Revisiting Second Life for Education – Ten Years On…

Cyber Explorations and Adventures of the Learning kind!

It’s a pretty lonely place, at least on the Open University ‘Deep Think’ Island and the University of Southern Queensland’s ‘Terra Incognita’, and…well, pretty much everywhere else I went!

Screenshot 2020-02-06 at 19.50.10

Seely Brown and Adler’s 2008 paper “Minds on fire: open education, the long tail and learning 2.0.” provided quite a blast from the past – it was published at just about the time I was co-opted into teacher training and starting to realise that technology wasn’t going away. The article touches on many of the things that were firing me up at the time. Ideas on ‘Situated Learning’, Openness, collaboration, learner generated content and democratisation of learning. To be an effective teacher and to help nurture future teachers technology was obviously something that needed to be mastered, and quickly. Fuelled by a highly motivational mix of fear and excitement I plunged right in at the very deep end. The excitement stemmed from a growing awareness of all the emerging web2.0 tools and their world changing potential. The fear came from my own total lack of skills and the more and more frequent appearance of articles about Virtual Worlds and Environments such as Second Life potentially becoming the learning places of the future. I didn’t even own a Smart phone at the time!

Second Life in 2008

So, having purchased a cute little white Macbook and self taught the basic skills I ventured into Second Life. It wasn’t a happy experience. I stumbled about randomly, mostly with arms above my head as that’s how they somehow ended up and I had no idea how to get them down. When I lost all my clothes and couldn’t replace them I abandoned my avatar, naked and arms held high in some unknown location having never actually found one of these much written about learning spaces.

Second Life in 2020

So, having just read Seely Brown and Adler’s now dated article I decided to venture back and have a look for myself before delving into any research that’s been produced since. Pleased to say it was a somewhat happier experience in terms of navigating and managing to move the avatar around, though not much more successful in my mission to discover learning places than 10 years ago.

Welcome Hall

I didn’t hang around long in the ‘Welcome Hall’. Just long enough to change my avatar and figure out some basic manoeuvres – the Welcome Hall leads you through a series of tutorials and was full of ‘new arrivals’ all fairly disorientated but I was keen to see what sort of education spaces I could discover. Seely Brown and Adler talk about the University of Southern Queensland’s ‘Terra Incognita’, so I set off there first…Disappointment and some initial concerns about my skills when I found myself unable to get there. I was later able to find out why (see below in the research section) but in the meantime…

University of Southern Queensland’s “Terra Incognita” appears to have been demolished!

I decided to extend my cyber adventure and see what, if anything, I could find. The obvious place to start being the Open University. A number of locations came up in my search, but most were course specific. At the top of the pile sat ‘Deep Think’ inviting any staff or students to join. Now this looked promising…

Things appeared even more encouraging when shortly after arrival a welcome message popped up inviting me to to join the group by emailling a real person, which I did immediately before setting off for a look around.

Someone has clearly spent a lot of time building Deep Think with carefully landscaped spaces populated with interesting looking objects inviting interaction almost everywhere you look. ‘Anonymous Reflection’ boxes were dotted around suggesting you post your thoughts. I was unable to make anything happen, reflect or to get any info. There was no one else to be seen despite the multiple styles of ‘lecture halls’ and ‘study areas’ available, not to mention the enticingly named ‘Path to Enlightenment’. I decided my inability to access any learning must be because I wasn’t yet a member, but the total lack of any other avatar people seemed odd…

…And then I found the ‘Postmaster undeliverable’ response to my optimistic email. It seems that whatever might once have taken place in ‘Deep Think’ was no longer in action. I felt quite disappointed by now and although there appeared to be a number of course specific OU ‘islands’ after another disappointing visit to an English language class I left to try some online research regarding developments without stopping to see if any of the other courses are still live.

More Recent Research on Learning in Second Life

Considering the fanfare given to this platform and others of its ilk back in the first decade of this century, there seems to be remarkably little follow through. Follow up research on educational initiatives in SL is quite hard to come by. For Deep Think I was only able to find an 2010 outline of the project (http://oro.open.ac.uk/21641/1/ICALT2010submission-poster.pdf (accessed 06-02-20)) An early evaluation taken from an introductory tour for tutors says feedback is positive. They liked the “visual design of deep|think and the important aspects of usability in terms of being user friendly and well signposted to aid navigation. A wide range of activities could be envisaged by the tutors in deep|think, from standard lectures to more social events.”

I have been unable to locate anything that might explain why it has been left to fossilise but perhaps the next sentences are somewhat telling: “their
first consideration seemed to be the migration of standard lecture format activity into the 3D world…”
It’s my opinion that the continued difficulties that many teachers seem to have adapting their delivery methodologies and resources to match the medium have had a significant impact on effective use of technology and helping students to build their skills. They also raised doubts about the students’ skills levels in using Second Life and the additional load this would cause. This is still an oft cited problem but I think stems from a fear that their own skills are inadequate to support a student who needs help.

Similarly, with the University of Southern Queensland project, I have been unable to locate any further research. However, there is still a partial thread online that says the site was shut down in 2014 http://sled.577505.n2.nabble.com/Terra-incognita-will-go-offline-tomorrow-9th-Jan-td7582536.html. It appears it was being maintained by a single ‘owner’ who could no longer sustain the responsibilities.

Clearly at that time there were great aspirations that SL should fill some gap in education and perhaps for some it is still something to aspire to. There is plenty of more general research available as well as guidance on how to set up and manage learning in virtual worlds (see bibliography). The SL Education Wiki lists a number of different universities and learning centres who all appear to be thriving, though I didn’t try to visit any others. I had also thought it might be a place where language learning would flourish but was unable to find much going on in that department either and was surprised not to find a British Council space there. I did venture into one supposed language group that looked innocuous enough but having only just registered was kicked out for being too young!

Looking at the more recent research, and the lists of learning spaces available on the Wiki, it seems to perhaps be identifying as a good space for accessible learning. There is still quite a bit written promoting situated learning in Virtual Worlds and SL themselves are certainly still promoting their platform and claiming a ‘Premium User Base’ of over 60,000. But from my brief foray it’s hard to imagine anything very much useful happening there or anywhere being particularly busy. It’s possible the spaces I visited were never intended to be enduring, but I don’t think so. It’s also possible that if a tutor specifies a meet up in SL an area might become busy at certain times for focussed activity. But it certainly isn’t the melting pot of activity that I’d imagined it might be by now, there’s no sign of people hanging out and learning, in fact, no sign of any people anywhere except in the Welcome Hall.

https://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2019/05/sl-premium-subscriptions-linden-lab-tyche.html (accessed 07-02-20)

Reflections on my cyber explorations

Second Life is a pretty amazing set-up. First up, it’s definitely pretty with it’s fantastic architecture, trees wafting in unfelt breezes laden with cherry blossom and peacocks strutting their stuff in the gardens that overlook idyllic looking seascapes, birds tweeting from the bushes and flying overhead…I stopped and hung out with a peacock for awhile, trying to figure out if anything I did had a reaction from it, I don’t think so – it could walk right through me! I’ve never played a video game so have nothing really to compare but it looks like a fairly complex and cleverly built software and easy enough to follow the tutorials and figure out how to get around. I guess for some, another positive could be the anonymity, the possibility to be whoever you want, although I’m not sure that would work in an HE group setting.

Although not specifically related to education, I did find Bloustein and Wood’s “Visualising disability and activism in Second Life” interesting. It has, according to their findings, become a place where identity can be explored and social activism can be nurtured

“In sum, identifying as having a disability in both SL (as an avatar) and in off-screen lives is for many of our respondents both a significant personal and political statement. In SL it can also be interpreted as a public statement of activism. It is a statement about identity and about the real or authentic self. For many of our respondents this also increased their claim to personal integrity. Criteria for belonging and acceptance, even of oneself, rely on the judgement of others for one’s sense of self is always ‘socially mediated’ (Gilpin et al., 2010: 260).”

So why doesn’t it appear to working as the educational utopia it was thought to become? Perhaps actually it is, just not at the same times and places as me. It was a bit of a whirlwind visit so more time researching and looking around to see if anything was missed would be helpful, but somehow I don’t think so. I’m also not sure I really want to. Although I’m a fan of Seely Brown and his ideas around Participation and Situated Cognition, I think stretching into Virtual Worlds is perhaps still a step too far. Those Deep think tutors were possibly right.

I also felt irritated by the suggestion that the whole world should need or want to access Higher Education (p.18). This seems to be in contradiction to much that the web2.0 resources can bring to educating the world. A further example of being so entrenched in current models it’s impossible to look beyond.

Personally, I also feel a resentment and slowly rising panic at the ever increasing amount of time we are expected to spend online. I work on a computer all day. My friends and family and family’s carers (two different lots, one of which also comes with their own App I have to monitor) expect me to keep in touch by text, email or messenger and respond within a reasonable time frame when they contact me. I’ve signed up for a distance MA so that brings a heavy load more of screen time just in reading, forums and writing assignments. Now we are required, on top of the forums, to blog and read each other’s blogs as well. If anyone dared to ask me at this point to go and hang out in study groups on Second Life as well I might be tempted to commit a virtual tantrum! Seely Brown (p.30) tells us that the world is speeding up and we need to speed up with it.

“In the twentieth century, the dominant approach to education focused on helping students to build stocks of knowledge and cognitive skills that could be deployed later in appropriate situations. This approach to education worked well in a relatively stable, slowly changing world in which careers typically lasted a lifetime. But the twenty-first century is quite different. The world is evolving at an increasing pace. When jobs change, as they are likely to do, we can no longer expect to send someone back to school to be retrained. By the time that happens, the domain of inquiry is likely to have morphed yet again.”

He’s right, we need to adapt but it seems that technology is speeding things up beyond a level that we are able to cope with and it’s possible that spending time learning in a virtual world such as Second Life is just one overload too many for the majority. Perhaps we’re thankfully not yet ready to slip fully into an unreal world when we’re still trying to make sense of the rapid changes in our real one, and so without outright rejecting it, uptake on Second Life hasn’t been what was anticipated. Perhaps it’s our addictions to other forms of Social Media that simply don’t allow time for another distraction?

Purser in “The Coming Crisis in Real-Time Environments: A Dromological Analysis” (2000) looks at how technology is shifting us from chronological time towards chronoscopic time and the impacts it can have. I feel that is a whole new post but will leave you with this thought.

“The Coming Crisis in Real-Time Environments: A Dromological Analysis” Purser, 2000

References

Bloustien, G. and Wood, D. (2015) Visualising disability and activism inSecond Life, Current Sociology, vol. 64, no. 1, pp. 101-121.

Gregory, S., Lee, M., Dalgano, B. and Tynan, B. (2016) LEARNING IN VIRTUAL WORLDS RESEARCH AND APPLICATIONS, Edmonton, AU Press, Athabasca University [Online]. Available at http://www.aupress.ca/books/120254/ebook/99Z_Gregory_et_al_2016-Learning_in_Virtual_Worlds.pdf (Accessed 6 February 2020).

James, W. (2019) The Economics of SL, New World Notes, [Online]. Available at https://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2019/05/sl-premium-subscriptions-linden-lab-tyche.html (Accessed 7 February 2020).

Kafai, Y. and Dede, C. (2014) “Learning in Virtual Worlds”, 2nd ed. in Cambridge Handbook Of The Learning Sciences, Second Edition, [Online]. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305426213_Learning_in_Virtual_Worlds/citation/download (Accessed 6 February 2020).

Land, R. (2006) Networked Learning And The Politics Of Speed: A Dromological Perspective., Glasgow, University of Strathclyde [Online]. Available at http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.694.5202&rep=rep1&type=pdf (Accessed 7 February 2020).

Purser, R. (2000) The Coming Crisis In Real-Time Environments: A Dromological Analysis, San Francisco, San Francisco State University [Online]. Available at http://online.sfsu.edu/rpurser/revised/pages/DROMOLOGY.htm (Accessed 6 February 2020).

Second Life Education – Second Life Wiki (2020) Wiki.Secondlife.Com, [Online]. Available at http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/Second_Life_Education (Accessed 6 February 2020).

Seely Brown, J. and Adler, R. (2008) Minds On Fire: Open Education, The Long Tail, And Learning 2.0, Educause Review [Online]. Available at https://er.educause.edu/articles/2008/1/minds-on-fire-open-education-the-long-tail-and-learning-20 (Accessed 7 February 2020).