Doc Searls recently pointed to this posted chart that indicates Second Life will have 3.7 million registered users by April. The numbers will grow at an astounding rate and the applications for this virtual reality seem to be limited only by the user's imagination. Nicole Simon recently wrote the the real reason for this popularity is that Second Life is mostly about sex.
In this particularly case, i really hope that Nicole is wrong. Second Life has begun to fulfill a 20-year vision of virtual reality, one that may culminate with something close to the Star Trek Holodeck. I see no greater promiuse for it than in education. Imagine learning about an historic incident, by attending it, instead of memorizing names and dates. Imagine learning about the Pyraness Mountains by standing on them, instead of learning what minerals are extracted from them.
Scottish educators Sean and Kate Farrell are among a great many worldwide who are beginning to experiment with Second Life as a teaching tool. They have helped take a few significant baby steps into the "virtual realisphere." The results and the implied hopes attached are worth noting by anyone who cares about making s education simultaneously more effective and more enjoyable.
This is the second and final part of my interview with them to be used part in a chapter about social media in education. Personally, I am amazed at the promise of virtual reality in education and what they have accomplished.
Q1. Can you tell me some of the educational activities you've participated in regarding Second Life?
We worked on a summer project called Kids Connect through ZoomLab, an organisation dedicated to promoting cultural connection between US children and kids in emerging nations, through online collaborative arts and education in media technology.”
Based at Brooklyn's Polytechnic University, we worked with 10 inner city young people aged ages 13 to 18. Various instructors taught Second Life skills in performance, video production, sound production, being a live video DJ, story telling, 'playback theatre' and 3D modeling. There was also a group of young people from Amsterdam that worked together with the Brooklyn kids on 3D modelling and scripting.
Initially the kids learned such basic skills as walking, running and interacting with the environment. They quickly got into altering appearances and trading clothes and accessories like wings. You'd hear shouts of joy when a kid acquired a new hovercar or dragon outfit. Once comfortable, we showed them how to make objects such as hats and chairs. Then we had a sculpture competition, recreating a huge sculpture at the front of the university. Next came basic scripting. We taught them how to get an object to say a message and play a sound. Some kids did this fantastically well, integrating the object into their appearance to have a swirling circular section to their armour costume or positioning wonderful dragonflies on their shoulders.
We originally set up their island with sections we thought would be useful-- meeting area, theatre, flag-topped hill hill and harbour with sailing ships. Once they had mastered the basics, it was up to the kids to design their island as they wanted it. They built three levels. The ground was rearranged as a shared New York space, 100 metres in the sky (oh, you can fly in Second Life!) was personal spaces for each of the young people from New York and Amsterdam, so that they could create houses and objects without cluttering the shared spaces.
Our first thoughts were to create an environment featuring New York City cliches: subways, tenements, yellow cabs, manhole covers and so on. We taught the kids techniques for building and allowed them to find their own ways, being as creative as they liked. Then thet collaborated to make a group decision.
The Brooklyn kids built up a virtual representation of what life is like in New York. They recorded a soundscape of the noises they regularly hear, filmed the buildings that showed the city's Dutch heritage and recreated aspects of their surroundings. The young people created underground caves, multicoloured movie theatres, quidditch fields with flying broomsticks as you see in Harry Potter films and a giant shopping mall. In the movie theatres they showed films they made while learning VJ skills.
Some 200 metres up into the sky was the Amsterdam kids' shared space. Here, they recreated areas of their real-life neighbourhood, complete with photo-textures of graffiti. They created some fantastic spaces. One young person created a soccer pitch where you could really play competitive soccer. Another, created a housing complex with aliens that demolished sections of wall as you passed by. There was a house on it's side that was hit by an earthquake and if you went inside, furniture fell down toward you. There was also a huge tree with a giant eye that swiveled to look at you, and tentacle roots that started to wiggle about and attack you as you approached.
We felt some disappointment that the Amsterdam and Brooklyn kids did not collaborate more. Part of the problem was the difference in time zones. Also, the Amsterdam group was in operation for a much shorter time.
It was a successful pilot project however, and we anticipate having much more interaction between the young people in future attempts.
We were both surprised by how a number of short teaching sessions could spark so much interest. We taught some basic skills, set up a challenge and stepped back. We then left some time for individuals to play with the ideas before gathering the class to allow everyone to show off their work, and to start to look at the next step.
Over time, Second Life became a place where the kids could show off some of their other work using video and audio. Our only real challenge was getting the kids to stop long enough to show them something new.
Q2 What are the educational advantages to Second Life?
Second Life offers people a variety of ways to learn. It is a social form of learning that combines information gathering with sharing. By taking time to meet and talk with other people through their avatars in a virtual world a lot of learning can happen, as they show off interesting tricks, ask questions and explain how they did things to each other.
As adults and even as teachers we often forget that we are still learning and Second Life reminded us teachers of that. All of the other people who I have met through Second Life have been going through a similar learning experience. They start by learning to use the program to move around, then learning to interact through a virtual world, and to start to create. Most have been surprised to find that they enjoy learning about the environment. The learning that takes place might be the initial process of getting to grips with Second Life as a program, or learning about scripting and building, or at higher levels it might be about forming social relationships and creating a business.
We found by the end of the four weeks the young people were more open to new ideas. They were communicating better with each other both virtually and in real life and a few of them had an amazing enthusiasm for scripting. They were more aware of the world outside their immediate neighbourhood, realising how different life in Amsterdam and Scotland is from Brooklyn. They were particularly shocked when Sean turned up in a kilt!
Using Second Life we had a teaching environment where anything was possible. At ALL times when the kids said "can we do this" we were always able to say "Yes" because of the versatile and flexible environment, so they were able to create flying broomsticks, underwater caves and turn themselves into clouds of smoke. I think this itself was very good for the kids, and they were becoming less constrained in their ideas, more imaginative. Very quickly they weren't just copying what we were demonstrating but adapting our examples.
As a teacher, how often do you find kids making extra efforts in their own time, and really showing an enthusiasm and dedication to a project. On a Sunday morning I logged into our Second Life Island to do some preparation for classes on Monday, I found one of the kids already working away building and experimenting with their project. By meeting virtually, he was able to show off his work, and to discuss, ask questions and get help. When you find kids working in this way, you really have found an environment that they love spending time learning in.
Q4. What barriers do you see in them introducing such innovation into traditional educational curricula?
We have been thinking quite a lot about how to use SL within school, particularly with the recent trend of anti-SL blogging. Much of the criticism of SL seems to be fixated about the ‘resident’ statistics not being representative of the number of users. This is not particularly relevant to education though.
Like any educational tool you need to think about whether there is an easier or simpler way to do the task. We find it strange that people want to read .pdfs and write blogs 'in world' (in the virtual environment of Second Life), as you can do those better on the web. You can also 'chat' more simply on the web. but SL is a way of connecting with other people and seeing a representation of them online, much the same way you can see photos of other people in Bebo while leaving messages for them. Also, don’t think of Second Life as a game, but instead as an educational tool. Second Life doesn’t have 'rules' like World of Warcraft has, and if you want to go fight and shoot people, SL isn't the best option at all.
The biggest technological barrier is the large internet connection that is required. Most schools and councils will not have the bandwidth to run a class of pupils all logged into Second Life, but they would probably be able to run it on one or two computers in a class. Actually we do know of someone who was using Second Life on a laptop over a slow connection in an army camp in Afghanistan, so most schools should be able to cope. Most councils will have blocked programs like Second Life and instant messaging getting through the firewall. However, they may allow you to use SL on particular computers. Unfortunately, with some councils blocking useful websites like Flickr, this may also be a problem.
Also, the computer specification needed to run Second Life is not actually that high, and most secondary school computer labs should be able to run the program. They won’t get the fancy graphic effects like rippling water on the sunlit horizon but that is not necessary for most school projects.
Q5 What benefits do you see specifically to education?
The benefits of SL are potentially huge. Second Life is excellent for CREATING. You can produce objects, sculptures, clothes, jewelry, houses, spaceships, anything. You can program objects to move, bounce, follow you, flash, change colour, make sounds or change shape. You could use SL to develop design models for jewelry, furniture, hats and shoes. Light your design in SL, photograph it and you have a professional looking prototype. In Craft, Design and Technology you could create 3D models without the huge expense and training needed for programs like 3D Studio Viz. There are some incredible buildings in SL. In Computing Second Life can be used to learning a scripting language in a fun environment, reducing the frequent “I can’t do this” fears that many students have.
In music you can use Second Life to create new musical instruments. A lecturer in England ('AngryBeth Shortbread') has developed some wonderful art pieces such as church bells that a group of avatars play by pulling the ropes, where you can change the musical note that each bell plays by clicking on it. Another piece is like a 3D version of Garageband, where you turn on and off sound clips by clicking pieces of a sculpture. The sound you hear changes as you walk around the room, getting louder as you walk next to different parts of the sculpture, and quieter as parts of the object float away from you. 'AngryBeth' and others have created some beautiful work.
For the students, I think Second Life should probably be a time limited project. It might be best to think of a creative project as a learning journey or a learning experience in which students are working toward a major goal of designing a place or event in Second Life. For the teacher there are opportunities to take on the role of a learner and to share the enthusiasm of their students as they learn about a new environment.
Q6. You also mentioned during our previous conversation about autistic kids responding better through Second Life. Tell me about that.
Second Life has been used successfully with a number of support groups. One of these has been BrainTalk founded by John Lester (who now works with Linden Lab as ‘Pathfinder Linden’). John set up a sim (a large plot of land in Second Life run on one server) called Brigadoon as a self-help supportive environment for sufferers of autism and Asperger's syndrome to try out the social interactions that are so hard in the real world. Another employee of Linden Lab, Torley Torgeson (known in Second Life as ‘Torley Linden’) has Asperger’s Syndrome. He says “as a Resident, he could contribute to the community without feeling uncomfortable, and was warmly welcomed as he indulged in his obsessions.”
Second Life has also been used to help abused children redevelop socialising skills; adults with cerebral palsy to allow them to share personal interactions without prejudice.
Q7.Let's go beyond Second Life and into virtual reality in general. What vision do you have for virtual reality in education, 5,10 and 20 years down the line?
Assuming the technology--processing and broadband gets into most households and schools, there will be increased use of virtual environments both as social and work spaces. People in business and education will use virtual meetings and lectures alongside video conferencing as an alternative to travel. This will provide opportunities to students that wouldn't have been available before, such as working with geographically remote specialists, with the ability to see a 3D representation of the glacier or archaeological dig instead of photos and drawings.People will use a variety of online game and social website to unify their identity, and hopefully, there will be tools which will aggregate your identity across desktop and mobile devices in instant messenger, audio and video conferences and virtual worlds, to provide ubiquitous presence awareness and allow people to use their same avatar on multiple sites.
In the school where I teach, we're piloting a handheld learning project this year. I can see in the future every pupil will have a small handheld mobile phone that will run a virtual reality environment and display it using a built-in miniature projector. They will recreate historical events or practice their language skills by working together with students in other countries.
We can push web 2.0 ideas at kids, thinking they are cool and useful, but kids will find their own way. I don’t know if SL will make it in education. It may be its successor that kids embrace instead, while we scratch our heads and reminisce about web 2.0.