2013. Vol.4, No.7A2, 191-201
Published Online July 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ce) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ce.2013.47A2025
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 191
The Role of the “Inter-Life” Virtual World as a Creative
Technology to Support Student Transition into Higher Education
Alison M. Devlin, Vic Lally, Brian Canavan, Jane Magill
Interdisciplinary Science Education, Technologies and Learning Research Group,
School of Education, College of Social Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK
Received June 13th, 2013; revised July 12th, 2013; accepted July 19th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Alison M. Devlin et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
The shape of Higher Education (HE) in the UK and internationally is changing, with wider access policies
leading to greater diversity and heterogeneity in contemporary student populations world-wide. Students
in the 21st Century are often described as “fragmented”; meaning they are frequently working whilst par-
ticipating in a full time Degree programme. Consequently, those in the HE setting are required to become
“future ready” which increasingly involves the seamless integration of new digital technologies into un-
dergraduate programmes of teaching and learning. The present study evaluated the effectiveness of the
“Inter-Life” three-dimensional virtual world as a suitable Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) tool to
support the initial stages of transition from school into university. Our results demonstrate that Inter-Life
is “fit for purpose” in terms of the robustness of both the educational and technical design features. We
have shown that Inter-Life provides a safe space that supports induction mediated by active learning tasks
using learner-generated, multi-modal transition tools. In addition, through the provision of private spaces,
Inter-Life also supports and fosters the development of critical reflective thinking skills. However, in
keeping with the current literature in the field, some of the students expressed a wish for more training in
the functional and social skills required to navigate and experience the Inter-Life virtual world more ef-
fectively. Such findings resonate with the current debate in the field which challenges the notion of “digi-
tal natives”, but the present study has also provided some new evidence to support the role of virtual
worlds for the development of a suitable community to support students undergoing transition to univer-
Keywords: Inter-Life; Transition; Higher Education; Virtual Worlds; Community; Technology Enhanced
The shape of Higher Education (HE) in the UK and interna-
tionally is changing due to the global “knowledge economy”
(Robertson, 2005; Facer & Sandford, 2010; Biesta, 2011). Fur-
thermore, universities have been affected by wider access poli-
cies and now have an increasingly diverse student population
(Christie, 2009). Students in the 21st Century are balancing
competing demands and are frequently working whilst partici-
pating full time in HE, and have come to be described as “con-
sumers” of Education (Leese, 2010). With such an increase in
global competition, universities are now required to be “future
ready” in times of economic challenge and uncertainty (Selwyn,
2007, 2010). Being future ready increasingly involves the need
to incorporate innovative digital technologies that most students
experience as part of their everyday life. The transition into
university has been extensively studied in the past, from the
seminal work of Tinto (1975, 1993) who investigated the rea-
sons for student drop-out of university, to the more recent work
of Kift & Nelson (2005), Reason et al., (2007), Kift et al.,
(2010) who have investigated the “first year experience” as
well as Christie (2009) who has investigated wider access or
non-traditional student attrition. It is well known that academic
ability alone is insufficient for success in the HE setting (Glo-
gowska et al., 2007). For example, both formal and informal
support networks, emotional intelligence, and other factors
including resilience and the “will to learn” are all important for
a successful and positive navigation of this important life tran-
sition (Parker et al., 2004; Barnett, 2007; Gale & Parker, 2012).
Transition theory has indicated three separate stages namely:
1) transition as induction 2) transition as experience and 3) tran-
sition as becoming (Gale & Parker, 2012; Kift et al., 2010). In
the present study, we have investigated “transition as induc-
tion” as the first step towards the formation of a learning com-
munity. Transition induction activities can impact strongly on
student perceptions of university life and are an important part
of the first year experience at a time when new students have to
navigate social and academic challenges related to the new
learning environment or “habitus” (Bourdieu, 1986) with dif-
ferent modes and procedures (Parker et al., 2004; Yorke &
Longden, 2008; Currant & Keenan, 2009). Recent research has
indicated that student induction events remain very passive with
beginning students receiving an overload of information, which
can be overwhelming (Edwards, 2003; Wingate, 2007).
A. M. DEVLIN ET AL.
In alignment with the theme of being future ready, there is
current discourse in the literature calling for the need to use
technologies more creatively, not only to support personalised
student learning, but also to help develop graduate attributes
that are required for agile learning throughout the life course
(Selwyn, 2007, 2010; Ecclestone et al., 2010). Some previous
studies have been conducted on the use of digital and web-
based technologies to enable a more seamless transition to uni-
versity (Currant & Keenan, 2009). Lefever & Currant (2010)
reported on several approaches including the use of blogs, so-
cial networking and texting to support students undergoing
transition (Harley et al., 2007). Currant & Keenan (2009) re-
commended that new technologies should be used to foster the
development of a supportive community which is particularly
important in the first year experience in the HE setting. These
authors report on a programme developed at the University of
Bradford (UK), in which new students engaged with the uni-
versity community prior to induction and undertook online
modules designed to help them develop critical thinking skills,
study skills, how to seek help and effectively “learn how to
learn” (Currant & Keenan, 2009; Barnett, 2007; Wingate, 2007).
Whilst some studies have shown success, there is much more
scope for situating innovative technologies effectively in the
HE setting and, in particular, technologies such as three dimen-
sional virtual worlds which can support the development of
learning communities, and also provide a space for meaningful
learning to occur (Thomas & Brown, 2009; Bronack et al.,
2006; Dede, 2009). Since virtual worlds are web-based learning
spaces, they can be visited either on or off campus, and they are
persistent; meaning they are accessible 24 hours and 7 days a
week, (24/7) and this can enhance the feeling of “belonging”
amongst undergraduate students, as well as a feeling of “con-
nectedness” with their university community.
3-Dimensional Virtual Worlds in Higher Education
The role of three-dimensional, immersive, avatar based vir-
tual worlds has been investigated for learning in the HE setting
(Bronack et al., 2006; Warburton, 2009; De Freitas et al., 2010a,
2010b; Savin-Baden et al., 2010). Hew and Cheung (2010) have
conducted a review of virtual worlds such as Active WorldsTM
and Second LifeTM to support learning in HE settings, and
found they were most frequently used in the subject domains of
Media Arts and Health and Environment education (Hew &
Cheung, 2010). Mayrath et al., (2011) reported on “lessons
learned” after integrating Second LifeTM activities into an un-
dergraduate English course. This study indicated a mixed re-
sponse from students and highlighted the importance of peda-
gogy and context. Beaumont et al., (2012) evaluated a distrib-
uted, collaborative, problem-based learning project in an un-
dergraduate health care setting which highlighted the impor-
tance of careful iterative design whilst Edirisingha et al., (2009)
have illustrated the role of socialisation in the formation of a
learning community within a group of undergraduate Archae-
ology students at the University of Leicester (UK). Warburton
(2009) has highlighted some of the challenges and facilitators
related to teaching and learning using virtual worlds in the HE
setting, including technical and cultural issues. However, such
novel virtual worlds in which learners or “participants” are em-
bodied in the form of an avatar offer novel social learning op-
portunities, since the ability to walk, fly, interact with peers and
work either alone or collectively along with the novel multi-
media affordances and immersion in a visual 3-D environment
rendered in real time is potentially a powerful tool for creative
Most recently, Savin-Baden et al., (2010) have carefully con-
sidered the multi-media or multi-modal affordances of virtual
worlds against the traditional “text” based or “written” world of
Higher Education and scholarship. However, Jewitt et al., (2001)
have reported on the multi-modal nature of the Science disci-
plines which have traditionally drawn on several semiotic rep-
resentations in addition to text, namely: images, diagrams, mod-
els, symbols and experiences which all contribute to meaning-
ful learning (Jewitt et al., 2001; Jewitt, 2006, 2008). The trans-
fer of learning to digital spaces will draw on several technology
tools and not just a mass migration to one space or environment,
and it is essential that there is a portfolio of digital tools that
can be tailored to student centred learning in HE settings. In-
creasingly, the transfer of learning to digital spaces will require
the development of multi-modal literacies in order to navigate
digital learning in a critical, responsible and informed manner
(O’Halloran, 2012). Accordingly, there is a need for rigorous
pedagogies and theories of learning to support and mediate
learning in the HE setting with new Technology Enhanced
Learning (TEL) tools (Laurillard, 2002).
The “Inter-Life” Project
The “Inter-Life” project is an interdisciplinary research pro-
ject (see the web-site for more information at:
http://tel.ioe.ac.uk/inter-life; and the project video case study at:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21xtQRxwTgg) that has
successfully created two virtual world islands for young people
to work creatively either individually or collaboratively on open
or structured learning activities leading to the development of
life transition skills including: resilience, self-confidence, team
work and active problem-solving skills (Lally et al., 2009; Dev-
lin et al., 2011, 2013; Lally & Sclater, 2012). The Inter-Life
virtual world islands are based on the Second LifeTM platform
but have been augmented with automated and unobtrusive data
collection tools (Magill et al., 2009). The interdisciplinary In-
ter-Life team adopted a light touch, agile, participatory design
approach and the project has created open spaces for meetings
and learning activities which enable learner generated content
as “digital transition tools”, and also elective private spaces,
called “Skyboxes” that were provided and equipped with a
diary recording facility (similar to a virtual reflective journal) in
order to foster reflection on learning carried out during crea-
tive learning experiences in Inter-Life (Magill et al., 2009;
Devlin et al., 2012). “Inter-Life Island 1” (IL-I1) has been cre-
ated for students (>18 years of age) in order to provide a safe
and supportive virtual environment for the formation of a learn-
ing community of students at the University of Glasgow (Ma-
gill et al., 2009; Devlin et al., 2012).
Aim and Research Question
The aim of the present study was to answer the following re-
How effective is the innovative “Inter-Life” 3-dimensional
virtual world (IL-I1) in supporting the initial stages of transition
to university including peer-to-peer bonding, socialisation and
the early stages of learning community formation through har-
nessing creative multi-media affordances to enable learners’ ac-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
A. M. DEVLIN ET AL.
tive engagement and critical reflection to support learning about
the post-transition world?
Design of the Induction Event
In order to answer this question, we designed two separate
events which are depicted schematically in Figure 1. Firstly, a
student mentors’ “Inter-Life” training and orientation event in
which post-transition (2nd - 4th year) Bachelor of Technologi-
cal Education (B.Tech.Ed) students learned how to navigate
and communicate in Inter-Life and learned about the aims and
ethos of Inter-Life. The students had volunteered to act as vir-
tual mentors to the new group undergoing transition to univer-
sity. This was followed, a few months later, by the formal in-
duction of a new cohort of B.Tech.Ed. students who were un-
dergoing transition to the University of Glasgow.
Creative profiling activity
ew cohort of
students as virtual mentors
ascent learning community of
post-transition and transitioning students.
Inter-Life Island-1 (IL-I1)
Schematic representation of the design to foster a learning commu-
Pedagogy and Learning Theory
The induction event was based on well established and rig-
orous theories of learning, including Kolb’s theory of experien-
tial learning (Kolb, 1984), which resonates with active learning
pedagogy, since learning is an active process of assimilation by
experience, and can take the form of an iterative learning cycle
in which baseline knowledge and understanding is followed by
active engagement in a learning activity and through negotiat-
ing challenges inherent in the activity, learning is accomplished
then followed by reflection (Schön, 1983, 1991). The learning
theorist Donald Schön has proposed reflection as a crucial as-
pect of professional learning and indeed it is a crucial tool for
effective professional teaching practice. Schön (1991) has pro-
posed “reflection on learning” as well as “reflection during
learning”, as being equally effective in enhancing professional
practice in a responsive, reflexive fashion. It is significant that
we wished to foster the development of critical reflection in the
initial stages of active induction since the cohort of new stu-
dents were undertaking the B.Tech.Ed. Degree programme to
become teaching practitioners of technology education.
The present study draws on Case study methodology since
we have drawn on several sources of data (please see Table 1,
below) to investigate a bounded event, namely the students
experience of working in “Inter-Life” as a creative transitional
active learning event (Yin, 2003). In keeping with Case study
methodology, we sought to understand the learners’ “lived ex-
perience” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) within this new virtual world
setting within a socio-cultural, constructivist perspective and
We conducted a Focus group after the initial event with the
“post-transition” B.Tech.Ed. student mentors (Table 1). With
reference to Kolb’s (1984) theory of learning and pedagogy, a
baseline electronic questionnaire was distributed securely via
“SurveyMonkey Inc.” to the new undergraduate students in
order to gather some basic demographic information, along
with a series of questions about their previous use of and ex-
perience with technologies including three-dimensional virtual
This was followed up by the induction activity in “Inter-
Life” which involved the students engaging with Inter-Life
creating their avatar and participating in a creative profiling
activity in which they prepared a personalised PowerPoint slide
show for exhibiting and sharing amongst peers in the student
profile hall building in Inter-Life. The profile task involved
choosing an animal image as a metaphor to represent “self” in
an anonymous manner (Goffman, 1959; Dweck, 1999). The
other four slides conveyed some basic background information
in response to captions:
1) Choose an animal image as creative metaphor of “self”;
2) Who am I?
3) What do I like?
4) Why am I here (at university)?
5) Three additional things that you should know about me.
This task was modelled by the tutors and the students were
provided with handouts in order to guide them through the
steps involved in creating their display in the virtual student
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A. M. DEVLIN ET AL.
profile gallery building. In order to lower the threshold of shar-
ing information about “self” and to foster a safe and equitable
activity, the new students shared a generic first name for their
avatar (Neptune) but were allowed to choose a unique surname.
Thus, all the new students were named Neptune, and similarly
the post-transition virtual mentors shared the same first name of
Jupiter. One new student was a direct entry into second year
and had the first name of Saturn. This served to delineate who
was a mentor and who was a new student, whilst the tutors/
researchers had unique avatar names. This was implemented in
order to provide a degree of anonymity in the initial stages of
the induction. The final stage (Kolb, 1984) involved all of the
students “rezzing” their individual private Skybox and com-
pleting a reflection on the activity in response to reflective
prompts. In addition, there was a follow-up focus group with
students who had participated, approximately one week after
the event, in order to gather more feedback. Table 1, below
summarises the data collected.
Summary of data collected.
B.Tech.Ed. Mentors’ Focus Group n = 7
E-questionnaire to new B.Tech.Ed. students n = 36
Inter-Life interactive profile displays n = 24
Inter-Life reflective journal episodes n = 24
Post Inter-Life Focus Group n = 4
Full ethical approval for the present study was obtained in
advance by the University of Glasgow, School of Education
The University of Glasgow, School of Education works in
alignment with ethical guidelines outlined by BERA and the
ESRC. All appropriate procedures, including fully informed
consent and anonymisation of datasets were undertaken.
In order to facilitate data management and analysis all data-
sets were uploaded into QSR NVivo 8. Focus groups were
digitally recorded and transcribed verbatim and anonymised to
protect participants’ identity. The results from the baseline elec-
tronic questionnaire (“SurveyMonkey Inc.”) were analysed in
Excel. The student multi-modal profile displays were analysed
for emergent themes and units of meaning were mapped to
nodes in NVivo 8. Open coding of units of meaning were map-
ped to nodes firstly for individual presentations then cluster
analysis and formal coding was conducted across all student
profile displays to identify the frequency of emergent themes
(Miles & Huberman, 1994). The nodes with the most frequent
coding were synthesised within the results section, and illustra-
tive units of meaning are presented (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).
The student text based reflective episodes were analysed for
word count as an initial approach to extent of reflection, then
analysed thematically for overall perception of the activity and
criticality of understanding of the Inter-Life virtual world for
learning and in order to answer the research question (Devlin et
al., 2013). The overall perception of the event was coded ac-
cording to four emergent responses, which are summarised in
Table 4 in the Results section.
The clustering of emergent themes was conducted to nodes
that were composed from participants’ perceptions to form
“units of meaning” and the data was coded appropriately to
each node (Cresswell, 2009). Representative excerpts of quali-
tative data from focus groups and reflective episodes were then
presented to illustrate the depth and variety of critical reflection
on learning and the activity.
The student mentors’ focus group indicated that the Inter-
Life training and orientation workshop was well received by the
2nd - 4th year B.Tech.Ed. students. Although the student men-
tors had extensive ICT experience including programming
skills and designing “patches” for Games, very few of them had
prior experience of working in immersive virtual worlds. How-
ever, importantly the students recognised that Inter-Life was
not a pre-scripted Gaming environment and that participants are
free to work alone or collaborate with peers in this new virtual
world space. Some of the students had prior experience with
other virtual platforms such as “The Sims”:
“I play The Sims a lot at home [....] eh, and I wanted to
see how similar it was to that…in that it is other people
who are controlling their own characters and to see how
they interact with you rather than just the computer get-
ting what you want it to do.” 4th year student (Mentors’
The B.Tech.Ed. mentors also recognised the potential for
creative engagement and communication both within and be-
tween year group on the B.Tech.Ed. Degree programme whether
on or off campus and the potential for the development of a
“[.......]..but em I would envisage almost creating almost a
community of former and present BTechEd students within
this sort of environment that can act as an ongoing basis
as mentors and provide help for BTech Ed…(students).”
3rd year student (Mentors’ Focus Group)
Other feedback included the mentors’ appraisal of the Inter-
Life platform as being accessible and a non-threatening envi-
ronment in which to mix with and learn from peers and tutors:
“Because it could be quite daunting if you are in first year
and you think...I want to ask a fourth year a question, but
do I send somebody I don’t really know an e-mail?
Whereas if you are on Inter-Life, ...[…] it would be a lot
easier to chat to them and ask stuff… It keeps it a bit more
comfortable...” 3rd year student (Mentors’ Focus Group)
Therefore, the student mentors recognised the potential for a
learning community and saw Inter-Life as a flexible place to
meet and interact with fellow students and tutors. The students
all understood their role as virtual mentors, welcoming and
meeting and greeting the new student cohort on induction day.
Student Induction Event
The response to the new undergraduate student questionnaire
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
A. M. DEVLIN ET AL.
issued at the start of the student induction day showed that the
new class (n = 36) was composed of 19 (53%) males and 17
(47%) females (Figure 2(a)) and most of the students were
under 20 years of age (Figure 2(b)). Although the students had
extensive experience of ICTs, the majority of the class (n = 31;
86%) had never worked with virtual world platforms before. In
keeping with ethical procedures for IL-I1, only those students
who were over 18 years of age (n = 28) participated in the crea-
tive profiling activity in Inter-Life.
(a) The new student cohort according to gender; (b) The new
student cohort according to age.
The students prepared highly creative, multi-modal and per-
sonalised profiles which were exhibited in the student virtual
profile hall building in Inter-Life. Figure 3 is a screenshot
which illustrates the variety of animal images chosen as a “me-
taphor of self” by the new student cohort (Goffman, 1959).
Such rich multi-modal profiles represent a “mini-portrait” of
each student and this activity was designed to support the stu-
dents in reflecting on their reasons for coming to university,
including the acknowledgement and value of their previous
education and skills and also to support them in learning about
their peers’ interests and experiences, and their hopes for the
new course and the future (Schön, 1983). As such, this resulted
in a very rich learning space in the student profile hall for the
new students to share and interact with their peers and mentors
via their profiles.
A screenshot taken inside the student Profile Hall in Inter-Life Island 1
Although a significant proportion of the new cohort of stu-
dents had come via the traditional route of school into univer-
sity there were some mature students who were entering HE
from industry or other careers (Figure 4).
Where the new student cohort had come from. *Fourth category from
the left truncated; should read “at GU (University of Glasgow) but
taking another Degree programme”.
In keeping with the “fragmented” nature of 21st Century
students, a number of the boards showed that the students were
used to working part time and/or also held FE qualifications
(Leese, 2010). Figures 5(a) and (b) show representative screen-
shot examples of student profile boards.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 195
A. M. DEVLIN ET AL.
(a) Screenshot showing an example of a student profile display; (b)
Screenshot showing an example of a student profile display.
The majority of the class (≥18 years old) completed the crea-
tive profiling activity. Analysis of the profile boards showed
that the students converged in their likes and their reasons for
coming to university, which clustered around the main themes
as presented in Table 2.
Thematic summary of student profile displays.
What I lik e Why am I here
Friends and family
Desire to learn and develop their skills further
Enjoyment and interest in their subject
Desire to influence their future career
Desire to work with and help young people
Desire to meet new (li ke-mind ed) people
The students used a highly personalised and creative combi-
nation of images, signs, art and text in their interactive Power-
Point slide displays. Some representative extracts of the text
presented in the profile boards include:
“I want to influence the future of Design and Technology
Education.” Jupiter Crannock (Mentor)
“To achieve my goal in this career.” Neptune Lemondrop
The “three additional things you should know about me”
slides included the strong use of humour and also included
interesting and significant reflections on previous life experi-
“I work as a barman in a ‘Brewer’s Fayre’ restaurant and
yes, I have to dress up as the bear…” (Neptune Haiku)
“I have an HND in Interior Design. I can play an d write
my own music for piano and guitar...” (Neptune Erin)
“I am a third time Fresher!” (Neptune Mhia)
The profile displays are learner generated social learning ob-
jects which are examples of multi-modal literacy (O’Halloran,
2012). However, a multi-modal analysis of the complete set of
“in-world” student profile displays will form the basis of a fu-
After participating in the active profiling activity in the stu-
dent profile hall, the students then gathered at the Skybox rez-
zer and teleporter then each rezzed their own Skybox and Fig-
ure 6 shows a screenshot taken while the new student group
were working near the “teleporter” in “Inter-Life”.
Screenshot showing new students working in “Inter-Life”.
The last stage of the students’ activity was to teleport to the
Skybox and complete their first reflective episode which they
recorded using the diary text recording facility in their own
individual private Skybox. The reflective prompts (Schön, 1983)
that we asked the students to consider were:
1) Please spend a little time now discussing your thoughts on
the content of your profile board and why you chose to include
the content that you did.
2) Did you find other profile boards interesting and useful in
allowing you to get to know the other students?
3) How did it feel when you were considering which infor-
mation you wished to allow others to know about you?
Figure 7 shows a screen shot of a private Skybox in the air
space of IL-I1 with the outer walls of neighbouring Skyboxes
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
A. M. DEVLIN ET AL.
visible in the background.
Screenshot of inside a student Skybox.
The reflective logs varied in length from a few sentences to
extensive rich and critical reflections. Please see Table 3 which
summarises the word count of the students’ reflective episodes.
Word count summary of student reflective episodes.
Reflective log Name No. of words
1 Neptune Soup 8 words
2 Neptune Cristole 174 words
3 Neptune Endrizzi 4 words
4 Neptune Broono 199 words
5 Neptune Scientist 74 words
6 Neptune Darkmatter 13 words
7 Neptune Foxdale 115 words
8 Neptune Crystal 25 words
9 Neptune Mint 52 words
10 Neptune Bonham 10 words
11 Neptune Mhia 123 words
12 Neptune Crumb 85 words
13 Saturn Mistwalker* 215 words
14 Neptune Erin 155 words
15 Neptune Inkpen 337 words
16 Neptune Haiku 260 words
17 Neptune Lemondrop 45 words
18 Neptune Petrolhead 101 words
19 Neptune Kamala 34 words
20 Neptune Texan 177 words
21 Neptune Admiral 75 words
22 Neptune Melody 6 words
23 Neptune Jovinavic 20 words
24 Neptune Endsleigh 21 words
*Saturn was a direct entrant into second year.
The students’ reflective journal entries showed that the ma-
jority of the new cohort found the induction event innovative,
interesting and stimulating (please see Table 4). The “virtual”
journal entries provided evidence of reflection about “self” and
identity as explored through the profile slides (Sfard & Prusak,
2005). Coding of the reflective episodes was conducted and is
summarised in Table 4. The majority (75%) of the new stu-
dents found the induction activity meaningful and helpful and
understood how it contributed to self-regulated learning:
“I have enjoyed taking part in this process and I think it is
a good start to the year, showing some technology, as well
as developing personally...” Reflective Learning Log
There was also evidence of critical “reflection on learning”
as a result of experience:
“At first I was unsure and sceptical about the aim of this
exercise, however, after completing my profile and having
the chance to read others, I found it very interesting!
Creating my profile made me think about how I may be
perceived by others and how I’d want to be per-
ceived...however, you are not aware of who you are actu-
ally talking to and so still don’t really know many peo-
ple.” Reflective Learning Log (Neptune Mhia)
“The contents boards were a good way to convey the type
of person I am. I chose the Dolphin picture to show that I
am friendly and helpful. Al l of the content I chose for my
profile boards relate to me at present. They show what I
am interested in…what matters to me....my intentions for
this course and a few facts about my life at present. This
was a good way for others to see what I am like. It also
gave me the opportunity to glance at other people’s int er-
ests and facts.” Reflective Learning Log (Neptune Erin)
Most of the students (n = 18) were “positive” or “very posi-
tive” about the activity overall and were proficient in the use of
the new media affordances in Inter-Life. However, some of the
students remained neutral (n = 4), whilst a few (n = 2) struggled
to engage with or relate to, the virtual world (please see Table
Reflective episode analysis.
Category Count Percentage of total
Very positive 7 29%
Positive 11 46%
Neutral 4 17%
Negative 2 8%
Total 24 100%
In order to investigate this further we carried out a post-in-
duction Focus Group approximately one week after the event.
The “follow-up” Focus Group revealed some further feedback
and student recommendations for the future including the need
for more training in the functional and social skills required for
learning in Inter-Life:
“I somehow, accidentally deleted my hair! I put a hat on
then took it off and it took my hair with it..!” New (young)
undergraduate B.Tech.Ed student
The students also varied in their proficiency in virtual world
skills required to function, navigate and communicate effec-
tively in Inter-Life, and one (mature) student commented:
“...And eh, not being as Computer literate as a lot of the
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A. M. DEVLIN ET AL.
younger ones...em I just felt “For goodness sake, what is
happening here?” New (mature) undergraduate B.Tech.Ed
The students reported the need for a more step-wise intro-
duction to Inter-Life and more training in the functional skills
required. They also recommended the introduction of some mo-
dules on Inter-Life into the B.Tech.Ed. Degree programme or
alternatively to locate some course assignments in the Inter-
Life virtual world. Finally, some students expressed a prefer-
ence for a more blended approach to induction in the future
namely; to include an element of face-to-face activity as well as
working within the Inter-Life virtual world.
The present study was designed to investigate the effective-
ness of Inter-Life Island 1 (IL-I1) as a novel technology en-
hanced learning (TEL) tool to help with the initial stages of
transition to university (Magill et al., 2009; Devlin et al., 2012).
In particular, we wished to determine the effectiveness of the
IL-I1 three-dimensional virtual world and its novel multi-media
affordances in supporting early peer-to-peer bonding, active
learning, socialisation and the initial steps of formation of a
From a technical perspective, the student induction proceeded
with few delays and the avatar positional tracking and associ-
ated text gathering features were automatically logged in the
private and secure back end Server. Similarly, Inter-Life suc-
cessfully hosted up to 35 participants simultaneously “in-world”
(“in-world” means in the Inter-Life virtual world) including the
virtual mentors and tutors, which demonstrates the robustness
of the technical design (Magill et al., 2009). In addition, all of
the student Skyboxes were rezzed successfully and the private
diary recording feature worked for all student Skyboxes.
This is an important point to emphasise, since our previous
studies were conducted with smaller groups of younger learners
(<18 years of age) on Inter-Life Island 2 (IL-I2) albeit over a
longer period of time (Devlin et al., 2011, 2013; Lally & Sclater,
2012, 2013). The present study has demonstrated the function-
ality of IL-I1 and the suitability of the Inter-Life islands for
supporting larger student groups engaged in learning simulta-
neously. Therefore it provides important evidence to support
the flexibility of such virtual world spaces for learning.
We wished to investigate whether Inter-Life would support
an active induction drawing on its novel multi-modal affor-
dances in order to create learner-generated transition tools,
which would help mediate transition into the university com-
munity and also help with development of 21st Century gradu-
ate skills (Ecclestone et al., 2010).
The activity involved the creation of individual and highly
personalised profiles by new students, as well as the virtual
mentors in order to foster socialisation as one of the first steps
towards formation of a supportive learning community (Mino-
cha & Roberts, 2008; Edirisingha et al., 2009; Wenger, 1998).
This activity resulted in a visually rich profile hall with creative
multi-modal, “mini-portrait” interactive slide shows about “self”
(Goffman, 1959). Since this was “learner-generated” and per-
sistent (i.e., available 24/7) content, it enabled the concurrent
development of meaningful transition tools with increasing
learner autonomy, and was designed to foster a sense of own-
ership amongst the B.Tech.Ed. student group. It also enabled
efficient viewing of up to 28 personalised and unique 3-dimen-
sional mini-profiles in contrast to the possible alternative face-
to-face linear presentations by the new student cohort which
would have been much more time consuming. Therefore, vir-
tual worlds have the potential for creative, efficient new learn-
ing and teaching processes and practices, but such innovation
was undoubtedly related to the interdisciplinary nature of the
Inter-Life research team. Such multi-modal semiotic resources
represent examples of multi-modal literacy afforded by new
digital technologies which enable creative expression through
image, symbols and text which all contribute to deep meaning
making (Kress, 2003; Jewitt et al., 2001; Jewitt, 2006, 2008;
O’Halloran, 2012). Multi-modal digital analysis of 3-dimen-
sional social learning objects is a newly emerging field which
O’Halloran (2012) has written about recently, and 3-dimensional
virtual worlds and their social learning objects represent ideal
spaces for visual multi-modal communication and expression.
Although the majority of the students were positive about the
activity and indicated it was worthwhile, the feedback also in-
dicated a somewhat mixed response. Interestingly, some stu-
dents carried out “reflection during learning” and actively re-
configured their response from an initial negative to a more
positive understanding of what the activity was designed to
achieve. This shows how effective Inter-Life was in support-
ing both “reflection during learning” and “reflection on learn-
ing” (Schön, 1983, 1991). In addition, the majority of the stu-
dents engaged with the reflective learning episode in contrast to
an earlier study by Seale & Cann (2000) in which few students
engaged with reflection in an online learning environment
(Seale & Cann, 2000). The use of technologies to effectively
foster the skill of critical reflection and community develop-
ment in online settings has become of increasing importance,
and especially in student teacher education (Yang, 2009).
However, some of the students struggled to understand or
relate to the virtual world. This is in keeping with a previous
study by De Freitas et al., (2010) who found that older learners
struggled to engage with a virtual world platform. Savin-Baden
et al., (2010) have also recently reflected on the “steep learning
curve” that exists for teaching and learning in 3-dimensional
virtual worlds in the HE setting. The findings from the present
study also resonates with the ongoing debate on 21st Century
students as “digital natives” (Bennett et al., 2008) and under-
score the crucial role of pedagogy and learning design for TEL
that is “situated” in a meaningful context (Laurillard, 2002). It
does not necessarily follow that students as consumers of digi-
tal technologies informally will be able to adapt to the critical
application and meaningful engagement with TEL tools in more
formal educational settings (Luckin et al., 2009).
It is also noteworthy that the students were beginning their
studies to become teachers of technological education. In an
earlier study conducted with pre-service education student teach-
ers in Australia, Campbell (2009) implemented a step-wise
training procedure in virtual world navigation and communica-
tion skills which was integrated and assessed as part of the
degree programme. The pre-service teachers successfully de-
signed lessons and learning activities in a virtual world for their
prospective pupils and reported that they would use virtual
world technologies in their future teaching career, but they also
felt constrained by the lack of access to 3-dimensional virtual
world platforms in schools. This issue with access and integra-
tion in schools is reflected in separate findings in the UK
(Merchant, 2010). It is interesting to speculate that if such vir-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
A. M. DEVLIN ET AL.
tual worlds were integrated into the contemporary school learn-
ing environment then pupils transitioning into HE settings may
engage more readily with such digital learning environments,
but this would form the basis of research into future generations
of transitioning students.
Savin-Baden et al., (2010) have reported on the necessity for
iterative reflective agile design involving the learners. Similarly,
Oliver (2013) has recently written on theorising the technology
enhanced tools that we use, or in the case of “Inter-Life” the
tools we have created through interdisciplinary participatory
research. Importantly, our recent studies as part of the “Inter-
Life” project have attempted to “theorise” the new TEL tools
we have created (Lally & Sclater, 2012; Devlin et al., 2013).
Accordingly, the Inter-Life project adopted participatory design
from the outset and included open ended and structured learn-
ing activities to provide a space for meaningful learning to oc-
cur (Devlin et al., 2013). Although the present study reports on
a more “choreographed” initial learning activity, it was care-
fully planned to enable personalisation and active learning and
its aims were similar in fostering engagement through the crea-
tion of a meaningful supportive space for learning from a socio-
cultural, constructivist perspective and also drawing on Com-
munity of Practice theory (Wenger, 1998).
The present study illustrates the important synergy between
the “design” of TEL tools and rigorous learning theories and
pedagogies that, when implemented effectively, can migrate
learning into a new virtual world setting. Such digital agility is
an important feature of 21st Century learning and teaching in
the HE setting (Biesta, 2011; Littlejohn et al., 2012). We sug-
gest that virtual worlds are an effective new tool to support
meaningful learning, but which must be implemented judi-
ciously and in a critical and informed fashion in order to exploit
their potential for creative and meaningful learning.
In future iterations of Inter-Life, and in keeping with results
from the current study, it may be beneficial to conduct a longer-
term series of training modules on basic skills acquisition and/
or locate some of the B.Tech.Ed. course activities in the In-
ter-Life virtual world. Such iterative design is in keeping with
previously reported studies (Beaumont et al., 2012; Mayrath et
However, the present study has provided some new evidence
to suggest that the Inter-Life virtual world islands represent
new socio-cultural and flexible learning tools that can support
learning in the HE setting, which adds to our previous studies
conducted with younger learners (Devlin et al., 2011, 2013;
Lally & Sclater, 2012, 2013). The novel features of embodi-
ment and co-presence along with the multi-media affordances
and the visual nature of the environment also appeal to different
learning styles (Devlin et al., 2013).
Importantly, the rigorous pedagogical design implemented in
Inter-Life involved learner generated transition tools in order to
foster active and reflective learning behaviours (Yang, 2009;
Seale & Cann, 2000) as well as self-regulated learning. How-
ever, the transitioning students recommended a more step wise
introduction to Inter-Life and they also recommended a more
blended approach to induction in the future, namely an element
of working face-to-face as well as working in the Inter-Life
This empirical research study is significant since it has dem-
onstrated the rigour of the pedagogical design which was a key
aspect in the overall success of the transition event. Such criti-
cal pedagogy is essential when investigating new TEL tools for
meaningful learning (Laurillard, 2002). Furthermore, the pre-
sent research is significant since it extends transition theory in
keeping with 21st Century students, who are frequently con-
nected via mobile and other digital devices in order to manage
their studies whilst on or off campus in keeping with the fluid
and somewhat “fragmented” nature of contemporary student
life (Leese, 2010). The present study extends transition theory
by identifying a new strand of “virtual transition” through stu-
dents participating meaningfully in a personalised virtual uni-
versity community. The careful design of Inter-Life enabled
new undergraduate students to:
1) establish contacts with B.Tech.Ed. students who are al-
ready in the “post-transition” HE setting;
2) experience some peer support and communicate with new
3) develop the learning skill of critical reflection (Brockbank
& Magill, 1998).
The findings from the present study provide some further
empirical evidence to support the rigour of the technical and
educational design of the Inter-Life virtual worlds (Magill et al.,
2009; Devlin et al., 2012, 2013). In this study we have demon-
strated the role of IL-I1 in supporting young people (of ≥18
years of age) undergoing transition to university through crea-
tive learning activities. However, the findings also present some
evidence to contest the notion of “digital natives” which is in
keeping with the current literature in the field (Bennett et al.,
2008; Helsper & Eynon, 2010; Kennedy et al., 2010).
Finally, we have provided some new evidence to support the
effectiveness of immersive education in the HE setting and it is
likely that virtual immersive worlds, such as Inter-Life can be
tailored to learning in or across the cognate disciplines in the
HE setting. Furthermore, because virtual immersive worlds are
web based, they can support distributed communities of learn-
ers in the HE setting, locally or indeed globally. In conclusion,
virtual worlds have potential for supporting distributed learning
and as such, are an important and valuable TEL tool, both lo-
cally and globally for universities in the 21st Century.
We wish to thank the B.Tech.Ed. students from the School of
Education, University of Glasgow who volunteered to partici-
pate as virtual student mentors in the “Inter-Life” project. We
also wish to thank all of the B.Tech.Ed. students who were in
the new cohort undergoing transition to the University of Glas-
gow and who participated in the “Inter-Life” project.
Dr. Alison M. Devlin is lead author of this article.
The “Inter-Life” project was funded by EPSRC/ESRC(UK)
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