Sure, some students get trapped between pieces of virtual furniture. Okay, there’s a little bit too much virtual sex happening around the corner from the classroom. Yes, the avatars are clunky. Yet despite all this, Second Life, the virtual world developed by Linden Labs, remains the preferred virtual learning environment for professors from all over the world.
by Steven Blum
Nearly a third of U.S. colleges have a presence in Second Life, according to a campus computing survey, and the software is used in some capacity by 80% of British universities. There are over one hundred regions in Second Life devoted to educational purposes, including Info Islands, a tropical archipelago home to Illinois’ entire library collections; SciLands, an island home for the world’s most beloved acronymed government institutions (NOAA, NIH, NASA, NPR); and MyBase, an airplane-training island created by the U.S. Air Force.
Second Life can be accessed through a number of free client programs, or viewers, enabling users to interact with each other through avatars. These avatars can be designed to look like anything from Oprah Winfrey and Thomas Jefferson to Cthulhu.
Once appropriately (or inappropriately) attired, students can listen to lectures by Harvard professors or go on a school field trip to a virtual recreation of the palace of Versailles (or 1920’s Berlin) or even drop-in on a lecture on infectious diseases at the virtual offices of the Mayo Clinic.
Yet some colleges that have built up a presence in Second Life are now looking to leave. What they find problematic are the aforementioned “adult” areas of Second Life, as well as the fact that any Avatar, enrolled or not, can wander into their classroom. Online vandalism, called “griefing”, is another common annoyance.
Plus, there’s a wider sense among some educators that Second Life has failed to live up to its great promise. Instead of looking like a fantastical textbook come to life, the world of education in Second Life bears an all-too-striking resemblance to the real one.
John Lester spent years as the official education ambassador for Second Life. He believes the problem with the current virtual platforms is that professors are using them to build second classrooms.
“Don’t think of your classroom as a classroom in the physical world,” Lasster instructed educators in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Build a giant flower, and have that model of flower be your classroom. The students in your class could be bumble bees as avatars, because bees pollinate flowers, and the anatomy of flowers is very much driven by how bees perceive them, because bees are responsible for their reproduction. Then it’s no longer a classroom.”
Lasster now works for Reactiongrid, a Second Life competitor platform that can be used by educators to create anything from molecular models of individual atomic particles to architectural plans.
There are other Second Life competitors that hope to restore faith in the virtual world. Open Cobalt, developed by researchers Duke University, has created a system that operates with data stored on individual computers and, in so doing, allows more people to use their software at the same time. They’ve already secured grants from big-time investors like the National Science Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and, best of all, they’re completely free to use (Second Life isn’t.)
When will these virtual tools live up to their initial hype? Peter J. Ludlow, a philosophy professor at Northwestern University, believes it will take a while.
“We don’t really understand what we can do and what we can’t do with this tool for education yet, so it’s more exploratory now,” he told the newspaper. “We know there’s something here, but we don’t know what yet.”