Category Archives: Second Life

pedagogical and technical issues involving the virtual world of Second Life

Melissa Koenig

Will Pre-Teens Still Love Virtual Worlds When They’re Old Enough to Drive?

A recent article in the New York Times (see Web Playgrounds of the Very Young) led me to think about whether educators are simply ahead of the curve in the use of virtual environments for educational purposes. While Second Life and other virtual environments for adults have fallen short of anticipated use expectations, those for children have enjoyed unprecedented growth. The success of sites like Club Penguin and Webkinz begs the question that perhaps the generation of students now in elementary and middle school will be open to and expect their educational experiences to exist in virtual worlds. Then again, these students are currently not using virtual worlds for collaborative learning experiences. Instead, these sites exist as a social outlet for children who are often unable to freely travel to visit their friends in person. Will the fascination with virtual environments wane as these same students grow into their late teen years and are able to more freely socialize with their peers? I think this question has yet to be answered.

If our experiments with virtual worlds are teaching us anything, it is perhaps that our course management systems will need to change from the largely asynchronous environments that currently exist to “virtual classrooms” that more closely mirror the face-to-face environment. Such environments would allow for more natural social engagement, easier collaborative learning opportunities, and a better sense of community. In order to make these “virtual classrooms” a reality, educators should begin planning now in order to meet the needs of the generation of students who will be attending college in five to seven years.

Dee Schmidgall

Too Cool for School Revisited: Second Life in Higher Ed

Everything which is technique is necessarily used as soon as it is available without distinction of good or evil. This is the principal law of our age.” —Jacques Ellul, 1954

I just returned from Orlando, where I attended the Sloan-C International Conference on Online Learning, and can’t stop thinking about Ellul’s views on technology. While I can’t claim to be an expert on his seminal work The Technological Society, my take on him is that he believed the advancement and implementation of technology as inevitable, but that we can choose how we respond and adapt. In essence, tech is here, tech is staying, more tech is coming. What shall we do about it?

Ellul came to mind as I thought about the heated arguments against Second Life I heard at Sloan. Some people are angry—really angry—about the idea of Second Life in education. I found myself wondering what it is about Second Life that’s so threatening. Is it the learning curve? The time and money it takes to develop a viable presence in-world? Or maybe it’s the fear of losing an old and trusted way of teaching in the headlong rush to embrace the new and unproven. No matter. That Second Life and the technology it represents and exploits will be widely implemented in education despite our fears is given. How thoughtfully we’ll use this technology and to what ends are the things we should be researching and debating, not casting stones about in an attempt to forestall the inevitable.

I think I understand the objections some educators have to Second Life. It’s often difficult to point to a sound pedagogical reason for having a Second Life campus. It’s expensive to purchase, develop and maintain an island. It’s still relatively clumsy to navigate and interact in-world. It’s still more a novelty and a pleasant diversion than a proven learning tool. And just how do you justify the expenditure of resources for a virtual campus when your physical campus has its very real needs? Are we going to build virtual campuses just because students think Second Life is cool?

Well, yes. That’s exactly why we will. We will build institutions in Second Life because online learning students in the near future will demand it. They’ll insist on access to it for social connections and interaction and a palpable sense of user presence that smashes the psychological walls of distance; a presence, connection and interaction unmatched by cost per user or ease of use by any other technology currently available. We’ll build them to market our institutions, to strengthen our brands, to compete for students and prestige. We’ll build them for many of the same reasons we fund and field sports teams and build student unions and fitness centers for our on-campus students; because it adds to the social experience of higher education and because that experience has value in and of itself.

And we’ll build them because we must be prepared for the inevitable. The technology that Second Life exploits will become cheaper, more stable, easier to use and impossible to ignore. I’d bet that we’ll see some kind of 3D virtual environment incorporated into Blackboard et al within 5 years. Will we make creative use of its potential? Will we maximize its benefits and mitigate its drawbacks? If we use Second Life and its descendants merely to deliver the same old course content and methodologies, we’ll fail our students and ourselves. We need to think now about how we’ll use this technology, how we’ll exploit its strengths, and how we’ll create new learning methodologies and possibilities for experiences and connections. Second Life is here. The rise of the virtual campus is inevitable. Will we be ready?

Dee Schmidgall

Too Cool for School? Second Life in Higher Ed

Depending on where you stand, education is poised to be elevated into the sublime heights of effortless and ubiquitous real-time virtual interaction and connectivity, or about to be overrun by leering mountebanks as tech-bewitched apostates unbar and swing wide the sacred doors of academia.

At least that’s my take on the current discourse regarding Second Life. I attended the University of Wisconsin’s Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning in early August, then the Second Life Community Convention in Chicago August 24-26, and was struck by the divide between those for whom Second Life is just too cool, and those who are left just a bit cold.

The debate seems unnecessarily polarized. At Madison I heard a lot of fear and loathing from some distance educators. Fear that students would fall prey to sexual predators, either by wandering outside of the purportedly safe confines of a virtual classroom or campus, or by the penetration of those defenses by a rogue’s gallery of grifters and charlatans. Fear of embarrassment as naked or hyper-sexualized avatars appear in class. And ultimately, I think, fear of the loss of control, fear of the learning curve to master the technology, and fear of the concomitant workload. For them Second Life is a cold, soulless world far removed from the warm embrace of the classroom and face to face interaction.

The true believers I met and listened to at SLCC have no such qualms. For them SL is super-cool; a democratic and easily accessible new world where anything can and should be visualized and experienced. A world where learners can experiment with identity and experience situations and encounters that would be cost or risk prohibitive elsewhere. Where participants can collaborate and connect more intimately in virtual space than would be permissible or possible otherwise. And a world where the shackles of identity are loosed, role playing becomes an unlimited learning tool, and learning becomes intuitive and fully collaborative, unsullied by the constraints of gender, age, or class.

Just too cool!

I stand somewhere in the middle of this debate. I agree SL is cool, at least the promise of it. Once you get the hang of navigating in-world, which is not intuitive unless you’re a gamer, there’s a real sense of presence that I don’t experience in asynchronous discussions, chat, or instant-messaging. When I encounter another avatar I experience the same type of social awareness I would in the real world: I’m conscious of proximity, gaze, posture, and the like. Whether this has any purely educational value is certainly up for debate, but if your goal is to increase the sense of connectedness shared by your distance learners you’d be hard pressed to find a more effective tool.

As for collaborative possibilities, one SLCC presenter talked about the virtual fashion design class she created and taught. Fashion students working with peers in art and computer science designed and produced fashions using Photoshop and Second Life, dressed and posed avatars, planned and produced a virtual fashion show, and created portfolio animations of their work. Using the 3D virtual capabilities of Second Life they were able to conceptualize and experience much of the actual work of designing, producing, and presenting fashion collaboratively in a way that would have been impossible given the school’s budget and location. And the instructor stressed that while the class was a collaborative effort, she remained in control of the direction and pace of the workflow.

So yes, it’s cool.

But it’s not the panacea or paradigm shifting agent its disciples declare either. First, it’s not an easy technology to master or fully exploit, especially if you expect to do more than roam around. Plan on devoting six intensive months or more to creating a functioning virtual campus. And that’s with a team of scripters and 3D artists at your disposal. Second, it should be no surprise there’s no shortage of skillful, antisocial nut-jobs that call Second Life home. While I think some of my fellows at the Madison conference were a bit too timid, they raised some valid concerns. Griefers abound in SL, and while you may raise defenses a skilled and determined hacker will find a way around, over or through them. Imagine your class on human sexuality disrupted by pro-life avatars wielding virtual fetuses and you get an idea of the kind of mischief that can occur in-world. And I’m sure lawyers will be kept busy for years to come defining the liability of institutions when their students experience emotional or financial trauma in a course-required Second Life session. Then there are the seemingly regularly scheduled system failures to the SL grid, which Linden Labs owned up to at SLCC with grace and good humor. Finally, while immersive virtual reality is a powerful tool for teaching molecular structure or visiting reproductions of ancient Greece, does anyone seriously think an English lit course is going to benefit by having virtual students sit in a virtual classroom listening to lectures by a virtual instructor? Aside from the novelty of seeing your professor holding court as 7-foot Seductra Maxima in stiletto heels and a rubber mini it’s hard to see any value added.

And I think determining value is what the debate really centers on. There are great ways to exploit SL, and some real problems with the technology as well. I’d be remiss to not mention the digital divide debate that attends SL as an educational tool. There are hardware and broadband requirements that currently preclude a lot of otherwise connected distance learners from participating in Second Life. Those issues will have to be addressed, as well as Linden Lab’s difficulties supplying a robust and dependable platform. But I do think we’re going to see some great things in Second Life or its successors as the bugs get worked out and more content is developed. Personally, I’d like to walk around first-century Pompeii and see if I can outrun Vesuvius’ pyroclastic flow. I’m not sure there’s a lot of real educational value in being able to.

But it’d be cool.