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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Second Life for Educators



Well, hello again, faithful readers!  My New Year’s resolution to post here more frequently seems to have gone the way of most of my resolutions.  But I have something new for you today, and it’s a wonder I haven’t talked about it much sooner, since I am a teacher in SL and have been a teacher in RL in the past.   

Like most of my articles, this one comes about because of an encounter in Second Life.  A couple of weeks ago, I met a newcomer at Caledon Oxbridge.  As it turned out, he is an educator in Real Life, and was interested in using Second Life in his high school classroom.  So today’s piece is all about doing that…and also some reasons why you might NOT want to do that.

SL is a great educational tool.  You can have a virtual classroom, and talk (with voice or text) to an audience of students who may be physically separated by thousands of miles.  You can have a display on which you can present PowerPoint-like slide shows.  You can display video clips that you have uploaded to sites like YouTube.  You can give out “handouts” to your students…notecards, URL links, images, and virtual objects.

SL is ideally suited for teaching about SL, of course, and my own classes at Caledon Oxbridge deal with Second Life topics.  Things like how to buy virtual land, avatar safety, and how to shop for things in SL.  SL has also been used to teach real world topics such as languages, or even anatomy.  Programming skills can be taught using the Linden Scripting Language (LSL) and students can see the results immediately, in the operation (or non-operation) of their scripts.  

You can teach lessons on how to interact with others.  SL is a very social environment.  You can teach roleplaying and how to “get into a character”.  You can hold debates.  You can teach lessons in business and economics, even having students create their own virtual products and attempt to market them.

As a teaching environment, SL has several advantages.  These include:

  • Ability to reach a group that is geographically dispersed (distance learning)
  • Anonymity.  Differences and biases caused by race, gender, age, or disability can be erased
  • Time flexibility.  You can build a self-paced tutorial or class that students can access at any time
  • Multimedia tools.  You can teach using text or voice or both.  You can display images, and link to streaming media and websites
  • Ability to create 3D models of all kinds of things
  • Opportunity to practice social skills in a different and nonthreatening environment.

But Second Life also has some marked drawbacks.

  • Lack of privacy.  Most places in SL are accessible to anyone.  Imagine holding your class on a busy street corner in real life, and you can begin to see what can happen.  Non-students can arrive and disrupt your class.  There are steps you can take to reduce this sort of distraction, such as owning your own land and making it accessible only to your student group.  However, ultimate privacy (your own separate and private region) carries a high cost…$1,000 for it to be created by Linden Lab, and $295 per month in ongoing fees.
  •  Undesirable content.  If your students are under 18, they may only access regions with a General maturity rating.  Even so, there may be visitors who are decidedly not G-rated.  Imagine, for example, a naked man with a rampant erection materializing in your classroom.  If your students are 18 or older, they may access Moderate and Adult regions, and there is no way to keep them from doing so, since they can log on as their avatar from any computer that has the viewer software installed.  Lots of the Adult content in Second Life is, to put it mildly, VERY adult.  Do you want to explain to irate parents that you showed little Shirley how to access smut on the internet?  Or that little Johnny met the pedophile who molested him through the virtual world you introduced him to?
  • SL’s Public Reputation.  Tell people on the street that you use Second Life, and you will likely get one of two reactions:  a) “Huh?  What’s that?” or b) “You’re into that cyber sex stuff?  You pervert!”
  • Anonymity.  While this can be an advantage, it can also be used by the unscrupulous to hide behind.  Young, trusting people can be fooled by an avatar with a smooth line.
  • Age restrictions.  Children under 13 may not access Second Life under any circumstances.  Those 13 to 16 may do so only under strictly controlled circumstances…in an access-restricted region set up and overseen by an approved group, such as a school or a scout troop or a church youth group.  For more on how to set up such a region, see this SL Wiki entry.  Those who are between 16 and 18 may register their own SL accounts, but may only visit General regions.
  • Scams and phishing.  If your students really “get into” SL, they may buy or accumulate some Linden dollars ($L), SL’s virtual currency.  This “play money” has real value, as it can be exchanged for real world cash through PayPal.  Your students could be scammed out of their money by various shady characters.
  • Technical requirements.  You need a fast internet connection and a capable computer to access Second Life.  Even a computer a few years old can be slowed to a crawl by SL’s demands.  In fact, even buying a NEW computer does not guarantee success...a lot of new computers economize by using "integrated graphics", but SL needs a dedicated graphics card...you need to look for a "gaming computer".   And of course, if something goes wrong either on your end or the student’s end, class is over.

Most of the above drawbacks have to do with the fact that Second Life is open to everyone, not only your students.  There’s a solution to that, but it carries its own downsides.

The possible solution is to use a different virtual world, one that is closed to outsiders.  You can create a virtual world very like a Second Life region on your own computer, using open source software called OpenSim.  Your students can then access this region (if they can access your computer via the internet or your school LAN), using any of a number of “viewer” programs.   

If you want your students to have access to a larger world, you can create your region in, or in some cases connect it to, a larger OpenSim grid.  There are several of these virtual worlds…InWorldz, OSGrid, and Kitely, just to mention three.  Connecting to one of these worlds could lead to the same kinds of privacy problems that you find with SL, but it’s not as likely, because they are much smaller in terms of both size and active population.  Plus, the population itself tends to be better-behaved as a group.

The drawbacks of using one of these OpenSim-based worlds, or your own private OpenSim region, are the mirror image of SL’s problems:

  • Lack of social interaction.  You may be the only people in the world.  Even if you’re not, it can be hard to find someone else to talk to.
  • Lack of content.  The enormous variety of user-created content that you find in SL is simply not there in other virtual worlds.
  • Level of Tech Expertise Needed.  It can be tricky to get an OpenSim region up and running on your computer.   Grids like InWorldz and Kitely make it much simpler, and the dollar cost is a lot lower than SL.

For more (much more!) on people who are using OpenSim worlds as educational tools, see Ener Hax’s blog, I Live in Science Land.

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