Why Second Life?

If the Faculty (and, of course, the University) is to take the SL project seriously (i.e., this is to be more than jumping on yet another bandwagon), it seems to me important that we ask the very fundamental question of why we would want to use Second Life, or any other multi-user virtual environment, as a platform for supporting (rather than, of course, in any way replacing) the teaching and learning that already goes on in the university. A few answers spring to mind:

  1. It’s ‘trendy’. Second Life, now with in excess of 8 million residents and with the virtual presence of major organisations and corporations, has become the most phenomenally successful of all multi-user 3D worlds, and is well on its way to becoming as integral and prominent a component of the so-called ‘social web’ as Facebook or MySpace. This is an argument both for and against its use: that it’s fashionable is not in itself good enough reason to use it for the serious business of delivering education; it would, on the other hand, be a lost opportunity not to try to harness for educational purposes a platform that students already use and that major organisations and corporations are taking seriously.
  2. A presence in SL is in any case a smart marketing strategy (see the example of e.g. the University of Hertfordshire).
  3. More than 100 universities, colleges, and education-related institutions have already established presences in Second Life. It’s fast becoming a major platform for e-learning (see e.g. the 26-page Eduserv Report on UK FE/HE Developments in Second Life, “A July 2007 ‘snapshot’ of UK Higher and Further Education Developments in Second Life”), so the earlier we adopt the better placed we are further down the line to emerge as leaders. This, as much as anything, is good for recruitment in the longer term of not only residential students but of distance learning students across the globe. (Think, by way of comparison, of the enormous success of the University of Phoenix as an early adopter of distance education via the web.)
  4. We have long used ICT (newsgroups, email, web, Blackboard) to support both our residential and our distance learning students. Second Life is simply one more technology we’re adding to the suite even if at this early stage we’re not clear about how exactly we’ll want to use it. That it is now voice-enabled throughout, however, means that it better supports synchronous collaboration on group tasks than any other ICT tool we use.
  5. We have long used, and acknowledged the usefulness of, audio-visual tools such as Powerpoint and video to support learning; SL offers opportunities for engagement in interactive learning that Powerpoint and video lack. The Splo Museum and the Exploratorium are good examples of participatory learning environments within SL.
  6. Like the web, SL offers access to educational content generated by others. As SL continues to grow (and with the increasing participation of educational institutions) the volume and variety of content will also grow, effectively delivering learning content ‘for free’ that, as a resource-limited university, we’d never have the time, energy, or expertise to develop for ourselves.
  7. With a rich enough provision of innovative learning materials, a well-designed SL campus can support self-directed and peer-supported learning in complement to web-based learning materials (incl. Blackboard) that we already use extensively. On this view, Second Life is simply construed as another computer-based learning application.
  8. As a programmable and thus extensible 3D environment it offers opportunities for innovation in learning that, in these early stages, we perhaps can’t even yet envisage, yet which could in time revolutionise the way we think about learning. As Pathfinder Linden exhorts his readers, “Unlearn your old ways of thinking. Don’t recreate preexisting models of education. If you want to teach biology, why build a virtual classroom with desks and a blackboard in Second Life when you could build a whole interactive human cell” (Proceedings of the Second Life Workshop at the Second Life Community Convention, San Francisco, 2006).
  9. Because it is global in reach and open access, Second Life offers the opportunity to meet and collaborate with academics and students beyond the faculty, consequently encouraging the formation of study groups and special interest groups that may bring together inspirations and ideas drawn from a much broader and more varied ‘intellectual gene pool’. Although text-only groups (such as Google Groups and Yahoo! Groups), specialist web forums, and bulletin boards also enable collaboration “without frontiers”, the 3D multimedia interface offers greater potential content over 2D in much that way that television delivers richer content than radio.
  10. As a ‘fun’ environment, it offers the opportunity to chip away at the boundaries artificially separating living from learning, social life from academic life.
  11. Staff and students, whether working from the university or from home, are likely to have broadband connections enabling uninterrupted access to the Internet. In that case, geographic location becomes irrelevant for the purpose of communication with peers and tutors / tutees. Second Life, if used responsibly, may serve the function of a graphical ‘instant messenger’.
  12. If Second Life continues to grow at its current rate (I’m not sure if ‘exponential’ is mathematically the correct word to use here, but figuratively it’s appropriate), and the ‘metaverse’ envisaged in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash becomes a reality–there is no reason to believe it won’t and there are many well-placed people and organisations who believe it will–then purposeful immersion in SL in university equips our students with additional tools and skills that will become invaluable to them in their subsequent working lives.

Are there equally good reasons for exercising caution? The following considerations spring to mind:

  1. Use of Second Life as a graphical IM, hence ‘virtual office’, could lead to abuses unless regulated. Staff are entitled to privacy during non-working hours; “office hours” would have to be respected as much in the virtual as in the real world.
  2. Second Life is a triumph of appearance over substance. There is little evidence to date that Second Life offers a more effective platform for e-learning than text-based VLEs such as EduSpaces or Moodle.
  3. A cost-benefit analysis may strongly suggest that the level of investment with respect to the commitment of human resources alone (building competencies in instructional design, LSL scripting skills) required to develop paedogogically useful bespoke interactive courseware may be difficult to justify on the basis of measurable benefits to students.
  4. As is the case for any game environment, it can become both compulsive and addictive for users. Any gains from its use as an e-learning platform may be offset by time-wasting play.
  5. Although Second Life boasts in excess of 8.5 million ‘residents’ (i.e., 8 million user accounts), only 1.6 million have logged on in the past 60 days. Of these, many may be ‘alts’ (users’ alternative accounts). One wonders why nearly 7 million of its residents do not use SL on a regular basis, and would possibly wish to see some account of why this might be before committing resources.

On balance? I don’t know. I think the safest and most sober position is to see Second Life as a general usage 3D environment that, although not designed or intended to be used for educational purposes (but then neither is Real Life), offers opportunities for experimentation. If it works well during a pilot, then stay with it; if it doesn’t, then drop it.

Watch this space …

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One Response to Why Second Life?

  1. Pingback: Some thoughts on ‘Blended Learning’ « Virtual Opportunities for Research and Teaching in CISM

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