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University of Cyprus -- The implementation of Electrical Engineering Courses in Second Life

Page history last edited by Gary Motteram 7 years, 6 months ago



1. Decision Making Process 


The two courses, ECE 340: Introduction to Power Engineering and ECE 442: Power System Analysis, were taught in a conventional classroom setting and Second Life was used as a tool to immerse students in constructive discussions and task-oriented activities in order to assist students in developing a conceptual understanding of complex power engineering concepts and key terminology in the target language, English. The design of the course was based on the theoretical framework proposed in a research grant, where the focus was placed on examining Leont’ev’s (1981) and Engestrȍm’s (1987; 1993; 2008) notion of culturally-enacted contradictions. That is, particular attention was placed on the fact that the instructional material in the classroom setting were delivered in students’ native language, Greek, but their assigned textbooks were in English, while their midterm and final exams were both in Greek and English, often causing students to struggle with complex key terminology in the target language. Further, focus was placed on studies conducted on heterogeneous group assignments, the Zone of Proximal Development, and the Cultural-Historical Activity framework (i.e., Aljaafreeh & Lantolf, 1994; Ohta, 2000) and the notion of contradictions (i.e., Thorne, 2003; Ware, 2005; Ware & Kramsch, 2005; Basharina, 2007). Particular attention was also placed on devising instructional and pedagogical material for a virtual setting (i.e., Clark, 2008).


2. Aims and Objectives


Some of the main objectives of the course were the need (a) to offer a collaborative forum where students could interact with their peers, instructors, and the various artifacts constructed in the virtual island; (b) to facilitate discussions on complex electrical engineering constructs that were not discussed in class or that students had challenges understanding; (c) to expose students to key terminology in the target language; (d) to help them improve their performance in the course; (e) to engage them in discussions that expanded beyond the curriculum, i.e., hybrid cars, (f) to immerse students in new virtual learning environments; and (g) to examine the affordances that provided grounds for engaging in this culturally-enacted activity.


Almost all students were in their early twenties, so they were legally able to gain access to Second Life. An open island was created in Second Life where students could interact with wind turbines, experience efforts to produce more energy efficient products and services, and discuss critical renewable energy issues. Unfortunately, at the current stage, the University of Cyprus admits students based on their performance on national exams; hence, it is not feasible for students from other academic institutions to be enrolled in these courses.  However, students from different disciplines, especially engineering, could benefit from this virtual activities by getting the opportunity to interact with their instructor, peers, and artifacts, raise questions, complete task-oriented activities, and become immerse in new technologies. 



3. Funding


The project was funded by the Cyprus Research Promotion Foundation. We have secured funding for maintaining the island in Second Life and now we are working on devising solid pedagogical and instructional material for undergraduate electrical engineering students at the University of Cyprus. In the fall semester of 2012, we are planning on implementing SL in a more advanced course, ECE 680: Power System Analysis.  Since this is a public university, undergraduate students do not have to pay any tuition fees and only students at the University of Cyprus were invited to participate in these virtual tasks.


4. Environment

The virtual island was constructed as an open space; therefore, anyone could potentially gain access to this virtual platform. Students enrolled in the above mentioned course were offered some training in SL. For instance, a blog was set which included various YouTube clips discussing the pedagogical and instructional benefits of SL, its implementation in multiple courses by Ivy league universities. Students were also given instructions on how to create an account in SL and obtain an avatar. They were also invited to visit their instructor’s office to get tutorials. Further, a research assistant was present during students’ visits to SL in order to offer them technical support, i.e., she guided students in navigating around the island. The CO-PI also offered students virtual tours of the wind turbines and the multiple other artifacts on the island. Troubleshooting with avatar’s clothing, system crashes, and other challenges were overcome with the assistance of the CO-PI and the research assistant. All students were assigned into heterogeneous groups and had previously set specific times and dates to meet in SL; and during the discussions and task-oriented activities, they introduced themselves to their peers and instructors in order to ensure that no unexpected guests participated in these activities. The duration of each virtual meeting was between 1 ½ to 2 hours. 


5. Learners  


As already mentioned, only students from the University of Cyprus participated in these virtual activities. However, in the future, we plan on inviting students from an academic institution in the Northeastern part of the United States to participate in these virtual exchanges. We are collaborating with scholars in the U.S. to determine the best possible ways to implement these virtual activities since there are multiple factors that we need to consider, such as the different “cultures-of-use” related to the virtual environments, the affordances enacted for each group of students, language, institutional constructs, cross-cultural values, time, etc. In the previous two courses, we were fortunate enough to have only students from the two classes participate in the exchanges; that is, there were no distractors due to the presence of others. Students had not receive any previous training in the SL metaverse. The training was tailored by the instructor and CO-PI to the students’ needs and included multiple training activities, such as the use of YouTube videos highlighting the pedagogical and instructional value of SL, a blogger, multiple reading assignments, etc. Also, a research assistant was there to assist students with any challenges that they might encounter with this 3-D virtual setting. In most cases, students were introduced to the SL software and were given more than a month to become acquainted with its multiple tools.


6. Logistics-timetabling


In the first two courses, the task-oriented activities in the Second Life metaverse were implemented as part of extra credit activities. All students were encouraged to participate in these virtual activities. Students in each class were assigned into heterogeneous groups and set specific times and dates to meet in the Power Education Center in SL (see Aljaafreh & Lantolf, 1994; DeGuerrero & Vilamill, 1996; Ohta, 2000 for a discussion on heterogeneous group assignments). That is, students who performed well in the course were assigned into groups with students who faced challenges with the course. Other factors, such as students’ personality, interests, etc. were also taken into consideration in assigning students into different groups. The duration of each virtual meeting ranged between 1 ½ to 2 hours. The instructor was present to address students’ questions, guide them in the various task-oriented activities, assist them with any questions that they had and challenge them to engage in “knowledge-laden” discussions that required critical thinking and hands-on-experience. The CO-PI and researcher were also present during these activities in order to guide students through these task-oriented activities, provide them with technical support, and assist them in becoming acquainted with this new learning environment.   


7. Course syllabus (didactics)


All the activities were designed by the instructor and CO-PI of the research study. KYSATS which is essentially the Council of Recognition of Higher Qualifications under the Ministry of Education and Culture in Cyprus in close collaboration with the University of Cyprus and the department have indicated a set of skills and knowledge that students need to acquire in these courses; however, the instructor enjoys a level of flexibility in designing the course, such as syllabus design, textbook selection, visits to different sides, etc. All courses need to be first accredited by the KYSATS under the Ministry of Education and Culture in Cyprus. The activities in SL were designed by taking into close consideration these requirements and also the fact that many students who were exposed to the conventional instructional methods where they were just perceived as “empty vessels” to be filled up with knowledge, faced considerable challenges with these courses (see also van Lier, 2006). Many preparatory tasks were used before students participated in these virtual task-oriented activities and discussions, i.e., specific assignments were used to help students review complex electrical engineering concepts before their final exams. All students who participated in these virtual activities had received extra credits.  Interestingly, the virtual meetings and task-oriented activities in the virtual island afforded opportunities for “knowledge-laden interactions,” vertical and horizontal learning experiences, and construction of knowledge beyond the assigned curriculum. Students’ feedback was also required to evaluate their learning experiences in the SL metaverse and develop more effective pedagogical and instructional material for future courses, such as ECE 680: Power System Analysis which will be taught in the fall of 2012. A similar approach to the theoretical and practical frameworks implemented in the previous courses will be adopted. However, both the content of the instructional material and requirements for students’ participation in SL will differ. For instance, at the current stage, I am negotiating with the instructor the use of SL as part of the course, where the assigned activities will form part of students’ grades. Also, both the electrical engineer who helped build the virtual island and the researcher in this study were invited to share their views in improving students’ virtual learning experiences. Further, students offered their feedback on evaluating their experiences in the SL metaverse. Their suggestions were taken into serious consideration in devising new virtual experiences and activities in this social 3D platform.


8. Advertising of the Course 


The courses were never advertised since only students pursuing an undergraduate or a graduate degree in Electrical Engineering at the University of Cyprus were eligible to participate in these activities in the Second Life metaverse


9. Technical Issues and Support


During these virtual activities in the Power Education Center, the CO-PI and a researcher were also present to assist students with any technical difficulties that they encountered in the process, help them navigate through the virtual island, and guide them in becoming acquainted with the different tools. Some technical challenges were encountered during the virtual transactions in SL. For instance, both the instructor of the course and CO-PI of the study faced connectivity problems, but the researcher kept the students on-track until this issue was resolved. Further challenges encountered in the process: students did not have the system requirements causing their systems to crash and their internet connection was too slow, etc. The most commonly experienced challenges were connectivity problems, limited knowledge of the software, outdated systems. The CO-PI and researcher of the study offered technical support to students during the networked activities.


10. Interaction


Students engaged in “knowledge-laden” discussions with their peers and their instructor, engaging in both horizontal and vertical learning (Wells, 2002). In the conventional classroom setting, the delivery of instruction is still built on traditional instructional approaches where the students are exposed to the instructional material and later on assessed on their performance through midterm, final exams, and multiple homework activities. In this new setting, students were actively engaged, instigating the conversations, soliciting clarifications, raising critical questions regarding their instructional material and often expanding beyond the curriculum discussing instrumental issues in their field, such as hybrid cars, that they could not discuss in a conventional classroom setting mainly due to time constraints and instructional approach often implemented by instructors at this academic institution. The CO-PI also prompted the instructor to offer opportunities to students that faced challenges with the course and often felt discouraged to raise questions in class or during these virtually-enacted activities. For instance, a student who had previously failed the course and participated very little during in-class or virtual discussions was repeatedly encouraged by the instructor to raise questions or solicit clarifications that would help her develop a better understanding of the instructional material. Further, the wind turbines and multiple other artifacts constructed on the island offered ample opportunities to students to interact with the artifacts and think more critically about the actual application of their instructional material in real life. The instructor was also available during office hours, so that students could raise follow-up questions about the instructional material. However, most students perceived the SL setting as a more appropriate forum to raise their questions or concerns. Further, since they participated in heterogeneous groups, students were exposed to their peers’ and instructors’ perspectives, often soliciting or offering feedback or support to their peers. During task-oriented activities, students were well aware that they needed to contribute to the multiple tasks and collaborate with their peers, so they all tried to contribute to the assigned tasks.    


11. Resources


Multiple online tools were implemented during this process, including a Blog, YouTube videos introducing students to the pedagogical and instructional value of SL, its implementation by Ivy League Universities, and multiple other resources. All task-oriented activities were linked to the instructional material but were meant to promote discussions beyond the assigned curriculum. For instance, task-oriented activities on synchronous machines promoted discussions on generators producing electricity. Further, the wind turbines and the multiple other artifacts on the island promoting energy-efficient practices and services catalyzed these virtual discussions and task-oriented activities. The instructor and CO-PI offered students a description of the task-oriented activities, a review session was held in class prior to one of the final exams, while a follow-up session in the Power Education Center offered students ample opportunities to examine related topics. Handouts, homework activities, on-site visits, instructional material, and other related activities were also taken into consideration and discussed during these virtual activities. The instructor and CO-PI collaborated in devising some of these task-oriented activities; however, the instructor and CO-PI also needed to adhere to institutional requirements regarding the instructional material. 


12. Ethical Issues


No ethical issues emerged during the virtual activities. Almost all students were in their early twenties, so they were legally able to gain access to Second Life. Similarly, there were no discipline issues that we’ve encountered during this process. Further, since this experience was part of a research study, an open island was created in the Second Life metaverse where the Human Subject Review Form is often not required, especially when it involves public discourse.


13. Assessment


In the case of the two courses, the task-oriented activities formed part of extra point activities. At the current stage, I am negotiating with the instructor of ECE 680: Power System Analysis to implement SL not simply as part of their course but also to design specific activities in SL that will be evaluated and form part of students’ final grade. Specific guidelines will be devised on how each activity in the SL metaverse will be evaluated.


14. Evaluation


The activities in the SL metaverse formed part of extra credit activities. They did not form part of students’ grades in the two courses. I am currently negotiating with Dr. Kyriakides to implement the activities in SL as part of students’ final grade. In the two previous sections, the students were graded as a group – there were no individual grades assigned for the activities. Based on their performance on the multiple task-oriented activities, virtual discussions and other activities, students’ collective performance was graded. Particular attention was placed on students’ efforts to voice their concerns about the course, lead knowledge-laden discussions where complex electrical engineering constructs were examined in detail, guiding students in not simply understanding the instructional material but also in developing effective metacognitive skills to evaluate their own learning processes. All the written conversations were archived, offering the instructor and Co-PI of the study an opportunity to examine students’ roles during these interactions – that is, their role in instigating the knowledge-laden discussions, addressing critical questions, collaborating in completing task-oriented activities, etc. Further, during the exchanges both the instructor and Co-PI guided students in completing the task. Consequently, the focus was not placed on the final product but on the processes involved during these collaborative task-oriented activities. That was actually one of the goals of these SL activities: to offer students innovative ways to experience learning expanding beyond the instructor-led discourse often promoted by academic institutions. Students became active agents, taking over their learning.


15. Dissemination


Multiple papers were presented at various national and international conferences, such as the American Association of Applied Linguistics and CALICO. Articles were also published, in both Greek and English, in local and Greek newspapers, the KIOS Research Center newsletter, and the university’s website. I am currently co-authoring 2 journal articles with Dr. Kyriakides.  Multiple other articles will also follow since we are still in the process of examining our findings.


[1] Hadjistassou, S. K. [To be Submitted in August 2012]. “Power Education Center: A Virtually-Constructed Environment for English as a Second Language Learning”


[2] Hadjistassou, S. K. (2011). “Οι προοπτικές των τρισδιάστατων εικονικών κόσμων στην εκμάθηση μιας  δεύτερης ή ξένης γλώσσας, στην εκπαίδευση και  έρευνα.” University of Cyprus Newsletter.


[3]Kyriakides, E. and Hadjistassou, S. K. (2010). “From Virtual Worlds to Virtual Engineering Classrooms: Emerging Virtual Learning Experiences in Engineering and English as a Second Language.” KIOS


[4] Hadjistassou, S. K. (2011). “Οι προοπτικές των τρισδιάστατων εικονικών κόσμων στην εκμάθηση μιας δεύτερης ή ξένης γλώσσας, στην εκπαίδευση και  έρευνα.” Χαραυγή, Kalimera. GR, Campus CY,


[5] Hadjistassou, S. K. (2011). “University enters another reality.” Cyprus Mail.




Comments (1)

Gary Motteram said

at 9:10 am on Mar 8, 2013

I have moved the video here, so that it is easier to see its association

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