Second Life: Do You Need One? (Part 3)

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Second Life (SL) is a massive 3D virtual world that a growing number of colleges and universities is exploring for its educational possibilities. In the first two parts of this series, I introduced some resources to help you learn about SL, join, and get the basics about navigation and communication. I alerted you to some frustrations that you might experience getting your feet wet. I discussed learning opportunities, mentioned some ongoing initiatives, and raised some concerns for using virtual worlds in education. My discussion has been based on the "newbie" perspective through the adventures of Amareal Jewell, the inworld avatar that I created when I joined SL.

No discussion would be complete without hearing the perspective of at least one experienced Second Lifer. That person is Virtual Bacon (aka, John Jamison), whom I've introduced as the creator and owner of imagiLEARNING island in SL. Jamison describes himself as "just an old hippy in a new, digital poncho" in his ongoing work introducing traditional educators and business folks to SL. He actually owns three full island sims inworld, and in his real life he is responsible for the island that is the home of the Game and Simulation Programming Bachelors Degree at DeVry University, which he directs. I've learned so much more from the series of questions I posed to him for this part 3.

Amareal Jewell: Why did you get involved with Second Life?

Virtual Bacon: I read of Second Life in a brief about three years ago and tried it "just to see."  I was immediately struck by the potential for immersive learning activities and the opportunity to create a new approach to learning that is more appropriate to digital learners who have grown up playing in these virtual environments.  It became a professional addiction in about 11 seconds.

AJ: How did you actually create imagiLEARNING island?

VB: I had three goals from the beginning. First was to create a safe environment for "newbies" to come into SL and become familiar with the technology and environment.  The second goal was to create a place that held examples of the wide range of activities and potentials that the virtual world provides.  Thus the mix of games, surfing, skydiving, lecture halls, sharks, theaters ... the works.  Third was to create a place that I could have some fun and be creative in my approach to changing teaching and learning.  I learn best when I am having fun. Thus the water, waves, and my new baby-blue whale swimming gracefully on one of my islands. All three islands change as my learning changes.  They are "living experiences" designed to introduce a new culture to those on the outside.

AJ: How does SL enhance what you do as an educator?

VB: The very experience of Second Life has inspired me to think more creatively about the future of education and keeps my energy level high even when faced by the traditionalists I deal with every day in my real-world job.  It has reconfirmed my personal mission statement to "create the future of learning." Also, it has been the spark and focus of my dissertation, pushing my personal growth and learning.

Being active in Second Life puts me into the environment and culture of my digital learners.  I regularly interact with my students on our DeVry island, helping them with projects they have initiated, talking about program issues, career plans, and dreams.  The Second Life environment is "their" turf, and it allows me to have a relationship with them that hasn't been possible in "my" environment of traditional offices and classrooms.

On the downside, being a vocal advocate of Second Life and similar new technologies has led to some strained relationships with some colleagues and educational leaders.  The shift taking place with these learning modalities calls for some mental exercise that many I work with are not wanting to engage in.  They have worked very hard to create the position they are in and the academic structure that supports it, and the thought of somehow changing that structure and their roles is just not favored by them.  But this is not a new experience.  I faced the same situation during my years of working with Learning College and the Learning Centered approach.  Change is tough.

AJ: What are the strengths you perceive with using SL as an educational tool?  Weaknesses?   

VB: Strengths:

  • The potential for personal creativity;
  • Intrinsic motivation of learners (and instructors);
  • The ability to visualize difficult concepts;
  • The 24/7 access with people from all corners of the globe and all fields ... a leveling of access to expertise and an actual redefining of "expertise."  I see students being viewed as the experts in this environment, with smart instructors becoming the learner and reaching out to their students.  Wow!
  • The ability to create real-world models and practices to test skills and abilities;
  • The potential of SL as a meaningful portfolio tool for academics;
  • The ability of Second Life to introduce traditional educators (traditional anyone) to a culture they do not understand and are terrified of.

Weaknesses:

  • The high technology requirements for access: hardware and bandwidth;
  • The lack of a clear "learning process" for new residents, especially those unfamiliar to the digital environment;
  • The typical "independent" nature of educators: little sharing of real learning and the tendency to keep the best ideas to yourself in the hope that they will turn into something worth money (egos);
  • The current trend of educators wanting to "standardize" everything and create "certification" for educators in Second Life.  While I understand the desire for such, it brings the traditional practices of academics into an environment which calls for a full transformation of all practices.  Any such standards or certification will put limits upon the real potential of this environment.  We just have to relax, trust, and learn.

AJ: What technical, economic, pedagogical, legal, and societal concerns do you have for using SL or any virtual world as an educational tool? 

VB: The frequent technical "hiccups" are, in my opinion, the No. 1 limitation of SL at this point.  And with the natural skepticism of most traditional educators to this technology, these recurring "burps" make it all the harder for many of them to take SL seriously.  With the tight calendars and budgets of all educators, there is a real hesitance to invest significantly of either time or money when we experience times that we cannot even access our "stuff."

I believe those technical issues are common to any major shift in practice such as the one virtual world technology brings upon us.  A machine that is appropriate today isn't tomorrow.  Each upgrade of the software weakens the performance of the hardware.  This is the same experience we had in the early days of the traditional Internet.  It is just the reality of the change we are experiencing.  Unfortunately, it creates an experience in which only those capable of keeping up with the technology changes can continue to participate.  Fortunately, the process leads to something much bigger than our current technology or mindsets can handle at this point.

Economically, my greatest concern is the potential for a "crackdown" by the powers and practices of the real world.  While I agree that any illegal activities must be addressed immediately, the discussions of taxation and other controls are a concern.  As mentioned above, if we impose our traditional practices upon this environment too quickly, simply because we "think" something might be going on here, it will limit the potential of the environment for real change.

Socially, we have a lot of work to do to understand the real impact of the real/virtual experience.  It is true that many people are facing profound disruption of their [real world] lives due to experiences in the virtual environment.  Unfortunately, I now see there is a movement to declare a new category in DSM-IV to cover an "addiction" to digital games and virtual worlds.  While I am sure there are unhealthy experiences taking place, the reaction is more of one to "define" and "control" a new cultural experience, rather than to explore and understand it. [Note: DSM-IV, "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," is the official manual for all things abnormal in the psych world....]

Second Life suffers from the cultural brand of being seen as a "game." This is the true definition of a digital divide in the 21st century.  One part of our culture grew up with games as something secondary, something that is appropriate to engage in after the real work is done ... maybe.  Another part of our culture has grown up using games to learn their ABCs, math skills, as simulated experiences to learn high-level skills, as a primary means of communication, and as an acceptable and meaningful element of their daily lives.  While the non-game group still controls the "politic" of the day, the game-based group is destined to outlive them.  The division will become bloodier before it improves.

The fourth and final installment in this series continues next week with more from Virtual Bacon, including a look at the top-seven isues for educators gettig involved with Second Life.

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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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