Paul Gorman examines to what degree Second Life has justified the claims made for it by its evangelists with particular regard to education.
Second Life (SL) is a virtual world created and owned by a company called Linden Lab and was launched in 2003. By 2006, SL was increasingly visible in the UK media and by 2007 SL had secured over 600 mentions in UK newspapers and magazines . However, media interest in SL evaporated rapidly with references to it dropping by more than 40% in 2008 and even further since. During this peak period SL attracted large investment in virtual land from multi-national corporations, businesses and also attracted significant interest from educational institutions.
In the UK alone, 15 universities had invested cash in SL land by mid-2007 . Proponents of the use of SL in education argued that it offered great benefits with even greater future potential in years to come. Influential think-tanks argued that virtual worlds would be ubiquitous educational tools within two to three years . This paper will seek to examine to what extent the use of SL in education has made good on this potential in the period since its popularity peaked.
Features of Second Life
Users of SL access the virtual world by downloading a free client. Once they have done this they must create a virtual representation of themselves known as an avatar. Using this avatar, users can explore miles of virtual land within the SL world by walking, flying or teleporting. Users can communicate with each other through text chat and audio functionality. There are no set goals within SL and you can spend your time there doing whatever you like – exploring, building, socialising, shopping or learning .
Personal Experience of Second Life as a Learner
I first experienced SL as a postgraduate student in E-learning at the University of Edinburgh in 2007, just as coverage of SL peaked in the mainstream media. SL was used as a medium to facilitate discussion with classmates, who, as distance learners, were unable to interact on a face-to-face basis. My reaction to SL was mixed. Although the potential educational benefits of a virtual world were transparent enough, I felt that its ability to make good on this potential was somewhat compromised by access limitations, problems with functionality, pedagogical use and concerns over control of the virtual environment.
SL has certainly developed and expanded since this 2006-07 period when I first used it. The number of UK universities active in virtual worlds grew from around 41 in summer 2007 to all universities by summer 2010 (though it should be noted that the definition of 'active' varies greatly ) with SL being the most popular .
Has Second Life Achieved the Educational Breakthroughs?
Let us take a look at some of the key benefits of SL for learners that were identified in the 2006-07 period when it impinged most strongly upon public consciousness and examine how far its promise has been achieved since then.
Interaction with Learners on 'Their' Territory
Commentators have long argued that those in education need to ‘...reduce the perceived chasm between education and 'real life'...’  - real life being regular use of video games, social networking sites and other Web 2.0 tools. Working with learners using an already popular service such as SL could be seen as as an effective means of achieving this. The only problem was that SL neither is, nor was, particularly popular. Even in its heyday, circa 2007, usage amongst students was low in comparison with social networking sites, wikis or blogs . Moreover, it is not easy to interpret SL’s usage figures accurately since many of its users opt to create more than one avatar thereby tending to exaggerate the true level of individual usage; just as, additionally, other users create just one avatar, but barely use it (if) at all . If educators really want to collaborate, converse and teach using tools with which their students are familiar and comfortable, it is highly debatable whether SL would be anywhere near the top of the list. SL has long since seen its status as the Web wonder kid replaced by Facebook and Twitter . One could easily argue that greater engagement with students and the reduction of the ‘…perceived chasm between education and 'real life'...’  could be far better achieved through the use of applications such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs and wikis as opposed to SL.
Online Class Discussions
Person-to-person interaction within SL allows for virtual class discussion. This is particularly useful in courses of distance or online learning in which it is not possible for the class discussions to take place in the same physical space. As ‘...the attrition rate of online learners...(is)...brought about in large part by a sense of isolation’ , the use of virtual meetings within SL can help to combat this. Proponents of SL argued that it is an ideal tool for this kind of social/group activity, superseding other forms of computer-mediated communication such as instant messaging . This is extremely debatable, with some comparing SL unfavourably as a social space when compared with social networking sites and general online forums . Moreover, the central problem for those who wish to access SL - the fact that it requires a relatively high specification computer and a powerful graphics card in order to run as well as the high bandwidth requirements has never been adequately solved despite some improvement over recent years . Inability to access the service that your classmates are using for class discussions is hardly likely to ameliorate feelings of isolation for the learner and as long as SL requires relatively high-specification hardware, it will likely be trumped by services such as Skype and Facebook for peer-to-peer discussion.
Virtual Recreations of the Campus
Educators can also create virtual university campuses and conduct virtual lectures in virtual lecture halls. Several institutions have chosen to recreate all or part of real-life campuses in SL. Lecturers can then lecture to their classes using a whiteboard for a PowerPoint presentation for example.
However, as understandable as this may be, it represents a largely wrong-headed approach, negating the possibilities of a virtual world not bound by the rigidity of real life in which anything is possible. In many cases, educational institutions have chosen slavishly to recreate the real world in the shape of virtual campuses and virtual lecture theatres, echoing previous academic criticism of virtual learning environments in that they ‘...tend to be skewed towards the simulation of the classroom, lecture hall, tutor's office and the student common room...’ . Using a tool that is designed to be interactive to conduct activities that are non-interactive (such as sitting in a virtual lecture hall and taking lecture notes from the screen) is largely unprofitable. The non-interactive activity (such as a lecture) could be just as easily carried out and be better suited to a real lecture or podcasted lecture for example. It has been pointed out that ‘...Virtual Worlds should not be used to automate existing learning approaches and models: A virtual classroom with virtual students...is not the end-game for learning in VWs...’ . Unfortunately, that does seem to have become the end-game in a significant number of cases, with recreations of real-life campuses appearing like ghost towns in which ‘…one can visit some campuses and leave without a clue if they [institutions] are actually using their presence in Second Life’ .
Another form of person-to-person interaction in SL is role play. Educational institutions can create virtual environments that allow students to learn important skills relevant to their course through role play exercises. For example, Harvard Law School built a courtroom in SL in which students could practise their advocacy skills . Other role-playing opportunities could include creating virtual hotels to allow hospitality students to gain customer-service skills, virtual medical clinics in which medical students can practise patient encounter strategies and so on. Advocates of SL argued that students can take turns playing different roles and can see encounters ‘...from different perspectives, which would be difficult or impossible to do in real life...’ .
Some also see educational potential in the ability to experience social contact with others using an identity vastly different from one’s real-life identity. For example, users have reported on the different attitudes displayed towards them when using avatars of a different race .
However, in saying that, the author feels that the claims of SL proponents on the value of certain aspects of role play are rather inflated. For example, it seems somewhat facile to claim that choosing an avatar of a different gender or race gives a user any truly meaningful appreciation of how society reacts to these groups in reality. One could just as easily argue that playing the combat game Call of Duty online gives one a truer appreciation of what it must be like to come under fire on the battlefield.
Tools and Simulations
Avatars can also interact with the objects within the virtual world as well as with other avatars. As mentioned, users or groups can buy land and create their own structures. A huge range of objects can be built in SL and this has proved to be one of its key successes: students of subjects ranging from molecular biology  to engineering and computing  have benefited from this capability. One can easily imagine, for example, how the ability to create virtual buildings can benefit architecture students or the ability to change the designs of building interiors could be useful for interior design students.
Other forms of person-to-object interaction could have useful educational potential. The ability to create virtual buildings within SL means that educators can conduct virtual class visits to locations that would otherwise be impossible to do in real life. Moreover, teachers can allow their students the opportunity to visit other time periods virtually which ‘...gives participants a sense of being there...’ and allows students to become immersed in the environment .
Deficiencies in the User’s Experience
The ability SL gives to create simulations presents a wonderful tool for teachers and learners but is let down by fundamental flaws which Linden Lab has long failed to rectify.
Linden Lab has not been able to simplify to any appreciable degree the learning process required to permit users to immerse themselves effectively in the SL environment. Newcomers still experiencing real difficulties in trying to control their avatars . The unwieldiness of controlling one’s avatar is unlikely to give a user the sense of being anywhere other than in a poorly programmed game. Movement around the SL world is at times rather clunky and the interface is not entirely intuitive. In order for SL to be used as a teaching tool, a significant amount of training time is required to teach students how to join and navigate the virtual world  - possibly at the expense of teaching course material. Moreover, SL still has a tendency to lag whenever a large number of avatars are gathered in the one location which can be frustrating. SL also suffers from occasional downtime. One could argue that this, combined with time lag, awkward movement and a less-than-intuitive interface make it far from ‘...easy for them [students] to suspend their disbelief and feel immersed in their environment...’ as has been claimed . On the contrary, these problems act as a constant reminder that one is on a computer, moving an avatar around (perhaps not very successfully) and not really immersed in the virtual world.
There can be no doubt that SL can be a useful tool for educators, to argue otherwise would be absurd. Even a cursory scan of the available literature reveals this .
SL seems to be at its most useful in allowing users the ability to create and observe three-dimensional models, giving SL particular applicability for students of courses such as design, architecture and the sciences. It is less useful as a delivery method of non-interactive activities such as lectures. Moreover, hardware requirements and limitations in usability mean that it may not be ideal for peer-to-peer discussion and collaboration when compared with other social media services.
Unfortunately, as we have seen, SL is still beset by several problems which, as long as they persist, will preclude it from becoming the ‘game changer’ for education that many hoped it would be. It certainly does not deserve the sometimes hostile reception it has received from many academics  though one cannot help but feel this reaction may partly be due to SL’s failure to live up to the hyperbole of the early evangelists’ claims on its behalf. In its current form, SL is just another useful tool for educators along with blogs, wikis and other Web 2.0 innovations, and it may be best marketed to educators in this way – another weapon in their armoury rather than as an educational panacea.
From a personal perspective, the most disappointing aspect is that many of problematic issues highlighted above are not new, many having been identified as far back as 2006 and 2007 . Unfortunately, SL has not been able to gain enough ground: in making it easier for users to be able to run SL (either at home or in educational institutions); in reducing the learning curve required to satisfactorily navigate the virtual world, or: in improving the functionality and stability of the platform. That is not to say that some progress has not been made in these areas, just not at rapid enough a pace. Credit is also due in dealing with previous ethical concerns over creating educational spaces in close virtual proximity to such morally dubious locations as gambling dens and strip clubs. This has for the most part been dealt with by banning gambling and removing the sex industry to a cordoned-off island of virtual sybaritism.
Despite the relatively modest improvements made by SL over the course of the last four years, virtual worlds are not going away, though it may well be that, in future, other players in the virtual world market may be better placed to deliver educational benefits than SL . In the meantime, the jury will remain out on how much of a learning revolution SL really represents.
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Paul Gorman is a librarian at City of Glasgow College and is responsible for collections management and academic liaison for the schools of Creative Industries and Sport.