This is written in response to a post about re-entering Second Life and the changes (and lack of changes there after a two year break) written by Bex Ferriday at http://mavendorf.tumblr.com/post/45827913344/second-life-second-attempt
Firstly, the problems Bex relates about the course weren’t really due to the design of the course, or the design of SL, in my opinion. I think with anything like that there’s often a problem of commitment from the people taking it. People just over-estimate how much time they have, other things crop up, and so participation wanes. Look out the dropout rate from MOOCs and they only use tried and tested technologies. I got a lot from it anyway.
I think the biggest advantage and disadvantage of using virtual worlds for education was that for most of the latter part of the noughties, virtual worlds were synonymous with just one platform; Second Life. The advantage was that nearly everyone you knew teaching and researching the field were in the one place. If you wanted to visit their build, observe what they were doing, guest lecture in their teaching, then you didn’t need to learn to use a new interface (unless Linden Lab itself decided to screw around with it), you could use your own avatar, inventory etc. If they held a social event, you could meet up with everyone you knew and worked with, invite other people over to what you were doing. If your work involved a social dimension (like exploring digital culture, or digital identity) then you had a living complex world to send them out into, full of 10s of 1000s of people. There was a real sense of a community of educators working together.
The disadvantage of course was that it was all operating under the discretion of one software company, and when they pulled the plug, it all fell apart.
Well “pull the plug” is a slight exaggeration. For anyone who doesn’t work in the field, Linden Lab, who ran Second Life, ended the educational subsidy. So most institutions could no longer afford to stay in there, and a lot of cheaper options emerged.
Last year I was trying to organise a tour for a group of students, and so went through the normal list of landmarks to show them different resources. Fewer than half were still there. The numbers of people using it are down, but apparently revenue is up. So the customer base is a smaller amount of more committed people. Which I guess suits the provider. Not so helpful for us using it for education though.
The impact on education towards making it more mainstream has been negative. The fragmentation of the community means it’s more difficult to show colleagues the range of stuff it can be used for. It’s more difficult to find good examples of practice, because you first of all have to know where to look.
Bex’s other point is that the technology hasn’t moved on at all. I’m less worried about this. As long as it’s good enough to give you a sense of immersion, (and it can be) and a sense of copresence (and it does) then overall tech quality isn’t a problem. A lot of people’s equipment is still not great, so keeping the graphics at a lower end gives the majority of users a chance to catch up. I’ve given up on IT departments ever doing so though. What I was hoping for though is for the problems to be resolved. But the lag is as bad as ever. In a session I was teaching last week, it was the worst I’ve ever seen, I got booted out several times and struggled to get back in.
But there are still fascinating things to see there, which reassures me that the technology is here to stay, and is an essential part of the educator’s kit. Just the ones I’m involved with: there’s the palaeontology course at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. The Science Ethics course at the University of Iowa. The digital cultures course at Newman University, the Human Behaviour course at University of Southern Maine, the Extract / Insert performance and installation by Stelarc, Joff Chafer and Ian Upton. All fascinating. All excellent from an education perspective, (or performance), and all only really possible in a virtual world. And all, (maybe coincidentally, maybe not), taking place in Second Life.
I think what will emerge is either another single platform that will replace SL and everyone can migrate back to that to recreate that single community, or the technology for hypergridding (i.e. linking together the different platforms) will fill the same role. In this thread responding to Bex’s post in Facebook, Anna Peachey she always thought of SL as the fluffer for the bigger event. In the physical world, the work of the fluffer has been made redundant by Viagra. Hopefully the field of virtual worlds will see a similar game-changing technology.