Notes & Ideas: What Are You Implying About My First Life? Real Students, Virtual Space and Second Life

by Christopher Watts, St. Lawrence University

I have been thinking quite a bit about Second Life lately. And yes, I have been spending a fair amount of time in Second Life. There are some things about it that irk me. The name, for example: it seems to imply that my second life, whatever form it may take, is likely to be of higher quality than my “first life.” I hope that is not the case. But there is also an incredible potential there that keeps me coming back.

If you are unfamiliar with Second Life, I will try to give it to you in a nutshell: it is a massively multiplayer online virtual environment with over 300,000 users and a “real” economy, complete with a currency exchange and IP rights that extend to virtual property. What makes SL different from popular MMORPGs like World of Warcraft has to do with content. SL is not a game per se. There are no goals, points, or levels. Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, relies on users to generate content and set their own goals. Users buy and sell land, goods, and services for Linden Dollars. (At the time of this writing, the exchange rate is $213 L per $1 US.) It is also possible for users to create games within SL; gameplay is restricted to certain areas.

A number of individuals and groups are exploring the educational potential of Second Life. The New Media Consortium, with the support of the MacArthur Foundation, has purchased a private island in the virtual world of Second Life and has built a campus there. The campus is designed to accommodate groups of various sizes as the educational potential of virtual space is explored in a variety of ways. Visit the NMC Campus Observer for more.

Every year at the end of the spring semester, St. Lawrence puts on a faculty development workshop called the May Faculty College. For one of the sessions, we thought it might be fun to show the faculty a technology that was out there, but that we had not figured out exactly how (or even if) it had a place in liberal education. So, I found myself demonstrating Second Life and the NMC Campus for a group of 60 or 70 faculty. And they went completely nuts.

Some of them thought it was hilarious. Others thought it was magical. Still others thought it was pure evil. And they were all right. It is hilarious because my avatar—whose name is Walter—looks like me (only sexier), and we dress alike. It is magical because of the level of visual sophistication, and because it transcends geography. And it is pure evil because it can be used to escape from the world rather than to engage it. And that is a potential that we must take care to discourage.

As I think about the negative reactions my demo received, I am reminded of some past mistakes that are still biting us:

(1) We used to think of emerging educational technologies as tools that could potentially make our lives easier, and that has simply not been the case. New educational technologies can help us be more effective, but do not typically save us time or energy. This is an important distinction. Second Life is certainly not going to save anyone any time; it is probably not going to save anyone any energy. But I suspect there are many ways that it can and will be used to enrich liberal education. For example, many liberal arts colleges are in the midst of launching new visual literacy initiatives, and virtual environments like Second Life will have a role to play.

(2) Sometimes we are seduced by the cool factor of new technologies rather than by their potential to transform learning. Second Life is unbelievably cool. I hope that, when the cool factor wears off a bit, I will still be as excited about its potential. But it is hard to know. This second point is one I brought up with the faculty group in my demo. It is important for faculty to see instructional technologists and early adopters approaching new technologies with a healthy mix of enthusiasm and skepticism. These groups – especially the technologists – cannot afford to be seen as salespeople.

By the end of our session, faculty members were coming up with fantastic ways to make use of Second Life: staging crime scenes; prototyping sculptures; designing stage sets; bringing a level of visual interaction to distance learning that is currently missing. The following day, two senior faculty members approached me to tell me that they had had nightmares about Second Life the night before. It is not for everyone. And it is important to remember that our students are not all going to enjoy or even be comfortable using virtual environments. We can call them the Net Generation, but that does not make every one of them exactly the same. Still, Second Life has captured my imagination, and I look forward to figuring out the ways it fits within the enterprise of liberal education. As long as we manage to use it as a tool for engagement and not escape, I feel good about it for now. I hope others who are exploring related questions will weigh in here. In the meantime, I’m going clothes shopping for Walter.

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