Exploring learner identity in virtual worlds in higher education
: narratives of pursuit, embodiment and resistance

  • Nicole Steils

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This research study, funded by the Leverhulme Trust as part of the CURLIEW project, explored how learners understand, construct, express, and manage identity when virtual worlds are utilized in higher education and how the virtual world itself might impact on concepts of identity. In particular, the study focused on aspects of learner identity from the physical world and learner identity in virtual worlds, the latter being a ‘translation’ of physical identity markers onto the avatar. The research builds on the experiences of 75 student participants, who employed virtual worlds as learning environments. A narrative research approach was applied to thematically analyze interview, focus group, and observational data, collected from two educational contexts at two British universities. Three themes emerged from the analysis and interpretation of these data, which are presented as narratives of Pursuit, Embodiment, and Resistance. The study makes two main contributions to existing knowledge on learning in virtual environments: firstly, it reveals that virtual worlds are ‘threshold concepts’, in which students need to be able to align their learner identities with the utilization of virtual worlds to integrate them successfully in their learning. Secondly, the study develops a five-dimensional typology of the ways in which students engage and manage identity directly in the virtual world through their avatars. This typology includes: dislocated avatars, representative avatars, avatars as toys and tools, avatars as extensions of self, and avatars as identity extensions. The study demonstrates that engagement with virtual worlds and avatars in the educational context can provide a valuable opportunity to foster critical thinking, if learner identities are given a central place in course design and delivery. Then, virtual world learning can enable students and tutors to reflect critically on what shapes, influences, and constrains identity in virtual worlds, in the physical world, in higher education, and beyond.
    Date of Award2013
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University
    SupervisorMaggi Savin-Baden (Supervisor), Katherine Wimpenny (Supervisor) & Gurnam Singh (Supervisor)


    • higher education
    • Second Life
    • virtual reality
    • learner identity
    • avatars

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