August 16, 2018

Book review: Teaching and Learning in Digital Worlds

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.

It’s all about millennials – or is it?

This is the sixth blog on the topic: ‘Is e-learning failing in higher education?’. The previous five were:

1. Is e-learning failing in higher education?

2. Expectations and goals for e-learning

3. Has e-learning increased access to learning opportunities?

4. Does technology really enhance the quality of teaching and learning?

5. e-Learning and 21st century skills and competences

Meeting the needs of millennials

One of the goals sometimes claimed for e-learning is that it meets the learning styles/needs of millennial students, or put another way, millennial students will learn better through e-learning because it fits their experience and ways of behaving.

I am going to argue that this is not a strong justification for the use of e-learning – or rather, the focus on e-learning as a means to meet the needs of millennials is too narrow.

Who are the ‘Millennials’?

This is a term used for those born between the mid 1970s to early 1990s inclusive. Other terms used for people born in these years are Generation Y, the Net Generation, or digital natives. The term is used to describe learners who have grown up with technology such as computers and the Internet all through their life. They are assumed to be technology-savvy, are able to multi-task, have developed specific skills such as video games playing, and are sometimes described as having a sense of entitlement (‘it’s all about me’) – after all, they are the children of ‘boomers’ (Alsop, 2008).

More specifically, with regard to higher education, Oblinger and Oblinger (2005a) identify the following characteristics as being typical for millennials:

  • digitally literate in the sense of being comfortable and familiar with digital technology
  • connected to friends and the world through technology
  • ‘immediacy’: rapid multi-tasking, fast response to communications
  • experiential: they prefer to learn by doing rather than being told
  • highly social: ‘they gravitate toward activities that promote and reinforce social interaction’
  • group work: they prefer to work and play in groups or teams
  • a preference for structure rather than ambiguity
  • engagement and interaction: an orientation towards action and inductive reasoning rather than reflection
  • a preference for visual (i.e. graphics, video) and kinesthetic learning rather than learning through text
  • active engagement in issues that matter to millennials

The argument made by writers such as Prensky (2001) and Oblinger and Oblinger (2005b) is that education needs to be adapted to meet the needs of these learners. Millennials need to be actively engaged, need to be motivated and interested to learn, and above all need to be immersed in a technological environment for learning.

Does the Millennial student really exist?

Bullen et al. (2009) though challenge these findings.

A review of literature on the millennial learner and implications for education reveals that most of the claims are supported by reference to a relatively small number of publications…. What all of these works have in common is that they make grand claims about the difference between the millennial generation and all previous generations and they argue that this difference has huge implications for education. But most significantly, these claims are made with reference to almost no empirical data. For the most part, they rely on anecdotal observations or speculation. In the rare cases, where there is hard data, it is usually not representative.’

Bullen and his colleagues are right to draw attention to the source of such claims. Going back to the original research is always a good idea, and often on this topic the empirical data base is very weak, with small samples and often samples skewed towards high users of technology. However, it is also important to look at what exactly is being claimed. For instance, Oblinger and Oblinger (2000a) question whether it is age that relates to these characteristics but rather exposure to technology:

‘Although these trends are described in generational terms, age may be less important than exposure to technology. For example, individuals who are heavy users of IT tend to have characteristics similar to the Net Gen.’

In another paper in the same publication, Hartman, Moskal, and Dziuban (2005) report on a survey of students at the University of Central Florida. The University of Central Florida (UCF) regularly conducts formative and summative surveys of students’ online learning experiences (UCF has a high proportion of blended and fully online courses). In the 2004 survey there were 1,489 online student responses, representing a return rate of approximately 30 percent. They found for a start that there was ‘substantial age diversity in the distributed learning population in metropolitan universities.’ Over half the students (55%) were in fact Generation X students, and almost as many students were Boomers (22%) as Millennials (NetGens) (23%). Over five years the proportion of millennials will have increased, but in most institutions they are likely to remain a minority of students, because of the increasing number of older students returning to post-secondary education. However, these older students will in most cases also have had an increased level of exposure to technology than their predecessors.

Another finding from the Hartman, Moskal and Dziuban paper is that Millennials indicated less engagement with online learning than their older counterparts. Although this may be counter to the argument that Millennials are more comfortable with technology and therefore need technology based teaching, it is consistent with the finding that older or more mature students do better at online and distance learning.

There are really three separate issues here:

1. Are millennial learners distinctly different from other students currently in college? Millennial students exist, of course, as they are defined by age. One thing we can say is that they will be younger than non-Millennial students – at least for a couple more years until the next generation arrives. However, Millennials are not a majority of students in many post-secondary educational institutions and there is evidence to suggest that exposure to technology is equally as important as age in determining the learner characteristics described by Oblinger and Oblinger. So I would not put a lot of emphasis on date of birth as a determining characteristic of today’s learner.

2. Are students in college today different from students in college 25 years ago? Despite the lack of rigour of the claims for ‘millennial learners’, I would be surprised, if given their exposure to technology over the last 25 years, current students are the same as students 25 years ago. Thus the characteristics described by Oblinger and Oblinger are likely to apply to many students today. However, there are also other differences that are even more important, in terms of educational strategies, such as a much greater of proportion of students today being older, studying part-time, and requiring more flexible access to learning.

3. If students are different, what should instructors do? This is a much more difficult question to answer, and I will try to do this more extensively below.

All students are important

Although the argument has some merit that students entering post-secondary education now are qualitatively different from previous generations of students – some commentators go so far as to argue that their brains are ‘wired’ differently –  one needs to be careful in interpreting this argument in education. Research has shown that skills developed in one context (e.g. solving problems in video games) do not necessarily transfer to other contexts (e.g. problem-solving in business). In particular, students’ use of the Internet for social and personal purposes does not necessarily prepare them adequately for academic applications of the Internet, such as searching for reliable sources of information (CIBER, 2008).

Also, there is a danger in stereotyping. Not all ‘millennials’ behave the same way or have a total immersion in technology. Nor are all students these days millennials. An increasing number of students are ‘pre-millennial’, being older and returning to study or entering post-secondary education later in life. Lastly, there are some inherent requirements in education – such as a disciplined approach to study, critical thinking, evidence-based argumentation, for example – that cannot or should not be abandoned because they do not fit a particular student’s preferred learning style.

Accommodating to differences in learners

Nevertheless, it is important for instructors to take into account the needs of all learners they are dealing with. Young people see technology much the same way they see air and water – part of everyday life. It is natural then that they will see technology as a ‘normal’ component of teaching and learning.

Full-time Millennial students on campus though have frequently reported that they do not expect technology to replace face-to-face contact with their teacher, and they they expect teachers to help them to know how best to use technology for learning. There is not an automatic transfer of technology skills from social and personal use to academic use, and most students are aware of this. The important issue here is that instructors need to understand how technology can be appropriately used for studying, and need to ensure that teaching makes the best use of technology possible. Some students will need more help than others in their use of technology for learning, but all students need to learn how to integrate technology successfully within their subject discipline.

The need for student engagement in learning

Lastly, Prensky and others argue that teachers need to change their strategies, because Millennials are used to being stimulated and engaged outside school, and therefore need to be engaged inside school. This may be true, but why is it special to Millennials? Should not all our students be engaged and challenged, stimulated by learning, and find the joy and excitement of discovery? Intelligent use of technology can help, certainly, but it is not sufficient on its own; it needs to be harnessed to effective teaching strategies, such as collaborative learning, problem- and project-based teaching, and enabling students to take responsibility for their own learning. This should apply to all students, not just the Millennials.


Alsop, R. (2008) The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation is Shaking Up the Workplace. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bullen, M. et al. (2009) The Net Generation in Higher Education: Rhetoric and Reality International Journal of Excellence in e-Learning Vol. 2, No. 1

CIBER (2008) Information behaviour of the researcher of the future London: British Library, UCL

Oblinger, D. and Oblinger, J. (2005a) ‘Is It Age or IT: First Steps Toward Understanding the Net Generation’, in Oblinger, D. and Oblinger, J. (2005) Educating the Net Generation Boulder CO: EDUCAUSE

Oblinger, D. and Oblinger, J. (2005) Educating the Net Generation Bolder CO: EDUCAUSE

Pedró, F. (2009) ‘New millennial learners in higher education: evidence and policy implications’, in ‘Technology in Higher Education’, to be released later by OECD/CERI. In the meantime, the document can be downloaded from the Hextlearn site:

Prensky, M. (2001) ‘Digital natives, Digital Immigrants’ On the Horizon Vol. 9, No. 5 (downloaded from:,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf)

A Case Study of Participation and Critical Thinking in a University-Level Course Delivered by Computer Conferencing.

Bullen, M. (1997) A Case Study of Participation and Critical Thinking in a University-Level Course Delivered by Computer Conferencing. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.

Participation and critical thinking in online university distance education

Bullen, M. (1998) ‘Participation and critical thinking in online university distance education’ Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 1-32.

Making the Transition to e-Learning: Strategies and Issues

Bullen, M. and Janes, D. (2007) Making the Transition to e-Learning: Strategies and Issues Hershey, PA: Ideas Group