I’m tempted to make this post just another in a growing list of whines from the edublog community about what I don’t like about SecondLife. I could talk about the terrible support – prepare to restart the whole process of building your avatar if you ever forget your password. Or I could note the disappointment when 20% of your class can’t even use the system due to hardware or connectivity restrictions. I could also whine about challenges of keeping any sense of social order, or facilitating a collaborative walk around in SL without loosing half the group, but some of these complaints are due to my own newbie status and lack of practice.
Mostly, I’d like to note that SL doesn’t allow users to synchronize their real life and their second life. For some this is just fine and the reason they go to great lengths to develop a fully featured secondlife. However as an educator, I want my students to develop insights, explore new information and apply this learning in their real lives.
This separation was at the root of the commotion that arose from SL’s trial of voice. For some audio added to the interface by allowing more spontaneous and inflective voice interaction. For others audio was an intrusion – affording real life identify markers like gender, accent and emotive voice to intrude into the fantasy construction of avatar-self in SL.
Online living has always had to struggle with surprises and issues of identity formation in a environment that affords less than complete exposure of ‘real self’. In a recent summary of impression management and identity development Chester and Breterton (2007) conclude “cyberspace is not a virtual world without connection to the rest of people’s lives. What we do and who we are online are shaped consciously and unconsciously by who we are offline. The Internet is , after all a part of our real life” p. 235. Not withstanding the intentional construction of SL as a place to explore, develop and celebrate alternate senses of self, online activity is also marked by desire by many to make connections with others. These connections often begin with disclosure of common ground often based on location, gender, occupation, age and other markers of real life. In SL you are not allowed to enter with your own surname, you can’t (at least easily) create an avatar from an actual photograph of yourself and as noted you can’t currently dialog using your real voice.
Reducing the disconnect from ‘school’ to real life-world application has always been a compelling, yet challenging goal of formal education and especially that designed to meet professional needs. Randy Garrison’s and my work on Community of Inquiry model (and validated by other researchers) of online learning has always struggled with the discovery of very low levels of the final stage of cognitive presence in which solutions are applied in real life contexts – at least as evidenced in the transcripts of threaded discussion. We’ve attributed this deficiency to a variety of factors including lack of effective teaching presence, that this integration is revealed in paper and project construction- not necessarily in conference discussion and to the notion that real application of new knowledge takes place after the course ends in the real world of professional practice. Nonetheless, contexts that effectively and intentionally move application of knowledge outside of the context in which that application is tested in use are generally not conducive to ‘real learning’.
Despite these concerns, I see real educational value in immersive environments. However, the goal of these environments (for educational use) should be to allow learners to share and develop their social, teaching and cognitive presences. Secondlife is certainly not the only immersive environment worth exploring. Some are open sourec including those based on the Croquet engine “designed to provide a framework for developing 2D and 3D applications to ease and simplify co-creativity, knowledge sharing, and deep social presence among large numbers of people, simultaneously” (Wikipedia, 2007). In these open source environments educators can set their own educational rules and in the process create a safe refuge for scholarship and learning. We are exploring a very interesting Open Source platform developed by SUN, using their Project Wonderland 3D engine that seems to provide the voice and identity criteria missing in SL.
I don’t want to end this post without noting the value for promotion, exposure and just plain fun afforded by SecondLife. Athabasca University is developing a space in SecondLife, hoping to provide a fun-filled social, information and promotional space in SecondLife that hopefully will attract some of its 7,256,167 residents, to do some of their learning with us – but that learning will likely not all happen in the wide, wild world of Secondlife.