Field Research in Second Life: Strategies for Discussion Group Facilitation and Benefits of Participation

Field Research in Second Life: Strategies for Discussion Group Facilitation and Benefits of Participation

Natalie Nussli (University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland, Switzerland) and Kevin Oh (University of San Francisco, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2426-7.ch018


This chapter explores the educational potential of discussion groups situated in three-dimensional (3D) virtual worlds. Virtual discussion groups are examined from the following perspectives: the benefits and challenges of participation and the best practices in terms of effective discussion group moderation. The authors start by describing the benefits of online discussion groups and continue by identifying strategies on how to facilitate such meetings effectively, with a focus on techniques promoting a sense of community. The authors will discuss the major themes that emerged from the content analysis of field notes, an ethnographic journal, and interviews with a discussion group member after immersion in various discussion groups in Second Life. An understanding of the communication modalities (voice and text-chat) and the principles of social interaction may help educators use virtual learning environments effectively. Guidelines for discussion group moderation are presented throughout the chapter.
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Online discussion groups are a way to create social networks, share ideas, and seek advice (Ridings & Wasko, 2010). Discussions have been shown to be more effective than other methods of instruction for the goals of retention, application, problem-solving, attitude change, and motivation for future learning (McKeachie, 2002). There has been substantial research investigating specific aspects of online discussion groups conducted in 2D platforms and, more recently, in 3D environments, which simulate real worlds (e.g., cities, hospitals, laboratories) or imaginary worlds and offer synchronous communications using voice, text chat, and avatar-controlled gestures and movements. Most research examples in the area of discussion group settings can be located in the areas of health and education.

The social affordances of virtual worlds are of particular relevance for the investigation of online discussion and support groups. It has been suggested that social affordances enhance community building, collaboration, social interaction, and offer the possibility to observe and replicate modeled behavior (Fusar-Poli, Cortesi, & Borgwardt, 2008; Gamage, Tretiakov, & Crump, 2011; Oh & Nussli, 2014).

To understand the concept of social affordances, it is essential to clarify the meaning of ‘sense of presence’ as it relates to virtual worlds. The degree of a virtual user’s sense of presence can enhance a sense of closeness and cohesion within a virtual group and may enrich communication. It helps users of a virtual environment project themselves online and feel a sense of community (Lambert & Fisher, 2013). Immediacy, an important factor identified by Gunawardena and Zittle (1997), is inherent in synchronous discussions because all discussants are present simultaneously and exchange their thoughts in real time, which allows for immediate feedback.

Three-dimensional virtual worlds are perceived as more sociable than 2D environments, such as text-based discussion forums in learning management systems (Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, etc.). Students namely enjoy discussions in virtual worlds, such as Second Life, because they can see their own avatar and their peers’ avatars (Mayrath, Sanchez, Traphagan, Heikes & Trivedi, 2007), whereas a linear, asynchronous 2D discussion board may not offer a similar degree of immediacy, sense of presence, or sense of community. Although 2D environments can provide more time for participants to reflect on the topics discussed, we live in an age where learners prefer instant reaction from each other. To address this need for immediacy, some areas in virtual worlds offer a high degree of social interaction (Firat & Kabakci Yurdakul, 2011).

In addition to feeling an increased sense of presence, the elimination of barriers to social participation is another benefit of having social interaction in virtual worlds (Stendal, Balandin, & Molka-Danielsen, 2011), which may ultimately increase the quality of life of some groups of users. For example, synchronous virtual social interaction may be beneficial for distance learners who do not have the opportunity to meet in person (Annetta, Murray, Gull Laird, Bohr, & Park, 2008), for individuals with physical impairments who cannot travel to participate in a face-to-face discussion group or support meeting, or individuals with social skills challenges, such as, individuals with autism who may feel more comfortable interacting through computers (Fusar-Poli et al., 2008).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Embodiment: Seeing visual representations (avatars) of the human individuals who are ‘behind’ the avatars can help create a sense of community (‘being together’) in a virtual space.

Cognitive Load: With regard to the communication methods commonly used in virtual worlds, the simultaneous visual and auditory processing of information can cause cognitive overload due to one’s limited cognitive processing-capacities ( Chandler & Sweller, 1992 ; Mayer & Moreno, 2003 ; Sweller, 1988 /1999). Of particular relevance for this chapter is the split attention effect of multimedia information processing, which occurs when separate sources of information (e.g., voice, group text chat, private text chat, and watching avatars’ movements) need to be mentally integrated.

Virtual Discussions in 3D: Individuals, possibly from different time zones, gather in a virtual world to participate in specific time-bound discussions.

Social Cues: Social cues, such as, winks, smiles, laughs, touch, or gestures of politeness, help to establish a personal relationship. Social cues are critical to establishing social presence, which, in turn, is instrumental in building a sense of community.

Social Presence: Identify with a community and develop interpersonal relationships. Copresence reflects the sense of being together in a virtual space.

Emoticon: Emoticons are visual representations of one’s mood, emotions, or facial expressions. Emoticons are often used in text-chat in virtual worlds to compensate for the lack of social cues.

Emotes: Emotes, such as ‘brb’ (be right back) or ‘afc’ (away from computer) are used in text-chat. If relevant in a given situation, using emotes is a polite way to keep the other discussants informed about one’s current actions.

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