When I joined the group of educators in Second Life called the CAVE (see previous post) I promised myself I would do two things: 1) approach Second Life with an open mind and 2) write about it along the way.
I have written about it to some extent (another previous post, My First Second Life Lesson), but it still feels like I have a long way to go. The last dozen times I’ve been there it’s been a very frustrating technical experience (freezes, crashes) and very little real time to do anything interesting. Even when it works, it still feels like a place that is looking for a use in education, or just reminds me of the dozens of other places I’ve hung out at in my long life online, like Tapped In or various text-based virtual worlds.
My thinking has somewhat crystallized around 3 topics:
- Second Life as a place for professional development (vs. professional collegiality)
- Second Life as a place for learning with K-12 students (have to save for next time!)
- Second Life as a platform in general (another next time!)
I apologize in advance for the length of this post. It’s both too long and too short. Too long for a blog, too short for real insight. It’s a work in progress, and I only really got to one of my intended three topics. so please forgive me!
And finally, to gain any REAL insight and perspective, I needed to re-read more seminal works in this area. I’m still working my way through some and I’ve written about them at the end of this post. It’s easy to get carried away with small technological advances, and think about Second Life (or any currently available 3D virtual world) in a vacuum. But why not stand on the shoulders of giants? So if you want to skip my musings in this much too long blog post, jump down to the end and read some of the people who really count in this field!
Professional development vs. professional collegiality
It’s been fun having nice chats with educators in Second Life, some random, some planned. I can really see the need for educators, who are a traditionally isolated profession, to bond in new ways with other like-minded individuals. Like many conferences, I’ve found that simple conversations and random meetings with new people are more interesting than the formal events. This is more about collegiality than professional development. Also like many conferences, the format of formal events is even much more instructionist than in real life, simply because of the limits of the interface. Sitting in a virtual lecture hall is hardly revolutionary, even if you do it wearing wings or a cat costume.
Isolation of professional development from professional practice
Professional development, in my opinion, has to have a component that links back to your actual place of professional practice, and for most teachers, this is a classroom. Lectures alone cannot be professional development, even in real life. Professional development to me has to include professional practice, and unless you are learning to teach in Second Life, it seems like a distancing element, rather than one that enhances professional practice for a classroom teacher.
For K-12 educators especially, Second Life constrains any educator/student relationship because of the age regulations. The forced separation of teachers and students, except for isolated instances, creates an experience that is further distant from the teacher’s own classroom. For professional development to be ultimately successful, I think that it has to re-integrate at some point with the teacher’s actual professional environment, which is the classroom. Second Life offers a dead-end in that regard. (I’m planning to write more about the age separation issues later!)
Collegiality – it’s a good thing!
I think Second Life used as a professional collegial environment is terrific, but similar to other such environments such as Tapped In–in other words, not terrible, but hardly revolutionary. I know, I know, there are people who love it and have learned a lot. You can certainly learn through collegial interaction with other professionals, and really, there should be a lot more opportunities for teachers to do that. But counting on Second Life as a platform for more than just voluntary, informal collegial interaction seems premature at best.
Some people are going to be taken with the fun of flying around or visiting virtual museums, but many more are going to be put off by the “bleeding edge” aspect of constant freezes, crashes, high bandwidth demands, and the difficulty of simply moving your avatar around. At this point, I think the constraints of the platform overwhelm any advantage as a reliable professional development environment for educators.
In addition, what early adopters of any new technology often fail to realize is that the things that hook them about new technology are exactly the reasons the next wave of adopters will hate it. The high-risk, high learning curve, first-to-market excitement that is so attractive to early adopters is like a big red warning light to the next wave. Enthusiasm for the new new thing has a short shelf life, and most people are quite willing to wait for someone else to shake all the bugs out. So while Second Life as a professional development platform may be just the ticket to rev up the engines of early adopters, the rest of the educator population is going to look at every crash, every naked avatar that shows up in the middle of a meeting, and every interface quirk as confirmation that technology is not ready for real classrooms or worthy of their time.
Second Life is primarily a platform for adults to explore their sexual identity. Ignoring the overtly sexual nature of Second Life is like going to a strip club and then wondering why there are naked people there. The owners of Second Life, Linden Labs, have expressed their support for education, and have discussed their intent to provide more educationally appropriate worlds. However, this is a business model that has to work for them and it’s not going to be driven by education no matter the best of intentions.
It’s perfectly fine to explore Second Life as a platform for different kinds of professional interaction, but getting married to specific features or its proprietary scripting language seems short-sighted, given that the platform will always be tuned to make more money from the primary function of the world, which is sexual in nature.
Epiphany as the ultimate educational goal
Finally, I can see that people who get deeply excited about Second Life have had a life-changing experience, a learning epiphany, that they want to evangelize. I have the feeling that it’s not a function of Second Life that they find transformative, it’s the experience of learning something that’s hard fun that clicks for them. I know that when I found programming, it did the same thing for me, and even after 30 years, I still have difficulty not yaking about programming as a transformative experience that everyone should be doing.
Learning ABOUT Second Life is different than learning IN Second Life, but the two get conflated. Learning to navigate in a new world and becoming an expert in something that very few people know about are heady experiences. The experience of learning Second Life also tends to confirm what many educators feel about learning, that learning by DOING is the way they learn and the right way to facillitate all learning, adults and children. Dusty research articles and ed-psych terms that were meaningless in grad school suddenly come to life. The excitement of learning, and of sharing that experience with others sparks ideas and interests in learning more, sharing more, and evangelizing.
Even now as I share my doubts about Second Life, I would NEVER begrudge someone else their epiphany. I hope educators who are having transformative experiences in Second Life continue to share them with others, but realize that it’s the epiphany that counts, not the vehicle. Providing multiple avenues for such learning epiphanies, for both educators and children, should be the ultimate goal, not to force others to re-experience your own personal transformative event.
Re-reading seminal works
Back when computers were first connected to each other, some of the earliest uses were text-based chats and virtual spaces where people could hang out. I’m even so old that I had access to ARPANET when I was an engineering student at UCLA. I think I’ve had the same conversation in Second Life as I did on ARPANET with teletypes chattering out one line at a time. (Where are you? What time is it there? What do you do? How’s the weather?) I think the only conversation I’ve had in SL that I’ve never had before typically starts out, “where did you get your shoes?” and I probably have enough of those in real life anyway!
People really aren’t that complicated, and it doesn’t matter if you can “see” an avatar or not. Imagination can fill in most blanks. Believe me, there were text based and 2D long-distance love affairs, people who were “addicted” to dial-up BBS worlds, spats, identity crises, crazy times, and serious discussions. There were people who could program fairy-tale lands full of unexpected surprises around every corner, using scripting languages that had no user manual and no relationship to any known programming language. It was just as fun as Second Life, really!
There were also serious researchers who took on the job of documenting this new culture like anthropologists, predicting where it would go, what impact it would have on human culture, and how it could be used for education. No serious consideration of Second Life would be complete without re-reading these works. Here are just a few I’ve been reading — I’m sure there are many more.
The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit by Sherry Turkle. I took this off my bookshelf a while back and re-read it. Written in 1984 (and she worked on it for 6 years before that), this book is about identity and self in the age of the computer and specifically talks about children and computers. Even the chapter titles are timely, “Adolescence and Identity: Finding Yourself in the Machine”, “Hackers: Loving the Machine for Itself”, “Video Games and Computer Holding Power”, for example. It’s tempting to try to explain the book in a few sentences or link to Dr. Turkle’s wikipedia entry (ok, here it is), but really, it’s a book you have to read for yourself. (If you buy a new copy, be sure to the the 20th anniversary reissue.)
Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (table of contents and synopsis by the author) Written 10 years later, this book continues her ethnographic exploration into computer culture and human identity. This book could be written about Second Life, and has some really interesting early insights into people using virtual worlds to try on different identities, genders, and personas. (Sherry Turkle website)
Tapped-In. A virtual world for teacher professional development since 1997. Research conducted in and on Tapped In is extremely relevant for Second Life educators.
MOOSE Crossing – PhD project of Amy Bruckman. (Dissertation) This virtual world was designed specifically for children and research into Seymour Papert’s theory of constructionism within a virtual community. A terrific read!
“The central claim of this thesis is that community and construction activities are mutually reinforcing. Working within a community helps people to become better dancers/programmers/designers and better learners. Conversely, working on design and construction projects together helps to form a strong, supportive community.”
“In research about the Internet, too much attention is paid to its ability to provide access to information. This thesis argues that the Internet can be used not just as a conduit for information, but as a context for learning through community-supported collaborative construction. A “constructionist” approach to use of the Internet makes particularly good use of its educational potential. The Internet provides opportunities to move beyond the creation of constructionist tools and activities to the creation of “constructionist cultures.”
Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology – Howard Rheingold wrote this series of essays in 1985 about the pioneers of the computer age, from Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage to Alan Kay, Brenda Laurel, and many more. I have a newer edition published in 2000 that contains what Howard calls a “retrospective futurism” where he re-addresses his predictions in the light of what really happened. Before I went to see Alan Kay speak at Educomm in June (that post here), I pulled out Tools for Thought and read the chapter “The Birth of the Fantasy Amplifier”. The perspective gave me a different lens with which to view Alan Kay’s speech. Even though he was talking about the One Laptop per Child global initiative and the programming language Squeak, the seeds of the “Fantasy Amplifier” concept that fueled his many contributions to this field were evident.
Seymour Papert. Even though Dr. Papert didn’t specifically focus on virtual worlds, he’s the father of educational computing and constructionism, and is a key link between everything I’ve mentioned here. I think I’m going to have to save that discussion for later, since this has gotten WAY too long! But here’s a link to some of his articles and speeches that exist online. His three books, Mindstorms (for researchers), The Children’s Machine (for teachers), and The Connected Family (for parents), are also amazing and have changed the way many people view the computer as a “tool to think with.”