Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Is Second Life 100% experimental?

If you were running a business and your clientele rose from 3 million to 11 million in just one year, then people would be buzzing about you too. That’s what has occurred on Second Life (SL) in the 2007 calendar year.

Maybe there’s been some buzz about Second Life (SL) in distance education circles for awhile now but the massive increase in users is fueling some new excitement.

If anyone is clueless about SL, a quick read of the wikipedia article on the subject would be useful before continuing on with this blog post.

I have been a casual SL user for the last couple of years. Recently a colleague of mine (Thanks Louise!) has had her first experience with SL and in discussions she brought to the forefront some of the most common concerns that distance educators might share about SL:
1. SL is very heavy on the ‘social scene.’ It appears that a great many people in SL are here to meet other people with intentions or striking up more than just a casual friendship. This type of environment could be a distraction to educational pursuits.
2. SL has a very steep learning curve. New users start off at Orientation Island. It can take almost 20 hours to complete the island tasks in order to be reasonably proficient with the SL interface. Being a long time gamer, when I joined SL, I skipped the entire Orientation Island experience and chose to figure out the interface by trial and error. However, I fully understand that non-gamer type people would probably find it very frustrating to proceed in this manner. Orientation Island therefore is a must! However, what distance course can afford to have 20 hours allocated to it on the front end for students to learn a software tool? OUCH!

If I were teaching a graduate-level distance course that required synchronous student-to-student interaction and was on the topic of technology in education, then I would be tempted to run it on SL. The up-front investment of the steep learning curve might be worth it in this special case (i.e. a requirement for synchronous interaction on the topic of education technology). I can see that a dozen students having voice discussions in an immersive world using their custom built avatars could really be fun and could really stimulate some interest in synchronous simulation technologies. However, if I were teaching a graduate-level chemistry course that required synchronous student-to-student interaction, I would not invest the time required for every student to climb the steep SL learning curve. I would choose something like Elluminate Live for my synchronous activities. Elluminate's learning curve is a much more gentle slope. (Not to mention the fact that the potentially distracting 'social scene' is avoided.)

Despite this conclusion, I can’t help but feel that SL has enormous potential to develop into something more useful for education purposes as time progresses. I'm just not sure how much 'time' will be required. Two more years? Ten more years? Who knows. For now, I view it as 100% experimental - it is simply an intriguing social simulation environment.

Are you in SL? What do you think about reality, or the potential, of SL from a distance education perspective? Please leave a comment below.

Also, if you want to look me up in SL, my avatar’s name is EricT Nastula. See you there!

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