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Multi-User Virtual Reality Technology as a Laboratory for Learning
about Social Research: Issues and Prospects
8. Multi-User VR Partipant Observation Study
A second part of the project was that three social science students (one undergraduate, two postgraduate) carried out participant observation studies of Activeworlds. They spent more than 10 hours each in this multi-user world and wrote brief reports about their research (it should be mentioned that they were reimbursed for their time). None of these students mentioned difficulties of access to the population (although the 'insider' jargon could be difficult on occasion) and all the reports provided rich insights into the social rules, roles and degrees of cohesion of various worlds.
As in the research methods teaching session, the problem of the truthfulness of responses was raised. But it was also clear that users were willing to reveal much more about themselves than they would in face-to-face conservations, and this could be a significant advantage for research. The most striking feature of the reports, however, is the degree of insight that could be gained into the workings of the virtual worlds within a relatively short period of time. The main reason for this is perhaps that virtual worlds are relatively uncomplicated: the modes of communication and social interaction as well as the size and degree of complexity of these virtual worlds are closely circumscribed.
There was no separate assessment of the usefulness of participant observation in this case since this part of the project consisted of independent research rather than being part of a taught course. Nevertheless, in the light of the insightful reports that were generated, it can be suggested that this similar lessons apply to this part of the project: namely, that the non-threatening nature of the environment and the ease of eliciting information provides a good testing ground for practising how to do research using participant observation.
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