Second Thoughts on Second Life

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.

The S-word
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 facilitate 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  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 TechnologyHoward 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.”

16 Replies to “Second Thoughts on Second Life”

  1. Great thoughts! Unfortunately, I feel like I don’t need to “cook” my post anymore (but I will). I think your points are well made and thought provoking. I believe there are two main types of people that are looking at Second Life for education… 1) someone in it for personal learning community and 2) those looking at it for learning with students. However, while one is really gung-ho (the former) and the other is cautious, doubtful and full of questions (the latter). It seems like a checks and balances system, which I find good.

    Many questions still popping up in my head… and

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for the research resources!!!!!

  2. Thank you for being a voice arguing for a historical perspective… this is a great “entry” post into the larger research that we need to be doing.

    SL is, indeed, the next evolutionary step in USENET, IRC, MOOs and MUDs… and yes, people were incredibly excited about them as well… and for some good reasons!

    I’d add “Hamlet on the Holodeck” by Janet Murray to your list, but it’s been years since I’ve read it.

    Oh… and I think we should ask one question… is it o.k. for teachers just have fun with something technological without having to figure out how to use it in school? If “all” SL does is make it easier and more fun for teachers from around the world to chat in a cool environment, should that be enough?

  3. No initial apology necessary, Sylvia! Thanks so much for sharing these reflections– I posted a few responses to my blog. 🙂 It is great to learn about your impressions, you’ve spend a lot more time “in world” than I have, and also have such a rich background knowledge to put these new virtual experiences on. I should have read Sherry Turkle’s book “Life on the Screen” for a class I took in 1996– It is on my bookshelf, but I never read the entire thing. I agree with your points about seeking identity and playing with identity– I think that is a theme Turkle took up quite a bit in her book. There is value in providing opportunities for people to do this, but experimenting with identity is quite different from what most of us conceive of as “professional development” for teachers. 🙂

  4. Wes,
    I think that the “playing with identity” is actually the BEST reason to explore SL wth teens. It’s extremely age=appropriate, but of course comes with challenges. That post is still “cooking”. 🙂

    The question about teachers having fun and learning for their own personal enjoyment is an important one. Getting teachers to take off their “teacher hat” and allow themselves to be learners is always a good thing. Should it be enough? Yes. Will it stop there? Doubt it!

    That’s why I emphasized the difference between professional development and casual collegial behavior. Teaching is probably the most isolated profession of all, especially in the US. Anything that gets teachers fired up and interacting with others is most likely a good thing. But, outside of a few early adopters, expecting that SL is going to have any more impact than a box of wine on a Friday afternoon might be pushing it!

  5. Wonderful post, Sylvia. I was delighted to see that you appreciated Tools for Thought, which sank like a stone when it was published, but seems to have found its way in the world as an adolescent.

    I would only add that the real pedagogical potential that I sense is in the ability to build, navigate, and manipulate simulations. If I were teaching architecture, archaeology, or molecular biology, I would have an opportunity to talk with students while walking through models of modern buildings or ancient ones, or even molecules. I think Alan Kay also sensed the power of using models and simulations, way back in the olden days. Transplanting the “sage on the stage” to a cutesy animated cartoon isn’t revolutionary. Standing next to a ribosome and talking about RNA replication while watching it happen might be.

  6. Those who have epiphanies DO NOT “force others to re-experience their transformative events”.
    Instead, they share their experiences with others, demonstrate what is possible, and empower others to have their own learning epiphanies.

    The vehicle counts if it is what enabled the epiphany to transpire.

  7. This post hits home with me, especially since I have been once of those who has been trumpeting the potentially revolutionary nature of SL. It is definitely true that the main advantage of SL for educators is the collegiality, and overcoming a sense of isolation. I also “second” the point that for ANYone to rediscover the fun of learning is potentially transformative (for them, if not for the larger system).

    I will just add that there are people working on the age separation issue (through one of the ELVEN Institute’s working groups, contact me–Dewey Jung–in SL for details), but the obstacles to turning SL into a true educational environment (where learning rather than sexual identity is the primary outcome) are enormous.

  8. Thank you for your thought-provoking post.

    As a technology coordinator who attended NECC this year, I felt shunned in my community for not having the life-changing, life altering epiphany in Second Life. I find myself swatting away the evangelists like I would the born again Christians and radical right and any Mormon at my door. Why? I really do not think the educational environment in Second Life is revolutionary. I have intentionally tried to explore SL. However, I am horrified at the lack of diversity in SL and how I think it sets us back back in terms of what it says about our society in terms of gender roles and sexual identity. What the die hard educators in SL don’t realize, they are like religious zealots who wind up isolating those who simply don’t agree with them, acting like you just aren’t enlightened if you extremely isolating being surrounded by “religious” zealots in the field, who act like you aren’t enlightened if you don’t completely buy into Second Life as an educator.

    My issue? Educators (or many of them) seem to take “fantasy” to mean “lack of judgement” when they are in Second Life. I just think it’s a scary statement that progressive minded people must create selves where they look more like Carmen Electra with 34DD’s than what is real.

    I think it’s a sad statement that teachers/librarians/educators feel the need to create lives where they must represent themselves as 34DD Carmen Electra look-alikes. I went to a course co-led by Eloise Pasteur, a leading figure in Second Life. The students were snickering and told me about a site she ran in Second Life, that was quite explict.This totally ruined her creditability as a teacher. See any “photo book” of librarians, teachers in Second Life. Are we trying to tell students to aspire to fantasy figures that don’t represent any form of reality?

    Is this really creating a revolution for people or just creating a network where like minded people from the same background and same culture are meeting? Are we just creating an exclusive environment where students learn that middle aged people are very sad about their external appearance and really would pay money to look like a stripper/pole dancer/any one else but themselves? Are we teaching students that there cannot be old people in SL? That being themselves and proud of their flaws is just not OK? Is there aging in SL? Black people in SL? Go to any of the groups in SL with libraries, teachers, ed tech, NMC. As educated and enlightened as these people are, you won’t find fat avatars, aging avatars, black avatars, the latino avatars. You’ll find people who are well, dressed like pole dancers. Second Life? I would like to educate my students in a world where there are people of all different sizes, ages, and races. Students will greet a Second Life that is white, sexualized, and youth-oriented, and white. Great. Not revolutionary in my book.

  9. Working with teens is probably the hardest thing to do in Second Life – simply because of the additional problems of getting all the necessary clearances required. From Linden Lab, from schools and from parents.
    Despite this, a group from the Open University managed, and have a report
    here. I think it makes good reading if you are wondering how SL might be used to support teaching with this age group.

    In my own presentations on SL, I don’t try to evangelize. I think its an interesting technology, its one I like personally, but it isnt a magical educational panacea. One of the main distinctions between SL and other virtual worlds (including text based MUDs and MOOs) is the ease with which any user can create and share their own content. This, I think, makes SL a very good platform for constructionist approaches to learning. It is the unique selling point of the platform.

  10. Tara:
    Sorry you seem to have had such negative experience both of existing SL users and of SL itself.

    When asked after my last presentation on SL whether someone should use it for teaching X or Y, I had to answer honestly that I wasnt there to sell SL. Happy to say what features of SL I think are useful for teaching – but I don’t see any need to push it onto anyone who doesnt want it. Its not for everyone. Not all staff like it. Not all students like it. It would be silly to pretend otherwise.

    My own experience in SL is that most educators do not ‘take “fantasy” to mean “lack of judgement” ‘. Most either simply do not have virtual sex-lives or keep such activity private and on seperate accounts. Eloise I know, and it has been her decision not to hide her sexuality – I can’t speak for her as to why she made this conscious decision.

    I also have experience of more diversity and less 34DD avatars amongst the avatars I’ve met in educational settings. Enough to confirm that there are avatars of advanced years and of a rich variety of hues. On the other hand, if a user of advanced years wants an avatar that is young and beautiful, I don’t see why they shouldnt be allowed to…

  11. I appreciate your viewpoint on SL. I realize that I may have been a little extreme in my former post, but I think this is in reaction to the “evangelists” in my sphere and feeling a little shunned in my own community for not feeling the magic. My point: there is exclusion in SL, just like RL. I would like to know where you are finding the variety of hues, ages, sizes. I couldn’t find them at the ISTE parties, the librarians in SL, and the NMC events or at NECC. If you can tell me where to find the diversity, it would be helpful.

    I do think people should be who they want to be. But if the world of SL is just filled with those who are young and beautiful, I just think it is a sad message to send to our children and students. I’m a little conservative about this, but as a mother, I want my child to grow up with many different images of beauty. In RL and otherwise.

  12. Speaking as the shocking and auto-destructive of credibility person Tara seems intent on slamming across the slogosphere: given I teach only adults, and you seem to insist we should all meet your requirement of appearing true to our RL appearance, can I ask why I should hide my sexuality to meet your mores? How is hiding my emotional responses different to hiding my appearance? I freely admit I don’t look like my avatar, but I’m more honestly her, I’m emotionally congruent and that’s a level of honesty I feel a lot happier with.

    As for no-alts – I think I’ve hinted at the answer to that. If I make an alt I’m playing a role rather than being me.

    I may have lost credibility to a small number of giggling students, but I’ve used SL to teach a large number successfully, both other educators and SL residents, losing a few along the way… well we all do that.

    Whilst I think the original entry is well written, and certainly reflects a point of view that needs to be considered, I think there are an ever increasing number of people learning successfully in SL, and learning for college/university courses. I follow activities on the teen-grid less, but they are learning there from what I do read. I refuse to believe they’re all teaching others their epiphanies, I know from experience that not all are in fact. Perhaps those that manage this are brilliant educators and can teach regardless of the obstacles you see. It seems much more likely they use SL to teach in different ways to the ways you’ve experienced, and there are ways to teach in SL which can be generally successful, at least as generally successful as any other approach in a RL classroom, usually moreso, although the dataset is still a bit small for that.

    Stopping to think is always a good thing, and reading contrary points of view is even more useful so thanks for the thoughts!

  13. I too was interested in Tara’s reaction to the issue of appearance. It does seem that many in Second Life including educators and even librarians decide to present themselves as perhaps younger and shinnier and more flamboyant than they might appear in Real Life. I’m especially struck by Tara’s comment that some students weren’t willing to get beyond a stereotypical view of their instructor’s appearance to accept the educational ideas offered as credible. That seems as much a problem as being unwilling to listen to a teacher who’s of another race or fat or old! Tara might want to consider using that incident as a teachable moment.

  14. Hello: OMG! (I just learned this one, this week from one of my online students!) So, OMG, thanks for the bibliography. I am starting the dissertation process and OMG will this be helpful. So thanks for saving me some work and sharing your insights.

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