Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Learning and “Education” in Second Life -- are they two very different things?

The San Jose State University build: one of many higher ed campuses in SL

I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time: the idea that SL offers opportunities for more than commerce, marketing and socializing--it is a place where a great deal of learning takes place. The curious fact of it, however, seems to be that while there may be substantial learning going on, it is not necessarily the result of teaching in the way that we usually think of it.

So I’ve been pondering on this and have had some conversations with other people who have an interest in the subject of learning in SL. Among those with whom I have had some of the most interesting and intelligent conversations are Aurili Oh, (in real life, Dr. Suzanne Aurilio of San Diego State University who has done her Ph.D. dissertation on learning in sl) and Serenek Timeless (also a real life academic, who is involved with the Renaissance Island sim). However, I hadn’t written about it yet, in part because I’m tired and my brain hurts a lot these days, but also because I still have the sense that I don’t understand a great deal about why certain things seem to happen with learning in SL, and other things just bloody well don’t.

Obviously, I’m not the only one trying to figure it out, and what finally got me inspired to start my part of the public conversation about it was two recent pieces that have appeared on the inter-tubes:

One is this recent article by Jeffrey Young on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s web site, entitled, “After Frustrations in Second Life, Colleges Look to New Virtual Worlds.” Mr. Young ‘s actual article is a slightly more-intelligent-than-usual variation on the current “SL is dead” meme, framed within the context of virtual education. He points to a number of academic institutions that are scaling back on their presence in SL and briefly discusses some of the alternatives.

The other piece that provided an intriguing counterpoint to the CoHE article was a post about the results of a survey conducted by the New Media Consortium, which reported that not only has interest in virtual worlds in general remained high among educators, but that Second Life is still the primary virtual world platform utilized by educators (76% of the respondents said it was what they predominantly used). You really ought to go take a look at the survey results--it’s fun stuff, especially the tidbits about why some universities and colleges staunchly resist the siren call of virtual worlds. But it does also somewhat contradict Mr. Young’s contentions, which after all do seem to be primarily based upon anecdotal evidence and his own limited experience, rather than any kind of actual data such as the NMC tried to present with its survey.

That said, I think you can argue that Mr. Young’s piece does reflect a certain reality: that some of the big schools that got involved with SL apparently are now arriving at the same conclusion that many big businesses on the grid came to over the course of the last several years. Like many large corporate residents of SL, schools are perhaps finding that the platform did not live up to their expectations (or the hype). What is really interesting about the CoHE article however, is the comments. I recommend that you sort through them, in a particular because they shed some light on why some universities and colleges may be coming to this conclusion.

Let me give you a sampling of how people responded to Mr. Young. One correspondent, under the handle “alex_heiphetz,” commented:

“It has become apparent a while ago that building copies of university campuses in Second Life does not produce any results and can only kill an interest in the new technology. To me it is also clear those who begin with building campuses, and do not progress towards using interactive and collaborative opportunities of virtual world are often the people who complain about lack of control, lack of security, etc; while those of us who work with more advanced projects find our way with security, griefers and control. This is not to say that Second Life is absolutely the best forever and ever, but to say that it does work well today, especially where education and training benefit from interactivity, 3D visuals and collaborative knowledge management/transfer.”

I think Alex hit one of the nails pretty squarely on the head. As we have seen with businesses --and as I have pointed out time and again with museums in SL--you can’t come in to a space like Second Life and succeed by simply building a pixelated version of your real life facility and trying to connect and communicate with your audience in the same ways that you do in meatspace. If it’s going to work, it’s going to do so because you’re taking advantage of the unique environment and the tools, and doing something completely different. When it succeeds, it's becuase you're using the platform in ways that enable you to try things that you really can’t accomplish effectively (or at reasonable cost) in a bricks and mortar space.

Another well considered response came from the always thoughtful John Carter McKnight:

“I am currently teaching a law school course at Arizona State University on the governance of virtual worlds, with sessions in the classroom, in World Of Warcraft and Second Life. Virtual worlds provide an opportunity for hands-on engagement with community building, with contract, property and criminal law.

Yes, it takes time to learn the medium. It takes time to learn the medium of law school as well. 

Yes, there are colorful people and environments in SL: there are in the neighborhood around our campus as well. Teaching, whether in the physical or digital classroom, is embedded in a larger community. Few of us study in remote monasteries anymore. This is not a bug, but a feature. 

Second Life enables us to bring guest speakers from around the world into our classroom, at no cost. It also enables my students to experience the legal and political issues around online communities first hand, rather than as dry abstractions.”

So John gets it--in essence he’s saying that part of what makes his classes in SL work are some of the very same considerations that other academics look on as drawbacks or “frustrations.” I love that line--”This is not a bug, but a feature.” Damn, I want to put that on a coffee mug AND a T-shirt.

The interesting thing here is that people like Mr. McKnight seem to be finding new ways to teach using a platform like Second Life. This is what intrigues me: “Education” (with a capital “E”)--the business of education as we know it in the real world--doesn’t seem to necessarily work very well in a virtual world like Second Life. People do seem to be finding ways to learn AND to teach on the grid, but not in a tradtional "formal" way.

This is essentially at the heart of Dr. Aurilio’s findings which she put forth in her dissertation--that “formal” education in SL usually doesn’t work terribly well. But what does work remarkably often (and remarkably well) are various manifestations of self-directed learning, some of which take place within an individual context, while other examples are carried out in a collaborative (or at least mutually supportive) collective environment.

Dr. Aurilio studied learning among adults on the platform and came to some wonderful conclusions including:

* Learning is technologically and socially platform-specific.

* It is socially interdependent.

* It depends on intrinsically motivating activities.

* It engenders forms of learning-by-doing.

I was also struck in the course of talking with her that my view of places like Renaissance Island and Deadwood being most successful as venues for self-directed learning needs to be considered in a different way than I have been thinking of it in the past. The fact is, even when you are motivating yourself to learn something--how to build a world or a chair, what forms of material culture were used in a particular time and place you are trying to recreate, the social history of an era that is going to be represented in roleplaying, etc.--you are not doing so in isolation.

When learning has happened among us in the Deadwood community, it is a wonderfully collective experience. We share research, we make things for each other, we share ideas and develop collective goals...we also egg each other on, we encourage each other and at times we challenge each other. Clay Kungler, for example, has been teaching himself (learning by doing) to build and script things, and he asks me, “Hey Boss, what do we need for our 1870s placer mining operation that we don’t have?” And I say, “Well, Bubba, we sure could use some wheelbarrows and these things called rockers that you use for sifting gravel and sand.” And then he says, “So what’s a rocker look like and how does it work?” And I do the research and find cool pictures to send him. Then he says, “So what does an 1870s wheelbarrow look like?” And I say, “Shit, I don’t know, I’ll work on it.” And I do more research and find some pictures and learn that the guy who made Studebaker wagons (and later on, Studebaker cars) started out making wheelbarrows in the gold fields of California. Meanwhile Clay is figuring out not just how he’s going to make this junk look right, but how he’s going to script it to work as dynamic adjuncts to the rp storyline. Finally, these things are going to be shared with other people in the sim, and they will be learning about the historic processes of placer mining while playing with the objects that I researched and Clay built.

So is it self-directed learning? Yes and no. As Dr. Aurilio said to me about her observations of learning in SL:

“...it fundamentally involves others, in terms of sharing, asking for help, using the resources others have created and creating them for others too. My participants also seemed to be motivated to learn by what other Residents built. Several commented that when they saw things other Residents had made, they felt inspired to try and make it themselves. I’m re-thinking the notion of “self-directedness”. What exactly does that look like in an environment such as SL, or the Web for that matter?”

And how does this all apply to issues of teaching in Second Life? In this context of self-directed learning in a collaborative environment, what is the role of the teacher? Do you become more of a community leader than a “teacher” in the traditional sense?

Ultimately, I do believe in the future of virtual worlds as a vital and vibrant learning environment. But I suspect the most successful manifestations of it will not be developing in the arena of “mass-production” education. And to try to make it work as such arguably is a dreadful waste of the potential that virtual worlds hold.


  1. Very thoughtful piece, Dio.

    I came to SL a little late to see the RL businesses set up little replicas of their RL shops and wonder why this wasn't an amazing success, but I did see some of it, and wondered what kind of bozos were involved. I'm not interested in, say, a virtual Nike store when I can see the real things in a real store (or see an actual photograph of them on-line, as opposed to someone's sculpty version)...and it turns out I wasn't the only one who felt that way.

    Similarly, I see universities setting up these mini-campus replicas (I recently blogged about Penn State's virtual campus), and while they look cool, I haven't figured out what the point is. You can't hold a large class in-world - not without serious lag, at any rate - and I expect such a class would be like a rowdier version of the Aether Salon, with random comments from students scrolling across the screen as the lecturer droned on. (And the virtual "student center" was even weirder. But I digress.)

    But it's a mistake, it seems to me, for universities and businesses alike to abandon their efforts to wade into new technology, just as it's a mistake for them to simply replicate what already exists out here in the non-virtual world.

    I completely agree that "learning" is a broad term that encompasses much more than traditional, "mass-production" education. Just as you described researching 1870 mining technology, I research Victorian-era clothing, education, jobs, and so on (and then ignore most of what I learn because it's more fun that way). Others learn LSL to make cool scripted objects, thereby acquiring a skill that can be applied to other programming languages. Heck, in interacting with people of different ages, social backgrounds, and nationalities, we all learn things about our fellow humans that we would be unlikely to find out otherwise.

    I have no idea how a traditional university can translate those kinds of experiences into products that they can sell (i.e., charge tuition for), but educators - as opposed to universities, which are really just big corporations masquerading as do-good organizations - should embrace all this non-traditional stuff.

  2. Hey Rhia,

    Interesting that you should mention the whole back chat issue and the nature of any discussion in SL:

    "You can't hold a large class in-world - not without serious lag, at any rate - and I expect such a class would be like a rowdier version of the Aether Salon, with random comments from students scrolling across the screen as the lecturer droned on."

    Actually, I think that reality is part of what makes a class in SL unique, and as Mr. McKnight describes in one of his posts, the result is somewhat chaotic, but there can be an "interesting conversation" going on in this type of situation. It does have its drawbacks, of course (he described a session in which he said he could only follow about 15% of the backchat). So he suggests a hybrid approach:

    "In all, though, 'speaker in voice, attendees in text' really is the best way to do an event like this: it’s really not possible to do a coherent presentation in text chat, when you’re just one voice coequal with everybody else’s, whose comments are interspersed among yours. The hybrid form still allows a clear delivery of the speaker’s message, while enabling an open conversation much more than physical-world events can."

    So there you go--a good example of an academic looking at what happens in SL when you try to offer "education"and instead of giving up looking for a new model to take advantage of the unique dynamics of a virtual discussion while still getting your own message across.

  3. I thought about saying something about using voice for teaching and text for comments, but the comment was pretty long as it was. :)

    But having a less-unruly way of replicating the real world teaching paradigm doesn't get at the question of why one would want to do that. I haven't thought deeply about the issue, but my off-the-cuff view is that SL is good for some things, not so good for others, and has certain unique attributes. It may make sense, for example, to use SL for a course in scripting projectile weapons in gaming environments - one can see the code, then see how it works. Another example is the exhibit on schizophrenia (I can't recall the sim, but Emilly Orr blogged about it not long ago) that uses SL to try to convey to the rest of us the kind of optical or auditory delusions that schizophrenics may suffer.

    So, far from saying that educators shouldn't use SL because it's not as effective as the old-fashioned way of doing thing, I'm suggesting that educators consider what works well in SL and what doesn't, and play to the system's strengths.

  4. Yes Rhia, I agree.

    The other thing , of course, is that arguably the "old-fashioned" way of teaching may not work all that much better outside of SL either, but it has a lot more momentum behind it in that context.

    But yes, if you as an educator can find a way take advantage of the strengths of the platform, I think you'd come out ahead. For example, I really like the possibilities it opens up for bringing a group of widely dispersed students in contact with a scholar or researcher for real give-and-take conversation, the way John McKnight describes with his comment about "bringing in guest speakers from around the world."

    And I think the potential for that kind of thing isn't just limited to use by educational institutions. For example, I would love to get someone like historians Watson Parker or Kathy Luchetti together with a group of the Deadwood people. I think they'd have fun with it and the folks would learn a lot.

    I wonder if that kind of thing might be something like a state humanities council or historical society might sponsor.

  5. Here's another way education happens in SL - you might just be wandering around your campus (SJSU in this case) and happen to run into a nice lady (Dio, in this case) who takes the time to tell you all about all kind of things in SL and introduces you to Deadwood, and before you know it you're downloading a book about the place to your Kindle to learn more about it and you've gotten some nice clothes in SL (c. 1876) so you can go visit the place to see it for yourself.

    It was great to meet you, Dio - I'll look you up soon at the hotel!

  6. Hey Becca,

    It was really nice meeting you too. Like Dr. Aurilio says, learning in SL is largely socially interdependent, and I hope you're getting the chance to get out exploring a bit more and meeting some new folks.

    One thing that is coming up you might be interested in, University of Texas at San Antonio is going to be having a sort of one day exposition regarding roleplay-based learning, on March 20. When you want to come visit in Deadwood, just give me a heads-up so we can find a mutually workable time to make the connection.

    Keep havin' a good time, Hon!