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.