Second Life | Feature

The End of the Virtual World

Teachers are looking for alternatives as Linden Lab prepares to close down the Teen Grid--a region of the immersive virtual world Second Life designed just for teenagers and their education institutions. Where will all those teen avatars wind up? And is there an upside for those who've spent years developing educational resources on the proprietary platform?

"It's like somebody died." That's how at Rik Panganiban described the K-12 education community's reaction to the closing of Teen Grid at a recent inworld meeting between educators and other members of Nonprofit Commons in Second Life. "It's a horrible tragedy that I wish could be avoided."

Panganiban is assistant director of the Online Leadership Program for Global Kids, which for four years has relied on the Teen Grid to educate urban youth from around the world about such topics as racism, the genocide in Darfur, child trafficking, public diplomacy, and the digital divide, in collaboration with UNICEF, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Youth Ventures, and more.

The (surprise-to-most) announcement of Teen Grid's demise was made Aug. 14 by Linden Labs CEO himself, Philip Rosedale, while addressing approximately 300 SL users, including educators, at the morning plenary session at the sixth-annual Second Life Community Convention in Boston. Most of Rosedale's speech focused on plans for improving the technology of experience of being in, and moving around, the 3D virtual world. It was toward the end of the formal part of his presentation that he said: "Probably the most contentious thing, but it's important to have it out, is the Teen Grid."

And thusly was lowered the boom.

Now that the shock is beginning to fade, however, some are beginning to think it's not the end of the world, so to speak. Many, Panganiban included, are even seeing upsides as well.

5 Years in the Unmaking
Second Life, which was at the time limited to adult participation, opened in 2003. Second Life's Teen Grid opened in 2005 and was designed to accommodate 13- to 17-year-olds, with all the 3D virtual world benefits of Second Life, while isolating them from the perils associated with mixing kids with adults without supervision. Likewise, those 18 years of age and older were banned from the Teen Grid.

Teen Grid provides the same creative outlets of the main grid, with "if you can think it, you can build it" capabilities. All the content on the Teen Grid has been created by users and is today a world created by teens for teens. In addition, its reach is global, so teens are able to meet, and often learn from, teens from other nations.

Just as occurred on the main grid, Second Life's global nature, the rich 3D multimedia presentation tools, and simulation-ripe canvas, were spotted by educators who realized the potential for facilitating learning in a highly-engaging environment.

Reasons for Closing
Terrence Cummings, Linden Lab's manager of customer strategy and development, issued the company's formal statement about the closure: "In the five years since it opened, the Teen Grid has been a space of incredible creativity for teens and also home to a number of innovative educational projects. However, supporting and developing for two separate grids has been a challenge for us and has slowed progress on improvements that benefit all Residents. To help us focus our resources and development on the Main Grid, we have made the difficult decision to close Teen Second Life."

Rosedale himself began his presentation in Boston emphasizing that Linden Lab ought to be the company that does it first and best, and, right now, they are going back to basics.

The design team is reexamining which of the fundamental aspects of Second Life don't function as well as they should, and it's working on fixes. Every basic operation, said Rosedale, such as walking around, chatting, buying land--those things should be fast, easy, and fun, but Second Life is an enormous product, and, as it is, "it doesn't completely work."

Rosedale was specific about what the team will fix and even said Linden Lab is committing to giving users actual deliverables with timing and performance expectations.

To provide drastic improvements would mean designing and executing for the main grid and then also providing those improvements for the different and specific requirements of the Teen Grid, a big burden for serving a relatively small and slow-growth population. So Linden Lab made the decision to close the separate operation. Teen Grid will close Dec. 31.

Teachers' Investments
Anyone who has tried to sell Second Life as a serious tool for anything beyond fluff and entertainment can relate to Peggy Sheehy, library media specialist at Suffern Middle School in New York, who, during the Q&A follow-up to Rosedale's speech, shared this reaction with him and the auditorium:

"I spent the last five years after establishing the first middle school on the teen grid traveling around the country to schools, talking to teachers from all over the world who have now thousands of students who have Second Life curriculum on their curriculum maps," she said.



Part of Suffern Middle School's Ramapo Islands experience in Second Life's Teen Grid

Sheehy, indeed, has paid her dues. She pioneered the first middle school presence in Second Life for New York's Ramapo Central School District, which has had a collection of private islands located on the Teen Grid since 2006. Standing from her seat in the auditorium audience, she spoke about the challenges she and other teachers have had to face, including funding, persuading administrators and the districts, generating the POs, and climbing all the walls with security. "I just feel I would be very remiss if I did not in this public forum say that I think it is a tragic error for you to close the Teen Grid for the younger students who so desperately need these new forms of pedagogy.

"I appreciate the fact that you are including us in the conversation, that it's not a closed case, and that you are looking for solutions, but I don't feel that any viable solution should include closing the grid. Let's look for another option, because educators won't come back."

During our interview, Sheehy explained that she has had 2,400 student accounts and has trained 45 teachers at her school alone. As a consultant for the past four years, she has trained many more. She has brought hundreds of schools into the Teen Grid. She said thousands of teachers have fought the good fight to get SL's Teen Grid accepted as a sound and substantial pedagogical approach to learning.

"Every teacher who went forward had their own hurdles: months of negotiating and proving and substantiating to stakeholders, informing parents, getting teachers on board," she told THE Journal. "That's why I felt a powerful responsibility to maintain a blog that outlines the good, bad, and ugly: Here is an obstacle; here are best practices; here is what other teachers are doing; and here is how to do funding. I felt like the custodian with guardianship, and that was the reason for my comment at the end of Philip's speech--to speak up as the voice of the educators."

Still, Sheehy insisted, Rosedale isn't out to sabotage education.

"I don't think they had education in mind when they established the Teen Grid," said Sheehy. "I think they wanted kids to have the same ability as on the main grid, only in a safe environment.

"Then education found it," she continued. "In all fairness, they did what they could to support this, but, as they said, the Teen Grid is holding the main grid back. When they want to make improvements, they make them, then they have to look at the teen and look at the variances. It was precluding the changes they want to make to the main grid. Philip is pro-education; he has family members who are teachers. What he said is that we need to do it right."

Decision and Impact
Linden Lab told THE Journal the Teen Grid has fewer than 225 regions (of which about 125 are owned by organizations). This compares to more than 31,000 regions on the main grid. Educators from about 20 K-12 schools currently own land in Teen Second Life and teach roughly 2,300 students ages 13 to 17 per semester.

Many more teachers and students than are represented by those 20 schools hold classes, however, as Second Life doesn't require owning land to teach on the grid. With or without land, countless teachers have made investments, since they must create, contract, or obtain objects and course materials and develop the classes in the new way that takes advantage of the 3D, building, simulation, and immersion capabilities of Second Life.

The content, created and owned by teachers and by teens, is another piece of the "why-it's-closing" puzzle, as explained by Rosedale when delivering the news in Boston.

"The big thing with Second Life is that people can create and share content. The strength of the grid and the success of us in here is the fact that we have access to content," he explained.

"We made a mistake when we launched the Teen Grid, not in letting teenagers in, that's been fantastic, and the educational activities and all the things that have happened there are great. The mistake that we made was setting it up so that the content couldn't be shared between the two grids. So the question is: How do we deal with this? What's the best strategy going forward, given that we have a ton of activities on the Teen Grid? And, I'd call out educational activities as a special, wonderful, opportunistic part of SL's forward edge of development."

Linden Labs' first step in addressing those economic and the content-sharing challenges is to bring by year end the 16- and 17-year-olds onto the main grid, which Rosedale said he believes is a reasonable strategy, given the recent content controls and filters that are now in place. He also hinted that it's not over yet for the younger users and K-12 education in general. But clearly there is no plan yet in place, at least not one that can be announced. In fact, most believe Linden Lab is starting from scratch about how to accommodate younger teens, and the company is just now setting up the first meetings with people who have a stake in K-12 education in Second Life.

"The younger part of the grid, for now [ages 13 to 15], we are basically going to turn off," said Rosedale. The accounts of the users ages 13 to 15 will be stored until those users age into Second Life at age 16, and then they may reclaim their avatar and belongings. "That is going to be a big concern short term, but what we are going to do on that front is we are going to work with the educators and other individuals who have been doing specific content development inside Teen Second Life and figure out what forward-looking changes we can make to Second Life to support younger ages of users."

As for the impact, Rosedale said: "Several of you [educators] have already had discussions with Terence [Cummings] as to how to move this forward, but that's a big change, and that change has cost associated with it. And I recognize that. We as a company have got to focus on where the greatest resonance and the exponential growth for all users."

All land and objects that are owned by teachers, schools, and students 16 and older will be transferred to the main grid, if requested. In theory, classroom activities for older teens could continue relatively uninterrupted by the transfer. In the crevice are falling those younger students, ages 13 to 15, whose future access to anything Second Life is as yet unknown. The teachers who teach those age groups in Second Life are the ones watching the virtual floor drop from under them.

Besides the investments in time and resources, education in SL's Teen Grid has been valuable in ways that won't be easy to find elsewhere, at least not right away.

"In terms of 21st century jobs, factory work and the like are going by the wayside," said Fred Fuchs, owner and designer at FireSabre Consulting. Fuchs has been involved with Teen Grid projects since the earliest education efforts and was a contractor for the design and building of both of the first Teen Grid projects: Global Kids and Sheehy's Ramapo Islands. Fuchs has also worked with the majority of other Teen Grid builds as well.

"Those in Second Life can experience the same thing as you would if living in a highly entrepreneurial society, such as parts of Massachusetts, Silicon Valley, or Austin, where everyone is trying to build a business and there are all sorts of different activities, work- and non-work-related creative outlets. For those living in the middle of America in small towns, how else are they going to be exposed to the entrepreneurial spirit and gain the skills to build a successful business?"

Fuchs said being successful as an entrepreneur requires great drive and great failures along the way--lots of great failures. Bringing that experience into the classroom makes sense. "They have a chance in Second Life of doing all that with less wasted time."

Benefits of teaching on the Teen Grid are not solely about teaching students to set up businesses. "The abilities to coordinate people and to demonstrate leadership are skills needed for 21st century jobs," he said. "The kids learn to work with others, to lead projects, design projects--those are the sorts of things you can teach very effectively in a virtual world."

What To Do, What To Do
Interruption of service is possibly a bigger concern than long-term ramifications.

"The biggest problem for educators is that Second Life closed the Teen Grid in the middle of the school year (at least, for educators located in the northern hemisphere)," said Maria Korolov, editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She added that the closure plans were announced in August "just before classes were ready to start. Educators have to get funding and approval ahead of time. This was a very major inconvenience."

We asked Linden Lab's Cummings about the timing. The reply: "As a business, we need to focus our resources on Second Life's Main Grid as soon as possible to make improvements as quickly as possible; the end of the calendar year provides adequate time for us to transition 16- to 17-year-old Teen Second Life Residents and the organizations that serve them to the Main Grid."

Cummings, in his public statement, said the company is evaluating ways to allow 13 - to 15-year-olds to have safe access to limited locations on the Main Grid with appropriate controls at some point in the future.

"I will be talking to teens, parents, and educators about the needs of younger users and how we can work toward being able to serve them in the future. I'll be setting up in world meetings in the coming weeks to learn more about those needs and potential short- and long-term solutions to meet them. I look forward to speaking with everyone and listening to your feedback, thoughts, and suggestions."

If no alternative is found, said Maria Korolov, teachers with ongoing projects have two options: switch to the Second Life main grid (if they have students who are 16 and 17) or leave Second Life entirely.

"Many are moving to OpenSim," she said, "which is very similar to, and uses the same browser as, Second Life, but is software, not a game world. That is, you can download the software and run it on a server in your school or get a hosting provider to run it for you, usually at a tenth of what Second Life costs."

There are two popular ways for schools to get into OpenSim, said Korolov. "One is to do it themselves," she said. "It's a little tricky--you have to configure your router, and set up a MySQL database, but if you follow the instructions carefully and draw on the OpenSim community for them, it's doable. So if you have talented computer users in your department--or among your students--you can set this up yourself. At my house, my 14-year-old daughter installed OpenSim for me. The problem is that you then have to do ongoing maintenance--upgrade the software, track your regions' performance, install secondary components such as voice, and so on."

The second way, which many schools find easier, is to outsource the whole thing, and she said the most popular OpenSim vendor in the educational community is currently ReactionGrid. "You can get four regions for $75 a month," said Korolov. "This compares to around $200 a month for a single region on Teen Second Life--and with $300 a month on SL main grid--$150 with an educator's discount. However, these regions won't match the performance of Second Life regions."

FireSabre's Fred Fuchs said he agrees that OpenSim doesn't offer anywhere near the same functionality. "I was in Second Life in 2003, and my feeling is OpenSim is almost as good as SL was 7 years ago," he said. He added if it comes down to it, though, OpenSim offerings may be where some of the education projects will go, and time will tell if OpenSim is good enough for education.

"A school with high technical capabilities among the IT staff might decide to open up their own OpenSim, with one or more boxes in someone's office going over broadband," said Fuchs. He added that an alternative common plan is to set up a server with a company like Rackspace.com, which rents server space.

"I think all that would be a bit premature though," he said. "[Schools] should wait to hear what Linden Lab has to say. I have quite a bit of confidence in the Lindens. If they can possibly find a way to make things work out, they will do it."

Upsides Abound
While teachers of students in the 13 to 15 age range are waiting to hear if Linden Lab will participate in finding an alternative, the benefits for older teens who are about to poof from one realm and materialize in another are starting to emerge.

Global Kids' Rik Panganiban wrote in his blog that while he is sad for the loss of the unique experiment that was the Teen Grid, he is on the whole more excited about the expanded learning opportunities for the older teen crowd. There are hundreds and hundreds of educational and cultural offerings on the main grid that were not accessible by the isolated Teen Grid.

He cited four of the benefits:

  1. Accessing the wide range of educational resources that are only available on the Main Grid, from NASA to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration;
  2. Easier access to subject matter experts and other special guests who won't have to jump through hoops to get set up on the Teen Grid;
  3. Greater visibility for the creative work generated by student; and
  4. Developing engagement skills when dealing with those outside their normal sphere of virtual existence.

Phoenix or Dead Duck?
Is this a cautionary tale about relying on one vendor for education platform hosting?

Yes and no.

On the "yes" side, Korolov related this: "Vendor lock-in [can be] a dangerous thing. For example, Coca-Cola created a virtual marketing platform inside There.com--and all the work, and the entire community, vanished overnight when There.com closed. Many virtual world vendors out there today are also closed, proprietary platforms. If they go down, all the work put into them is lost." In addition, she said, Second Life is a proprietary vendor and can decide to refuse service to anyone at any time. "For example, they recently kicked out Woodbury University because of alleged violations of the terms of service by some members of its community."

Peggy Sheehy said she's bothered more about the potential interruption of service than she is about the overall change because change is constant when it comes to teaching in virtual worlds. "Every time something new showed up I was all over it, but, to date, I haven't encountered anything as robust or user-friendly [as Second Life]. If something were to show up tomorrow, I'd be all over it. I'm in conversation with lots, and I feel like I'm not going to be painted into a corner."

The bottom line, said Sheehy, is that as teachers, they will do whatever they must to make it work. "And I am not ready to bail on Linden Lab; you can put that in black and white."

Linden Lab's Rosedale did hint that they may attempt to provide an educational platform for the younger teens, although he clearly said he is making no promises. Linden Lab's Cummings is definitely conducting the meetings.

In the end, could the demise of Second Life Teen Grid result in a better platform for middle school education? Could an entirely new platform rise from the ashes of the first experiments of K-12 education in 3D virtual worlds?

Sheehy said she's is optimistic about a new examination of middle school education in Second Life and said (quoting an associate, Diane Lewis, director of instructional technology for Seminole County Public Schools in Florida): "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste."

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