Education in Virtual Worlds, Events, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

Second Life Teaching Yesterday’s News, and the Sun Rises

There’s nothing like meat space for nuance, conversations on the bus, the level of applause in an audience or lack of it - and at the New Media Consortium conference its been no different - maybe once we’re all walking around with expressive avatars or Emotiv headsets or whatever, we’ll be able to give off that body language that you can only really feel by being there, and at Princeton this year the body language is a sort of collective foot shuffle when it comes to Second Life.

OK…well, first, this is anecdotal. It’s not like I ran around taking a survey of people. All those Harvard and MIT name tags made me nervous. Other than the folks from Apple and IBM and Sun and so on, I figure I was the only non-academic there, sort of slinking into the back of the room and hoping no one really noticed me in case I got asked to clean the blackboards or something.

And maybe I came late to the game. Because whenever Second Life was mentioned it was always with a sort of wistful sigh, whether in the keynotes or the individual presentations, sort of in the context of “we all learned in Second Life that immersive environments hold great potential, now…let’s talk about what’s coming along to replace it.”

And strangely, this follows on the heels of the Games for Health Conference in Baltimore where there was a similar sentiment. That Second Life showed the promise of the immersive platform but isn’t a place anyone really wants to dig into anymore, they’re too busy programming Wiis and building simulations on the back of Torque or whatever. And same thing with the Virtual Worlds conference in New York, where Sibley of ESC waved his hands around and tried to get the audience to grab their pitchforks or strings of code so they’d go out and fill those gaps in the metaverse technology.

His roadmap was all about engagement levels and the missing pieces to the techno puzzle. He promised a robust conversation on his blog and has happily churned out one post since April.

From ESC.

So, three conferences, three senses that the promise was never quite fulfilled, too frustrating, too many roadblocks, and so three audiences for whom Second Life is an ALMOST platform - the branding folks, the games folks (and games in the broadest sense of immersion for the purposes of changing behavior related to health) and now, my sense only, the education crowd.

My Avatar Doesn’t Get Around Much Anymore

At NMC it’s the first conference I’ve been to where you register your avatar as well as your real name, and there’s a little slot in the badge holder, and the thing is, 80% of the people attending seemed to have avatars, so it’s not like they don’t get it….400 sims or whatever it is that the universities have signed up for must be a sign of something, Princeton has it’s architectural wonders and its big sculpted flower thing and I KNOW there’s a lot happening in Second Life, I post about it here and there, trying to keep track of the highlights a little, just to remind myself that it’s a wide wide grid and there are a lot of prims being rezzed.

But like any new toy, it felt, at least in this crowd who would be wearing tweed patches on their elbows if they weren’t wearing khakis and Eddie Bauer button downs or whatever, as if the shine had come off a little bit, they DID the build, they HELD a seminar in world, and some of them pushed it a little further.

And I listened on the bus back and forth to campus, and at lunch, and heard some pretty enthusiastic folks talking about video mash-ups and Nings for their classes and whether they had Facebook profiles and other new shiny toys, and I came away with the idea that these folks saw Second Life, they know what’s there, and they’re reserving further heart for other things. Their passion isn’t stoked like it maybe once was, and that maybe they haven’t taken a really good tour of the Grid lately to see if there’s anything else going on beyond the virtual classroom walls. It’s not to say they don’t have a sense of it - but they’re not going to bother translating Wikitecture to the classroom, there are some other issues to deal with first.

We Want Open Source So We Can Be More Secure
Now for all their joy and wonder at educating today’s fine minds, a lot of this is about competition: with each other, for the attention of their fickle kids, for research dollars, and for publication. And these are good things - healthy competition goes a long way to fostering innovation and growth. But it also leaves them stuck a little, because everyone’s dancing around the topic of an intellectual commons, which sounds a lot to me like open source, and they’re wondering about copyright, and who owns what, and they brought up that nasty word interoperability about 100 times.

Because even the teachers are facing that big wall, that rushing river of code - the open source, open rights, creative commons, flood the world with content and let everyone mash it up and something nice will come of it and we’ll all go home happy and liberated and collaboration is the key to our humanity’s growth.

Um. But you go first.

So you have this sort of embedded contradiction: the universities need to be working on platforms that are open source BECAUSE they need those open platforms to be secure, to sit on THEIR server farms somewhere, to protect the information of their students and teachers, that link in to Moodle or whatever. They need it to be open source mainly because they need to then lock it off.

So Second Life, today, is stuck. Because until it lets the schools do what IBM is doing and host sims behind a firewall, it’s a prototype and not the real thing. Wonderland, which IS a prototype, they’re treating like the real thing because they can have a copy, host it themselves, and even though their avatars look like crap who cares - it’s their own and they can do what they want with it.

As Jordan reported from the Wonderland side of things:

Everyone asked about security, particularly those teachers who want to make use of virtual worlds but not expose their students to others using the virtual world for less-savory purposes. We told them, of course, with Wonderland, they can set up their own instances of the server and control access by using an LDAP server for authentication. I then told them about the fine-grained security work being done by Tim Wright at Notre Dame (Note to Tim: LOTS of folks are really interested in your work!).

Photo from Wonderblog.

So, Wonderland has critical issue number one wrapped up: your kids won’t accidentally teleport to Gor. The data is secure. And you can link it to other data behind the firewall.

And it has more going for it as well, mostly around the interchange of content with external sources. With SL currently limited in its ability to port in Web-based content, and to easily port out data collected in world (although kudos to SLoodle), it’s a klunky work-around to integrate SL into other Web-based curricula.

And finally, if I heard the word “unstable” once, I heard it 100 times. A teacher is only going to stand in front of a class, virtually or otherwise, so many times and have the grid crash, or have a sudden “maintenance outage” or have a rolling restart before they move back to chalk. Forget about disruption - it’s embarrassing. And teachers don’t like to be embarrassed anymore than anyone else does.

Think about it: you’re 40-something, trying to inject some new technology into your classroom. Your students are mostly used to WoW and console games and Facebook. You suck it up and decide to hold a class in SL. And it crashes. Or it’s unavailable at class time. And you can HEAR the kids snickering, and now you actually DO feel old, and out of touch…because your attempt to be hip with the virtual world stuff left you with Grid marks on your face, no WAY are you doing that again unless you can blame it on the University IT department.

Project Wonderland - bring it ON!

Why They Need to Wander Around More


There’s something interesting about how virtual spaces are being viewed. And it’s a lot like you or I view them, probably. They’re immersive. They’re places you can sit, and chat, and maybe rez a prim or two. Your teacher can do some cool stuff - make a presentation in world, link it to a Web-based quiz, flip it over into a Ning discussion group or whatever - and there you go….presence, avatars and identity, we shared some time together….


And it’s the same but as with Second Life as a collaborative tool, which people really mean as “a way to meet when we’re all in different geographic locations”. Because the but is that there’s something more going on in Second Life, more that HAS gone on, it’s just that few people seem to be making the connections yet.

In the opening keynote address, Diana Oblinger talked a lot about how newer technologies allow for new modalities for learning. She touched on immersion as one of those modalities, but she also talked about mass collaboration as problem solving rather than as meeting, and she talked about digital storytelling, and haptics, and simulations.

And it strikes me that the source for some of the best practices for education in Second Life might just lie outside of the academy. Whether it’s Studio Wikitecture or the embedding of Google maps in world or whether it’s the world of what’s not POSSIBLE in real life which has enriched our ability to conceptualize, collaborate and express.

Image: NPIRL

In all fairness - there are a lot of innovative people in academia. There are projects, and approaches, and tools, and new ways of thinking about thinking. And the same barriers facing academia face the brands, and the businesses, and others who might just believe in the possibility of Second Life but, um, you go first….because for now we’re still waiting for it to get out of Beta phase, it’s still unstable, it still doesn’t give me the tools I need if I’m going to do REAL work there….it’s a fun place to visit, I’ll throw down a prototype or two, learn a trick that might be handy later, but I’m not going to bet the bank on something where my clothes can’t be guaranteed to show up when I log in.

And while Linden might try - the second week of their um birthday celebrations is an example, I guess…there’s a need to establish best practices not just across the disciplines of academia, but across the artists and architects as well, between the NPIRLers and the eggheads (er, sorry, couldn’t help it, revenge for being uneggy).

Show me your spinny prims and I’ll show you a new way to learn. Because so long as SL is viewed as a platform for slightly different ways of holding a class instead of a new way of thinking about the world, it will always just be another classroom, and one where you can’t lock the doors and the lights flicker ominously at that.


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