Forum Friday – Is Second Life Worth The Trip?

Second LifeOn most Fridays I like to pull an interesting topic or resource from the Tech Savvy Forum and share it with the wider blogosphere. Often times, an interesting topic will also be echoed on other sites, and it’s helpful to bring in many voices, to have a better understanding of how certain technologies can be used in our classrooms. This week, I’ve dipped into the Teacher’s Lounge, to find a conversation about Second Life, the much-hyped virtual world that many large educational institutions have been spending considerable time and resources in using for the classroom.

The conversation starts with AndyAK, a member here on the site:

Two things happened sort of at once……one, several parents or teachers asked “What is Second Life?”, and I kept bumping into articles or references that suggested serious educational uses for SL. I found that I was offering ever more elaborate explanations for what SL is without ever actually having been there. I started to wonder if I was lying or not, and, IS there a serious academic use.

So, I signed up.

I’ve spent a bit more beyond signing up in Second Life (SL) myself. Oh sure, I’ve flown around the world, teleported to places, and have even interacted in a virtual conference session. But once I was done with my human loop-de-loops and turning my avatar into a gigantic green skinned “Hulk” I walked away from my computer with a great big “…meh.” Perhaps it was because I had spent the time interacting online with people that were physically in the room with me, rather than across some great distance. I think that my experience can best be summed up with a quote from David Warlick’s blog:

David Warlick:
I’m intrigued by the technology of something like Second Life, it’s potentials, and to some extent, I understand its appeal. But I come from a generation of information consumers. I’m much happier reading a good book, or watching a good movie after a long day of teaching, programming, or writing.

Although I’m not from Mr. Warlick’s generation, I too share an affinity for more traditional media in which I’m the consumer, and not necessarily the creator and adventurer. To me, being an adventurer means that I’m playing a game, with no predetermined lesson to be learned or benchmark to be taught. When I want to learn, I like to remove some of those game elements because my focus is different. Sure, including some gaming with my lessons and learning is always a great way to engage my students and myself (jeopardy, sparkle, etc.), but when I fire up Second Life, it’s similarities to a video game are too much of a distraction for me. Where’s my mana pool? Where are my weapons and character’s level status? How many lives do I have?!

For me, learning in Second Life is difficult because I’m constantly reminded of just how much like a game it is. In fact, that “gamer mentality” is very pervasive in Second Life as pointed out again by AndyAK:

It’s about as safe as going to a really big mall in a bad part of town. There’s a lot of “the world” running around, but then again, the place is huge. I find that if I search out serious areas, it’s a nice place. If I hang out where people with no particular purpose hang out, it’s not so nice.

What Andy is referring to when he says that SL is “not so nice” are the virtual sex-clubs, griefers (people playing a game whose sole purpose is to ruin another player’s experience), and otherwise completely inappropriate adult oriented content. Which makes SL a questionable environment for our youth.

HOWEVER, David Warlick does offer one more reflective point, as he often does:

David Warlick:
As frivolous as something like World of Warcraft and Second Life might seem to some of us, it is nothing less than arrogant for me to write this experience off as valueless to our students.

And in a post-ending reflective moment, I half agree with him. The technologies involved with creating and manipulating virtual worlds are powerful and exciting; someday there may be a virtual “holodeck” in our classrooms in which learners can step into history, collaborate with groups around the world, or experiment and simulate experiences that aren’t possibly in the physical world. I’m just not sure if Second Life is that perfect virtual field trip that so many in the educational world have been waiting for.


  1. I find 99% of students have never been in second life and about 90% have never even heard of it. Makes me wonder who’s in it because it sure doesn’t seem to be any of the k-college students I’ve ever spoken to.

    For me, it’s got all the irritating aspects of a game and few of the benefits. Since they’ve cracked down on prostitution and gambling things have been headed south. I think it reached the top of the hype cycle about a year ago and has been declining since.

    I’m a fan of the idea but the experience itself is pretty lame.

    The best use I’ve seen of it is a cultural anthropology course where the prof wants to see what happens when students interact in a virtual world where race, sex, species is optional. That makes sense and second life is perfect for it.

  2. quote:
    “being an adventurer means that I’m playing a game, with no predetermined lesson to be learned or benchmark to be taught. When I want to learn, I like to remove some of those game elements because my focus is different.”
    Finally.. a clear statement of the differences between gaming and learning. It is irritating to me when a kids’ “learning” site is SO MUCH a video game that they have more fun, just clicking away, and are able to totally ignore the task the game is asking them to do.
    It means we have to vet these sites, and make sure they are designed well.. so that learning is actually taking place. The games on BrainPop Jr. come to mind as a great start.

  3. Jason Ohler is in town for our annual ASTE (Alaska Society of Technology Educators) Conference. I got to sit in on a panel discussion rather than do real work Friday afternoon, and Second Life came up. He mentions how much he enjoys being in SL, as he is trim, and good looking (as are we all), but also said, “I talk to serious people at my university about SL, and they laugh. Then you go talk to gamers about real life, and they laugh.”.

    SL IS a mathmetical model of real life, with human inputs. Not that the people using it are thinking that, but it is. Like many powerful things, there is a lot of overhead. I think I mentioned earlier that I’m not sure I see ever using it with middle school students, but I can see situations where people come together for a meeting this way….or for interaction. When I get the right setting, I enjoy my time, and it’s a little like travel…….ok, and a lot NOT like travel, all at the same time.

    I’m not sure that SL is it….but I think sometime soon we’ll be using something an awful lot like it for field trips and other “experiential” education trips……they won’t be like the real thing, but they’ll be better than a book, better than a video, and better than listeningto someone that’s been there. And it won’t replace everything, or maybe anything, but it will have its own quality that nothing else can replace.

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