November 25, 2015

Book review: Teaching and Learning in Digital Worlds

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Workspace in the EVEA3D platform

Workspace in the EVEA3D platform

Gisbert, T. and Bullen, M. (2015) Teaching and Learning in Digital Worlds: Strategies and Issues in Higher Education Tarragona Spain: Publicacions Universitat Rovira i Virgili (pdf version available online for 2.84 Euros).

What the book is about

From the Introduction

[The book] examines the teaching and learning process in 3D virtual learning environments from both the theoretical and practical points of view. It is divided into four sections:

  • the first section discusses education in the 21st century from the perspective of learners in a digital society and examines the basic competences students need to respond to the personal and professional challenges they are likely to face. It also explores the issue of quality…..
  • the second section focuses on the educational and teaching strategies higher education professionals must take into account when developing educational processes in technology environments…in such environments simulation will be our best teaching strategy and evaluation our greatest challenge.
  • the third section explores the use of 3D virtual environments in education in general and in higher education in particular….
  • The fourth section examines the range of experiences we consider to be good practice when applying 3D technological environments to the teaching of competences at secondary and tertiary levels of education both nationally and internationally.

However, this doesn’t quite capture for me what the book is really about, so I will discuss a little more closely below some of the themes addressed by individual chapters.

As a point of clarification, I will use the term ‘immersive environments’ as a shorthand to describe simulations, games and virtual reality, a point I will come back to in my comments at the end of this post.

Who wrote it

The book is edited by Mercè Gisbert of the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Catalonia, Spain, and Canadian Mark Bullen, formerly of the University of British Columbia and the Commonwealth of Learning. However, the majority of chapters are based on a study (Simul@) funded by the Spanish Ministry of Education and coordinated by Universitat Rovira i Virgili, but involving universities in Spain, Germany, and Portugal, thus providing a valuable insight into the thinking about immersive environments for education in Europe.

Full disclosure: I wrote a short prologue for the book.

Themes covered in the book

Rather than a chapter-by-chapter summary, I have selected certain themes that re-occur through the book.

1. Digital learners

There is a lot of discussion in the book about the nature of digital learners and their ‘readiness’ for learning through digital technologies. In particular, Bullen and Morgan summarise the conflicting views and the research around digital natives and digital immigrants, and provide a more ‘nuanced’ profile of categories of digital learners.  Martinez and Espinal in their chapter provide a detailed description of digital competence and how to assess it. Throughout the book there is emphasis on the need to ensure that learners have the necessary ‘digital competences’ to benefit fully from the use of immersive technologies for learning purposes (although the same applies to teachers, of course). For instance, de Oliveira et al., in their chapter, identify various components of digital competences.

2. Competences

One of the strengths of the book is that several authors make the point that the main educational value of immersive learning environments is for the development of ‘general competences’ such as learning to learn, teamwork, communication, problem solving and decision-making. Astigarraga provides a very good overview of the definition, identification and evaluation of competences, and Isus et al. develop this further with a chapter on evaluating the competences of teamwork and self-management. Larraz and Esteve devote their whole chapter to evaluating digital competence in immersive environments. These chapters will be valuable for anyone interested in competency-based learning, whether or not using immersive learning environments.

3. Key educational principles and affordances of immersive technologies

Another strength of the book is that several authors related the features of immersive environments to possible educational affordances, and the educational principles needed to exploit such affordances. Camacho and Esteve-Gonzáles have a list of 14 educational reasons for using immersive environments for learning and Cervera and Cela-Ranilla have collated from the general research literature about 15 key pedagogical principles ‘to be observed during learning processes’ when using immersive technologies for learning purposes.

4. Planning and implementing virtual learning environments

Towards the end of the book there are several chapters focusing on more practical issues. Marqués et al. describe the planning and implementation of a virtual world built in Sloodle, which combines OpenSim with Moodle, for educating both physical education and business management students. Estevez-González et al. take this further with a chapter on the tools used in Sloodle and the necessary steps needed to integrate OpenSim and Moodle. Lastly, Cela-Ranilla and Estevez-Gonzàlez provide an educational rationale for the design of the project. Garcia and Martin set out a design methodology for an immersive learning environment.

5. Experiences and good practices

The book ends with five chapters that describe actual applications of immersive learning environments, including PolyU developed at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (hotel and tourism management), a review of applications in economics and business courses, the use of an educational platform Virt-UAM developed at Universidad Autònoma de Madrid, and applications in law and psychology, and lastly a review of applications in secondary/high school education.


First, this is a very welcome and timely publication for several reasons:

  • it sets out very clearly the pedagogical rationale for the use of immersive learning environments;
  • it links immersive technologies very strongly to the development of competences;
  • it provides practical advice on the planning and implementation of immersive learning environments;
  • it provides a welcome European perspective on the topic.

From a personal perspective, it complements very nicely my own open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, where, because of space and time issues, I was unable to give this topic the treatment it deserves. Although not an open textbook, it is very accessible, available online for less than three euros ($3-4).

Given the book is mostly written by people for whom English is a second language, the chapters are clearly and well written, mostly free of the European English associated with European Commission projects.

Nevertheless, the European Commission has adopted the term competence rather than competency, which really irritates me, and this term is used throughout the book, when what the authors are really talking about are skills. Competent is an adjective meaning a minimal capacity to do something; incompetent is more frequently used in English English, and it is used to describe inadequacy. What we are really talking about here are skills, not competence. Skills have no limit, while competence tends to be categorical: you either have it or you don’t, which is why competency-based learning often requires 100% pass-rates. But skills such as problem-solving can get better and better, and that’s what we should be striving for in higher education, not a minimal pass requirement.

The editors have done a good job in ensuring that there is a coherence and progression between the different chapters, always a challenge in a multiple-authored book. However, I would have liked a summary chapter from the editors that pulled all the threads together, and also some more information about the authors.

The books strength and its weakness is the academic nature of the book, with more focus on theory, competences and affordances, and less on the actual technology design issues, although to be fair these start to appear at the back of the book. I would have liked to have seen more integration in the writing throughout the book between theory and practice.

The main omission is any discussion of costs in planning and developing immersive learning environments, which are time demanding of both learners and teachers. There are clear economies of scale that need to be employed to justify the high cost of initial design. If a virtual world and allied teaching strategies can be shared across several courses or even disciplines, the cost becomes more acceptable. There is also a high cost for students in terms of the time needed to master the technology and its educational applications if they only get one course in a virtual world. So it is a pity that there was so little discussion of costs and time in the book, and about the transfer of innovation into mainstream practice, which are significant challenges for the wider adoption of immersive technologies in education.

Nevertheless, this is a book I would highly recommend to all concerned about the implications of technology for learning design. Virtual learning environments hold great promise. We need more concerted efforts in higher education to use immersive learning environments, and this book is an essential guide.

Athabasca University’s troubles grow

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Athabasca University: a campus without students - or even resident faculty

Athabasca University: a campus without students – or even resident faculty

Bako, O. (2015) AU taskforce releases sustainability report, The Athabasca Advocate, June 9

I hate to rely on third-party reports, but a thorough web search did not find the actual sustainability report online, so all I can do is provide a summary of the newspaper article. (How comes an open university doesn’t make this most important report ever on its future available online? This is just another indicator of the depth of the problems at AU. It doesn’t understand the present, never mind the future). If anyone can supply me with a copy of the actual report, I would appreciate it. So until I get a copy, please see this as an interim post.

What’s the problem?

However you look at it, though, Canada’s largest open university is in an existential crisis:

Athabasca University (AU) will be unable to pay its debt in two years if immediate action is not taken, according to a sustainability report released June 1….the taskforce concluded AU would face insolvency on its debt in two years….’Our problem is a common one — our expenses are going up faster than our revenues,’ said AU interim president Peter MacKinnon.

So Athabasca University is now in the same position as the Greek government, except it doesn’t have the EU, the IMF, or the Germans to look to for help – just the Alberta government, which itself has been fiscally devastated by the collapse of oil prices.

What’s it doing about it?

From the newspaper report, though, the task force is looking forward, rather than backwards. It has looked at four options, which are not mutually exclusive:

  • increase cost-effectiveness and streamline business, administrative and education practices;
  • refocus AU’s mission to serve only, or primarily, students who physically reside in Alberta;
  • become a federation with another Alberta post-secondary institution and/or
  • join an affiliation with universities both in and out of the province (e.g. the Canadian Virtual University).

(I probably have mixed up the options, but you can see what kind of options are being considered).

Why is it in such a mess?

I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer this question, nor the newspaper, but the interim President seems to offer up some culprits:

  • increased reliance on tuition and decreased government funding to cover operating expenses,
  • caps on tuition that limit AU revenue,
  • the location of AU (its main campus is in the boondocks 200 kilometres north of Edmonton and most of the faculty live elsewhere),
  • demands from employee collective agreements,
  • the province does not see IT infrastructure as a capital expense.

However, none (except possibly the over-generous and/or inflexible collective agreements) of these really gets to the root of the problem. There are three fundamental reasons for AU’s problems, all strongly interconnected:

  • gross financial and political mismanagement by the previous university administration (Board and President);
  • a failure by the previous Alberta government to understand or support a unique institution;
  • a failure to adapt fast enough from a heavily front-end loaded, print-based teaching model to lighter, more flexible online teaching methods.

What will happen to AU?

God knows, and certainly not someone sitting here in Vancouver. However, I have the heavy foreboding of a tragedy rapidly unfolding. Here’s why:

  • doing the same as it has been, but more ‘efficiently’, i.e. more cheaply, won’t cut it. The only way to really reduce costs within the current teaching model is to cut student support and central faculty, which will mean lower completion rates and/or poorer quality courses; it needs to implement a completely different model of teaching and learning, which would reduce operating costs, but would also require major capital investment, and ripping up current collective agreements, neither of which appear to be options;
  • its current model has high fixed costs and low marginal costs; limiting enrolment to Albertans will leave the high fixed costs, but will reduce the additional income from external students, a recipe for disaster. Indeed, AU should go in the opposite direction and go global – but it will need a more up-to-date teaching model to do this;
  • I find it hard to believe that the Albert government doesn’t understand that investment in IT infrastructure is essential for a modern university, and is far cheaper than building new campuses. More likely it is hesitant to throw good money after bad, because AU has previously poorly managed the management of IT.

One tempting solution would be to close Athabasca, and give the two main universities a mandate to absorb and redevelop the programs Athabasca has been offering, using some of the money that is currently being invested in Athabasca. However, there are two problems with this temptation:

  • first, Alberta’s problem, compared to other provinces, is that it has in the past left online and distance learning to Athabasca University. As a result, its other institutions, such as the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary, are way behind many other universities in Canada in moving to online and blended learning. They therefore lack current capacity. On the other hand, it could be argued that by hiring the best from Athabasca, this would be a good way to bring Alberta’s conventional universities up to speed in online learning. My guess though is that neither the University of Alberta nor Calgary would see this as a priority or even necessary. Alberta is not the only province with a degree of hubris.
  • Second, Athabasca is not really an online university, it is an open university, and in that sense it is unique. The British Columbia government’s experience in closing the Open Learning Agency and with it the Open University of BC in 2003 suggests that it will be very difficult to integrate the open components within a conventional university, as the experience at Thompson Rivers University, which now offers open courses through its Open Learning division, indicates.

What would I propose?

Thank goodness, it’s not my responsibility, and I don’t have all the facts and information needed to make an informed decision. But here are some suggestions:

  • this is really the Alberta government’s decision. It surely now has enough evidence to know that the current situation cannot continue and that there is no easy solution short of closing down Athabasca, which then opens up a whole new can of worms
  • what Alberta lacks (and it is not alone in this) is a provincial wide strategy for online and open learning. There is clearly demand, in terms of student numbers, and opportunities, in terms of online, blended learning, OERs and open access. What is the best way to provide this, in terms of the roles of the conventional institutions, and where does Athabasca then fit, if at all? Until it has worked out such a strategy, it should hold off on any interim decisions about Athabasca, other than to keep it on life support.

However, don’t bank on logic or strategic thinking to drive decision-making about Athabasca University. There are jobs in rural areas at stake, as well as the future of many dedicated and skilled faculty and staff at Athabasca University. But this is where Alberta’s real resources lie, in the skills and knowledge buried within Athabasca University, not in a particular institutional arrangement. So the government needs to act with caution but the goal should be making Alberta a leader in online and open education, by drawing on and possibly relocating the expertise within Athabasca, but not necessarily supporting the institution itself whose time may well have passed.


Investments in game-based learning and learning technology continues to grow

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Growth in learning technology investment 2

Banville, L. (2015) Reports Highlight Strong Growth and Investor Interest in China, U.S. Game-based Learning Games and Learning, May 31

This is an interesting report that summarizes three major market research reports about investment in game-based learning particularly, and learning technologies in general.

It covers recent reports from the following three market research organizations:

Main results:

  • worldwide sales of game-based learning products hit $1.7 billion in 2013 (Ambient)
  • future growth in game-based learning products is expected to grow between 7%-16% per annum
  • global private investment in learning technologies generally topped $2.4 billion in 2014 (Ambient)
  • consumers are the top buyers of edugame packaged content, particularly in the early childhood market (Ambient)
  • the emergence of easy-to-use mobile game-building tools supports the cultural shift towards game-creation as an educational experience (Ambient).

One driving factor in the most recent growth has been investment in mobile learning companies in China.


Ambient Insight in particular has been extremely accurate in identifying investment trends in learning technologies.

Mobile learning and game-based learning look to be the main bets for commercial growth, followed by learning analytics.

The big question is though whether these investments will drive change in education, or whether the education market will reject one or more of these developments, either because they are too costly or difficult to implement (e.g. very high training costs to get teachers or learners to use them well) or because such technologies do not meet the actual learning needs of students.

Another question is whether the level of investment in any single educational game will be large enough to bring about major changes in learning. The danger is of spreading investment too thinly across too many games to have a major impact, focusing on low levels of learning such as memorization, rather than developing critical thinking or problem solving skills. Ambient Insight’s comment that easy-to-use mobile game-building tools are increasing suggests though that this will be an exciting area that is ripe for growth – and for research and evaluation. I just hope that educators and learners will be as involved as software developers in designing such educational games.

UBC develops an institutional strategy for learning technologies

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The Amalfi Coast

The Amalfi Coast, Italy

Bates, S. et al. (2015) UBC’s Learning Technology Ecosystem: Developing a Shared Vision, Blueprint & Roadmap Vancouver BC: University of British Columbia

I’ve not been posting much recently as I am taking a three week holiday in Europe (the photo is my view as I write this), but this report from the Provost’s Office at UBC is too significant to ignore.

What is it about?

The report basically sets out a vision and a set of strategies for the future development and management of learning technologies at UBC, a large Tier-1 research university in Canada. Although produced by a small Project Committee, it is the outcome of extensive discussions throughout the university and also externally with other institutions with successful learning technology strategies.

What is in the report?

1. Recognition of learning technology as an eco-system

A learning technology ecosystem represents faculty, staff and students interacting with their learning technology environment, composed of tools and services. There are dependencies in this ecosystem; between technologies, between technologies and services but also between users, technologies and services. The ecosystem is self-organizing, dynamic, constantly changing and evolving. Technologies are birthed, and they also are removed as new ones take their place.

2. Assessment of the current state of learning technologies

UBC uses a very interesting way of assessing the current state of learning technology within an institution, using the following conceptual framework:

UBC's current state assessment process framework

UBC’s current state assessment process framework

This has enabled the team to identify gaps in services, governance, funding and infrastructure.

Another interesting outcome of this process is that the report estimates that UBC is currently spending almost $10 million annually on supporting its LMS, of which 78% is incurred at a Faculty/academic department level, mainly in technical support for the LMS, the rest centrally, including licensing. Thus one technology tool is costing almost as much as the rest of the LT eco-system.

2. Vision and principles for LTs at UBC

UBC's LT vision and principles 2

3. Functions and services

Working group members identified functional gaps in the LT ecosystem, along with their relative importance. Similarly, members of the Working Group identified both phase-specific support required during LT life cycles, as well as support services required across the lifecycle. They identified which of the gaps required the most improvement and also prioritized them according to their relative importance.

4. Support models

UBC uses both central and local/departmental support models and because of the size and complexity of the organization, no major changes were suggested for support models (but see Governance below)

5. Governance

The working group found significant shortcomings in the current governance structure for LTs. In particular there was inadequate academic input into priorities for the selection and use of LT tools and services, and the student voice was not heard. The Working Group proposed a stronger governance model as a result.

6. Other issues

The report goes on to cover a number of other issues, such as a roadmap and success metrics and resource issues such as the need for better learning analytics and increased bandwidth.

Why this report?

Good question, Tony, and here I will have to speculate a little, as I no longer work at UBC. UBC has a long history in both distance education and learning technology development. In the early 1990s it received government funding of over $2 million to explore the use of learning technologies, one outcome of which was WebCT, the first learning management system to be widely adopted. Blackboard Inc eventually bought WebCT, and UBC still uses Blackboard Connect as its LMS.

In the early 2000s,  a ‘nascent’ governance structure for learning technologies was suggested, and in recent years governance has focused mainly on the transition from Blackboard Vista to Blackboard Connect. However, over the last couple of years, UBC has also developed a major flexible learning strategy which is now being extensively implemented throughout the university. There has been considerable frustration and dissatisfaction with the implementation of Connect which has been getting in the way of the flexible learning strategy, so I see this report as a way of fixing that disconnect (sorry for the pun.) Or, as the report puts it:

Faculty desire a greater choice of tools, so that the one with the best fit for the pedagogical purpose can be selected….the functional footprint of the LMS is shrinking over time though the footprint of the entire [LT] ecosystem is arguably increasing. We anticipate a shrinking LMS footprint while still envisaging the need for a core within the ecosystem.


Although specific to UBC, this report will resonate with many other institutions. It should be essential reading for any Provost concerned with moving their institution forward into digital learning, as institutions struggle with legacy technology systems. The report adopts a clear, evidence-based analytical approach to sensitive issues around management, technology choice, and pedagogy, even if occasionally the business-speak language grates a little.

So back to my glass of Prosecco on the sun-drenched terrace.

Game-based and immersive courses in a community college system

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SimSprayBradley, P. (2014) Getting in the game: Colorado colleges develop game-based, immersive courses Community College Weekly, March 3

The Colorado Community College System (CCCS) is one of the leading community college systems in exploring new online technologies. I have already reported on their use of remote labs for teaching introductory science courses at a distance. This article looks at the extensive use of immersion and game-based learning in the CCCS:

CCCS set aside $3 million through its Faculty Challenge Grant Program to encourage the development of courses and curriculum focusing on immersion and game-based learning (IGBL). Grants were awarded to 15 projects. The intent was that they would be “lighthouse projects,” illuminating the way for others to follow. Each solution would be scalable, shared with other institutions throughout the 13-college system.

Some of the 15 projects

Projects from this investment include the following:

  • CSI Aurora (Aurora CC) teaches the reality of forensic work through an immersive learning exercise involving a mock crime scene and mock criminal trial, with student participation from the archaeology, forensic anthropology, criminal justice, paralegal and science departments.
  • the Auto Collision Repair program at Morgan Community College purchased a SimSpray immersive virtual reality painting simulation unit, designed to assist in the teaching of spray painting and coating fundamentals. Using SimSpray decreases the expense of paint used to teach spray painting and prevents exposure to potentially dangerous fumes. The 3D SimSpray experience allows students to practice painting before ever stepping into the paint bay (I think in this case the real thing would be more fun!)
  • At Front Range Community College, Project Outbreak is a series of augmented reality scenarios in which microbiology students track and follow a potential epidemic in their local area to its source across international borders. Students use their mobile devices, the TagWhat geolocation app, Google Hangout and Google maps. Scenarios are designed to meet core competencies, promote global connectedness and give students a global perspective in solving real-world problems
  • the Community College of Aurora’s film school is in the process of using a $100,000 grant to create a virtual economy designed to mirror the reality of the studio system, from writing scripts to luring investors to screening the film in front of a real-life audiences. Over the past seven years, the film school has developed proprietary software that allows students to experience — virtually — every aspect of the filmmaking experience. The cost of rental housing in Los Angeles, New York and Denver can be accessed with a few clicks of a mouse. The cost of obtaining equipment can easily be calculated. Students working within a set budget can see how much to devote to paying actors and directors, producers and key grips.
  • an instructor at the the Community College of Denver is using ACCESS, a web-based game modelled after the board game “Life”, whixh simulates a person’s travels through his or her life, from college to retirement, with jobs, marriage, and possible children along the way. ACCESS teaches the course in a flipped format, allowing students to receive information through videos, podcasts, downloadable lectures and social media, and then discuss the materials in class. The course is designed to help students successfully complete remedial coursework.


The article offers the following results from a ‘consultant’s report’ but I couldn’t find any corroboration:

  • where the ACCESS game was used, scores on quizzes jumped 14 percent and 71 percent of students completed the course, compared to 60 percent enrolled without the gaming component
  • students exhibited nearly identical pass/fail rates as non-IGBL courses.
  • 69 percent of students across semesters indicated that they were either more or much more satisfied with their IGBL course, as compared to other courses; 85 percent of students indicated that they were either more or much more satisfied with their IGBL instructor, as compared to other instructors.
  • students indicated that their IGBL course did a better or much better job (as compared to non-IGBL courses) of helping them achieve a variety of learning outcomes, including: having fun while learning (83 percent/73 percent); applying learning to new situations (81 percent/72 percent); staying engaged in learning (79 percent/73 percent); feeling involved in the college (69 percent/60 percent); working well with other students (67 percent/61 percent).

Over to you

Contact North has descriptions of a number of immersive learning projects under its ‘Pockets of Innovation‘ such as Loyalist College’s Border Simulation in Second Life.

See also:


More news of video games

Games to defeat obesity, Napoleon, and students’ learning, and other games’ news

I’d be interested to hear from others who are using game-based immersive learning in the two year college system.