Second Life in Education

Here’s a rare thing – a post about e-learning where I’m not wildly enthused!

Since 2006 I’ve been unable to figure out whether Second Life is a huge opportunity for live real-time collaboration in HE, or whether it’s a declining online video game with a clunky interface that encourages trivial levels of thinking.

My dilemma seems to be shared by the sector, too. Second Life actually predates Facebook but hasn’t grown at anything like the same rate; in fact, adoption of it by HE stakeholders seems to have drifted a little. In 2007 UCAS bought an ‘island’ (a server) in SL – here’s a picture of my avatar (Jon Duvall – find me in-world sometime if you’re an SL user). Look carefully at the picture. You’ll note that the island is currently advising students that places are still available… for 2007 entry.


Think about SL intellectually and you can see immediately why some early-adopter academics got excited about it. It’s a metaphor. Everything in it is a metaphor – even onself. And the quasi-social interactions in-world have obvious parallels in pre-Internet higher education.

5 reasons why SL is like traditional education

  • It’s synchronous, real-time interaction. Learners and teachers have to be online concurrently in order to meet in-world
  • It’s geographically specific – you have to be within ‘earshot’ of another character/avatar in order to communicate with them
  • Educational establishments in SL have auditoriums where large numbers of people can sit
  • SL environments are limited to a small number of participants due to the bandwidth involved – only about 60 users can inhabit the same island space. That’s a very small lecture hall…
  • It doesn’t support viral growth of ideas, information or concepts because nothing in-world is recorded

Of these, the first point is the most obvious downside – and also, in an e-learning context, the most significant. I’ll come back to real-time vs asynchronous learning in a moment…

Academic researchers, intoxicated by the SL ‘sociology metaphor’ perhaps, were keen to explore opportunities. There are even some in-world conferences – and the JISC were keen to fund these investigations so we could all evaluate the possibilities of the technology/game/metaphor/experience. I’ve met songwriters in-world, of course, but never written a song. I’ve met researchers but never read one of their papers. In ‘first life’ (i.e. my real lectures) I demo’d SL live to a group of students back in 2006 (we attended a covers gig in-world with a real singer and an animated avatar), and we discussed whether it might be an intriguing marketing opportunity for nascent bands and artists. A few tried it – but no-one got any more gigs or punters as a result (contrast with myspace and Facebook, which is the bread and butter marketing platform of every new musician).

Lots of Universities signed up to SL in 2006-7. Here I am at the deserted campus of Southampton University. They took an innovative approach, creating a remarkable (looking) campus in-world.

It seems, in Southampton’s case, like their primary strategic motive was marketing. And (IRL) they have an impressive campus. Here I am walking over an interactive 3D map, which builds the environment of the building you’re in around your avatar; this is their concert hall.

It’s clear that someone has seen a possible marketing opportunity to be directed specifically at overseas students. Sitting in the outdoor in-world cinema auditorium, my avatar watched a Quicktime video of some international music students discussing why they like studying at Southampton.

My perception of Second Life is that it’s an amazing technical achievement and an intellectually fascinating social concept. But any user (or learner) benefit it has can be provided more effectively by other online means. Further, the bandwidth requirements of the environment combined with its real-time nature mean that it’s actually a very poor medium for delivering information, learning or social interaction online.

Contrast SL with Facebook (as an example of online interaction between people), which came out around the same time (2006-7).

5 reasons why Facebook is not like traditional education

  • It’s asynchronous – users can engage with it when they want to
  • It’s geographically all-encompassing – users can access it from anywhere, including mobile devices
  • Educational establishments don’t have to ‘build’ communities or virtual presences – they build themselves from fragmented groups of users who find each other voluntarily
  • FB environments can have an unlimited number of users
  • It survives purely on the viral nature of content – memetic communication. There are no rules of (social) engagement – ideas and relationships live or die based on their popularity

It’s worth noting that points 1, 2 and perhaps 4 are also provided by VLEs.

And now let’s look at the democratic evidence. SL adoption rates (beyond ‘Try Me’ experimenters) are small – see this early article from 2006. Contrast this with the growth of Facebook. To compare stats –

  • 42,000 users are currently using SL as I write this, and 1.3 million users have used it during the last 60 days.
  • More than 120 million users log on to Facebook at least once each day.

Of course, SL & FB are very different tools – but I think they show an interesting contrast between the relative popularity of synchronous and asynchronous interaction.

LectureIT colleagues often get very excited about the idea of webcasting a lecture, but I can’t see the point of going through all that hassle – the balance between technical setup and user benefit isn’t right. If you’re going to arrange for lots of people to be in the same virtual ‘place’ simultaneously, you’re giving participants a slightly poorer (and often technically underwhelming) version of a real life lecture. You’ve saved them some travel, but beyond the environmental advantage of reducing travel, you haven’t really enhanced learning. Webcast a lecture and people can access it once. Record it and post it online and people can access it forever.

I hope this blog entry demonstrates that despite my often breathless evangelism for e-learning and all things Web 2.0, the SL example shows that just because something is online, it’s not necessarily a better tool than its traditional equivalent. When I teach rock bands about arranging, we work ‘live’ with guitars and drum kits – because they’re the most efficient tools for the job. Even the live lecture/seminar still has a place, despite its limitations as a method of information exchange, discussion and enquiry. But if the lecture has a part to play in 21st century learning, so does the blog, wiki, BBS and email exchange. And these asynchronous methods provide positive advantages for the learner, precisely because they can be accessed at the user’s convenience.

And that, really, is my (e-learning) point – what web users seem to want is asynchronous interaction. When we build e-learning objects we need to empower students by giving them access to learning when the tutor is not online. And this means generating great content, and ensuring people can build online communities around that content – and around each other.

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