Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2012

Degree Type


Degree Name



Instructional Technology

First Advisor

Monica Tracey


Current educational initiatives encourage the use of authentic learning environments to realistically prepare students for jobs in a constantly changing world. Many students of the Millennial generation may be social media savvy. However, what can be said about learning conditions and student readiness for active, reflective and collaborative learning and media literacy within their discipline? Virtual worlds such as Second Life (SL) represent future hybridized work environments which can support authentic learning. With their immersive and interaction affordances, virtual worlds may be designed to incorporate real-world team projects for both online and blended courses.

This qualitative single embedded case study sought to understand learner experiences regarding the authentic learning environment instructional design which was provided through Second Life. The study took place in a higher education game development course facilitated through SL during the fall 2009 semester. The goals of the student project were to work in simulated real-world teams to design and co-create a game, test the game by role-play as non player characters with a random student player, experience game development requirements, and reflect upon lessons learned. The research study took place at a mid-size private university in a Midwest metropolitan suburb. Participants included eighteen Millennial generation students who had never used SL in a formal learning setting. The majority of the students were white male gamers majoring in STEM disciplines. Data collection included participant observation over a three month period, 75 student journal entries, 12 in-depth interviews, and four student focus groups. Data analysis included domain, taxonomic, componential, vignette, and theme analyses and trustworthiness methods. The case study was presented through abstract models of learner processes, rich thick detailed descriptions, theme analysis matrices, and in-world snapshots.

The case study scene was parsed into three components representing learner needs in an authentic learning multi-user virtual environment (ALMUVE): 1) support of authentic active, reflective and collaborative learning, 2) design of authentic activities and assessment, and 3) creation of an authentic learning environment and community. Students exhibited active learning over a range of learning domains and problem types through the team project. Chances of sustained learning engagement increased when class sessions were choreographed and activities were varied. Both peer-reflective and self-reflective learning were facilitated and categorized into five types, ranging from low to high levels of self-reflection. Students were not comfortable with reflective writing and they requested more structure. For virtual world collaborative learning, participation and synthesis were observed rather than division of labor found with other tools. Though team behaviors mirrored face-to-face ones, there was a need for increased transparency and communication.

Authentic activities need to be progressively staged with a variety of perspectives and tasks to construct a real-world team project. Co-creation and role-play activities were conducive for ALMUVE engagement. Authentic assessment mirrored authentic activities and included opportunities for assessing individual and team efforts. The study showed a need for more authentic assessment methods for virtual world team projects. Team projects were successful, with each team developing and enacting an innovative game with their own interpretation of game narrative, characters, environment, player choices, goals and rewards, and methods of interaction. Though a rich environment could be created, the locus of class activities as well as resources and tools competed for student attention. There was a need for additional technology, instructional design, and 3-D development support as well as a need to match the instructor's use of technology to that required of students. Embedding multiple perspectives in activities created opportunities for immersion and interactivity. More team role rotation and accountability, modeling and coaching strategies may enhance engagement. Students desired more `learning by doing' to take advantage of virtual world attributes.

Millennial learner types of the game development course were identified in terms of their perspectives toward virtual learning. Gamers who played mostly first-person shooter games exhibited a bias toward learning in SL, viewing SL in terms of the games they play. It was difficult for them to visualize how game development could be taught using SL. They may also have viewed the virtual world building subculture in contrast to their own gaming subcultures. Gamers, who were engaged team leaders, demonstrated comfort with ambiguity, creativity, collaboration, self-confidence, and an inclination toward lifelong learning. These characteristics aligned to class challenges with ALMUVE engagement.

Virtual world media effects were explored regarding evolution of communication practices, student-development of the 3-D environment, and progression of collaboration on the project. Communication was found to be short, frequent and transmitted through various tools. There were inferred differences between affordances and cultures of a virtual world, an MMORPG, and uses of an application. As the communication became easier and more expressive, a more authentic 3-D environment developed. Likewise, team collaboration increased with co-created 3-D environments and role-play.

This case study has implications for instructional designers and faculty interested in creating real-world learning experiences using virtual worlds. The findings illuminate instructional design considerations when creating virtual world learning environments for Millennial students and for the gamer subculture in particular. The study is also applicable to instructional design constructivist studies, studies related to learning through virtual worlds, studies involving Millennial subcultures, and studies using virtual research methodologies.