Second Life Workshop, Nottingham

I’ve been interested in the potential that Virtual Worlds offer for education for some time, so a workshop organised by ALT on Second Life, (one of quite a large number of virtual worlds that are available these days) seemed quite an interesting prospect. I went along with a colleague from Forensic Science who has also been quite interested in Second Life, probably spending more time in there than I do. (Actually, I’ve made myself dip out of it, while I focus on finishing my doctoral thesis, so I haven’t been in for quite a while.  

In the event much of the activity was focussed on really quite basic stuff – moving around, talking to people, personalising your avatar, which we both thought might have been better dealt with in an orientation session in Second Life itself – that kind of finding your feet is probably best done in the virtual world, rather than in a formal classroom event, although of course, as anyone who has ever delivered any form of IT training knows, you can not make assumptions about the level of knowledge that members of a group will have, and it’s always safer to start with the lowest common denominator.  There again, in the afternoon, we did start building (and managed to build an Art Gallery by the end of the day) and I found myself struggling to keep up.

There wasn’t a great deal of time for discussion of the educational potential of Second Life which was a pity – we started by going round the table and asking what people were hoping to do with it, which was a promising start. Among the interesting ideas that people wanted to do were role-playing (might be less nerve-wracking in a virtual world), building simulations (One lady from the Royal Veterinary College wanted to build a simulation of the rear end of a cow!), dealing with questions of identity, (we all had to change the appearance of our avatars – I ended up wearing a very fetching Raspberry dress – in-world, I hasten to add!) supporting language learning, or simply providing a different environment for distance learners to interact, the production of assessment artefacts, and many others. There’s certainly a lot of potential, but we all identified quite a lot of downsides too. – It’s a strange world, which can be lonely and a bit scary when you first enter it, and a few of those present noted that it is more popular with older people than with the traditional 18-21 year age groups. (The average age of a Second Life user is 33). My view is that you do need to develop quite high levels of tolerance for oddity if you’re going to use Second Life, because people are playing with identity, and behaving in ways they probably wouldn’t in real life. Anecdotally, it seems that a lot of 18-21 year olds seem very nervous about interacting with people they meet in Second Life. There again, you might argue that the 18-21 year old isn’t really the typical student these days.

There are also fairly serious issues around accessibility. You need a powerful graphics card, a fast Broadband connection and lots of time to make the best use of it. In a classroom situation there will be real issues about setting up students with accounts, getting them to choose names for their avatars, let alone personalising the appearance of those avatars. SL is also a seductive environment (in the nicest possible way of course). What I mean by that is that it is easy to get drawn in, and forget that other people have different preferences. We were told one cautionary tale of an American lecturer who was running all his classes in Second Life, and when the evaluation sheets came in, was horrified to discover that his students hated it! 

I think it comes down to the fact that if you have a teaching and learning problem that Second Life can help with then it’s worth experimenting.  But don’t just go in for the sake of it because it’s an interesting bit of new technology.

6 thoughts on “Second Life Workshop, Nottingham

  1. We should set up Open Sim, Julian. Having had an orientation session in a private virtual world, I can really see the potential for Open Sim as a staging environment for Second Life. In Leeds they are using Open Sim to teach design students how to build in a virtual world – already an established profession. It would be good to get interested academic together to discuss Open Sim. You use the Second Life client so students would learn how to use that, too.

  2. Yes, I think that’s a good idea. Open Sim was discussed in the workshop. It’s big drawback is of course that you lose the sense of community that you get with Second Life. But as I said in the post, that isn’t always entirely positive in itself.

    But, if we can install it, by all means let’s do so and have a play with it.

  3. Although I am interested in the concept of a virtual world, I am struggling to find an appropriate application within the nursing that I teach on.

    I would like to wait a while to see how this concept develops before I would feel comfortable to use it.

  4. I’m inclined to agree that virtual worlds can fall into the category of “solution looking for a problem” If you have a real learning problem, (like the way the Schizophrenia sim in Second Life illustrates the experience of mental illness) then I think they can be useful.

    And as I said in the session there is a huge issue about getting students up and running in world.

  5. I had got so excited at the prospect of getting the University into SL when I first got online (with a personal account) in 2006, but I think the session in Nottingham brought it home to me that right now we don’t really have any need for it. The expansion of development into virtual environments has meant that there are now better options out there for building, for example, a rear end of a cow, and even for discussion groups and group working.

    I have no doubt that SL could be useful for some very specific purposes, but I’ve yet to talk to an academic colleague who has brought a legitimate case for it’s use. In fact, I rather like the situation that we’re one of the few Universities that HASN’T jumped on the bandwagon, as in my experience most of the Uni sites out there are not being used to anything like their potential, and therefore look rather pathetic.

    Still, I don’t want to draw a line under it by any means, but I would enjoy some more educational discussions on what people wish to achieve with SL, and to really think through whether it is the most appropriate environment for their needs…

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