Archive for category Second Life

The strength of cohesive ties

Understnading Learning in Virtual Worlds book coverI have a new, co-authored, book chapter out, which draws on data from the Schome Park Programme. This is the published version of a paper that Julia Gillen and I presented at the Researching Learning in Virtual Worlds (ReLIVE) conference in 2011.

It was an interesting chapter to write, because it draws on the same dataset as another chapter by the four of us  – Seeking Planning Permission to Build a Gothic Cathedral on a Virtual Island – but takes a different approach, focusing on community as much as on language.

Ferguson, R., Gillen, J., Peachey, A., & Twining, P. (2013). The strength of cohesive ties: discursive construction of an online learning community. In M. Childs, & A. Peachey (Eds.), Understanding Learning in Virtual Worlds (pp. 83-100). London, Heidelberg, New York, Dordrecht: Springer.


Learning takes place in a social context, shaping and shaped by discourses. In online projects such as the Schome Park Programme, these discourses are material semiotic practices that make use of writing and other manifestations of digital literacies. Discourses include traceable patterns with linguistic features of distinctive forms and functions. Employing a sociocultural perspective of discourse as mediated interaction, we identify use of register and cohesive ties as salient to the practices of learning communities. The study reported here focuses on two groups of teenagers, one a formal learning community based in the USA, the other a larger, online, informal learning community based in the UK. The groups were originally only weakly tied within a network, but aimed to work together within the virtual world environment, despite some different aims. Working with McMillan’s concept of community as characterised by spirit, authority, trade and art, we illustrate how misalignments in register and problems with cohesive ties can be associated with difficulties in the cooperative learning enterprise and we also make recommendations for future practice.

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Death in virtual worlds

I gave a presentation at the Death, Dying and Disposal 11 conference held at The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK, in September 2013. The presentation considered the implications when death is introduced into an immersive environment. It drew on a virtual ethnographic study carried out over four years in Second Life and Teen Second Life™. It looked at some of the reasons why death in virtual worlds is significant in relation to various fields – including bereavement, counselling and medicine. It also showed that there are different types of death within virtual worlds, some permanent and some transient, some wholly virtual, others reflecting a situation in the physical world.

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My top 10 social media tools (2011)

Over on Tumblr I have been running a screenshot-a-day project for a couple of years. I layer screenshots upon each other, with an image to represent each day, placed on top of previous images. This functions as a semi-public (open, but not publicised) diary. It also, consciously, forms a record of the online tools I use, and of my digital experience. Sometimes I include a whole-screen shot, showing my applications bar and all open windows, at other times I go for a single image.

This week, I have been looking at the text from 2011, pulling it together in diary format. Wordle revealed my top ten tools, as mentioned in my text, for 2011 (As I was working on SocialLearn, I have excluded it from the list – it would have come in at number 6). The majority are social media, others I use as social media by sharing them via Slideshare (PowerPoints) and Tumblr (screenshots):

  1. Google (31 mentions)
  2. Facebook (20 mentions)
  3. Twitter (19 mentions)
  4. Email   (16 mentions)
  5. Screenshot facility (12 mentions)
  6. SecondLife (12 mentions)
  7. Blog (11 mentions)
  8. PowerPoint (11 mentions)
  9. Tumblr (8 mentions)
  10. Cloudworks and YouTube (7 mentions)screenshot a day

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Seeking Planning Permission to Build a Gothic Cathedral on a Virtual Island

Book coverI have a new co-authored chapter out, Gillen, J., Ferguson, R., Peachey, A., & Twining, P. (2012). Seeking Planning Permission to Build a Gothic Cathedral on a Virtual Island. In G. Merchant, J. Gillen, J. Marsh, & J. Davies (Eds.), Virtual Literacies: Interactive Spaces for Children and Young People: Routledge Research in Education.

The chapter doesn’t have an abstract so, instead, I shall quote a paragraph from the conclusion:

…the debate would be of very limited interest if it merely illustrated the potential affordances of one medium rather than another. Of more significance in the end is the extent to which it clarifies or at least raises significant questions about creating the foundations for the kind of collaborative discussions that are founded in a trusting community, supportive of individuals shaping learning identities in a creative environment (Peachey, 2010). Rethinking educational practice to include more authentic literary engagements, asynchronous debates that are genuinely meaningful to participants, speak to their concerns, and relate to genuine opportunities for purposeful activity and indeed creativity is surely a worthwhile exercise (Barton, 2007; Ferguson, 2011). How then might such ideas promote reshaping the aims of learning environments, even ultimately institutions of education?

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Death of an avatar

Funeral for Teen Second Life

I have a new article out in the Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds.

Death of an avatar: Implications of presence for learners and educators in virtual worlds is an ethnography that draws upon work I have carried out over several years in both Second Life and Teen Second Life.

The paper includes several first-person vignettes setting out some of my most memorable experiences of death and mourning in virtual worlds. They include this one from September 2007, the event which inspired this research.

It’s late on a warm summer’s evening. I am sitting in a Japanese-style summerhouse with a group of friends and colleagues, mourning the unexpected death of a member of staff. ‘She was like a mother to us’, reads an artwork created by a group of teenagers earlier in the day. For a while, no one speaks or moves. I stare out to sea, where the moon is rising, casting an eerie glow over the trees nearby – but my thoughts are elsewhere. My neighbour, dressed in black, hands me a lighted candle; soon each of the group has one, and we begin talking softly of our memories and our feelings. The mood of the discussion becomes intense and dark; a couple of the teenagers and I opt out and head for the beach, where we sit long into the night beside a campfire discussing religion, reincarnation and personal beliefs.

Ferguson, Rebecca (2012). Death of an avatar: implications of presence for learners and educators in virtual worlds. Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds, 4(2), 137-152.


Virtual worlds such as Second Life® offer learners and educators environments in which they can engage in activities that would be too difficult, dangerous or impossible in the physical world. Increasingly, these settings provide learners with a sense of presence – an impression that their mediated presence is not mediated. Presence includes realistic representations, sophisticated social interaction and immersive experiences. What are the implications for learners when death is introduced into an immersive, but apparently safe and protected, educational environment? To answer this question, this article draws on a virtual ethnographic study carried out over four years in Second Life and Teen Second Life. It finds that there are different types of death within Second Life, some permanent and some transient, some wholly virtual, others reflecting a situation in the physical world. Analysis of the theme of death in different settings and subject categories shows that learners and educators make use of some of these types of death to help with exploration of subjects as diverse as Roman history, military training and classic literature. In order to make use of these types of death, educators vary levels of realism, immersion and social interaction, thus altering the levels of presence available within an environment. Other types of Second Life death are not typically explored in educational settings but nevertheless raise a series of legal, social and ethical issues that will need to be addressed by future curricula.


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Distributed cognition in a virtual world

Figure from the articleNew article out, in a special issue of Language and Education on literacies and sites of learning.

Gillen, J., Ferguson, R., Peachey, A., & Twining, P. (2012). Distributed cognition in a virtual world. Language and Education, 26(2), 151-167.


Over a 13-month period, the Schome Park Programme operated the first ‘closed’ (i.e. protected) Teen Second Life project in Europe. The project organised diverse educational events that centred on use of a virtual world and an associated asynchronous forum and wiki. Students and staff together exploited the affordances of the environment to develop skills and enhance community spirit. One popular activity, initiated by students, involved sailing boats around the project’s virtual island, a technically challenging task for beginners. This paper studies the records of one of these sailing regattas. Organising and implementing this event involved considerable technical and interactional challenges. We analyse the following: How do people work together, including through the use of (virtual) artefacts, to solve problems? What particular qualities of the literacy practices surrounding the regatta appear to us to involve learning? Simultaneously, we contribute to the development of methodologies for studying learning in virtual worlds by employing a virtual literacy ethnography. Findings include a diversity of creative approaches that are used when solving problems, the significance of adult behaviour in authentically modelling learning and the value of humour in fostering a learning community. The notion of distributed cognition has implications for characterising learning and analytical approaches to analysis.

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Meaningful learning and creativity in virtual worlds

Teen-led arhaeology session on Schome ParkI developed the paper, ‘A sea of colour: using virtual worlds to inspire and empower young learners’, that I presented in Gothenburg at Internet Research 11.0 , and in October 2011 it was published.

Ferguson, Rebecca (2011). Meaningful learning and creativity in virtual worlds. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 6(3), pp. 169–178.


Virtual worlds open new possibilities for learners, prompting a reconsideration of how learning takes place, and setting education in a context of playfulness, delight and creativity. They provide environments in which it is not only possible but also necessary to generate and try out ideas. They therefore offer opportunities to explore new possibilities related to teaching and learning about creativity and to challenge assumptions about the creative capabilities of young learners. The research reported here focuses on a group of teenaged learners who worked together online in the virtual world of Second Life®, as well as using other online tools. It applies thematic analysis to a 120-post forum discussion carried out over two weeks, in which 19 learners and educators debated how to develop their virtual island, and sets this discussion in the context of ongoing interaction within this group. Their focus widened from building plans to cover the creation and maintenance of a community, creatively synthesising considerations relating to environment, ethics, governance, aesthetics and purpose. The teenagers’ creativity when dealing with this authentic problem extended well beyond the elements identified by England’s National Curriculum, and was supported by staff’s active and supportive engagement in the debate.