, 83.3 percent of the respondents thought that the barrier to participate in discussions or to ask a question was lower in Second Life than in face–to–face lectures. When compared to Web–based learning platforms, Second Life was not considered to be neither easier nor more difficult. But even in this case, learning in Second Life was considered to be a lot more fun (a response from over half of the respondents). In contrast to the comparison with face–to–face education, Second Life was considered to be a “better” form of education than learning from Web–based learning platforms. One–third of the respondents considered Second Life to be “better” — against 13.3 percent of the respondents that thought Second Life was “worse” — than Web–based learning platforms. The respondents graded a lecture in Second Life to be “better” than webcasting and discussion boards, almost as good as videoconferences, but clearly not as good as face–to–face lectures and meetings.

Because problems with distance education typically involve difficulties with communication and students feeling lonely, we asked about the usability of Second Life in supporting interaction and communication. A question about how the students experienced the presence of other students gave very mixed answers. Compared to Web–based learning environments the interaction between the students was thought to be more comfortable by almost 50 percent of respondents. It was considered to enhance interaction and the feeling of presence was stronger. Most of the students (56.6 percent) felt that other students were actually present in the virtual classroom. The respondents said that it was “fun” to meet all of the other students in the same location without having to leave their homes and that the campus–like atmosphere made it feel “real”.

Second Life was also considered to be a functional environment for teamwork. Assignments that students resolved in teams were considered to be fun and productive. The respondents felt that their teams produced more than they would have done individually. Students also felt very strongly that they were part of the team (56.7 percent).

When the respondents were given a chance to freely express their opinions about their experiences in Second Life, it became apparent that using Second Life in education may even have somewhat surprising positive consequences. One of the respondents wrote that using Second Life in education had brought her closer to her 16–year–old son’s world.

Another surprising observation outside the survey was that some of the students used Second Life on their own time to improve their language skills. One of the students told us that she spent a lot of time in the French–speaking areas of Second Life exercising both her written and spoken French. This discovery strengthens our belief of the huge potential that Second Life has for language education, an area certainly requiring further research.




We assumed in advance that maneuvering in Second Life might be challenging for students with no experience in computer or console games. This assumption was incorrect. As in Bartlett and Simpson (2005), the respondents didn’t think that using a virtual world (in this case Second Life) was too difficult, technical problems aside.

One reason why the barrier to participation in Second Life was lower may be the fact that Second Life provides means for multimodal communication, even in–world. Students could use text–based chat inside Second Life to ask questions and participate and the teacher could answer and respond at a suitable time without interruption. It is possible to communicate through different channels at the same time, and students can use a channel that best suits them. Another possible explanation might be that the use of avatars gives students some level of anonymity (Dickey, 2005a), with students “hiding” behind their avatars. This possibility was not studied in this research, but it may be a fruitful direction for future analysis.

In general, Second Life was considered to enhance interaction between students and between the instructor and the students especially when compared to Web–based learning environments. This point was noted in earlier studies of distributed learning using various synchronous interactive media (Gilman, et al., 2007; Bronack, et al., 2006; Dickey, 2005a; Riedl, et al., 2005; Dede, et al., 2003). Some of the mixed answers when comparing Second Life to face–to–face education could partly be explained by efforts to travel, various family reasons, how pleasant individuals felt in Second Life and the strength of a feeling of presence. Provided that participating face–to–face education does not require too much traveling and learning outcomes are satisfactory, Second Life does not necessarily provide any significant benefits, at least not when using it only as a platform for lectures and teamwork.

When considering distance only as a physical measure of separation, Second Life provides a means to overcome it. The existence of multimodal and non–interfering means of communication and socialization by using chat, instant messages and voice calls in personal and group interaction provides users a wider range of possibilities to communicate than in face–to–face sessions. Of these varied means, each student can select an option one that feels most comfortable, an observation also made by Paquette–Frenette (2006). In this study, all of the students were participating at a distance through Second Life, avoiding problems noted in Paquette–Frenette (2006). The mixed responses to questions about Second Life being comfortable or better than other environments of learning indicate a variety of emotional and cognitive reactions. This study did not give clear answers to the interplay of different distance variables (Nooteboom, 2000; Duval, 2006; Hargreaves, 2001; Garrison, et al., 2000) in Second Life–based learning. However, the results indicate that the feeling of presence and distance is a multidimensional issue that needs further attention in future studies.

In comparison to lectures, the benefits of using Second Life in teamwork were more obvious. The physical presence of avatars, the possibility to communicate in real time and the existence of a shared local space explain why Second Life produces a more realistic feel of presence than discussion forums or chat rooms. In a sense, Second Life brings distance education closer to face–to–face education, supporting Jones, et al. (2005). The strong feel of presence noted by respondents and the immersive nature of Second Life seem to do just that. The fact that the students answered that the campus like atmosphere felt real and comfortable to them may suggest that the environment was also emotionally engaging (Riva, et al., 2007). Obviously, virtual buildings and surroundings have a significant role in the learning experience. Hence careful planning of the environment is important.




To place Second Life, Web–based learning environments and face–to–face education in order according to which one is the best is hardly useful. According to the results of this study, the three learning environments compete very well with other. There are benefits in face–to–face education and in real physical presence that are difficult to achieve in other learning environments. Education in Second Life is closer to face–to–face education than traditional methods in distance education that are based on asynchronous communication and two–dimensional media. Second Life provides options for multimodality in communication (voice, chat, gestures, space) that make learning fun — always a desired outcome. End of article


About the authors

Kim Holmberg is a researcher and lecturer at the Department of Information Studies, Åbo Akademi.
E–mail: kim [dot] holmberg [at] abo [dot] fi

Isto Huvila, PhD, is a researcher and lecturer at the Department of Information Studies, Åbo Akademi.
E–mail: isto [dot] huvila [at] abo [dot] fi



1. Second Life is a trademark of Linden Research, Inc. This research is not affiliated with or sponsored by Linden Research.



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Editorial history

Paper received 16 May 2008; accepted 20 September 2008.

Copyright © 2008, First Monday.

Copyright © 2008, Kim Holmberg and Isto Huvila.

Learning together apart: Distance education in a virtual world
by Kim Holmberg and Isto Huvila
First Monday, Volume 13 Number 10 - 6 October 2008