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Second Life: Do You Need One? (Part 2)

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Second Life is a 3D digital world, imagined, created, and owned by its residents, which number more than 7 million from over 100 countries at the time of this writing. It has generated excitement for entertainment, business, and education. And the number of colleges and universities, libraries, museums, and organizations exploring its possibilities is growing. In part 1 of this three-part series, I introduced some resources to help you learn about SL, join, and get the basics about navigation and communication. I also alerted you to some frustrations that you might experience getting your feet wet. Hmm ... did it happen to you when you stopped flying?

With such a steep learning curve, why would anyone in education want to use SL when you consider the variability among all learners? SimTeach indicates that SL has potential to increase student engagement, allow rapid prototyping of objects, give students exposure to public relations and marketing, and to provide a setting for experiential learning. SL can be used to replace 'place-based schooling with place-like settings." I can appreciate those possibilities, but at this point, learning in a virtual world, whether it is SL or another, would not be for everyone.

Where's the Learning?
Virtual Bacon, (aka, John Jamison), is the creator and owner of the SL island of imagiLEARNING. Thanks to a colleague, I've been able to contact him personally for an experienced SL resident viewpoint. His professional development module, Digital Immersion for Educators, will help traditional, non-digital educators begin to understand this new environment and overcome any skepticism they might have. You can also read the module without entering SL. I visited his island (Figure 1), hopped in a boat for a guided tour to learn of the educational potential of SL, walked in town, and then flew around, eventually landing in "The Sandbox." There I experimented with building objects, changing their color, size, position, texture, which are the same principles used in building anything in SL. Of course, I right-clicked on my mouse to reveal a pie menu to sit down in the sand and admire my creations, primitive though they were.

Fig. 1


Interactions in SL can occur in various combinations of people and/or objects. Dave Antonacci, Nellie Modaress, and Stephanie Gerald of the University of Kansas illustrated those in their presentation, Second Life: The Educational Possibilities of a Massively Multiplayer Virtual World (June 5, 2007), which was hosted by Elluminate Live. Their SL Medical Center is used for role playing (person-person), allowing students to see patient encounters from the perspectives of the doctor, nurse, patient, or patient spouse. They demonstrated how students in an urban planning class might build a park on donated land and then have its builder sit on a park bench (person-object). Imagine this for any subject area where creativity is involved, such as architecture, interior and fashion design, and engineering. They demonstrated satellite orbiting (object-object) to illustrate how SL might be used in the simulation of procedural and physical processes.

I found the Campus: Second Life program to also be a good central location to learn about education in SL (Figure 2).

Fig. 2

Educational institutions and non-profit organizations can buy private islands to set up secure intranets for only their students and faculty, or opt to make accessible spaces for all SL residents. University projects underway deal with such topics as artificial intelligence, linguistics, product design, web publishing, motion arts, creative and technical writing, life in the universe, contemporary performance, business studies, and more. There are special interest groups, such as "Real Life Education in Second Life," and you can get on a mailing list to be notified of education opportunities and events in SL. The Second Life Library on Info Island is another good place (Figure 3).

Fig. 3

Inside, you might see Yoda Bartender (like the character of the Star Wars series), who'll give you a notecard on good books (Figure 4).

Fig. 4

Various blogs explore the educational possibilities of SL and offer resources to make the learning curve shorter, such as MUVE Forward, The Story of My Second Life by Kevin Jarrett of Walden University, and Puritan's Guide to Second Life by Dembe Wellman. Linden Lab also has its SL blog.

There are learning opportunities for teens. For example, teens in New York (NY) and Amsterdam, Netherlands, participated in Kids Connect, a series of workshops from ZoomLab that teaches students both theatrical and digital methods. They met and collaborated in Teen SL during a 2006 pilot to build a hybrid virtual city combining aspects of both cities. Within that common space, they created a performance that occurred both live and online simultaneously.

SL hosted the first ever 24 hour, international conference that took place totally in a virtual world. On May 25, 2007, 1300 educators from around the world participated in the Second Life Best Practices in Education: Teaching, Learning, and Research 2007 International Conference.

Concerns
SL appears to being hyped in the media as the next thing to come along to revolutionize education. I was amazed by the 3D graphics, the technical capabilities being developed, and the number of education institutions and businesses that are supporting and testing its potential. But, I really wonder about the extent and future of this type of virtual world for education. Certainly, alternatives would need to be provided for learners with certain special needs, such as those who rely on screen readers. I keep thinking of the ramifications of Section 508 and the Americans with Disabilities Act as schools establish their presence in virtual spaces. My chief concern is that SL is another technology that widens the digital divide between many current educators and the millennial generation, and we need to find a way to narrow that. Others have also voiced serious economic, pedagogical, legal, and societal concerns.

Principally, I agree with D'Arcy Norman (2007) that Linden Lab is in a business to make money, and to do the really serious work in SL requires real money, and you must follow their rules. Alan Groveman (2007) of Berkeley College echoes the financial concern for colleges, which might spend several thousands of dollars just to establish a presence in SL. A cost/benefit analysis might reveal that the money would be better spent elsewhere, such as on enhancing the teaching skills of faculty. While there is truth to Groveman's view, there is also the alternative perspective that without money spent for experimentation, the technology and pedagogy will not ever mature to make learning in virtual spaces a viable option.

While Groveman (2007) does see the potential of SL for positive learning experiences, he wonders if learners might lose sight of what is to be learned as they become enchanted by the delivery method. It is easy to get caught up in distractions in SL. Of great significance is the need for research to determine if "the knowledge constructed and integrated in a virtual world [can] be effectively translated and implemented in the real world" (para. 2). Because of a college's "in loco parentis role" (para. 5), he wonders about possible legal ramifications, if their students engage in inappropriate behaviors while using SL. SL does have an abuse reporting system and disciplinary actions for violations of community standards, including warnings and suspensions, which are made public within SL Police Blotter.

There are many virtual worlds online; however, those catering exclusively to education appear to be needed. Aaron Walsh agrees that we need spaces that do not have some of the adults-only content found in the current SL. To that end he has a software project called Immersive Education set to involve 250 colleges and SL software, which is now open source (A Virtual World for Education, 2007). He has a concern about "immersive illness," a term he links to the addictive nature of virtual worlds. While it is not yet a major problem, "Nobody knows exactly what impact insanely realistic, media-rich virtual reality will have on society. We're already dealing with early forms of immersive illness, such as addiction, alienation, mental schisms, and more". Walsh predicts "we're in for a very rough ride" (Lamont, 2007, sec: What have been some of the challenges).

Conclusion
Virtual Bacon (Jamison, 2006) provided an interesting commentary about how one might look at SL. In essence, he says to imagine a couple of hundred years ago that you were among those citizens in an English village who wondered what it would be like to set out across the sea and establish a settlement in the New World. They were the risk-takers, the explorers, the ones called foolish and accused of wasting everyone's time and resources with their fantasies. But, they crossed the sea, settled, and continued exploring Westward to create our great nation. Then, take that same thought process and transfer it to the rise of technology use in education. Consider educators' skepticism when the Internet became a viable option for learning in the mid '90s, when online course management systems, like Blackboard, were introduced a couple of years after that, and when interest was peaked for the potential of digital game-based learning--we heard don't waste our time and resources. But, the techies persisted, and some educators became converts. Now there's Second Life. I agree that "[t]oday's digital learners are demanding new approaches to learning," as he states, so it stands to reason that a 3D-virtual world might hold a potential to be useful for learning.

Do you need a second life? I hope I've given you sufficient resources to start your own exploring. As my journey revealed, one can spend far too much time in the current SL at the expense of other things that must be done in your real life. But, I'll check back now and then to see new developments. I'm getting hooked on those educational possibilities. Come back for part 3. Amareal learned a lot more from interviewing Virtual Bacon.

Resources:

References:
A virtual world for education. (2007, Jun. 5). Available at The Chronicle of Higher Education: Wired Campus

Groveman, A. (2007, Mar. 26). Concerns about virtual reality and the Second Life phenomenon. Available at EducauseConnect

Jamison, J. (2006, Dec. 7). A remembered resistance. ImagiLearning Blog-Newsletter

Lamont, I. (2007, May 24). Virtual reality and higher education: Another perspective. Available at Terra Nova

Norman, D. (2007, Jan. 25). Second Life concerns

Why Second Life? Available at SimTeach

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About the author: Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education, and is currently an adjunct faculty member in the graduate School of Education at Capella University and an education consultant. She is also the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at http://www.ct4me.net.

Proposals for articles, news tips, ideas for topics, and questions and comments about this publication should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education from Nova Southeastern University and is currently an education consultant and the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at http://www.ct4me.net. She has been involved with online learning and teaching since 1997.

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