Virtual Worlds in Higher Education

Embodied Experiences of Academics

In: The Translational Design of Universities


Significant changes in higher education are challenging ways of being for academics. The rapid development of technologies combined with influences of globalization on higher education is creating an increasingly different environment for university learning and teaching. Massive increases in student numbers from around the globe now accessing higher education has required universities to adapt their learning spaces on and off campus in order to meet growing expectations. Increasingly, online technologies are utilized in creating new learning environments to cope with these changing dynamics. Virtual worlds are part of a wide range of technology-mediated learning spaces currently used by universities that are challenging established pedagogies, practices and ways of being an academic. This chapter explores how academics experience virtual worlds as pedagogical places. Using the virtual world Second Life™ as a lens, it examines the changing nature of embodiment, pedagogy and place for academics and the significance these changes have for academic identity and practices. A hermeneutic phenomenological approach following van Manen (1990) is used for this inquiry and is framed by post-phenomenological philosophies of human-technology relations after Ihde (1990, 1998, 2002, 2011) and Verbeek (2005, 2008). Theories of extended embodiment established by Merleau-Ponty (1962) and Heidegger (1962) underpin understandings of experiences mediated through the avatar.

One-oucted with academics having direct experience using Second Life for learning and teaching. Data were analysed through hermeneutic phenomenology and discourse analysis approaches. This interpretive research method uses data extracts to include the reader in the process. The results from this research indicate virtual worlds are places where academics dwell pedagogically. Virtual worlds can be creative, playful, agential and collegial places for academics where they engage with student avatars in a pedagogically caring way. The virtual world place is a figured world that influences ways of being and ways of feeling and has strong implications for academics’ professional identity and how they see themselves as academics in these spaces. The results from this research have implications for the professional development of academics as we move further into the 21st century and virtual learning spaces become the norm – if they are not already so.


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