ORB – A Virtual Reality Literary Magazine
Students and staff at the University of Hertfordshire set out and achieved the main goal of this project: they created an online virtual reality literary magazine and festival arena that features creative work by UK university students. The magazine, Orb, is hosted in Second Life and it launched on 23 October 2007. The magazine’s editorial and production boards are staffed by students and supervised by university staff members. The magazine gives students from all UK universities opportunities to publish their creative writing, photography and art, while the experience of editorial and production work benefits students’ learning experiences. Thus far Orb has exceeded expectations. Out of 125 submissions for the first issue, eleven were published – both numbers are excellent for an inaugeral issue. The launch, streamed live in Second Life, was linked to Black History Month and featured performance poet Patience Agbabi.
The project aimed to utilise web-based resources to create a literary magazine while at the same time promoting Creative Writing as an academic subject and the pedagogical use of Second Life. Featuring an interdisciplinary collaboration between the English and Computer Science departments, the project leaders aimed to draw an audience from both fields, as well as offering an insight into academic work to community visitors.
The University of Hertfordshire has taught Creative Writing as an undergraduate subject since 2002 and from 2005-2006 it has been taught at every level. Incoming BA students in 2006-2007 were invited to enter a university-wide Creative Writing contest, which offered a first- prize of full tuition fees for three years. Given the simultaneous promotion of interactive online learning at Hertfordshire, it seemed like a good time to launch a student-led literary magazine and house it in the virtual world of Second Life.
Writing can often be an isolating experience, and the interactive elements of the Orb Second Life island has allowed both a real and a virtual community to develop. Following publication, few beginning writers receive much feedback. The capacities of the Orb site allows student writers from across the UK to discuss their work with other writers both in real time and through left ‘messages’. While students receive feedback within the classroom in the structure of a Creative Writing course, the opportunity to receive feedback from people outside academia can provide important lessons in publication, confidence and social skills.
Guests to the Orb site enter as their Second Life avatar – a virtual character where they choose their gender, appearance and name, which gives them a discernable point of view as they move around the literary island. While in the site, visitors have the capacity to interact with other visitors in real time, as well as leave permanent comments in the site. These permanent comments can take the form of straight text or hyperlinks. The comments are then placed in the magazine space via a virtual notice board. University staff monitor such comments regularly to ensure that the content is appropriate to a university publication.
Submissions to Orb are open to all UK university students. The magazine board members work, with university staff supervision, in the editorial and production process of the magazine.
Student editorial board members are trained through a variety of methods including the examination of other online international literary journals.
The ability for a visitor to assume a distinctive point of view and personality through an avatar enhances the accessibility of e-writing and offers teachers at all levels examples of e-writing by students. The blend of writing styles that have developed through the multi-disciplinary capabilities of the software pushes the boundaries of e-writing by moving beyond straight text into a blend of visuals, movement and audio. The interdisciplinary combination of Computer Science and English fosters an expansion of e-learning within departments, and showcases the use of technology within English departments.
The key outcome for this project was the creation of the Orb Second Life island and the on-going publication of new editions of the Orb literary magazine. A new student editorial board is appointed each academic year.
Working together on the magazine provided (and continues to provide) University of Hertfordshire students with educational opportunities to learn editorial skills, digital technology skills, magazine production and publicity. They also gain transferable and graduate skills, including project management and leadership.
The outcomes of the project benefit students from other UK universities too by providing them with publication opportunities for their creative work. In addition to the publication opportunities, students from across the UK have the opportunity to access materials related to editorial skills, the history and the methodology used in creating the magazine on site in Second Life.
Jennifer M Young
English Literature Group, School of Humanities
University of Hertfordshire
University of Hertfordshire
July 2006 – March 2008