Teaching Project Management in a Changing, Virtual, World. How Real is This?

Marc Conrad



The Project Management Institute defines ten knowledge areas of Project Management, namely: Scope, Time, Cost, Quality, Human Resources, Communication, Risk, Procurement, Stakeholders and Integration. In the last seven years, since 2008, at the University of Bedfordshire, Virtual Worlds have been used to teach Project Management (focussing on these knowledge areas) to hundreds of students, both undergraduate and postgraduate: first within Second Life (until 2010), later (2010-2011) with Reaction Grid, a different virtual world provider. Currently an institutionally hosted virtual world based on the OpenSim architecture is used.

The nature of the virtual environment impacts on the student perception and experience. For instance – in Second Life – Linden Lab is a ‘stakeholder’ while for an institutional hosted world all stakeholders are directly related to the host institution. There are similar implications considering ‘Procurement’, ‘Risk’ or ‘Cost’.  We argue that the direct experience with Second Life provides a richer experience to facilitate a situated learning approach. More practical considerations, such as cost, provide arguments to host the virtual world ‘in-house’: what remedial actions would sustain an adequate student experience?

In addressing this question, we critically reflect upon the notion of the ‘virtual world’ itself.  In how much can a ‘virtual’ world provide ‘real’ project experience? And if it has to be ‘virtual’, how much ‘world’ is needed?

In our presentation, in addition to discussing the questions above, we will give a historic overview and analysis of how we use virtual worlds at the University of Bedfordshire, illustrated with screenshots. We will further provide practical advice to those who used Second Life in the past, left, and seek now for alternatives. Finally we provide the opportunity to explore our Virtual World, hosted at the University of Bedfordshire in UK, live from the conference venue via guest accounts. 


Key Words: Project Management, Teaching, Students, Second Life, OpenSim, Situated Learning.




1.   Introduction

Project Management, as a field of both intellectual and pragmatic enquiry, is inherently inter-disciplinary: Project Management is relevant across both academic and vocational subjects including Business, Health, Creative Arts, Technology and Engineering. The author’s experience is within Project Management for Computer Science and Software Engineering; however the observations are, as we hope, sufficiently generic so as to generalize to the teaching of Project Management in other disciplines.

At the University of Bedfordshire we deliver the Project Management module to students in the final year of their undergraduate studies and to postgraduate students.  The assessment and practical work within these modules follow Wilson  (2002) such that “[t]he entire structure of the assessment […] was designed as a simulation of an activity that they [the students] were likely to be involved in real life” which itself encompasses the characteristics of situated learning identified by Herrington and Oliver (2000), namely: authentic context, activities and assessment; expert performances; multiple roles and perspectives; collaborative construction of knowledge; reflection and articulation; and finally coaching and scaffolding.

Of these characteristics it is the authenticity in “context, activity and assessment” that we focus upon in this paper: virtual worlds appear to provide significant improvement compared to traditional approaches. They allow to pursuit a ‘real’ project from within the lab environment of an educational institution: students build a showcase in a virtual world. Indeed we will see how the notion of ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ blurs: while the world is ‘virtual’ the project management experience is real. Even more so, we aim to demonstrate that the ‘context’ of the virtual world, i.e. where the world is hosted and what else can be found within this virtual world, play a significant role on how realistic the task is perceived by the students.


2.   Virtual Worlds at the University of Bedfordshire: Second Life and Beyond

In 2007 the University of Bedfordshire began to utilize a virtual world in various teaching and research projects. In our case, students are requested to professionally follow a project management methodology to build a presence within the virtual world. An excerpt from the assignment brief of the Academic Year 2014/15 in Figure 1 illustrates this.

In 2007, the assignment first took place in Second Life. Issues with Linden Lab, the provider of Second Life, made it no longer feasible to utilise Second Life from 2011 onwards. It was therefore decided, at very short notice, to seek alternative solutions. For a period of one year ReactionGrid (http://www.reactiongrid.com/), a provider with their own dedicated grid infrastructure based on the OpenSim software (http://opensimulator.org/) has been used. It should be noted that – from the purely technical perspective – OpenSim is very similar to Second Life and modern viewers often support both.



Text Box: […] You are working as a group of up to 10 individuals who need to come together and work as a team. You will be using the PRINCE2 project management methodology to run a real-life project. As part of an educational advisory team you have been asked to create an educational showcase about an emerging technology. The area that your team looks at must be directly related to the course that you are studying, but may cover any aspect of technology within this area.
As a team you must produce the following:
•	Comprehensive Project Management Documentation – these must include Project Brief, Project Initiation Document, Highlight Reports, Lessons Learned Report and Meeting Minutes. 
•	A Gantt chart that defines realistic deadlines.
•	A RACI Matrix based on the template provided on BREO.
•	A Risk Response Plan that clearly addresses the risks specific to the project. 
•	A 12 page slide show that discusses the technology, it’s benefits and future developments;
•	An educational virtual world showcase about the technology. A dedicated space will be provided in the UoB Virtual World (see slides on BREO). Please note that familiarization with the underlying technology is part of the project work and therefore must be managed as part of the project work; 
•	A short video on the technology that can be used as an educational tool;
•	A social media presentation (e.g. blog, facebook, twitter, etc.) on the technology;
As an individual you must produce the following:

•	An individual report that reviews how the project was managed.
•	A peer review form […]

Figure 1: Extract from the Assignment in 2015 as given to the students of the course.


Figure 2: Screenshot of the Activities on the 'University of Bedfordshire' in Second Life (2010): in the foreground, on top, half-finished showcases for the undergraduate students, below preparations for the postgraduate students who start later; in the background University buildings.


Figure 2 gives an impression on how the virtual world (in this case Second Life) has been prepared for the students. The screenshot reflects the situation in 2010.

Since 2012, after acquiring the necessary knowledge and infrastructure, the University of Bedfordshire hosts their own, dedicated, OpenSim based virtual world. The rationale behind this decision – based on a framework that evaluates different kinds of virtual world implementations against the four dimensions of immersion, cost, context and persistence – has been presented in (Conrad, 2011). There, we already predicted a decrease of immersion and context; however the benefits of managing our own server were expected to outweigh or at least compensate these negative effects.

The regular use of virtual worlds by usually more than 300 students in each academic year inspired a variety of research projects concerning: teaching and learning (Conrad et al., 2009), interaction (Christopoulos et al., 2014), immersion (Kanamgotov, et al., 2012) and identity of avatars (Koshy et al., 2014). The specific implications concerning the teaching and learning of Project Management are the focus of this paper.


3.   The Knowledge Areas of Project Management

The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines Project Management as “the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to project activities to meet project requirements” (PMBOK, 2013). It then further specifies the ten knowledge areas as illustrated in Figure 3.

Figure 3: The ten knowledge areas of Project Management, illustration from lecture material used by the author.


These ten areas are very much interdepended: for instance, a change in scope can be addressed by allowing more time but it may increase the cost; procurement depends on communication and stakeholder management, and so on. As part of a university assignment this balancing act in between knowledge areas can only be simulated up to a certain extent. For instance strict deadlines are prescribed by submission dates that do not leave any leeway for changes in the project schedule.

 The knowledge area of integration serves to tie together the different tools and techniques used to balance the demands from the other areas. In the ten tables below we discuss these knowledge areas of Project Management in relation to the usage of a virtual world to support the teaching of this knowledge area. We distinguish between the two scenarios ‘Second Life’ and ‘Institutionally Hosted OpenSim’ (the two scenarios encountered at the University of Bedfordshire and mentioned in the previous section). Furthermore we attempt an answer to the question in the title of this paper: ‘How real is it?



Cost Management

Developing good cost estimates typically based on previous experience or quantifiable parameters

Second Life


Has a currency on its own (Linden Dollars). Linden Dollars are exchangeable ‘real’ money. Students need some of this currency for certain tasks (such as uploading images). This provides authenticity and realism.

Discussion: Second Life is better prepared for authenticity (because it ‘is’ authentic?). Our OpenSim at the moment does not allow spending ‘virtual’ money; but ‘role-play’ money might exist in the future.


Institutional OpenSim


A money system can be implemented in principle (but doesn’t seem to exist at the moment at a satisfactory level). With a money system implemented the institution could give each project team a finite budget to spend without the need for ‘real’ money.

How real is it? Virtual worlds can enhance teaching of cost management with suitably mature systems that implement ‘economy’.  Second Life clearly adds reality by incurring ‘real’ costs.


Time Management

The task of scheduling the activities, often in a diagrammatic way.

Second Life


Students were given time from assignment hand-out to submission date. Time management includes Gantt charts, precedence diagrams etc.

Discussion: No difference between Second Life and Institutional OpenSim.  

Work in Second Life might be considered “homework” while work in OpenSim might be perceived as “work at University”.  

Do students spend time in Second Life differently than in OpenSim?

Institutional OpenSim


How real is it? Virtual Worlds do neither help nor hinder teaching Time Management. Time spend in virtual worlds is real time. 


Scope Management

Defining and controlling the work that is included in a project.

Second Life


As land in Second Life had to be purchased there were hard constraints on the amount of resources students could use to build their artefacts.  

Discussion: a virtual world owned by the institution shifts the responsibility to set constraints to the tutor or the institution. This provides more freedom for the tutor to design these constraints.

Institutional OpenSim


Virtually unlimited resources that allow a more creative development of the work.

How real is it? Second Life creates ‘real’ scope problems. In the Institutional OpenSim scope issues are imposed by the institution.


Quality Management

The degree to which a set of inherent characteristics fulfil requirements

Second Life


Students can use items produced by the Second Life ‘community’. Also a plethora of examples may lead to ‘better’ (aesthetically more pleasing) results. If the place is open to the general public quality can also be measured by the reaction of Second Life residents that are external to the institution.

Discussion: Second Life sets ‘standards’ in view of what is achievable. It is debatable if direct Second Life experience is necessary to appreciate these standards. We give students examples from Second Life via screenshots to encourage them to build in the OpenSim. 

Institutional OpenSim


Some pre-fabricated items are available in the Internet and can be imported into the OpenSim. Also, examples are given by screenshots from Second Life. By lifting constraints (see ‘scope’) more resources can be used for building.

How real is it? Second Life provides a closed system for quality: quality standards are derived from expectations of the Second Life residents and can be measured by the perception of Second Life residents. Institutional OpenSim takes the expectations from Second Life (or other virtual worlds) and quality measurement happens outside Second Life.


Risk Management

An uncertainty that can have a negative or positive effect on meeting the project objectives.


Second Life


Availability of the virtual world (on the server side; temporary outages); interference between project teams; accidental delete of objects; lost passwords, etc.

Discussion: while the risks are similar in both scenarios the ‘Second Life’ implied risks might feel more real as they do not originate from the institution?

Institutional OpenSim


How real is it? Second Life risks are perceived more as ‘real risks’ for the project team to deal with while risks that arise from the OpenSim are seen as risks that originate in the institution (i.e. artificially imposed by the tutors to make the assignment challenging).


Communication Management

Managing communication may range from spontaneous to scheduled meetings, can be informal and ad hoc or formal and minuted.

Second Life


Offers many channels of communication (open chat, IM’s, voice, notecards, groups etc.)

Discussion: Students sharing the same physical space rarely use in-world to communicate. Cross-institutionally distributed projects might benefit from enhanced communication; however various other tools (such as skype) exist in parallel anyway.

Institutional OpenSim


Less mature than in Second Life still the main features are available.

How real is it? To use virtual worlds effectively in communication management students would need to be forced to use the virtual world as the only communication medium. This does not feel realistic.


Human Resources Management

Objectives are the acquisition of necessary skills and the strengthening of team coherence through team building.

Second Life


Provides the opportunity for team building experience inside the virtual world by exploring other places; e.g. joined attendance to concerts or games etc.; building skills can be acquired using in-world tutorials.

Discussion: Second Life creates a richer context by providing a ‘world’ that can be explored both to learn and for recreation.

Institutional OpenSim


No support in-world unless explicitly implemented.

How real is it? Second Life is real; institutional OpenSim not.



Includes the acquisition of goods and services for the project from outside the organization.

Second Life


In our experience Second Life led to various procurement challenges. The world where the students had to build was owned by an external provider (i.e. Linden Labs), so certain aspects (such as avatar creation etc) had to be ‘negotiated’ with these.

Discussion: there is a significant difference: the external provider Second Life requires procurement from outside the institution.

Institutional OpenSim


All resources are ultimately provided by the institution.

How real is it? Second Life is more real than the institutional virtual world


Stakeholder Management

A stakeholder is any individual, group or organization that can affect, be affected by, or perceive itself to be affected by a project.

Second Life


Stakeholders include Linden Lab as the provider of the virtual world.

Discussion: there is a significant difference: the external provider Second Life requires considering stakeholders from outside the institution.

Institutional OpenSim


All stakeholders of the projects are those within the institution (tutors, technicians etc.)

How real is it? Second Life provides a more ‘real’ experience.



Serves to coordinate the various activities related to the nine other knowledge areas.

Second Life


No inherent mechanisms to support a project management methodology (Linden Lab might consider this)

Discussion: both solutions have potential for enhancement; but currently there is no support.

Institutional OpenSim


No inherent mechanisms to support a project management methodology (however there is potential to integrate the open-source code with a (project)-document management system).

How real is it? Neither Second Life nor OpenSim offer in-world facilities to systematically manage projects. A Project Management tool that is integrated with virtual worlds might be an interesting vision. 


4.   Discussion and Conclusion

As seen in the previous section Second Life provides a richer experience than OpenSim across a number of areas. Indeed it seems to be more ‘real’. However a closer look into the reasons seems to suggest that the main benefits are derived from the fact that the assignment is conducted outside the educational institution. Therefore one might want to conclude that the assignment in Second Life would actually compare to a placement activity (i.e. a study experience outside the educational institution) while an institutional hosted virtual world simply has the character of a traditional university assignment. The fact that both are ‘virtual worlds’ feels now somewhat secondary and one is led to the inconvenient question: is there a virtual world, hosted by the institution, that is able to simulate the Second Life experience?

A possible way to implement a virtual world that stretches ‘outside’ the home institution while still being owned and controlled by it could be the use of hypergrids that link these institutionally owned virtual worlds into a unified whole: this would generate the perception of one connected world and might provide a similarly rich ‘world’ experience than previously Second Life. That such a joint but distributed initiative can became reality is demonstrated in the eduroam project (a wifi solution that allows educators and students to connect through the wifi networks of all participating institutions) that allows educators around the world to use a resource owned by a other universities. Indeed one may envisage that the eduroam infrastructure could be used to underpin a distributed ‘jointly owned’ virtual world. Further research is needed.



Christopoulos, A., Conrad, M., Shukla, M., (2014); Objects, Worlds & Students: Virtual Interaction in Education, Education Research International, Vol 2014, Article ID 318317

Conrad, M., Pike, D., Sant, P., Nwafor, C. (2009); Teaching Large Student Cohorts in Second Life; Proceedings of the First International Conference on Computer Supported Education (CSEDU), Lisboa 

Conrad, M. (2011); Leaving the Lindens: Teaching in Virtual Worlds of other Providers, Proceedings of ReLIVE11, conference proceedings: 28, Milton Keynes: Open University.

Herrington, J. and Oliver, R. (2000); An instructional design framework for authentic learning environments. Educational Technology Research and Development, 48(3), pp 23-48, Boston, Springer.

Kanamgotov, A., Christopoulos, A., Conrad, M., Prakoonwit, S. (2012); Immersion in Virtual Worlds - but not Second Life! Cyberworlds 2012, Darmstadt.

Koshy, L. M., Getchell, K., Conrad, M., French, T. (2014); Identity in Virtual Worlds, in: Gehmann, u., Reiche, M. (eds), Real Virtuality - about the Destruction and Multiplication of World, [transcript] Verlag, Berlin.

Project Management Institute (2013); A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (pmbok Guide), Fifth Edition; 5th ed. Newtown Square, Pa.: Project Management Institute.

Wilson, Vicky (2002); Lessons in Reality: Teaching Project Management, professionalism and Ethics to Third Year IT Students, Informing Science, June 2002.


Marc Conrad is Principal Lecturer at the University of Bedfordshire; his research experience covers areas as diverse as mathematical modeling, number theory, computer security, avatars and identity and, of course, virtual worlds and project management. His personal web site is http://perisic.com/marc. Please handle with care.