Second Life in the Open University: how the virtual world can facilitate learning for staff and students

Broadribb, Stephanie; Peachey, Anna; Carter, Christopher and Westrapp, Francine (2009). Second Life in the Open University: how the virtual world can facilitate learning for staff and students. In: Wankel, Charles and Kingsley, Jan eds. Higher Education: Teaching and Learning in Virtual Worlds. International Perspectives on Education and Society (12). Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing, pp. 203–220.



In November 2008, the inaugural Research and Learning in Virtual Environments conference (see was considered a success by many measures, but perhaps most strikingly in that it served to illustrate the groundswell of Higher Education institutes that are turning their attentions to the vast learning potential of virtual world environments. Whether academic or predominantly practitioner-based, delegates including this chapter’s authors (who, incidentally, embrace aspects of both roles) were left inspired by numerous success stories where the use of virtual worlds had created a meaningful, positive learning experience for both students and staff within Higher Education institutions.

Whilst ReLIVE is by no means the only conference addressing learning in virtual environment (e.g. see,, its reference within the opening of this chapter is fitting as the event was based entirely at the Open University’s Walton Hall campus in Milton Keynes, United Kingdom.. As an established provider of distance education, the Open University brand is recognised on a worldwide scale, signifying openness “to people, places, methods and ideas” (The Open University Mission online, 2008). Embracing the learning potential of emerging technologies such as virtual environments therefore seems a logical strategy for such an institution, not least given the current global economic climate, combined with an increasing focus on the environmental impact of travel meaning that alternative methods of course delivery are a priority.

The Open University seeks to be a world leader in distance education and to maintain this position it is crucial that staff stay current with developing technology. With growth in the public profile of virtual environments it seems appropriate that we explore the technology not only with our customers, the students, but also within our staff development activity. This chapter opens with a description of the Open University’s presence within the open virtual world of Second Life, followed by an account of how this virtual space has been used with particular cohorts of Open University students, and how a thriving in-world learning community has developed as a result.

The authors will then summarise the theoretical and practical implications of an exploratory project using Second Life as a vehicle for skills practice-based staff development, where through rigorously controlled experimental design, they sought to answer the following question: can an in-world virtual role-play provide us with a viable option for providing our staff valuable skills practice within a safe environment? The positive results from the research to date, against a background of institutional support, have motivated a drive to extend the research further and ultimately provide a case for Second Life to become a natural component of the learning toolkit for both staff and students at The Open University. The chapter closes with a discussion of some of the waypoints for achieving this ambition, including practical implications for the University

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