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E-Learn Vancouver, Day 3

2009 October 31
by Richard N. Landers
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Neo-Academic E-Learn Vancouver Coverage: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Final

So, this whole write-after-the-day’s-presentations plan obviously didn’t work, but I did want to keep updating.  Day 4 was a little light on content that I’d think relevant to the topics we usually discuss here, so I will probably just post overall impressions and conclusions tomorrow.  For now, my report on Day 3:

Marvin LeNoue discussed the use of social networks in classrooms, highlighting ning.  For uninitiated, ning is an online “Web 2.0″ program that allows any group to create their own social network.  It was the first discussion I heard at eLearn about how to actually use social networking in a real classroom, rather than general, non-specific descriptions like, “I implemented a social network and it was great!”  He also pointed to several resources for educators using social networks, including an educator social network about using ning, another called Classroom 2.0, and another called College 2.0.  The question from this observer is, “What happens when he hit Web 3?”

Anita Boudreau discussed the use of Second Life as an instructional platform from the instructor perspective, conducting a qualitative study of educator perceptions when using the virtual world.  Apparently, there are in fact educators who think they have used SL successfully.  But of course, as a qualitative study, it doesn’t really tell us any more than that.

Stephanie Henderson-Begg gave a much more interesting take on Second Life, describing the University of East London’s Second Life laboratory for a lab-based science course (I believe chemistry).  The course is quite large (~200 students), and laboratories are quite expensive (she estimated roughly US$10 per student, for some labs), so a virtual laboratory was seen as a cost-saving measure.  The online laboratory itself is quite complex – students must enter the lab, don a lab coat, wash their hands, and put on protective eyewear before moving to a stage to mix chemicals, with realistic interactions and reactions as they progress.

A quasi-experiment was also conducted: students using the online laboratory were compared to students receiving a basic lecture before both completed a regular laboratory.  Learning outcomes were compared.  In both conditions, there was an increase from pre-test to post-test, but there was no difference by condition.  I wouldn’t expect one though – in both conditions, students received the full laboratory, which contained all of the test content.  She also compared the number of questions asked (it was lower for SL students) and the amount of time taken in the lab (it was also lower for SL students).  Unfortunately, there was also a confound – the students selected for SL were the first thirty or so to arrive for the day, who may have been, simply, better students.

But despite the poor design, this was the only quantitative research of virtual worlds that I saw at the conference.  And on top of that, it was the only example of a virtual world being implemented where it really provided an instructional or cost advantage, rather than using it for the sake of using it.  This is, I think, the challenge of using virtual worlds in real organizations – there must be a demonstrated need where a virtual world is preferable to in-person or even basic web-based training.  I think my lab has such a situation – but we’ll see what the research says.

Finally, I presented my own paper software I am developing that combines computerized adaptive testing (item response theory) and online social networks for the purposes of establishing mentoring relationships between students.  It relies on a long view of training and educational programs, and is set up to support a pre-existing set of courses without much involvement from the instructors themselves.  This would be valuable as a cost-saving measure to a corporation, but might have been a little too scary for instructors feeling their control slip away.  Reception was good, with interesting questions, but small – it was after 5PM on the 3rd day of the conference, so I did not expect much!

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