I (still) don’t get SecondLife

I’ve been trying. Really trying. I just can’t find a way to “get” what all of the SecondLife hype is about. I mean, yeah, it’s cool. It’s fun. It’s a really interesting and diverse metaverse. It’s a blast to create and buy stuff, and customize an avatar, and fly around islands. I get that part of it.

But, for education, it largely doesn’t change much over the existing and available tools. I could see it if you were working on a collaboratively designed architecture project. Or perhaps some theatre or alternate reality exploration of literature.

But what I (still) see as the primary use of SecondLife in education is to compel people to sit in rows of chairs to watch a screen at the front of the “classroom”. Some classrooms have innovated – no roof. But, underneath it all, it’s still didacticism with chalk-and-talk replaced with stream-and-chat. I checked out a hybrid event today – a “traditional” web-enable streaming video conference, simulcast into SecondLife.

SecondLife simulcast

In this screenshot, the back window shows the “conventional” webcast of the presentation. Streaming video and audio, at full resolution. The front window shows the SecondLife simulcast, with attendees sitting nicely in rows, watching a lower fidelity, smaller and distorted version of the same webcast.

Sure, in the SecondLife version, there was opportunity for interaction between participants. But that could have easily been added through a chat or IM group. And much of the interaction involved “how do I sit down?” and “how to I give my avatar breasts?” rather than discussing the presentation.

Much of that is a result of n00bs learning the environment, and that is to be expected. But I’ve been in several SecondLife sessions over the last week, and none were what I’d call compelling or innovative educational pedagogies.

I still don’t get SecondLife, as it is typically used for education. I’ll keep trying, though.

15 thoughts on “I (still) don’t get SecondLife”

  1. What can i say… i totally agree with you :). I think that changing the environment of a classroom, to a virtual one, is not enough. If people still do the same things like sit in a chair in front of a board… for me there are no pedagogical changes. It is obvious that in some contexts like this one, some students fell more confortable than being in the real presence of his teacher… but is this a real change in education?

    Like you… i will wait to be surprise and proved wrong :)

    Célia from Portugal

  2. I’ll be paying attention to the comments, looking for smarter people than me to articulate the fascination in terms that support more than a cool environment.

  3. I’m still asking the same question myself– and also honestly trying to figure out if I’m missing something. My nose hairs are still singed from asking that question on the Second Life educators list and “demanding” specifics :)

  4. Specifics? Man, you’ve got a lot of nerve asking for specifics. Can’t you see! It’s so OBVIOUS! It changes EVERYTHING! You just have to believe hard enough…

  5. Gotta watch this one unfold … I was actually “there” with D’Arcy and left more confused then inspired by the whole thing. I will also keep trying … we shall see.

  6. Wow, a negativism pileup. Gotta stir it up…

    Isn’t it a bit placed to place the blame on the technology rather than the limited imagination/use of what people are doing with it? The Second Life architecture does not force you to sit passively in rows listening to some droning presenter.

    Or framed differently for another easy target (http://flickr.com/photos/cogdog/502785605/) PowerPoint does not kill presentations… People do.

    I too am itchy bored and doing other things when the mode is sit back and listen, whether it is in Second Life or any F2F conference. Whats the diff?

    Done differently are: * The stuff Global Kids do in SL is very active mode – http://www.holymeatballs.org/2007/05/post_1.html or http://www.holymeatballs.org/2007/05/slteen_grid_unification_debate.html#more * Performance art like ZeroG Skydancers http://sl.nmc.org/2006/11/30/skydance/ * Mock Trials http://virtuallyblind.com/2007/04/30/josh-wolf-mock-trial-wrapup/ * Play2Train http://play2train.hopto.org/

    Break the mold, ditch the talk and slide shuffle. But its not fair to blame the tools because I, as a sloppy builder, have leaning walls and leaky sinks.

  7. I agree there is a concern if SL is used to convene a traditional sit down and listen class. But, just like the early Web, I don’t think anybody knows how SL is going to be used effectively in education.

    For now, I look at teaching in SL, and, of course I bring my background and biases of what good teaching is all about and then expect to transport into SL what I’ve found to be successful in the past. 

    It seems likely to me, however that further innovations will occur within SL and disrupt traditional thinking like mine so that the best way to teach in SL will look nothing like it does in real life, or how I now imagine it to be in SL.

    The point for me now is not to ‘get it’ but to look and get a sense of the possibilities. My time spent in SL typically passes quickly as I am immersed in discussions and exploration — exactly the kind of experiences that I’d like my students to have in my courses.

    I find it most significant that I readily strike up quality discussions with individuals in SL. The avatar experience seems to closely parallel real life communication more than other forms of Internet communication. This has been true for me regarding individuals whom I know inworld as well as those whom I meet happen to meet inworld. It seems likely to expect that a platform that readily enables good discussion will enable good education.

  8. @alan: I’m absolutely NOT blaming the technology. It’s definitely the people (both facilitators and participants) who are organizing things into artificially constructed rows etc… The technology is so unrestricting – that’s why this is so frustrating. We’re being given a blank slate, but not taking advantage of it.

    Maybe I’m using SecondLife in a more generic sense – more of a metaverses in general thing, rather than Linden Labs’ implementation. It’s definitely more of a commentary on the activities, rather than the tools.

    And I completely agree about people killing presentations, rather than powerpoint. The analogy is apt. Bullet-point shovelware is so common because it’s easy. The more creative and powerful Lessigian style presentations are hard. They take a lot of time. They take energy and creativity. Yes, there has been some of that in SecondLife/Metaverses, but much of what I’ve seen is more akin to shiny shovelware with cool avatars.

    The Play2Train stuff is really impressive. That’s the kind of thing we need to be doing, not stream-and-chat.

    Your point is well taken though – I should not (am not?) blame the tools, it’s the implementation and lack of creativity that sucks.

    @charles: I guess I’m just being cranky, when every “SecondLife in Education” session I’ve seen is basically the same sit-down-and-watch kind of event. If the intro was more of a “here’s the cool simulation/interaction/whatever” instead, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But for people coming into it, all they’re shown is how easy it is to reproduce the existing classroom in a metaverse. Boring. Let’s push a little harder, and drop people into a full-blown simulation, or onto another planet, or inside a nuclear reactor, or something that isn’t just a reproduction of something they see every day in FirstLife.

    @davidicus: 15? really?

  9. i think i can stand by 15%.

    i’ve played MMOs from Puzzle Pirates to City of Heroes, typed my fingers raw in text chat rooms, contributed to MUDs, MOOs, and other M places, performed a rock concert in Aphaworld, started a “metaphysics of VRML violence” movement in Lycos’ PointWorld, had friends conned out their 2D heads (was that in The Palace?), been a victim of identity and body theft in a Black Sun orgy, was rejected as “too posh” for Habbo Hotel’s teenage British isometric citizens, and the list goes on.

    all very compelling and relevent social experiences with lots of vaguely defined potential, all ultimately bookmarked under “Leisure.” your telephone serves a far more productive and efficient virtual space.

  10. @dnorman: I would “blame” the technology for the dreadfully mundane approaches to education in Second Life. The technology as a whole may be unrestricting, but it’s not a blank slate. It is presented (on purpose) as a virtual version of the real world, the primary metaphor of Second Life. It’s natural that educational sessions in Second Life tend to mimic the same style and limitations of sessions in the physical world, complete with slide shows, individual seats, and overflow rooms. In real life, if we equip lecture halls with projectors and provide instructors with portable computers with Microsoft Office, are we surprised when poorly made slide shows start showing up in classes whether they make sense or not? Sure, there will be the occassional instructor that figures out how to use Google Earth in geology class, just like the great Play2Train example that Alan pointed out. But, Second Life makes a point of recreating the real world, and the real world is comfortable and familiar, so I don’t find it surprising that most users bring real world practices with them into Second Life. And, in my mind, this is not a failing of the users for not taking advantage of the possibilities of the technology, but rather they are taking advantage of the technology the way it was intended to be used. Like the cliche says, “When in Rome….”

  11. i’m with King. desktop layout tools were the reason late-eighties typesetting was so uninspiring. it wasn’t impossible to do better, just much harder, so a kind of machine dogma developed.

    i think education toolbuilders might learn something more breakthrough-relevant from Cloud (the game) or an MMO than 3D chat rooms.

  12. @King Chung Huang and @davidicus: points taken. the 3D environments’ attempt to faithfully reproduce the “real world” has inadvertently (or intentionally) brought in all kinds of baggage and restrictions (even if only psychological) from the “real world”. But – if these environments were to throw off the shackles of “reality” they would lose most of their audience. SL and co. are successful because it’s relatively easy for people to “step in” and go in-world. If people have to learn how to function in a new set of rules (laws of physics, boundaries of self, definition of Other, etc…) they are less likely to do much with it. But, the few that do stick with it might do something truly mind-blowing…

  13. What strikes me most about SL is how utterly barren it is. I’ve rarely seen more than a handful of avatars, which makes me wonder what exactly davidicus’ 85% entails (no offense, I rather agree with you). I just don’t see much real value there, in entertainment OR pedagogical terms.

    SMS is more compelling.

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