Second Life: Do You Need One? (Part 4)

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In this final installment of our four-part series on Second Life, Amareal Jewell continues her conversation with Virtual Bacon, an experienced Second Lifer who is the owner and creator of imagiLEARNING island and who works to introduce traditional educators and businesspeople to SL. Here he explains the top-seven hurdles faced by traditional educators as they attempt to grasp some decidedly non-traditional concepts in virtual learning. He also discusses other, general issues with Second Life in education and entertainment.

For those who are just coming into this series, you can find the first three parts archived at the links below.

Amareal Jewell: What do you think will be the future of using virtual worlds in education when one considers all learners, including those with certain disabilities? 

Virtual Bacon: I personally believe that virtual world [technology] is the replacement for traditional Web-based delivery and traditional Web-based education.  As the technology continues to improve, disability issues will be reduced.  At the International Game Developers Conference this year I sat in a chair with a small device attached to my head and controlled the characters in a game through my brain waves--no physical control whatsoever.  This technology will become integral to virtual worlds.  Technology also exists for visual implants to bypass damaged optic tissue and send visual data directly to the brain.  That will also become a part of the common technology.  As we have already seen with many psychological "disabilities," virtual world technologies will provide opportunities for a "level playing field" simply not possible in the real world.

One issue that must be addressed is the current trend of educators who believe we have to once again set standards for practices in the virtual world.  This is demonstrated by a group of people who are in a wheel chair in the real world and are insisting that all virtual world environments must be wheel chair accessible.  When other chair people state that they enjoy the fantasy of being able to walk and even fly in Second Life, the others state that they believe they are not being "true to themselves" by getting out of the chair even in the virtual world.  While I understand both arguments, I resist any effort to "require" that Second Life be bound by the physical parameters of the real world in any way.   

AJ: What are your favorite places in SL?

VB: Not to sound too self-serving, but my favorite places in SL are my islands.  They are the home of my creativity, my network of friends who hang out at the Infamous North Beach Tiki Bar, and the focus of my intellectual challenge of reframing education.

Other than my space, I prefer areas that engage my mind and imagination.  I find myself drawn back to such places as the recreation of historical Dodge City, where I can put on my western duds, ride a horse around town, and watch the gun fighters do their thing in an environment designed to reflect the appearance and behaviors of the time.  I constantly search for areas in which people are creating new gadgets and finding new applications that may have potential for teaching and learning.

More than places, I usually seek people.  I am intrigued by the network that I am creating in the virtual world.  I have regular conversation with intelligent and creative people from Switzerland, Australia, Japan, Korea, Germany,... Chicago, Portland, Orlando,... and a lady from a farm in the back-wilderness of Northern Canada: You name it.  And while a level of anonymity does exist, real relationships are created, based upon the conversations, the collaboration on projects, the "real" things aside from gender, nationality, or real-world culture.

AJ: Do you use SL for entertainment or business as well? 

VB: Yes on both counts.  One of my computers is logged into SL through most of the day and evening.  While I do my real world work, I frequently engage in conversation with friends in SL, just as I have done for years using a telephone.  Only the tool has changed.  We often gather in late afternoons at the North Beach Tiki Bar for conversation, surfing, dancing, as we might at a local bar, if we were in the same real-world city.  Only here it is a group from 11 nations, some joining in the afternoon, some in the morning and some in the wee hours.  One of my islands is the home for the international surfing championships [that were held June 30, 2007]. 

I hold real-world meetings in Second Life, both for my primary job and for consulting I do with others in Second Life.  I regularly have "official" meetings with students, for advising or for programmatic issues.  I have used Second Life to engage students in projects for their portfolios and have introduced students to potential employers inworld as well.  Interactions with members of my dissertation committee take place in Second Life.

As I mentioned above, the line between work/play/games has blended for me.  The lines are no longer distinct, nor are the tools I use for each.  This remains perhaps the greatest challenge for me and for most of us in SL now.  What non-digital individuals view as a secondary and even superfluous activity has actually become a fully integrated part of my lifestyle.

AJ: I believe many educators would just give up on SL, if they experienced the frustrations getting started, as I did. What tips do you have for traditional educators?

VB: The following are seven key issues I have noticed when traditional educators are immersed into the experience of virtual world technologies.  I believe these seven items lay the ground work for much of the frustration, fear, and general "lostness" described by those traditional educators.  Interestingly, I have never heard a digital learner ever say they felt "lost" in SL.

1. The Wilderness v. at Home
The most common experience of traditional educators when entering the virtual world is frustration, as they watch others go actively wandering the environment while they stand still, trying to figure out how to even move.  The controls of SL are those of most immersive digital games and, therefore, familiar to gamers but fully foreign to non-gamers.  This difficulty in basic movement increases the perception that the traditional educator is out of their element and in for some serious trouble.

Add to the technical challenge the fact that you are most likely standing there staring at a giant, pink, and fuzzy, fire-breathing and winged creature, and the feeling of "Huh?" increases.  Traditional visitors have entered a world technically and socially different from the one they familiar with, and only a sense of curiosity and humor can help them survive.
 
2. Expert v. Self Learner
Once a traditional visitor learns how to use the chat feature, the first phrase spoken there is "How do I?..."  Traditional educators immediately seek an expert mentor, someone who can point the way and explain things.  The digital learner has already run off down the hill to see what is on the other side, running into trees, rocks, rivers, other people--anything in their way.  While one visitor seeks direction, the other simply creates it.  The game player has practiced that behavior in similar environments for years.

This issue is also seen in the overall social activity of the environment.  Expertise is defined inworld very differently than outside.  Rather than gained by years of service, academic degree, or position held, inworld expertise is defined by performance and knowledge of the environment.  Since non-gamer visitors are low on both parts, they frequently experience the absence of "earned" respect and authority and are sent into a state of shock the first time one of "those kids" refer to them as "dude," or a "noob."
 
3. Purpose v. Experience
Once the requisite skills are somewhat learned, the very next question from traditional visitors to the virtual world is: "So, what do I do now?"  As before, rather than ask such a question, the digital learner has already found themselves a set of bright blue wings, and has turned their avatar into either a furry animal or a well-armed warrior, usually in control of a fast-moving spaceship of some kind.

Traditional educators want to understand "purpose" even before entering the environment.  This could be considered fair, as a result of already busy schedules and real-world commitments.  However, the digital culture bursting its way into their traditional classrooms is more interested in discovering purpose rather than having it predefined for them.
 
4. Process/Structure v. Outcome

Similar to Purpose v. Experience, traditional educators seek a structure to their inworld activities, while digital learners self define a process to reach the outcome they have decided upon.  While traditional educators ask for a syllabus or outline or at least a list of steps they should follow to become integrated into the environment, digital learners may ask: "How can I build a sword so I can?..."  Again, digital gamers are familiar with self-investigation to determine what is needed to "win the mission" and seek only resources and support.
 
5. Topic-Based Social Network v. Outcomes-Based Social Network
Both traditional and digital visitors typically create or join a social network.  Traditional educators typically connect with groups that have topical connection with their real-world roles and interests.  Traditional P-12 teachers connect with P-12 teachers, librarians with librarians, and professors with professors.  Digital learners typically form social networks based upon "who can help me create this sword?" or other outcomes-based issues.  Digital learners then typically end up in extremely diverse networks, further expanding their cultural experience in the digital world.  Digital learners are also constantly faced with challenges to their established real world social norms and ask some very tough questions about those real world dividers.  Many traditional visitors remain in those topic-centered social groups, which typically consist of people of common interest and backgrounds, providing them less immersion into the diversity of the digital environment.
 
6. Re-Create v. Create
Most traditional educator-visitors soon ask how they can find the space inworld to create a "classroom."  The result is typically a walled building, with ceilings, desks and chairs, and a lectern at the front next to a PowerPoint screen.  Digital visitors may also request space for a "classroom," but it is more likely to end up being a platform floating in the sky, with clouds instead of chairs, and digital media streamed onto the side of a giant bubble floating in the middle of the space.  Other digital educators stay away from formal classrooms and meet their students on a beach, in a cave, in a tree, or inside a giant squid, all depending upon the mood or content of the day.

While appearing to be more cute than anything, this point represents a key distinction between the traditional and digital person.  While the traditional educator approaches the virtual world to learn how it can be used in education, the digital educator approaches the environment asking how this experience can change the entire practice of teaching and learning.  One seeks to perhaps adapt their current practices to fit a new environment, while the other looks to completely transform what they do based upon the opportunity provided in the virtual world.
 
7. Shoulds v. Cans
In keeping with a preference for purpose and structure, traditional educators are prone to speak of many "shoulds" and "should nots" in the virtual environment. Classrooms should have walls and ceilings to avoid distractions and keep out the unwanted visitor, or classrooms should not have walls and ceilings to spark creativity.  Environments should be wheel-chair accessible to honor the wishes of those remaining in chairs, or environments should not have to be accessible because this is a "virtual" environment.  Educators should have a certification process to teach in SL, or educators should not have to have certification.  There are hundreds of such debates taking place every day in the listservs and discussion forums.  Digital visitors are just busy creating, trying, failing, and trying again to find out the actual potentials available with the new reality of virtual world technology.

While there are always exceptions to every rule, and there is a certain amount of generalization involved in any such list of issues, these particular issues come from two years of interactivity with more than 3,000 traditional educators entering the virtual environment of Second Life.  I believe these key differences represent the different mindsets that are revealed each day in classroom conflicts over cell phone use, laptop use, class attendance, participation in traditional discussion, and hundreds of similar issues.
 
This is the primary reason I believe Second Life offers such value to education in the 21st Century.  By becoming immersed in this digital environment, traditional educators may gain some meaningful understanding of not just the new culture, but of their digital learners themselves.  The result may be a reduction in the beliefs that game-based learners are somehow lesser learners, and that their digital culture actually brings profoundly meaningful new tools into a meaningful new learning space.
 
Just think of all the money we'll save by not buying that fancy paint for the classroom walls that blocks cell phone signals from coming into the classroom.  Yes, there, my dear reader, is the digital divide.
  
There you go ... a lot of work yet to do, but it sure is fun!
 
AJ: What a case for Second Life and learning in a virtual world. Thank you, Virtual Bacon. This is Amareal Jewell signing off ... for now.

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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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