A 'Second Life' For Educators
Lauded as a learning tool, the
popular virtual world is now
being used by teachers for their
own enrichment, providing them
with a wealth of opportunities for
collaboration, peer interaction,
and sharing of resources.
ELIZABETH KNITTLE, technology integration
specialist for the Barnstable Public
School District in Massachusetts, took her
first tentative steps in the 3D online virtual
world known as Second Life about two
years ago. She wasn't impressed.
"I looked around and I thought, this is crazy," Knittle recalls.
"I just couldn't see the value of it, so I left. But then people
starting blogging about it-- a lot of people-- so I had to reconsider.
I decided that if I was going to understand this thing and
be able to answer questions about it intelligently, I really just
had to suck it up and get in there and participate. Once I connected
with people inworld, it made all the difference."
That early buzz among K-12 educators centered on Second
Life's potential as a learning platform. And in the last few
years, many colleges, universities, and libraries have established
resources in what has become the preeminent multiuser
virtual environment (MUVE). Today, more than 100 Second
Life "regions" are used for educational purposes.
However, Second Life is a bifurcated environment, with an
adults-only Main Grid and a Teen Grid for users ages 13 to 18.
Because most of their students are over 18, colleges and universities
can take full advantage of all the resources on the Main
Grid-- everything from a re-creation of the Sistine Chapel to a
simulation of 1920s Paris; from a replica of the Alamo to a virtual
coral reef. But those restrictions, which Second Life creator
Linden Lab established to ensure the safety of younger children,
have limited the environment's usefulness for K-12 learning.
And yet, K-12 educators are flocking to Second Life in
growing numbers. They come, Knittle says, because they
believe in its pedagogical potential despite the limitations of
the Teen Grid, but more importantly in the short run, because
of something she discovered herself: A virtual world can provide
a rich and productive environment for teacher education,
professional development, and networking.
"I quickly realized that Second Life was a great place for
educators to collaborate and share their experiences," she
says, "which is not something we have all that many opportunities
to do. Here was a place where anyone could participate.
You didn't have to be invited or submit a proposal. And if my
district didn't have the money to send me places, I could just
go into Second Life and learn great things."
Since it was launched in 2003 with one square kilometer of
virtual real estate, Second Life has become an international
phenomenon, having grown into a 600-square-kilometer world
with 6.9 million registered users and between 30,000 and
40,000 online "residents" who explore the space in the form
of avatars, buying and selling goods, clothing, avatar attributes,
and property, and participating in individual and group activities.
The environment contains woodlands, shopping malls,
private residences, and a wide range of special-purpose
"sims," or simulations, sometimes called islands or states.
Sun Makes Its MUVE
ALTHOUGH IT HAS EMERGED as the undisputed brand name in virtual
worlds, Second Life isn't the only multiuser
virtual environment getting attention from the education community.
Jonathon Richter, research associate at the Center for Advanced
Technology in Education at the University
of Oregon, points to Project Wonderland as a compelling example of the
growing competitiveness in the virtual arena.
Created by Sun Microsystems Laboratories,
Project Wonderland is an open source, Java-based tool kit for creating 3D
virtual worlds. It's designed to allow developers to create highly interactive
environments for both business and educational collaboration. The
environments created with the Wonderland tool kit can run live desktop
applications, such as presentation software and spreadsheets, and allow
avatars to make changes to slides and documents in real time. They also
offers real-time immersive audio, which Sun promises will be better than
what the real world has to offer. Perhaps most important for its future,
Wonderland virtual spaces are completely extensible, which means that
developers and graphic artists can extend its functionality to create new
worlds and new features within existing worlds. A new release of
Wonderland (version 0.5) is scheduled for early 2009.
"The 0.5 release is going to cause some extreme ripples in the world
of virtual worlds," says Richter. "I think it has the potential to leapfrog
Second Life, because it has the ability to incorporate the desktop applications
that people need to use to be productive. Not only can you open
up your Microsoft Word document within Wonderland, you can change
that document in real time in collaboration with others in the space,
just as you would on a wiki."
That particular Wonderland advantage may have been nullified, however,
by a recent move by search engine giant Google. In
December, the company released an early version of
Native Client, a framework for running native code
securely inside a web browser. That technology, Richter
says, will make it possible for web applications to
run operating systems.
"Essentially, you'll be able to run your applications
from within any website," he explains. "If you can run a
website inside Second Life, you'll be able to run
Photoshop or PowerPoint from within your web pages."
Sun Labs continues to lead the development effort on Project
Wonderland, and has emphasized that this is experimental technology
in the early stages of development. Track the progression
of the project here.
One of the strengths of the growing education community in
Second Life is its "fundamental predisposition to collaborate,"
says John Lester, who leads the education and healthcare market
development group at Linden Lab. His avatar is well-known
inworld as Pathfinder Linden. "With teachers, you have this
built-in culture of collaboration," he says. "It's in their DNA;
they succeed by working with other people on projects and
learning from them and leveraging each other's work. It's not
surprising that Second Life is proving to be such a useful
platform for their own professional development.
"When I say SL is a collaborative environment, I mean two
things," Lester adds. "You will find other faculty to work with
on projects and figure out best practices for your common goals.
But you can also leverage all the things-- the content, the events,
the tools-- that have already been created in Second Life."
He cites the example of a chemistry teacher he talked to who
was interested in creating models of molecules and simulations
of chemical reactions. The teacher was prepared to build them
all from scratch until Lester informed him that the American
Chemical Society has an interactive museum in SL users can
freely visit. "At its core," Lester says, "Second Life is a rich
ecosystem of learning experiences that are open to the public.
Teachers don't have to create everything from scratch."
As K-12 teachers start to buy into the idea of Second Life,
professional learning communities are beginning to spring up in
the environment. One highly respected example is the Lighthouse
Learning Island. Founded by Kathy Schrock, administrator
for technology for Nauset Public Schools, Lighthouse Learning
was created by four school districts in southeastern Massachusetts:
Nauset, Barnstable, Dennis-Yarmouth Regional
School District, and Plymouth Public Schools.
Blogging about the launch of the virtual island in 2007,
Schrock wrote that its purpose was twofold: 1) to serve as an
"engaging venue for traditional professional development and
collaboration, including staff meetings, presentations on topics
of interest to the educators in our district, and training
materials"; and 2) to "ramp up the Second Life skills of the
teachers in the four districts, in order to move ahead, in Year 2,
with content-specific Teen Grid islands."
Lighthouse Learning member districts lead tours of Second Life and host seminars and "learning opportunities" at inworld
venues-- virtual meeting rooms and auditoriums created for that
purpose. Attendees gather at these sites and take part very much
as they would in a real-world session, listening to lectures, watching
slides and videos, and interacting with other attendees before
and after a presentation-- the one difference being that the participation
and interaction are all done through their avatars.
"With teachers, you have this built-in culture of collaboration. It's in their
DNA. It's not surprising that Second Life is proving to be
such a useful platform for their own professional development."
Knittle serves as the Barnstable lead for the Lighthouse,
through which her district offers professional development training
for its teachers. "It's a space for a few teachers who are preparing
to take their students into the teen side of Second Life," she says.
"They're using it to figure out how they're going to teach their
kids to do this stuff."
A recent Barnstable inworld session focused on the basics of presenting
in Second Life, and included demonstrations of some of the
tools used for inworld presentations. The session also explained
how to find a venue to host a presentation and ways to advertise it.
Another session took attendees to various Second Life educational
venues and demonstrated how to create "landmarks," which are
similar to bookmarks in a web browser, so that they could easily
return. That session also covered the essentials of teleportation:
how to travel instantly from venue to venue in a virtual world.
Now in its second year, the Lighthouse Learning Island is
also home to other groups of educators, including the Virtual
Pioneers, a group of teachers who meet, collaborate, share ideas,
and tour social studies-themed simulations with the intent
of professional development. Among other activities, Virtual
Pioneers points teachers to inworld historical venues that are
exemplars of the kind of 3D content a MUVE can deliver.
Among the sites the group has recommended are Chateau de
Versailles; Antiquity Texas; Olana History Museum; Alhambra,
Spain; the Holocaust Museum; Land of Lincoln; Virtual Harlem;
Replica Plymouth; and Capitol Hill North.
Visiting Second Life is free, but acquiring real estate, virtual
though it may be, costs real money. Knittle says there's a
discount for educators, but that an "island" costs about $2,000
to buy and $1,000 per year for maintenance. Knittle pays rent for
her own home base, which she shares with two other
educators on the educator-focused EduIsland II sim; she spends
about $100 per year for her space on the server.
Knittle is on the leadership council of the Discovery
Educator Network in Second Life, a group of volunteer teachers
who assist other teachers as they begin to explore the virtual world.
"Our feeling at DEN is, the more teachers we have in Second Life
who are comfortable, the more connections, the more learning,
the more collaborating we can do," Knittle says.
DEN sponsors a group of volunteers called DEN guides, who
help SL newbies shop, develop their avatars, and learn how to
present learning materials in a virtual environment. "We want
people to be there, so we make it a point to help," she adds. "We
do newbie sessions, but we also do one-on-one training: how you
take a picture, how you upload files, how you build things. And
some basic scripting classes."
Knittle says that it takes about a year for an educator to
become really comfortable in Second Life and get close to mastering all the skills needed to make the most of the experience.
"There is a learning curve," she says, "but it's well worth the
effort. We talk about networking with Twitter and LinkedIn and
blogs, but the part of my own network that I find the strongest
and most compelling is the network I have in Second Life."
That networking component should not be underestimated,
says Chris Collins, project manager for the University of
Cincinnati's Second Life Project. (Avatar name: Fleep Tuque.)
"It's easier than ever to become isolated," Collins says. "It's
a side effect of the technology so many of us work with today.
I work in a large public urban university in a great city with lots
of stuff to do and see, but I still find
myself stuck in my department silo. When
I go into a place like Second Life, suddenly
I can find people in my field from
all over the world."
Collins introduced the idea of virtual
worlds for education to her dean and provost
in early 2006. Since that time, the school
has had more than 1,000 students use Second
Life, and offers a number of courses
inworld from several disciplines.
Currently, the university's Second Life
Project is re-creating the Galapagos
Islands. Collins says she expects the project
to go public early in 2009 and to
make the resource available to teachers
around the world. "We're hoping it will
appeal to everyone from biology teachers
to political science professors," she says.
Collins says it is the "serendipitous professional
interactions" that make virtual
worlds uniquely valuable to K-12 educators.
"It's that chance encounter with people
who share your interests or research. For
that reason alone, it's the best professional
development tool I've ever seen."
Jonathon Richter, research associate at
the Center for Advanced Technology in
Education at the University of Oregon, has
also seen the value of serendipity in a
virtual world. "You can watch a presentation
on the web, but you don't get the same
opportunities for accidental interactions
that you do in a virtual world," Richter says.
"Someone once told me that the most
powerful learning that goes on when you
attend a conference is the 20 minutes before
a presentation and the 30 minutes after. And
that's what Second Life is good for."
Jump Right In
Cathy Arreguin, a technology educator
and consultant, says that teachers who use
virtual worlds for professional development
are gaining more than professional support. They're also
growing accustomed to an environment they will be working
in more frequently as MUVEs gain wider adoption as learning
tools. "You can't understand a virtual world without actually
experiencing it," Arreguin says. "It's avatar-based learning,
and unless you, as an educator, have the experience of relating
to other avatars as an avatar, you won't understand the experience
of the learner."
According to Arreguin, who teaches a graduate seminar at
San Diego State University called 3D Multiuser Learning
Environments, educators who explore Second Life for their own professional growth are also influencing the evolution
of the environment. "This is a world that's almost entirely
user-built," she says. "So they add their creativity and their
experience to the environment, and that changes it."
And that evolution is destined to spill out of Second Life, she
says, largely because of Linden Lab's decision to release much
of Second Life's code to open source. "Over the next few years,
we're going to see more virtual-world platforms that can be used
for education. As they become savvier about these environments,
teachers are going to start asking, 'Just how much
virtual world do I really need?' So expect multiple platforms,
but that's a good thing. It will help the conversations mature as
far as how we use virtual worlds for learning and education."
So what's the best way for K-12 educators to plug in to Second
Life communities and activities? Linden Lab's Lester
suggests two strategies. The most popular and effective
approach, he says, is to sign up for the Second Life Educators
mailing list. The SLED list currently has
more than 5,000 subscribers.
"It's the first place many educators go to
find help with how to succeed in Second
Life," Lester says. "You see people introducing
themselves and saying things like,
'I'm interested in this type of training
exercise.' And someone else will say, 'I'm
working with something similar; let's talk
about this and collaborate.'"
Richter advises the following to educators
who want to get the most out of the
professional development opportunities
available in Second Life: No grazing.
"Jump in and find a community that you
have some connection to," he says. "If you
just wander around, looking for content to
consume, flying through empty space, trying
to figure out why people do this, you'll
miss the point. If you miss the social
aspect-- the water-cooler discussions--
you miss the essential value of the environment.
It's not until you become part of
a community that it all makes sense."
If you would like more information on the use of
MUVEs for teaching and learning, visit
our website at www.thejournal.com. In the
Browse by Topic menu, click on MUVE.
John K. Waters is a freelance writer based
in Palo Alto, CA.
This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.