Sunday, August 30, 2009

Reflecting about the virtual birth unit project

The Second Life Education New Zealand project is moving into its evaluation phase. My involvement as lead midwifery educator on the project has come to an end. The birth unit has been built and the normal birth scenario is complete. We have spent the last four weeks making ourselves available to educate and support midwifery students to use the resource. Now it is time to sit back and reflect on the project: what worked well, what didn't work so well, my personal learning and future developments.

I didn't really know where to start with my reflections, so I am using the questions that are being asked of me as part of the project evaluation. This is the first of a few posts where I answer the evaluation questions and reflect on my learning during this project.

What have been the most challenging aspects of the work?
There were a number of challenges as you can imagine, but I think one of the greatest ones was that I was unfamiliar with Second Life and the technological aspects of how it worked. I had an avatar, had attended a couple of meetings in SL, and had a concept of what we could achieve in SL but apart from that, my knowledge of how it worked was minimal. This in turn affected my confidence with using SL ie because I didn't feel confident with it, I didn't use it.

This lack of familiarity hindered my understanding of what and how could be achieved both in terms of technology and design of role play. John Waugh, one of the SLENZ team members has always argued that educators should be more immersed in order to champion SL but I have always resisted this stance. I have always felt that the benefit of using SL to deliver education is outweighed by the time and effort to become confident in SL. Indeed, Terry Neal, the project manager has agreed with me in her reflections about the barriers to SL in education. Nevertheless, I agree that as a designer of learning activities in SL it would have been beneficial to have immersed myself to find out more about virtual role play. I also think that a beginning understanding of building would have been beneficial.

Lack of access
The other major challenge was the six months when I was working in Brisbane. Whilst I was able to communicate with people in New Zealand by email and Skype I had very limited access to the technology that allowed me to use Second Life. That meant I was unable to 'pop into' SL at the drop of a hat and meet the SL developer, and give feedback. It made me feel a little displaced and disconnected. At the same time, this problem with access emphasized the problems that many students will have with SL, and encouraged me to think about how these problems can be overcome.

Working in a virtual team
Working in with the SLENZ team was both one of my greatest achievements yet at the same time, one of my greatest challenges. We were a team of different experiences, knowledge and communication styles. We were scattered throughout New Zealand , and at one time, Australia. We didn't really know each other and had only met face-to-face a couple of times.

I'll be the first to admit that I did not communicate adequately at times and made assumptions about people's knowledge and understanding which were inaccurate. And at the same time, people did the same thing with me. However, we worked very hard to overcome these communication challenges and I am very proud to have been a part of the team. I have learned so much about SL and instructional design from the team and for that I am very grateful.

To my mind, Skype and Google Documents have been two key elements for communication and the development work - if you're thinking of bringing a virtual team together, don't even contemplate it without Google Documents.

A further challenge has been time frames. I don't know about anyone else but I found that everything took twice as long to do as I thought it would take. Getting my head around some of the tools we used like Wikieducator took a long time, and my work was often hindered by the time it took for people to give me feedback on my work.

My family have threatened to shoot me if I ever say 'Second Life' again - now the project is finished I feel I am getting my 'real life' back.

Engaging students
The final and probably greatest challenge has been how to engage students. Because of time frames the learning activities have been 'voluntary' and not integrated into formal lessons. Thus, very few students have engaged with the scenario and I can't say I blame them when you think what other demands are on their time. We have used a variety of tactics to generate interest including use of a Facebook group and online meetings. Whilst there appears to be interest in the concept, issues such as time constraints and access to technology have proved to be barriers to students' investigation of the scenario.

Another barrier has been students' perceptions of SL. Several students have articulated concerns about safety and body image. Other students have questioned its credibility as a teaching/learning tool because they see it mainly as a game.

Ultimately, I believe the way to engage students is to embed the normal birth scenario into formal lessons.....this is the challenge for midwifery educators to run with.

What do you regard as your biggest successes?
I am thrilled with what we have achieved. I believe the end result is unique and very 'useable' and sustainable. This is already being commented on in reviews such as the one by Lewell Cremorne in Metaverse Health. It has been developed by midwives for midwives and based on 'real life' clinical scenarios.

Creative commons
I am also very proud that the resource has a Creative Commons license which means any midwife anywhere in the world can use the resource for their own use or midwifery education and the lesson plans are freely available in Wikieducator for midwifery educators.

To my mind the most exciting stage of the project faces us....national and international collaboration to extend the birth unit and normal birth scenario still further.


Pam said...

It has been enlightening and exciting watching the development of the project from the outside.
It is wonderful to see the foundations of the project set. As you say with the development of a wider community the possibilities are endless and the most exciting time are to come.

Carolyn said...

Many many congratulations to you and the team. The virtual birth unit seems to be a busy place. whenever i have been in recently there have been others around, some students but many others who are interested too.

Sarah Stewart said...

Thank you, Pam, for your kind comments - I have resolved to be an 'open scholar' in order to share my experiences of development and research - thank you for your support along the way.

Carolyn - as you know, it has been a team effort & I thank you for all your work and support along the way. I am glad you've seen others in BU cos it's always been empty when I have gone there.