In this post I relate my experiences exploring LindenLab’s SecondLife with a view to assessing their use in formal educational contexts.
I’ve long been interested in the use of the net to support both formal and informal learning and especially in those contexts where F2F meeting is impossible or severely restricted. Thus, I’ve played with most of the early technologies that provided first for text and later multimedia forms of both synchronous and asynchronous technologies. From both my research and personal observations, learning is enhanced when participants are afforded the opportunity and provided incentives to create a kind of community, that can be relied upon for support, motivation, insight and fun.
Proponents of these virtual environments argue that they afford the creation of vibrant forms of communities of inquiry. Key to many commonplace and dictionary definitions of community is a sense of place. Describing, creating and experiencing a sense of place on the net has been the domain of science fiction authors (notably Gibson and Stephenson) and early developers of text (Moos and Muds), 2D animation (http://www.thepalace.com) and real time videoconferencing. Although each of these developments have attracted experimental educational use (for example Moo’s Athena University, many university Palaces etc.) none have thrived to the extent where they are the home or even attracted major use by mainline or emergent formal educational institutions.
This may however be changing as affordances of the net expand to include broadband connection, end users machines powerful enough to render complex, realtime audio and graphic displays and user experience with and expectation of high quality immersive experiences. The question that remains unresolved is how important both real time interaction is and if that interaction (and resulting learning) is significantly enhanced by a sense of shared presence.
With this background, I set out this weekend to explore what I believe to be the largest and most fully functional of these places – ‘Second Life”
SecondLife went online in 2002 as a publicly accessible, virtual world owned and operated by Linden Labs. Secondlife (SL) membership in Jan, 2005 was approximately 23,000 living on 14.6 square miles of virtual land (McKeon & Wyche, 2006.) Second life requires the (free) download of a client (Windows, Linux or Mac) application. This proceeded without incidence and installed easily on my Toshiba tablet PC.
The first think I observed was that SL client takes a lot of power. I noticed that it regularly consumed over 90% of the cycles available on my machine, used nearly 12 as much internal memory as Microsoft Word. Bandwidth requirements also seemed high especially when teleporting (10 second delay) but proceeded quite smoothly with few delays as I walked through the site. Given these requirements, I learned to reduce the number of applications I had opened before running SL client to avoid contention and possible crashes.
Each member of SL adopts and adapts the form of an avatar that can be customized to a very high degree creating what you look (or wished you looked) like. The avatar forms can be nonhuman, but most everyone I encountered this past weekend, was shapely and provocatively presented and attired as a 20 something human. One begins the experience by choosing an avatar that one then customizes and clothes. As you see in figure one, none of the avatars available looked even remotely like the slightly overweight 55 year old college professor that I glimpse in the mirror these days. But I did pick a male figure and reduced ‘my’ burgeoning biceps, cut ‘my’ hair and altered the tuxedo to look like a pair of cutoffs and t-shirt, which seemed to match my midsummer mode.
Of course, as a ‘real man’, I didn’t read any of the directions and thus spent some time figuring out to sit, run and even fly. I also spent a few embarrassing moments walking underwater observing the underside of the wharf that I had just walked off! But using the arrow keys and right and left mouse clicks, gave me a sense of simple navigation competence within about 45 minutes. Orientation can be a problem (especially with the capacity to teleport), but either of two maps can be displayed that indicate one’s position and field of view in GPS style.
I did see other players walking about and engaged in a bit of text chat. The first person I really chatted with ended up giving me some new clothes to wear and answered some of my newbie questions. I probably should have taken one of the guided tours of SL or tried to hook up with a guide, but I also wanted to experience the learning curve without ‘hand holding’.
There are much more detailed descriptions of the features of SL elsewhere (see for example McKeon and Wiche 2006 Life Across Boundaries: Design, Identity, and Gender in SL) but I’ll list some that seem especially useful for an educational context:
– SL is scaleable, as a single computer manages a small area on the grid, supporting interaction of the occupants on that one small subset of the environment
– Users or groups of users can buy land and create and furnish their own structures
– Forms of intellectual property (codes and scripts that create everything from sailboats, to artworks, furniture and gambling machines) are owned by individuals and may be sold, bartered, customized
– Commercial exchange is supported through the use of Linden dollars $L that currently trade at about 250 to the American dollar
– Basic membership is free, but if you wish to buy land ($5- $200 US month) and receive weekly stipend (welfare??) of L$1000 a month you need a $9.95 US /month premium account.
– Users can fill out a profile where they can share details of their ‘real’ life or other personal information if they wish
– SL integrates with the WWW in the sense that one can display web pages on bulletin boards, link out to the web, read email etc.
SL features an excellent ‘find’ feature that allows you to find individuals, groups, popular sites and special current events – yard sales and dance parties seem especially popular. Many of these sites are marked “mature” and a visit to one of my first ‘parties’ found a women shouting (both in text and audio) F*** this and F** that over and over, so I wasn’t overly impressed. There was also a number of trivia and bingo type contests going on, with prizes awarded in $L. I later learned that Linden pays hosts of popular sites providing them with cash to pay dancers and others that bring life to the site.
Education at SL. Using the find feature and keywords ‘university’ and ‘college’ I was able to find and teleport to a number of sites with an education focus. SL has an education division and offer trial use and discounts for educators who want to buy whole islands of their own. :
Penn State has recreated on of their art galleries, but alas the roof is not finished, but I don’t think it rains in SL
University College Dublin, has a more developed campus, but there was nobody around (but it is summer holidays!)
SL itself runs SLCampus: described on their board as
“Most of the Campus: Second Life classes are held right HERE, on this region named “Campus” (easy to remember, eh?). If you look around this region, you’ll see different classes working on various projects on their individual plots of land. Here on Campus we also have a public meeting area, a sandbox for temporary building, a public pictureboard for sharing fun photos, a sculpture garden for relaxing between classes, and a campfire for late-nite fireside chats.”
The SL Campus featured experimental use with proximal voice chatting, but I was a bit reluctant to add more plugs to my installation, so was left with either IM or text chat.
Discussion: There are a number of features of a ‘real campus’ that Marilyn Lombardi describes in a recent EduCause article and notes how they are being recreated in virtual contexts. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take too much imagination to see that this environment offers everything that Moos and Muds had with the important affordance to create ones own gestures, buildings and activity scripts. Of course we know that busy students and harried teachers are not usually interested in new hobbies nor programming tasks that eat up time. But the capacity to buy or barter such artifacts opens lots of possibilities.
The capacity to create spaces in which multiple forms of human discourse can flourish, while still retaining access to the Net’s resources is very compelling. I imagine that in a dedicated learning environment, the avatars may more closely resemble their human owners, much as anonymity has not been a big feature of online learning. The very low cost, plus capacity to engage in simulations, discourse, collaborative projects and web quests are features very much in demand by online designers and educators. These well supported in SL. As with many new technologies, some of the features of SL – such as text chat, profiles, private space are provided through other social software applications and learning management systems. Therefore one must have a compelling need to engage simultaneously in order to justify the learning curve and technological requirements of these systems. I imagine that for opening sessions, special guests and other multiple site activities, SL would provide not only excitement but a great deal of dare I say “realism’ that likely justifies the effort.
I smiled when I came across a site selling fireworks (reusable no less) as it brought memories of a pioneering virtual conference I hosted in 1995. The MOO site of that era featured fireworks as well- but they exploded in soundlessly in text! Didn’t quite do it for me!
I was very pleased to discover the April 2006 release of the Croquet Open source virtual environment for education. This seems similar to SL, but an individual or school can install there own instance and thus create a more restricted space. One of the most important aspect of a learning community is the capacity to maintain safe spaces for learning. Physically campus based institutions have created safe spaces within which academic and others sorts of freedom are nutured and protected. Creating an educational environment in close proximity to enterprise focused on sex, rock and roll and gambling, presents a host of moral and ethical concerns. Much as we want the education world to be open and accessible, it should also be a safe and non-threatening space in which learning and scholarship need not compete nor conflict with alternate uses of that space. Perhaps Coquet will allow institutions and learning organizations to create that safe place for learning.
The bandwidth and process requirements of SL will be problematic for many potential users. However, the ongoing deployment of high speed networks coupled with continuing increase in processing power, should make these tools more accessible as time goes by. I’m looking forward to exploring these environments at greater length this fall in my Athabasca University Masters of Distance Education course next term
All in all, I enjoyed my time in my Second Life, and didn’t really mind the time away from my first life- but then it is summer!
Afterthought: Being landlocked, some distance from my boat, I was also interested in how SLers sail. I visited a few marina’s, saw some nice racing dingies and a few more classic creations including ones that floated in the air!. Alas, I didn’t have a chance to talk to any sailors, but did watch a race and read the invitation to sign up as a crew member – which I may do!
Me, checking out the boats