[Research Voices: Qualitative Studies]

Music Therapy and Avatars: Reflections on Virtual Learning Environments for Music Therapy Students

By Kristin Maya Story


Music therapy students have expressed concerns regarding their general preparedness for practicum and working with new populations. Simulations in the immersive virtual world, Second Life, may provide a platform to assist in training music therapy students and enhance preparedness. This project examined the feasibility of utilizing Second Life to assist in training music therapists. Music therapy practicum students enrolled in a music therapy equivalency program participated in weekly one hour virtual class meetings in Second Life, which included 5 sessions of music therapy simulations. At the end of the semester, students were interviewed in relation to their experiences, and interviews were analyzed qualitatively. Common themes among students were limitations of Second Life software, student’s knowledge of software, emotional reactions (both positive and negative), and distance learning.


Online learning, hybrid courses, educational use of social media, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) are topics increasingly discussed in faculty meetings and professional development workshops at the University where I teach. While some faculty embrace technology, others are resistant to its classroom integration, and there is a wide spectrum of level of integration between the polar views. Though I prefer the authenticity of a face to face classroom of learners, I recognize the increased accessibility and wider reaching connections that technology enables for students and for faculty. One must weigh the benefits of improved accessibility against the limitations of distance virtual classrooms. With a relatively small number of music therapy programs, online courses expand opportunities for the training of individuals who are unable to re-locate for their education. Being able to complete all or most of a program from one’s home allows one to continue working, and negates the relocation costs. It also can increase the caliber of training through bringing in guest lecturers and experts in the field to contribute to education virtually. For instance, I have guest lectured through Skype for a classroom in a different region of the country.

In my experience and shared perceptions from others, learners and faculty do their best work in a face-to face classroom, but I recognize and value tools of technology that allow me to reach more learners, broaden my cultural perspective, and increase accessibility for students. My stance has been to be open to technology and try various mediums in my teaching before embracing them as a way of practice. I have attempted to convey that in the article that follows, through the larger questions about technology and through an example of a small study I implemented a few years ago that examined the use of a virtual learning environment to enhance classroom learning.

Though technology is influencing education delivery in many allied health professions, it is not being integrated in music therapy education at the same rate. There is, however, a growing body of literature that demonstrates a gradual integration (Baker & Krout, 2011; Crowe, 2004; Knight & Lagasse, 2012; Vega & Keith, 2012). Of the music therapy educators in the US who responded to a recent survey, approximately 50% of the undergraduate courses and slightly over 58% of the graduate courses integrated online tools to supplement face-to-face interaction (Vega & Keith, 2012). Roughly 70% of the undergraduate educators had received inquiries about online learning. Though perceptions about online learning were not surveyed, Vega and Keith begin an important conversation around the increase of online tools in music therapy education. As we move forward into this territory, two important questions come to mind:

  1. How can we best integrate technology in music therapy education in a thoughtful and intentional way?
  2. Can presence and community be felt in an online classroom?

These are reflexive questions that examine technological and pedagogical issues. They are questions that ask not if technology can be integrated into music therapy education, but how to best introduce these methods of learning while also addressing concepts of community and presence, which are important in the development of therapeutic relationship skills. Therapeutic relationship, and specifically therapeutic presence are difficult concepts for some beginning practicum students to grasp (Summer, 2001). Therapeutic presence is defined as “an internal and relational therapeutic stance that includes the therapist's present-centered sensory attention in direct relation to the client's in-the-moment experience” (Geller, Greenberg, & Watson, 2010, p. 601). Therapeutic presence is not learned through traditional teaching methods of lecturing or assigned readings, but through attention to process. Concepts that may lend themselves to development of therapeutic presence are reflection, role-playing, and centering (Summer, 2001). Developing therapeutic presence through role-playing and reflection necessitates that a student cohort be present to work through clinical scenarios, which presents a problem in online classrooms.

Identified issues with online learning are lack of shared presence and felt presence (Hege, 2011; Scoresby & Shelton, 2011). I have heard this echoed by my students, who have reported lack of community and presence repeatedly as examples of negative experiences in their online classes (unpublished surveys, 2011; and video interviews, 2013). How does one learn therapeutic presence when there is a lack of interaction (shared presence) and a sense of being (felt presence) in the online classroom? It would require finding online teaching methods that encourage collaboration and increase felt presence in the online classroom. Problem based learning (PBL), one educative model that addresses critical thinking and supports group collaboration across distance may be an option, and is currently being implemented in online programs (Savin-Baden, et al., 2011). In a PBL approach to learning, groups of students work to examine a scenario, identify their existing knowledge relevant to the scenario and solve the problem in the scenario presented. Online education often relies on self-directed learning away from campus. Implementing PBL in an online classroom requires the students to work in groups, thus enhancing interaction and shared presence.

Five years ago I implemented a study that explored one alternative delivery mode of online education.[1] My belief was that utilizing an Immersive Virtual World (IVW) would enhance one’s sense of presence in an online classroom, provide opportunities for PBL in the online classroom, and provide a rich environment for role-playing music therapy sessions for the new music therapy student. The idea of using an IVW in education was new at that time, and completely undocumented in music therapy. I felt an important first step in examining the potential use of IVW in an online classroom was to take music therapy students into an IVW environment and listen to their perceptions of learning in that environment.

Because many readers may be unfamiliar with the IVW environment, I will devote some time to explanation and a video example of the technology before proceeding with a description of the small feasibility study. Data from a pilot study that used an IVW to address music therapy clinical skills will be presented, and re-examined. Questions for further examination regarding music therapy education and online learning will be offered.

Virtual Worlds

Virtual worlds are richly immersive and highly scalable 3D environments. People enter these worlds via an avatar, which is their representation in that space, moving their avatar through the space as if they were physically walking—or in some cases, flying. The most popular virtual worlds are multi-user spaces, meaning that many people can be in the same virtual space and interact with one another in real time. While many popular games take place in virtual worlds, virtual worlds are not themselves games. Pure virtual worlds like Second Life, Active Worlds, or There can be applied to any context, as opposed to game worlds, which generally have a fixed, goal-oriented purpose. (New Media Consortium & Educause, 2007, p. 18)

Below is a three-minute clip from a much longer film I created in Second Life (SL) as a creative analysis of a Guided Imagery and Music program. The clip provides the viewer an overall sense of the virtual environment, though the film’s quality is far reduced from how SL actually appears. In the clip there is intentionally only one avatar. This was accomplished by finding unpopulated “locations” in SL. More often in SL, one is in the company of many other SL residents. Each SL resident or “avatar” present on one’s screen represents a real person operating that avatar from her computer. Many areas of SL are populated by residents gathering for social networking. An unpopulated location would mean that no other person is viewing that area on her screen at the same time. Unpopulated areas are also important when meeting with a class for confidentiality. Other times, one may want a populated area of SL in order to interact with a community not normally in one’s circle, for instance, for survey purposes, or outreach. As an example, I once had some of my students in an Introduction to Music Therapy course ask random avatars in SL their definition of music therapy. I chose unpopulated locations for my GIM analysis because I was filming my avatar interacting with the environment and did not want another avatar to engage me in conversation while I was filming.


Second Life

SL is a 3-D virtual world filled with user-generated content. SL is created by its users and is therefore constantly changing. An individual downloads the free SL software onto their computer and at that time, creates an avatar, which becomes his/her visual representation. Here is an example of an avatar, my representation in SL:

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The user has the ability to change the look of her avatar at anytime. The avatar is navigated by the user into various locations in SL ranging from virtual classrooms to virtual hospitals to virtual countries. The user interacts with other users by typing in text or speaking through a microphone. Each avatar in SL represents a person who is directing that avatar through her computer. SL is not a game; it is social software, much like Facebook or MySpace, but with an added 3-D visual component.

From an educational standpoint, SL is a web-based tool used by some universities as a teaching platform. In 2007 the Horizon Report identified virtual worlds as one of the emerging technologies that would impact higher education over the next one to five years (New Media Consortium & Educause Learning Initiative, 2007). At that time there were over 200 universities or academic institutions using SL, representing 35 states and 13 countries. Currently the SL Education Directory lists 152 academic institutions (http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/Second_Life_Education_Directory).

IVWs, such as SL, lend themselves to scenario building and role-playing (New Media Consortium & Educause Learning Initiative, 2007). This is evidenced through the many areas in SL where one can be or interact with elves, vampires, or medieval royalty. From the perspective of educators, this is a valuable tool for allowing students try on various identities or roles. An example would be to play the role of a music therapist or a music therapy client. This may especially be beneficial in the early stages of clinical training before implementing sessions in real life. The advantage of doing simulations in a virtual world rather than in the live classroom is that students are not limited by what is available in the physical classroom. Anything can be created in SL, providing a rich palette for the imagination and the potential to create an environment where students can be engaged and learn in ways not possible in other environments (Kelton, 2007). Jarmon, Traphagen, Mayrath, & Trivedi (2009) summarize some of the instructional uses.

Virtual worlds are also purported to have other instructional benefits, such as allowing for creativity within a rich media environment, providing opportunities for social interaction and community creation, facilitating collaboration, increasing a sense of shared presence, dissolving social boundaries, lowering social anxiety, enhancing student motivation and engagement, and accommodating millennial generation learning preferences (p.170).

The SL environment has the potential to support online music therapy education in the following ways:

  • A space to create simulations of music therapy sessions through role-playing and/or the use of “robot” avatars simulating clients
  • Increased exposure to a range of clients with disabilities who utilize SL as social software
  • Exposure to multicultural issues and music of various cultures
  • A platform to practice session planning and receive feedback from peers
  • A more immersive environment to create presence and community for on-line educators
  • A tool for problem based learning and development of clinical reasoning skills through student community discussion of experiences.


In 2007-2008 I implemented a small pilot project to examine the feasibility of utilizing an IVW with music therapy students. The initial interest was to address the question of whether the use of an IVW such as Second Life (SL), as opposed to online text-based interaction, would enhance community and presence in an online classroom. Felt presence in online “classrooms” is a concern of many educators and there has been an increase of relevant research over the last 5 years (Burgess, Slate, Rojas-LeBouef, & LaPrairie, 2010; Doyle, 2010; Savin-Baden, et.al. 2011; Warburton, 2009). The inquiry was further driven by the following problems identified in the literature: student practicum concerns, development of clinical reasoning skills, and barriers in distance education. At that time there was very little research published on technology in music therapy education and no studies on the use of a virtual world in music therapy education. My assumption was that SL could be an effective method to enhance students’ knowledge of new client populations, improve clinical reasoning skills, and provide more sense of community in online education.

Identified Problems

In this section, I will further describe the issues found in the literature that lend support for using SL with MT students.

Student Concerns. Music therapy students have expressed concerns about their general preparedness for working with a new population (Wheeler, 2002). Students are often placed with a new client population each semester, with little or no previous interaction with that culture. Due to lack of time, supervisors, and diverse facilities, it is possible that there is a lack of resources for exposing students to a population before they interact with them. When possible, many courses embed role-playing music therapy scenarios into the classroom. Although this does not solve the problem of actual interaction with a new culture, it may aid in general preparedness. In class, role-playing is limited in its ability to simulate a hospital or a client.

Utilizing SL for music therapy simulations might enhance the method of traditional classroom role-playing. In SL, there are resources available to students that give their avatar a variety of appearances and characteristics typical of certain clinical disorders that may be difficult to portray in real life. One can also visually transform a space in SL to mimic a real life clinic or hospital. Additionally, in SL there are musical instruments and streamed music available for students to use for simulations, providing more resources than most university budgets allow. A common phrase heard when describing SL is that the only limits are those of the users’ imaginations. All content in SL is user generated/ created and growing daily.

SL addresses concerns, such as those that Wheeler’s students identified, particularly fear of new experiences. Exposure to SL, at this time, is a new experience for almost everyone. Each new user experiences the challenges of being a “newbie.” My own experience was initially awkward while learning to navigate this new environment. Navigation would include, among other things, how to find a certain location as well as how to manipulate your avatar to walk, fly, or teleport to that location. Students have an open opportunity to engage in the environment until they feel competent within the space. SL also addresses fear of new experiences through music therapy simulations. Simulations in SL may provide a more immersive environment to practice music therapy scenarios before interacting in real world clinics.

Clinical Reasoning Skills. Successful decision-making is a skill for competency based training that is often not met through traditional teaching methods. Development of clinical reasoning skills is vital to an effective music therapy practice, and often lacking in students (Baker, 2007). Problem Based Learning (PBL), a training technique used in related fields, is one method to enhance clinical reasoning skills. PBL moves away from lecture-based transmission and towards student-generated learning through problem solving (Savin-Baden et al., 2011). Case study scenarios are often used in PBL, and are thought to enhance development of critical reasoning skills and strong decision-making (Williams, 2001). In a mixed methods design Baker (2007) found that using a problem based learning activity enhanced students’ ability to justify clinical decisions, source appropriate literature to support decisions, and enhanced confidence and competence.

Some universities are evaluating the use of virtual patients as replacements for paper-based cases in Problem-Based Learning (Conradi, Poulton, & Round, 2007). Virtual scenarios that imitate real-life music therapy sessions may provide a tool in online classrooms to develop and rehearse clinical reasoning skills.

Distance Education. As technology is integrated into the field of music therapy, more universities are offering courses through distance education and online options (Vega & Keith, 2012). A commonly identified issue with online learning is a lack of shared presence and felt presence (Hege, 2011; Scoresby & Shelton, 2011). Students complain of feeling dis-connected from their co-learners, as well as a lack of engagement from the instructor due to the absence of face-to-face time. Some faculty use social media tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, Skype sessions, or video podcasts (Vodcasts) in an attempt to increase that connected feeling, however in my experience talking to students who have taken online courses, these tools are under-utilized. Distance education is becoming more in demand, but it presents pedagogical conundrums.

In the growing body of literature on education in SL, increased presence is repeatedly identified as a positive outcome (Jarmon, et al., 2009; Savin-Baden, et al., 2011; Scoresby & Shelton, 2011). Warburton (2009) has identified immersion, co-presence, and socialization as parts of the SL experience, all things that can enhance felt-presence in an online classroom. Some of the barriers echo what have been identified in other studies, such as technical skills and time involved. In addition, other barriers are mentioned that are more connected to pedagogy such as: identity and culture in an IVW, and social discovery.

Based on the identified issues in the music therapy literature and my knowledge of the increasing use of IVWs in education, I posed the following research questions:

  1. How feasible is it to use Second Life software to assist in the clinical training of music therapists?
  2. What are the students’ perceived benefits of utilizing Second Life software in the clinical training of music therapists?

Rationale and Theory

Transformative Learning

Transformative Learning was the framework for this project. Transformative Learning draws from a constructivist paradigm of learning, which maintains that students increase their knowledge by actively developing new ideas or building on old ones. The virtual learning environment supports the constructivist paradigm of instruction by facilitating experimental learning that allows students to explore at their own pace (Dede, 1995). Transformative Learning, in particular, stresses that adult learners learn through experience, through relevant content to their life, and benefit by having some controls of the learning process, which are all constructivist tenants (Taylor, 2006).

Transformative Learning emphasizes learning for adults based on Jack Mezirow’s theory, which states that in order for learners to change their attitudes and beliefs, they must engage in critical reflection (Taylor, 2006). According to Mezirow, this leads to perspective transformation. Critical reflection is also a concept that develops clinical reasoning skills and is lacking in music therapy education (Baker, 2007).

In contrast to the rational process in Mezirow’s theory, Boyd and Myers (1988) developed a theory of transformative education based on depth psychology. Boyd’s and Myer's view is that Transformative Learning is a creative, intuitive process. This draws on the learners’ interior experience, expressed rationally (through insights, judgments, and decisions), and extra-rationally (through symbols, images, and feelings). The rational process is still an important component needed for critical thinking, but feelings and emotions can be used as a means for critical reflection. The need to have both propositional knowledge, which is comprised of knowing theories and published literature about a topic, and non-propositional knowledge, which links the theory to practice with concepts of intuition, reflection and problem solving is an important step to developing clinical reasoning skills in student music therapists (Baker, 2007).

Taylor (2006) emphasizes the learner’s active role in transformative education, such as creating the learning environment. If the student is to have a role in constructing the environment, a virtual learning environment such as SL is one platform where that is possible. When using SL, the students need to think critically as they design their avatars and make decisions that involve interacting with other learners.

Taylor (2006) states that while rational discourse and critical reflection are important, so is “fostering group ownership and individual agency, and providing intense shared experiential activities” (p 1). With traditional distance learning, it is challenging to provide intense experiential activities. Even if experiential activities are assigned, the individual, as opposed to the group, carries them out. Through the use of virtual learning environments, such as SL, it is possible to create a feeling of community across distance. A space is provided where students can show up and interact with each other verbally and visually through the assistance of their avatars.

During group projects, the focus is often shifted to task completion, as opposed to reflective dialogue, which is an important component of Transformative Learning (Scribner & Donaldson, 2001). Due to lack of a visual sense of community, reflection can be a challenge to facilitate in more traditional distance learning “classrooms”. Students may hear the instructor and chat with each other, but they seldom see and hear each other. An IVW where students meet provides an opportunity to foster reflective dialogue while working on a project.

Recent advances in technology have allowed facilitators of traditional distance learning to add a visual component through the use of video conferencing and software applications such as Breeze. The advantage that virtual learning environments have over video is the added capability of virtually constructing the classroom, the setting, and any other props, real or fictional, that may enhance the learning experience. In addition, the students, thus adding to their learning process, can create these constructions.

IVWs, such as SL, which draw on constructivist paradigms of learning, may provide an online platform for addressing some of the issues apparent in student training, such as students’ fears of new experiences, development of clinical reasoning skills, and therapeutic relationship through reflection and role-playing.



All music therapy equivalency students enrolled in clinical practicum were asked to join SL for the purpose of role-playing music therapy scenarios and attending group supervision. Four female music therapy equivalency students, the total number of students in the program at that time, participated in this study as part of their practicum experience. None of the students opted not to participate. The study was reviewed, found to meet exempt qualifications and approved by the IUPUI Institutional Review Board. The students did not receive compensation for participating. All students had previous degrees in music and were 23-30 years old. None of the students had previous experience with SL. Prior computer experience varied, but all had some experience with Facebook or MySpace. One student had used gaming software.

Materials for SL Simulations

In order to use the SL software, students needed a computer with a high-speed Internet connection. SL is a free downloadable software from the SL website. Students needed a microphone, if they wanted to use voice in addition to text messaging in SL.

Virtual materials needed to role-play once in SL were readily available in the SL clinic and in students’ inventory folders. Materials available and needed for simulations fell into two categories: items to plan and conduct music therapy interventions, and items that allowed avatars to take on client characteristics. Materials that were available to conduct a music therapy session included: a variety of drums and percussion instruments pre-programmed with sound loops, a piano with ten pre-programmed pieces, a flute that the user controlled to compose music, blank boards for songwriting, and the users’ voices. Materials available to role-play client characteristics are: various avatar poses (sitting, lying down, meditating, etc…), avatar animations (dancing, blowing kisses, whistling, etc…), pre-programmed affects (crying, laughing, fear, etc…), and the ability to change the avatars appearance (hair color, body size and color, and clothing). In addition, students could use their voices and/ or texting to convey thoughts and feelings of the clients.

Below is a picture of the music therapy clinic from the outside and from the inside with the virtual instruments. This is where we met weekly.

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Protocol for SL Simulations

The students were asked to create personal avatars and spend time learning SL before role-playing in the virtual clinic. The students’ initiation into SL began with an online orientation that is provided by SL. Over the course of five weeks, as the virtual clinic was being built, the students met in SL to become familiar with the virtual world. The instructor was present in SL and able to answer any questions as the students were learning to navigate the environment. That group time was also used to check in with students and process experiences from their real life practicum. Group processing was conducted in an isolated environment and confidentiality was addressed prior to sessions. Throughout the semester, students were given resources available in SL that oriented them to various populations (an “island” devoted to education regarding autism, a nightclub for individuals in wheelchairs, a simulation that introduced visual and auditory hallucinations typical of psychosis, and a simulation dedicated to Alzheimer’s and preserving memories). Once students became familiar with SL and the clinic was complete, they started simulations.

Before each weekly SL simulation, the instructor assigned one of the students the therapist role. The other three students then took the role of clients. The student therapist then chose which population they would like to work with and whether an individual or group of clients. The instructor assigned client characteristics, which meant that the student therapist needed to begin her session with an assessment in order to better plan the session to the individual client(s). Sessions were limited to one hour. The music therapy simulations were 30-45 minutes and processing of the simulation was 15-30 minutes. SL simulations continued weekly until each student had the opportunity to role-play therapist and client. Students were not limited in their interventions. They were encouraged to think creatively and utilize all resources a virtual learning environment had to offer. Students were also meeting at a different time in a traditional classroom setting and conducting simulations of music therapy sessions. At the end of the semester, students were interviewed about their experiences.

Data Collection Procedure

Student interviews were conducted in a workroom on campus at a time convenient for the student. The primary phenomenological data generating questions was: “Please tell about your experience using Second Life.” Follow-up probes were asked, such as “tell me more about that.” The instructor conducted the interviews, which lasted between 15 and 30 minutes.


Data Analysis

A qualitative content analysis of the data was employed. As a first step, the instructor gained familiarity with the data as a whole by listening to the digital recordings and transcribing the interviews verbatim. Next, significant statements were identified in the transcribed interviews. Then, the underlying meanings were formulated. Table 1 provides an example of some of the significant statements and formulated meanings. In the next step, the formulated meanings across all participants were used to generate a list of themes. The themes were then used to generate a narrative description of participating in the study.

Table 1.
1-Limitations of SL Software 2-student’s knowledge of software 3- Emotional reaction negative 4 -Emotional reaction positive 5-Effective tool for distance learning
110-Moving avatars was harder than actually moving in classroom, b/c one was limited to gestures available in the software 405-…a movement that you would do in real life, you don't know how to do in SL so you don't do it at the right time. 104-When role-playing the therapist in SL, it was difficult to manage behavioral issues. 103-I was pretty open-minded and positive towards the experience. 120- if we weren't able to do the role-playing in person I think that SL is a good place to start, especially if you do a distance program
304-There's no music in SL, other than what's been preprogrammed unless you have the ability to play through speakers, which wasn't always available. 307-I felt it was pretty standard in my experience to learn. At first it was a little overwhelming but then it got to be pretty standard. 402-There was a tendency to overact in SL to get a point across 408-on the positive side in some ways it was easier to take on a different role, because if you are playing the client, you could quickly change their name or appearance 420-I felt like it was effective. Just for being available to connect and not have to be in one place.
  208-Learning the SL software was easy 425-it was like another culture or something, a different way of relating. I can see there being advantages, but that’s not something that I am naturally drawn to seek out. it's not the natural way for me to gather information. 214-in the classroom you look at them and you’re like these are my classmates and not thinking these are actual patients. I think doing it online was a little easier because they were your classmates but you saw them as somebody else. 311- I think it's useful with the current trend in distance programs. You can exchange experiences without being in the same place

In discussing their experiences in Second Life, common themes among students were limitations of Second Life software, student’s knowledge of software, emotional reactions (both positive and negative), and distance learning. What follows is more detail regarding results relevant to each of the themes.

Limitations of SL Software

Limitation of the technology was a common theme. One student in particular experienced numerous problems with the software, causing her avatar to freeze or disconnecting her from SL. She expressed the most number of negative statements about SL and though she stated herself that it was not her natural style to learn in this way, I think that the number of technological problems she experienced influenced her perception of the process. Her statements were indicative of this:

I had a ton of problems ever since the newer version (of SL) came out. I just could not seem to stay online. It would freeze up on me. Then it just gets frustrating, and then that becomes a barrier to just participating…to me that kind of detracts or keeps me from wanting to pursue the opportunity, because it's like I had this time set aside, but we can’t meet. And then having to set up another time, or taking longer just because… you know that kind of thing is frustrating, and I guess that if it's important to you, you can pursue and get through it, but to me…the cost was more than I wanted to pay for the experience. I was just to the point where it was like I don't want to do this.

None of the other students experienced technological problems to that degree, and most of them felt the technology was easy to learn and user-friendly. There was, however, a theme among the students of software limitations. They were, for instance, all aware that music making in SL was somewhat limited, as were authentic gestures for their avatars. This was something they had to adjust to, and they were creatively finding solutions throughout the semester. An example of one solution was that they began to play music through their microphones at home, using the instruments they had, rather than uploading music files or using the virtual instruments. Using their own instruments allowed them to play anything rather than be limited to what was available in SL. This type of problem solving as a group, through constructing their environment, demonstrated a tenet of Transformative Learning (Taylor, 2006).

Student’s Knowledge of the Software

A student’s degree of knowledge about SL software effected how well an intervention was implemented and thus the level of frustration with the process.

I think the timing was a big issue. There were times when I would think of something to do but couldn't find it and then when I found it, it was too late. So in real life the moment would have been long gone already.
That part (learning to work the avatar) was a little frustrating, but then, once you get past that, you feel pretty independent with SL and then your frustrations are when the people that you are with aren’t independent yet.

One student recommended a mini course be given before simulations were started, instructing new students in how to operate the software effectively, and giving them time to master the software before engaging in simulations.

Positive and Negative Experiences[2]

While each student noted both positive and negative experiences to SL software, the majority of their statements were positive. One of the most common positive responses was that SL was a useful tool for simulating music therapy interventions. Two reasons emerged for this: first, SL was conducive to students taking on characteristics of a client through quickly changing their avatar’s appearance or mannerisms, second, interacting with each other through SL allowed students to suspend reality and see their peers as someone different. Suspension of reality was not as effective in class because they were looking at their peers and it was difficult to imagine them as clients.

Some of the good things for me were that I felt that I was more able to get into the mindset, because I wasn't looking at my classmates right in the face. I could suspend reality and think this person is an actual patient.

Other positive statements were that SL was an interesting and novel way to conduct class as well as an effective way to practice interventions and, particularly for new students, to watch other students practicing. Half of the students mentioned experiencing a sense of community when meeting as a group in SL. Generating a sense of community supports one of the premises of Transformative Learning (Taylor, 2006), and is often difficult to accomplish in an online platform.

Every student mentioned some variation of those ideas; however, half of the students stated that even with those benefits, they preferred to do simulations in class. The reasons listed for a preference of “in class” simulations was that it was more comfortable for them to interact with people face to face. Those students felt similar about phone conversations. They stated that they could see advantages, especially when “in person” meetings were not possible, stating distance learning as an example.

One prominent negative reaction was that behavior management of clients was difficult in SL:

It was also difficult to address behavioral challenges through the computer. Although I didn't personally experience it too much, when I was the therapist, I know that came up for other people, for instance, not having the physical elements to just look at somebody.

This seemed to be connected to the idea of presence. In real life, when working with a group of children with behavioral issues, a therapist might maintain close proximity to certain clients or use eye contact to convey meaning. Real eye contact is not possible in SL, though one avatar can look in another avatar’s direction. Beyond the physical limitations, these students felt it was impossible to convey meaning in the same way that one can in real life. Another issue connected to behavioral issues and presence was the actual set up of the space. Students complained that the space in SL was too open, and therefore difficult to establish limits with clients. One student suggested that for behavior management, individual therapy simulations might be more conducive to SL.

Distance Learning

All students made statements about using SL for distance learning. One of the students commuted from Chicago and perhaps this made the students more aware that SL was enabling us to meet with her more often than had previously been possible. Students are aware that distance learning is becoming more prevalent and felt that a virtual learning environment such as SL would enhance distance learning, stating specifically that they felt a greater sense of community than in chat rooms, that the visual aspect made it more interesting, and that visuals made it easier to learn. Some stated that SL was a good option when class time was not a sufficient length to cover topics.


Results of this inquiry through feedback from the students, supports the premise that SL can be an effective tool for role playing music therapy sessions prior to entering clinical field work, but not without barriers. An increased sense of presence and community, a creative playground for role-playing, and a solution for collaborating across distance were some of the benefits these students experienced in SL. The main barrier that could be addressed in future projects would be technical challenges.

Sample size was the primary limitation in this study. It is difficult to claim support for themes based on four students, but it should be noted that many of the themes identified in this study have been echoed in subsequent studies examining IVWs (Jarmon et al., 2009; Savin-Baden et al, 2011). The amount of time spent in SL is another limitation. Based on the students’ comments pertaining to their knowledge of the software, it is recommended that more time be spent learning the software prior to beginning simulations, and that simulations be continued for a longer period of time. Extended time may have led to greater mastery of the software and the capability to produce more authentic simulations.

Presence in a virtual world is largely dependent on the user’s capability to suspend reality and engage in the fantasy aspect of interacting, communicating, and actually “being” someone other than oneself in “another” world. Immersing in a virtual world requires playing and exploring, which are concepts that embody critical thinking and PBL (Savin-Baden et al, 2011). For certain personality types this may be difficult and would not be those individuals’ preferred method of learning. For the most part, the students in this study were open to the experience, and seemed to enjoy the creativity in this process.

The majority of negative comments related to technology will be improved as the IVW software programs become user-friendlier. Linden Labs releases new versions of SL frequently as they continue to work out problems. In many ways, growing pains of virtual world technology are analogous to those of the Internet when it first emerged as a tool for gathering information and interacting. IVWs are becoming easier to master, and mastered more efficiently by younger generations of students. The designs of avatars and objects in IVWs are also becoming more detailed and realistic in appearance as well as in avatar movements, which adds to possibilities for role-playing.

Role-playing in SL was supporting PBL, through critical thinking of the scenarios themselves and through the process of learning SL and how to navigate the tools and materials in order to convey more realistic music therapy sessions. Through play and exploration, students came up with creative solutions to problems they had not anticipated. One example was a frustration with the limited musical loops on virtual instruments. After visiting and playing numerous virtual instruments in SL, students decided to use their own instruments at home through their microphones. That possibility also brought about the idea of group singing, which had not been possible using SL tools. There was also a parallel process between the students’ frustrations in SL and their clients’ frustrations with limited abilities in real world. Drawing attention to this parallel process brought on a rich conversation around the struggle to overcome barriers.

Given our brief time in SL, the students barely explored the capabilities of an IVW. In some ways face-to-face teaching methods were translated into an IVW. As already stated, this worked well and especially has implications for distance learning, but the advantages of an IVW might better be realized when one does not try to make it function like a traditional classroom. Future explorations into SL could include more of the fantasy aspects available in a virtual world such as, instantly changing the setting to match the mood of the client(s), taking virtual field trips to explore the music of other cultures, or taking on the identity of a person with a disability (through an avatar with a disability) while interacting with other SL users and experiencing the culture and prejudices that sometimes accompany that identity.

In the time that has passed since conducting this research, SL and the use of IVWs in education has not grown at the rates originally predicted when it emerged as a tool. Technology is developing tools so rapidly that the trends change quickly, making it difficult to carry out complete research studies and implement findings before a newer better trend emerges. Based on my pilot research, and given the trends that have emerged post study, I am not convinced that SL is the best medium for enhancing classroom presence in online courses, but there were many positive findings from the students’ perspectives and it is worth continuing to explore IVWs if one is comfortable working in that medium.

Back to the Questions

One reason that music therapy educators are under utilizing the technological capabilities that are available to classroom and clinic may be a lack of knowledge as to what is available, but as technology becomes more integrated in our culture, and easier to master, it may become as commonplace as the Internet. Another possible reason is that educators may not feel the need to change what they perceive as working well, and perhaps online learning has yet to prove itself as an effective tool.

This brings me back to my initial questions:

  1. How can we best integrate technology in music therapy education in a thoughtful and intentional way?
  2. Can presence and community be felt in an online classroom?

The answer to the first question requires some discursive dialogue in our community, and I hope that this article can be a starting place for discussion. The second question is slowly being answered through research in online education. Studies are supporting the premise that presence and community can be felt in an online classroom, however it requires some creative thinking and methods on the educator’s part to support that occurring. I think there is a third question. Can presence and community be felt in an online classroom to the extent that it can be in a face-to-face classroom? I don’t think it can, just like a recording (be it vinyl, CD, or mp3) will not convey the same presence as live music. Yet the resource and accessibility those musical recordings provide, outweigh the argument for not using them.

Six years ago, when I was working on a Master's degree in music therapy, I implemented a pilot study that examined the use of a virtual learning environment to assist in the clinical training of music therapists. During that time, I attended music therapy conferences where few programs were in the early stages of integrating online distance learning. It was not the time to introduce a conversation about avatars and virtual worlds into our training programs. Perhaps there is never a right time to introduce those concepts, but in some ways my position has remained the same. As a classically trained pianist my preference is to play the piano over a keyboard, but there are times when a keyboard is the only resource available. At that point I must decide whether making music with a keyboard outweighs the alternative of having no music at all. My preference is to teach and to learn in a classroom, experiencing the community of learners around me. However, as technology is changing the way education is being delivered, and expanding opportunities to individuals previously without access to programs, I strive to make sure that I am capable of using that technology in a way that best supports the training of reflective, competent music therapists. Technology is changing the way information is delivered and assimilated. As educators, it is important to be aware of these changes and to critically examine when and if there is a way to implement them in a thoughtful and intentional way.


[1] The research presented in this article was a portion of the research study I completed for the Master of Science degree in Music Therapy from Indiana University (IUPUI).

[2] In the original research I labeled this “Emotional Reaction.” Thanks to the reviewer for pointing out what that might imply and that this label is more apt.


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