1) Is Second Life suitable for teaching and learning? Why? Why not?
I believe Second Life is very suitable for teaching and learning in the general sense. But that alone does not say much considering I think anything is suitable for teaching and learning, and that teaching and learning are always taking place. So it is more a question of what is being taught and learned and how well are particular tools and settings suited to particular desired learning outcomes.
The capacity for decentralized but personified educational and personal encounters offered by Second Life is a great thing. Second Life and “content creation worlds” more generally (Dawley and Dede, p730) are very exciting to me for their open-ended worlding, roleplay, and freeplay aspects. Allowing people the tools to quickly and easily create alternative societies in the virtual realms can have powerful implications for collective imaginaries and futures experimentation and even actualization. Also, as demonstrated by the machinima by AbTec (Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace) TimeTraveller (tm), Second Life can be a powerful tool for critically interrogating the past as conventionally told from the perspective of White settler-colonial society and sharing instead Indigenous perspectives against or despite the dominant narrative, as well as doing the same for telling stories about “the future.” I could see a lot of value in learning experiences organized along the lines of TimeTraveller(tm) where participants/students tell their own histories and even versions of current events “from below.” The possibilities of Second Life as a medium for teaching/learning are many.
Yet as someone who feels that the most major crime of compulsory education against my own body and being is actually the way that it severs and stunts our connections and intimate knowledges with the earth, soil, sky, plants, animals and all…I am cautious with how much stock I put into Second Life and other virtual educational technologies. Being locked in a classroom for the majority of my waking hours from ages five to eighteen has had an immensely negative impact on my relationship with the “natural world.” I would hate to see an uncritical adoption of Second Life and other virtual worlds by dominant education as just another tool in its arsenal to continue to deepen that damage of separation on further generations. Then of course there is the question of the rare earth materials and everything else that goes into maintaining and expanding the real life infrastructure for virtual worlds: it comes at the cost of real life rivers, soil, plants and peoples because of the harmful mining operations involved. I am interested in looking at ways that damaged natural places, peoples, and beings of all sorts can be acknowledged and even encouraged to speak through their own avatars in these virtual worlds. The ghosts of those whose lives are lost in the process of delivering these technologies (e.g. “iSlaves” who have committed suicide in creating Apple technologies, or currently living workers trapped in those settings) could tell the story of the crimes in the real worlds into the virtual worlds occupied by the more affluent beneficiaries of their suffering. A good start for looking at how some of this work might be done could involve reading Jack Linchuan Qiu’s Goodbye iSlave: A Manifesto for Digital Abolition and Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. Now that would seem a powerful and appropriate use of this EdTech suited to our epoch.
What is cast as a major plus of virtual worlds by Dawley and Dede (2014) in the following passage is actually a sign of the type of thinking that alarms me most regarding the more likely types of implementation of this EdTech:
In contrast, in an immersive environment, the assessment is rich and performances are detailed, yet assessment is unobtrusive because players leave “information trails” (Loh, 2007 ) as they move through the virtual space, interact with objects, and chat. These behaviors can be recorded in data streams for analysis using data and text mining techniques (Ibid, 730).
Of course they mention data being “cleaned” (Ibid, 731) later in this same discussion of data mining but drawing attention to the “information trails” and connecting that to evaluation, as I ponder the prevalence of standardized testing and professionalization and militarization of schooling it is difficult to be optimistic regarding the implementation of this EdTech in actually existing schools. That brings me back to the original opening of to learn/teach what? And… why? For who? Given Second Life’s monetary based existence and the fears I just mentioned I tend to be more motivated by visions of autonomous youth-led movements of learning in (open source) virtual worlds such as that which takes place in the fictional game Pirate’s Booty in Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (2008). Nonetheless I see value in engaging in all existing realms and Second Life has a lot of value for teaching and learning things that I personally find quite urgent to our times. It can also be a valuable site of dialogue or intervention thanks to open chat and exploration capabilities.
2) Assuming that there is an educational role for virtual worlds, how can we leverage the strengths of SL for teaching & learning?
The language immersion project of Australia in Second Life that was mentioned in our August 30th session seems to be a particularly strong point of SL. I used to think it would be a good idea to join multiplayer games primarily populated by whatever language I was trying to learn as part of my own immersion process since that offers a way to remotely access other often distant and less accessible communities of native speakers. I am not sure the details of how the example that was mentioned is actually organized, but the remote access combined with detailed visual, text, and audio inputs rendered by SL is a dream come true for language learning.
On another note, perhaps something for UHM and other institutions to consider especially now that the island is no longer affordable, is the self-segregation of the “educational” space from the broader Second Life continents. Jennings and Collins (2007) mention that most institutions that have invested in virtual space in SL have set up their own separate islands (p184). I think this is similar to how college campuses establish a sort of elitist fortress like presence in “real life” and thus it is no surprise they would establish themselves as separate islands in their virtual world versions or extensions. Perhaps the results would have been different and more “return on investment” could have or still can be gathered via recruitment/new enrollments from establishing among a greater population on the main continents in SL? Or maybe they would meet the same fate as the failed corporate advertisers, I am not sure. A no-cost version could be of course to organize as groups without owning any virtual land, maybe start with virtual bake sales? Or go revolutionary with it and try to expropriate the virtual lands from the virtual landlords and redistribute it?
3) Are there any types of learning and/or content areas that lend themselves well for the virtual world environment or can everything be taught/learned in SL? Why? Why not?
I think there are inherent limits to what can truly be “learned” in a virtual world. I don’t consider something actually learned until it can be executed in its actual applied context, e.g. it is not evident that an engineer has successfully learned the trade until successfully building a real life bridge. It would seem to me the primary limitation is regarding physical skills applied in the world of flesh and blood. Some of the more intellectual, social and emotional aspects of skills, trades, and disciplines with physical components (is that everything?) could be partially “learned” in virtual world environment but I don’t consider anything actually learned until it can be demonstrated and executed in the AFK world. Skills that are themselves meant to exist in full form in the virtual world such as video game design or “Authoring Virtual Learning Environments” would seem to benefit the most. Of course with video-game-like drone war and workplace technologies the dichotomy of virtual/non-virtual skills has already been exploded but it nonetheless seems useful. I imagine something like wilderness preparedness or scuba diving or sailing to be very difficult to learn to any highly applicable degree in a virtual environment. Maybe initial briefings and familiarization with those fields can be assisted in such environments, but certain activities require you to inhabit your body in the AFK world in order to improve. So then, anything that can be or is especially suited to disembodied articulation is something I think has a natural affinity with virtual world environments. Also though my evaluation changes if we begin talking about more immersive and semi-physical virtual worlds or augmented reality scenarios but perhaps that is a separate topic.
Dawley, Lisa, and Chris Dede (2012). Situated Learning in Virtual Worlds and Immersive Simulations. In The Handbook of Research for Educational Communications and Technology. 4th ed. Edited by J. Michael Spector, M. David Merrill, Jan Elen, and M.J. Bishop, pp.723–34. New York: Springer.
Doctorow, Cory. (2008). Little brother. New York, NY: Tor Teen.
Jennings & Collins (2007). Virtual or Virtually U: Educational Institutions in Second Life, International Journal of Social Sciences, 2(3), 180-186.
Qiu, Jack Linchuan, & Qiu, J.L. (2016). Goodbye iSlave: A Manifesto for Digital Abolition. University of Illinois Press.