In Stories from Deans

From Distance Education to Virtual Worlds by Erica Cervini

Sue Gregory, the new secretary of the NSWCDE, has used her passion for teaching, ICT and virtual worlds to produce innovative teaching resources and research.

Sue Gregory finished her arts degree by distance education. She then decided in her late 20s to become a teacher and did the whole of her education qualification using the same method. Then came the research: a master’s degree and doctorate, both by distance education.

“I just love computers and learning; just always have,” says Professor Gregory, Head of the School of Education at the University of New England.

Professor Gregory’s interest in how computers work dates to the 1970s when she was at a progressive school that taught students about computers and programming. The school used punch cards, where holes are punched to represent computer data and instructions.

After she completed her graduate diploma in teaching, Professor Gregory obtained a job teaching adults how to use computers so they could use them in the workplace. She then had her own business that taught people to acquire computing skills for use in their work.

Given Professor Gregory’s fascination for distance education, computers and teaching, it’s not surprising that she has produced innovative research and methods for students to study online.

A lot of this research has centred on the virtual world, which Professor Gregory began to examine for her PhD in 2008. At the time she was already a lecturer in Information Communication Technology Education (ICT) at UNE. She examined how virtual worlds could be used in students’ education after two colleagues suggested she investigate this area, which, at the time, she had no knowledge of.

Professor Gregory built a virtual environment for Initial Teacher Education students and gathered data from a subject she designed and taught using this virtual world. She finished teaching the up to seven classes with pre-service and postgraduate education students in 2018.

“It was amazingly successfully and so much fun,” Professor Gregory says.

“And I still think today it’s one of the best tools to use in educating students, because people get so immersed in the virtual world environment, they lose track of time and where they are and feel like it is real.

“They have an avatar. They can choose from a whole pile of choices to suit themselves and then tweak to adjust to their liking.

“An example of the immersion that one feels when using a virtual world as a learning environment, attending a conference in a virtual world. One academic said that she had to get her avatar to sit because she was getting tired from standing up. The academic was sitting.”

Following are some quotes from students that depict how they perceived their learning in the virtual world:

  • “This is great … love the change almost like face to face with lecturer.”
  • “They had a Y11 boy want to quit HSC music this morning, because of nerves, but I see the virtual world performance as a good bridge between practice and Real Life performance for kids who are nervous.”
  • “I had a defining experience last week when we sat down in that open-air lecture space and I sat on one side and the rest of you sat on the other side. Suddenly I felt lonely and, without thinking, got up and moved to where you were all sitting. And then, I thought, that felt so real!”


When teaching how to use a virtual world for teaching and learning, Professor Gregory took on the avatar of Jass Easterman, who guided students on virtual tours or excursions to other virtual world educational institutions.

Students also had international guest lectures, round table discussions and used the space to collaborate on projects. They immersed themselves in simulations, went on web quests, learnt basic building and scripting, used machinima, holodecks, and individual exploration. They had lots of experience in role playing, particularly de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats and practising their teaching skills.

Professor Gregory’s research papers show that students pick up an array of skills and use creativity in their teaching and learning. For example, students learn to master computer skills and grow adept at interacting effectively in a virtual social space.

For academics, a virtual world is another tool to help produce innovative learning experiences for students. Professor Gregory has written that virtual worlds can be a valuable teaching tool when an academic must navigate a class of students at different levels of their educational experiences.

Professor Gregory enjoys the collaborative aspect of her research and teaching and, as the Chair of the Australian and New Zealand Virtual Worlds Working Group, has written articles and undertaken research projects with academics from the two countries.

She has also worked with the two institutions to create a three-part island from Second Life, an application that allows people to create an avatar for themselves and have a “second life” in an online world.

UNE has owned the island solely for the past 10 years and offers any virtual world user access to the resources to use with their colleagues and students. Professor Gregory has created six school classrooms, a staff room, a science laboratory, a computer store, pharmacy and hospital on the virtual world island.

One of Professor Gregory’s important innovations was the setting up of four virtual school classrooms in which education students could practise their teaching techniques before doing face-to-face teaching. This enabled the classrooms to be used by many students at the one time. They could also come to understand what is inappropriate in the classroom.

“I always found when I used this with my first year on campus students – they would really use inappropriate language and inappropriate actions and you can’t do that in a real classroom,” Professor Gregory says.

The virtual space enabled the students to practise and learn how to teach in an appropriate manner before entering a real classroom.

Professor Gregory emphasises that using a virtual teaching classroom will never replace education students delivering face-to-face classes during their degrees. It is a tool that complements education students’ preparation for classroom teaching.

During the past 20 months Professor Gregory has witnessed academics and teachers doing online teaching because of COVID-19 restrictions that forced the closure of universities and schools. She has made some interesting observations about the effect this has had on teaching methods.

Some teachers went back into the classroom after schools reopened and continued doing what they had done before. However, teachers in Victoria, which has had the most days in lockdown in Australia, were questioning the teaching methods they had always used.

“We were undertaking Professional Learning sessions with teachers in Victorian schools. And the ones that we had more recently said, ‘We need to ensure that when we return to the classroom, we’re not doing the same old, same old, like last time’,” Professor Gregory says.

“I think they will use a variety of approaches. There’s the HyFlex approach, the online, the face-to-face and the blended. There are all these different approaches, but I think the HyFlex approach is probably the one that might take off.”

HyFlex teaching typically involves classes where students are simultaneously face-to-face and in clusters online. Professor Gregory says it’s a real skill to teach in that manner, because “you have to make sure you don’t miss people”.

Professor Gregory has written over 170 publications on teaching and learning in virtual worlds and using ICT as a resource in online learning and teaching. She is also the editor of five books on teaching and learning in virtual worlds. She hopes her next piece of writing will be about reflecting on the past.

“Where should we go? What worked. What didn’t. That would be fascinating. Watch this space, Professor Gregory urges.”

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