Having wandered around Second Life for the past couple of weeks in search of anything more appealing than casinos, cybersex and endless pretty, deserted islands, I finally got organised enough last night to take part in my first formal educational event in world, a presentation by Dr John Bransford on ‘virtual environments as ways to reorganize thinking about research and education’.
Perhaps the best way of summing up my feelings about the session is ‘interested frustration’.
My avatar arrived at the venue a few minutes before the event was due to start, and then spent most of those few minutes trying to work out how to fly to a seat and sit down without wildly over shooting the ampitheatre. Quite a number of other people were there – apparently eight-eight in total – and they were shouting to each other through the chat screen, discussing various research projects and where they were from. There are no native voice capabilities in SL, and although there are various workarounds using Teamspeak or Skype, the organisers had decided the event should be text only. That’s fair enough: a system shouldn’t require external add ons to make it useable.
What would have helped, however, was for the presenter to have had some pre-prepared text from which he could copy and paste rather than attempting to type live. The combination of the length of time it took for each section of text to appear, and the sheer number of typos – an average of more than two per line – made it difficult at times for me even as a native English speaker to follow. There were also some problems when the speaker went out of the range of where his text could be ‘heard’, and those of us sitting on the far side of the arena missed a little of the presentation. This was quickly addressed by the organisers, however.
The presentation included a video (requires Quicktime) of a purported educational use of SL, where a group collaborates to solve a basic maze. Two main points struck me about this: firstly, that the group were using Teamspeak or a similar tool, and that the task would have been far more difficult if they’d had to rely on SL’s text facility only, particularly as speed was an issue. Secondly, I find it difficult to see how SL could be used for teaching abstract subjects that don’t have the kind of performative element that a science experiment might. While there are definite advantages and cost savings available from SL in the longer term for many of the same reasons as simulations, I struggle to see how it could be used to transform the way in which subjects like English Literature or Linguistics are taught.
A very useful Q&A session followed the talk. Moon Eggplant contrasted the potential for collaborative activity within SL with the guild or clan system found within many MMORPGs. That’s a very good point: games such as World of Warcraft offer players highly structured quests and challenges with clearly defined goals and which often require excellent collaboration amongst up to forty highly-skilled players at once. WoW, however, has a huge team of full-time professionals working on developing content, not a luxury open to many HEIs and FEIs. Buddy Sprocket raised the possiblity of ‘massively multi-author collaborative worlds’ and this was very warmly welcomed.
At first, I was disappointed that the event had been very much like a real world lecture, with us all sitting around ‘listening’ to a presenter and watching a brief video. But then it occurred to me that it was the fact that this event was being held at a set time and place, and the fact that we all had some kind of visible, tangible presence within the event, that made it much more immediate and meaningful than it would have been to listen to a podcast or read a conference paper. Having been a distance learning tutor, and now being a distance learning student, the opportunity SL gives for genuine engagement with colleagues shouldn’t be underestimated. I’ve taught using conference calls, and regularly participate in them, and tend to find them tiring and difficult. The addition of visual components, whether webcam streaming as in Breeze or visual markers like SL avatars, makes a genuine difference. As was pointed out during the session, SL does offer an excellent method of ‘combining learning by experience and learning by description’ and discussion.
There are some issues with using SL in education. The system requirements require a fairly high-end system, even though the graphics themselves aren’t all that impressive. Additionally, in-game currency is purchased using real world money, and the complex economy developing within the game means that pretty much everything worth having comes at a real world price. I’ve made the decision on various principles not to buy any money for my avatar, which means that she’s drifting rather aimlessly through the world rather than having any real identity or purpose within it.
Fortunately, the organisers had reversed their original decision to charge L$10 (ten Linden, or in world, dollars, equivalent to about 7c) for the event to avoid griefing; I wouldn’t have been able to participate had they charged for it, and in the event, there was no griefing at all of which I was aware, despite the event being reasonably well-publicised in advance.
Towards the end of the session, it was suggested that SL offers ‘one of the most powerful ways we know that might radically change the nature of education’: so far, it remains to be shown how.