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.