Second Life: dangerously sexy (in a slightly 80’s way)

Posted on May 12, 2007

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I spent the day on Thursday at Eduserv’s Symposium, this year focusing on the question: “Virtual worlds, real learning?”. It was superbly organised (“blended“, apparently!) and a very interesting day all round.

The focus, as you would expect was mostly on Second Life but several of the speakers at least gave lip service to the other 3D virtual environments such as there.com, PS3 home, 3B, etc.

What became clear very quickly from pretty much all of the speakers was that the question wasn’t going to be answered by just a day’s worth of talking: although most of the delegates (many from educational establishments) were excited but what Second Life offers, in general there were more questions than answers about what exactly the environment does for learning. This was very much the beginnings of what will be a longer – and very interesting – debate.

The phrase that kept coming up in some guise or another was along the lines of “we think it’s useful, but we’re not sure how”. This worried me at first because it flies in the face of traditional technology needs evaluation. I spend much of my time trying to find appropriate technologies to answer user requirements: the requirement comes first and the right technology is chosen to suite. What is happening with Second Life is the opposite – here, the technology is already in place, and people are trying to find ways to use it. Usually this is dangerous.

When you consider the multiplicity of environments that 2L provides for users, this back-to-front approach is probably not surprising – what is required, I guess, is a set of demonstrators against which the educational establishment can begin to measure learning effectiveness. At the same time, it is easy to be bowled over by the technology (incredibly, it’s happened to me on *cough* several occasions – well, most days, in fact…), particularly given the visual nature of what is presented by these 3D spaces.

The “lowest common denominator” approach needs to be applied. If you ask the question “can you do it better with a simpler technology?”, you usually end up with a solution which is faster, slicker and more effective. For example: if you’re trying to get across how a steam engine works or show a slowed down view of a Vickers machine gun firing, then Flash is probably your best bet. If actually you’re just trying to convey something with text and images, then use HTML. The end result is sometimes rather downbeat and particularly hard for us geek types to stomach: the less-glamorous tools are often the more appropriate.

And here’s where I see the rub for Second Life: the danger is that 3D-ness is a familiar paradigm and so it feels sexy (albeit in a fairly nasty, blocky, 80’s kind of way…). This can too easily lead down a path where the environment itself becomes the reason, rather than the experience that people are having in the environment. In a bizarre way, as Stephen Downes pointed out in the refreshing final talk of the day, this sexiness actually leads to conservatism: because the environment is interesting, the tendency is for the experience to be pretty second rate.

There were (slightly too many) moments when fairly tenuous connections with some badly formed notion of “learning” were held up as indicators of Second Life being “a good thing” for education: for example, speakers tried to suggest that real world skills (Photoshop, media editing, PR, event planning, among others…) were being learned by doing stuff in Second Life. It made more sense when Joanna Scott from Nature Publishing Group talked about their experiments, namely Second Nature (interesting stuff, terrible name) which really seemed to be using the environment to do some stuff you can’t do anywhere else.

It comes down to this: if you can do it better in Second Life, do it. If you can’t, don’t.

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