Theatron 3 – Educational undertakings in Second Life

Dramatic arts, E-Learning

Brief descriptionThe Globe theatre on Theatron Island

The Theatron 3 project, was funded by Eduserv and led by King’s Visualisation Lab. The aim was to create twenty theatres from different periods in history in the immersive virtual world Second Life with accompanying pedagogical content. Additional tools were developed to support exploration of, and performance in, these theatrical spaces. To test the viability of this as a medium for education in theatre studies and English literature, five subsidiary pilot pedagogical projects were established at different HE institutions.

The objectives of the project were to evaluate the process of creation in Second Life, the process of implementing learning at the separate institutions, and to identify successful strategies for learning and teaching in immersive virtual worlds in order to provide practical guidance to the HE community. The single question underpinning all of this research was ‘Are immersive virtual worlds a viable platform for research, learning and teaching?’

The English Subject Centre and PALATINE the Dance, Drama & Music Subject Centre collaborated on the educational component of this project through 5 mini-projects that ran from the start of the project in English and Drama departments all taking advantage of the assets being produced. More details of these projects can be found by following the links in the right-hand column.

The outcome of the project is a set of stunning 3D theatres and a range of associated learning tools, which can quickly be recreated for use with students and researchers on Theatron island in Second life. Theatres can be booked online through a reservation system, guaranteeing that the Theatre you’d like to work with is ready in time for your seminar/lecture. The Theatron 3 website has more details.


pompey1In 2002 a six-partner international consortium, led by Professor Richard Beacham, completed and launched the Theatron project, funded under the EU Telematics in Education, Training, and Research Programme. This online interactive educational module comprised digital 3D models of 19 milestones in European theatre design. The Theatron 3 project transformed this content, and additional content since created by KVL, into an extensive, content-rich range of research-based virtual environments in Second Life.

The key additional element that immersive virtual worlds bring to 3d modelling is the introduction of avatars. Avatars enable these spaces to be populated, for the user to be embodied within those spaces and for copresent communication to take place between participants at a distance. To a limited extent, the ability to manipulate these avatars also enables the creation of performances within those spaces. The effect on research, learning and teaching of these avatars is:


  • The ability to place oneself within those spaces provides insights into the lived experience of historical theatrical places.
    • Presenting these spaces as populated enables the nature of the spaces to be conveyed more fully.
    • Locating research content within the spaces enables the material to be conveyed more effectively

Learning and teaching

  • Presenting at a distance within these environments is effective, since participants feel a strong sense of social presence of the presenters.
    • The effectiveness of the environments is dependent on students and staff experiencing embodiment within the environment, and since not everyone experiences this, this can divide responses to the environment into strongly positive and strongly negative
    • Second Life is a social environment, and the presence of other people within the environment can also be viewed as beneficial by some students and staff and be a source of anxiety and cultural and ethical barriers for others.


The ability to move and animate avatars is limited and difficult to master. As a medium for replicating real life performances, immersive virtual worlds are impractical at present. As a tool for exploring new forms of performance, based solely on the virtual, the medium presents many opportunities

key findings

The platform itself produced a mixed reaction from participants.

  • The level of detail and aesthetic qualities of the Theatron builds was described as unfailingly appealing.
    • The Second Life interface was found to require a longer time to master than could be accommodated in the time available for most of the learning and teaching sessions
    • Many institutions lacked the resources to effectively run Second Life and placed bureaucratic obstacles in the way of implementation.
    • The Linden Scripting Language had “peculiarities” that prevented some technical developments, but left open loopholes that could be exploited with experience
    • The platform itself had technical problems with lag, prim limits, downtime and blocked registrations that made it too unreliable for mainstream activity.

Success and impact of project

The Theatron builds were achieved to the required level of detail and pedagogical content was effectively embedded within them. The slow start of the build process was rectified through effective workflow planning. This part of the project was entirely successful and met the original goals of the project.

The pedagogical pilot projects whose results are detailed in the final report linked to below and summarised on the pages of this website, were a mixed success. Second Life proved to be insufficiently reliable to build into mainstream activities and the infrastructure of many institutions did not meet the standard required to run it effectively. These factors, combined with the demands it placed on students because of the time taken to learn to operate it, and the challenge to many of working within a virtual environment, meant that learning activities had to be reduced and moved to optional courses.

Of the five subsidiary projects four engaged to an extent where the environment could be tested and good practice identified. Additional, non-funded work carried out by the larger community also contributed to the project findings, and indicated that the materials will be used outside of the direct intervention of the project.

Within the institutions involved in the project, the project has been a major contributor to the development of King’s Visualisation Lab’s status as a developer and researcher in immersive virtual worlds. In three of the four institutions running pilot projects Theatron has contributed to an ongoing development of Second Life as an educational tool, at one (Wolverhampton) it has not had an impact, due to difficulties faced there. At YSJU, the project has had the effect of altering
institutional commitment to virtual worlds, to the extent that the institution is much more open to further developments and is considering supporting further work. A range of research studentships have also been supported through connection with the project.

Learning Outcomes

  1. Second Life is a suitable environment for creating accurate and complex structures and embedding related pedagogical content. Build times can be greatly reduced through effective workflow plans.
  2. During the lifetime of the project, Second Life was too unreliable and presented too many barriers to institutions for full testing pedagogically. It is an appropriate medium for educational innovators, but early adopters will find that there are still too many issues for incorporating it into their practice.
  3. Immersive virtual worlds as a medium present many challenges to students, particularly due to cultural attitudes and the absence of embodiment experienced by some students. The time required to invest in learning to use the environments also is a barrier to adoption. For these reasons, it may always be problematic to make the use of immersive virtual worlds mandatory for students.
  4. As a medium for studying and communicating, Second Life presents many opportunities. As a performance medium it is limited when attempting to place existing, real life performance in a different medium, but has much potential when used to explore new forms of expression.
  5. The introduction of Second Life at institution often reveals many weaknesses in those institutions’ technical and service infrastructure. These inadequacies need to be resolved before widespread adoption of these technologies can occur.
  6. Immersive virtual worlds are a relatively new technology in education, and there was little understanding of the barriers to implementation within an institution and their most appropriate application to learning when the project started. Second Life itself needed much development in terms of reliability. In the intervening two years, there have been many steps forward in understanding its application to education. The technological goals of the project were well timed in this development cycle, but in retrospect the pedagogical aims were set too early, before the capabilities and limitations of the medium were sufficiently understood. However, the lessons learned pedagogically from Theatron will be invaluable in informing future practice.

Please follow the links below to read about the individual pedagogical pilots or read the downloadable reports listed in the next section.

Reported and other related web links

Other English Subject Centre funded 3D / Animation projects

English projects

  • Chris Wigginton – University of Northumbria
  • Gweno Williams – York St John

Palatine projects

  • Gordon Duffy-McGhie – Middlesbrough University
  • Paul Brownbill – University of Wolverhampton
  • Joff Chafer – Coventry


Completed July 2009