While COVID-19 has put a hold on many graduations, one UNE education student was able to celebrate hers in the virtual realm last week.

As a gaming-like avatar being manipulated from the real world, PhD graduate Merle Hearns received the prestigious Chancellor’s Doctoral Research Medal for her thesis and virtual learning environment designed for a university pathways program.

Merle, previously a Senior Lecturer with the Manukau Institute of Technology in New Zealand, has been a long-time proponent of virtual worlds and member of the Australian and New Zealand Virtual Worlds Working Group, which meets to discuss how to encourage and incorporate the use of virtual worlds in education.

The group, with representatives from higher education institutions across the two countries, meet in a virtual world called Second Life.

“Through our avatars, we discussed Merle’s achievements at the recent meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Virtual Worlds Working Group,” says the group’s Chair and UNE Head of School for Education, Professor Sue Gregory, who was also Merle’s principal supervisor. 

“After I spoke about the significance of the medal she was receiving, we decided to hold a virtual graduation ceremony for Merle and ensure it resembled a UNE graduation ceremony as closely as possible,” she said.

In avatar form, Merle was able to sit with her supervisors, Sue and Dr Jenny Charteris, surrounded by her family and friends and her academic support network last Thursday; the day they would have met physically for the occasion.

A virtual world was given a UNE makeover, incorporating Booloominbah House behind a stage and podium where Merle accepted her virtual testamur and medal.

“I was honoured to be part of the graduation ceremony in Second Life. I was truly grateful to Professor Sue Gregory for the effort she invested in the preparation of the event,” Merle said.

“The event was wonderful because I was able to share it with the esteemed dignitaries from UNE, two of whom were my knowledgeable and hard-working supervisors, my colleagues from the Virtual Worlds Working Group (VWWG), friends from the virtual world, and members of my family. I felt comfortable in the environment and I was moved by the tributes delivered at the event.”

Merle admits she would have been “blushing severely in the real world a few times” at the many mentions of her achievements, which she was able to hide well in the virtual world! She says being awarded her PhD and the Chancellor’s Doctoral Research Medal this way “made it seem far more real than just seeing it in an email.”

While a novel way to graduate, Sue says virtual worlds are a powerful tool for helping students learn and connect.

“Merle has created a really engaging mythical world based on Maori stories with multiple levels of literacy activities for students to complete as part of a university bridging program. She produced an ambitious and in-depth thesis, which one of the two examiners to nominate her for the medal called ‘so enthralling’,” Sue says.  

“Virtual worlds are an immersive way to learn, with much better results than a range of other digital tools, especially for distance students. It’s just like face-to-face learning.”

Merle also would like to see more educators experience virtual worlds.

“It is a powerful resource and an effective means of teaching and learning. I knew from my own experiences how effective learning can be in a virtual world. I often see news clips about educators using Zoom and other conferencing tools. These are useful but not as good as face-to-face teaching,” she says. 

“Virtual worlds have a power that goes beyond conferencing software and beyond the real-world classroom. There is a sense of being in the virtual environment. You are not chatting to your lecturer and your classmates over the internet. You are literally in the same space, sharing the same experiences. You can create simulations, role-plays, and games that would be impossible to create in a traditional classroom. You can use your own creativity and imagination to stimulate, motivate, and provide educational activities that have richness and power.”

With plane tickets already purchased to attend the graduation meant to take place in Armidale, Merle is looking forward to also being able to celebrate her achievements on the lawns of Booloominbah in future.  

“It has been a great experience to be a UNE student for a number of years. I have had supportive supervisors who have gone above and beyond to provide the best doctoral journey possible. I am excited at the prospect of seeing the campus for the first time after the COVID-19 lockdown is lifted,” she says.