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October 27, 2006 / conceptbin

Second Life and E-learning

My presentation at My So-called 2nd Life was about new possibilities in the market for 3D e-learning platforms. I focused on what Second Life (or analogous platforms) could become, and why there are some interesting opportunities in the education market right now.

We can summarize the history of internet-based e-learning as a progression from asynchronous communication to synchronous: Initially, teachers adopted the older models of correspondence courses and distance-learning by putting course content online: First, virtual course books and handouts (static HTML), then virtual classrooms (e.g., WebCT, Blackboard), and now “blended learning” in a distributed learning space encompassing both classrooms, tutorials and online interaction (face-to-face, online support materials, email access to tutor, discussion boards, class blogs, etc.).

In practice, teaching is about 3 key elements: Content, supporting materials, and most importantly dialogue. Conversation, as we know, is inherently unpredictable and off-topic. The strength of the conventional seminar, from Plato onwards, is that it allows for digression. Learning is not the linear acquisition of content. It’s the activity of leading the student around an area of interest, knowledge or skill so they can explore it and acquire it themselves. True pedagogy, in that sense, can’t bee too much “on the nose” – it has to incorporate a sense of potentiality, of the unexpected and unrehearsed.

Second Life can teach a valuable lesson to those seeking to develop educational software that allows for digression: It is now the internet’s premier 3D environment for user-generated content. Second Life is Web 2.0 as a spatial metaphor. Like SL, an e-learning platform has to be as open as possible – the interface has to allow for new tools to be built from scratch within the environment.

Universities, schools or corporations require e-learning systems that demand only standard internet-skills of the students, and a very small initial skillset of teachers. If it takes more than 5 minutes to figure out how to put up a basic page and upload some handouts, there’s something wrong. Rule of thumb: If it requires training sessions, your software has problems.

Now, Second Life can definitely be used for education purposes. There’s already a lot of very interesting e-learning activity going on there. However, those activities are conducted by participants who are already Second Lifers – access and skills are not an issue for them to begin with. Second Life is not easily accessible because of (1) the bandwidth and computing requirements (at minimum a Mac G4 or a Windows machine with a beefy processor and graphics card), and (2) the skillset and vocabulary required to navigate the world. Hence, Orientation Island:

Graduation pic
Here’s my avatar, Garth, about to graduate. A proud moment for all concerned.

The very need for Orientation Island shows that Second Life is not accessible and lightweight enough to use in mainstream education and training. This is the key challenge for anyone who wants to develop such a system. Of course, Prof. Charles Nesson of the Harvard Law School made the news recently for teaching a class inside Second Life. As a proof of concept, that’s fine, but as a feasibility study it fails on one simple premise: He needs a tech-support staff of seven (see the video here) to do it.

Nesson’s video raises a key question for me: Do we really need a spatial metaphor to navigate an online learning environment? The user needs an exponentially larger skillset to build and use a 3D online environment – whether it’s for education or collaboration. (Active Worlds Educational Universe (AWEU) is an attempt to translate this into education, still very much at the experimental level). One benefit of a 2D interface is it’s lack of features, simple skillset required of users, and a modest demand on computing resources and bandwidth.

With those practical restrictions in mind, here’s a loosely defined list of opportunities, ranging from short term to extended long term:

Short term: (1) 2D Web 2.0 options for teachers, using a blog/wiki platform for simple delivery of audio with visuals, chat, discussion boards, shared text/audio/video resources (blogs, wikis), allowing both private and group voice communications.

Medium/long term: (2) A 3D platform built on top of option 1, with integrated voice communication (unlike Second Life Education with it’s Vivox solution). This could possibly be divorced from a “universe” like Second Life and hosted on a secure intranet. This would need a “lightweight” interface that is far more immediately usable than SL’s. (Interestingly, the new World of Warcraft is a good example of such an interface, see Greg Kasavin’s Gamespot review video).

This could be an optional 3D “virtual classroom” module, serving as an environment for online seminars, hangout for distance learners, etc.

Extended Long Term: (4) Augmented Reality options, overlaying the real world with 3D information. A digital space could be imported into a physical environment (classroom, lecture theatre, outdoor park, performance space, private living room, etc.), and a student could attend a seminar from home, interacting with an illusion of full-size avatars in his/her living room.

Of course this is just a brief sketch of possibilities. The key point is that Second Life holds many lessons for developers of educational software, but in itself the SL world is right now not a feasible place for most education/training providers to build an outpost. However, the possibilities it raises cannot be ignored. Anyone interested in the potential future of e-learning would be foolish not to play in Second Life and other online environments.



Leave a Comment
  1. Hannes Högni Vilhjálmsson / Oct 27 2006 2:15 pm

    The question “Do we really need a spatial metaphor to navigate an online learning environment?” really provokes the right kind of critical thinking about these environments. My answer would be that as long as the spatial nature of the environment is only there as a mere visual gimmick that places a whole new level of navigational burden on the user – no, we absolutely don’t need the distraction. However, from real life we know that spaces can be good for learning. Typically people prefer meeting face-to-face when attempting to learn from each other. The problem is that the online 3D space is simply an incredibly poor imitation of the real world. And I’m not just talking about the graphics. For example, in the real world you never have to think much about how to move or animate your body – but in the online 3D worlds you have to constantly manipulate your body (when navigating, looking around, having conversations, …). These layers of control that get dumped on you are one of the major distractions that undermine the possible benefits of using the spatial metaphor in the first place.

  2. Carol Withey / Sep 29 2009 12:23 am

    All very interesting -I was thinking or going to the second life staff development day this year but this has discouraged me somewhat- all sounds very complicated and we certainly don’t have the technical support. I also take the point above , re practical difficulties and comparions with the real world- my students are disengaged enough as it is and technology is helping them to lead isolated lives – do I really want to encourage it even more? I would probably have ethical issues too given that I lecture in Criminal Law.

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