I was pleased this year to accept a place as a delegate at the Eduserv Foundation Symposium, which was held at Congress House, London on 10 May 2007. The Symposium was primarily concerned with Second Life and its relevance and applicability to learning. Second Life is a 'virtual-world' created and commercially operated by a company called Linden Lab. It has gained a significant amount of media coverage in recent months.
Although the calls for papers and the description of this event referred to virtual worlds in general, Andy Powell, Head of Development for the Foundation likened Second Life's relationship to virtual worlds as being much like Hoover's relationships to vacuum cleaners, where the successful brand became synonymous with the generic technology.
In order to describe an event which included elements of a traditional conference together with the more experimental aspects of a 'virtual event', it is important to clarify some terminology. To that end, the following terms are defined for the purposes of this report:
After a while, these distinctions can get a bit blurred: as a rule of thumb, if you find that you don't seem to be able create things by just pointing at the ground and willing them into existence then you're most probably not 'in-world'. I've used real-life names throughout, rather than in-world (avatar) names so that the person called Andy Powell, for example, is someone you could shake by the hand without needing a computer to mediate.
The Symposium was actually comprised of two, connected events. One, the real-life event, had the traditional elements: an auditorium, speakers, an audience, question-and-answer sessions, a panel session, coffee breaks and lunch. The other event was situated in-world, in a number of discrete virtual locations to spread the load on the servers. One of the most impressive aspects of what was a largely successful symposium was the effort that was made to 'blend' the physical and virtual worlds. The speakers were all physically present in the real-life event, but their presentations, together with a video feed of them speaking were displayed on virtual screens in-world. This meant that the virtual delegates, represented by their avatars sitting in a space modelled on the Congress Centre , could watch the real-life event, with a six-second delay. Not that the participation of the virtual delegates was necessarily passive: they could, and did, raise questions using Second Life's text-based 'chat' facility. However, the virtual delegates were let down in one respect - no lunch was provided for them in-world. As well as the virtual delegates watching the real-life speakers on virtual screens, the real-life delegates were able to see the virtual delegates on very impressive, large plasma screens positioned around the auditorium. I thought this was a great idea, well executed and very effective. From my position, sitting in the real-life auditorium, it felt rather like being able to look through a large window into another room, with more delegates, in the conference centre. From any kind of distance, the 'artificiality' of the virtual world on screen became less apparent - until one of the delegates decided to fly out of his seat of course.
The organisation and coordination of a 'blended' event of this type clearly required some real effort, to match the slick technical arrangement. Andy Powell, Eduserv Foundation's Head of Development, acted as real-life master of ceremonies, while Pete Johnston, the Foundation's Technical Researcher, worked hard to coordinate the virtual event, while sitting in the real-life auditorium. Between them, they conveyed information, particularly questions from the virtual delegates, between the two worlds. The conference agenda consisted mainly of a series of presentations from people working in industry as well as education. I'll give a very brief account of these - for more information the presentation slides, together with a video recording of the actual delivery of the presentation, are available for viewing or downloading from the Eduserv Foundation Web site .
From Jim Purbrick we heard how Second Life is a 'creation engine'. He described the range of creative activities going on in SL, such as building sophisticated working machines, artificial life research and film-making. Supplying us with some demographics, Jim pointed out that the majority of SL users are now European rather than North American. According to him, some of SL's best aspects include the 'instant gratification' of being able to start creating immediately, coupled with the fact that the creation environment is not separate from the normal user experience, resulting in what he termed 'always on creation'.
Roo described IBM's (considerable) activities in Second Life, the ways in which they are exploring the use of Second Life as a business tool for meetings, and the relatively complex developments they have undertaken in-world. The most impressive, from my point of view, was the model of the Rod Laver Arena which contained a simulation of the Australian Open Tennis Tournament, with the trajectory of the virtual tennis ball being dictated by a live feed of data from the real-life 'Hawkeye' system.
Roo made much of the impact of meetings in SL, explaining how social interactions can occur 'naturally' and even accidentally or serendipitously - something which does not happen with more conventional virtual meeting tools. Apparently, the information conveyed by just the direction of an avatar's gaze can be quite significant in determining who is giving attention to whom. In a similar vein, it is possible to 'see' the social networking going on in a virtual meeting by simply observing the clusters of people - just as in RL. I found this aspect of Second Life's potential particularly interesting.
Roo also revealed that IBM were concerned to address the problem of privacy, or the lack of guarantee of same, in Second Life. To this end, it is starting to look at building something similar for its corporate intranet with an off-the-shelf 'game-engine' product, as a place in which to hold secret, secure meetings.
Hamish described an initiative at the University of Edinburgh to attempt to use Second Life as a practical tool to aid teaching and learning. His team elected to use the local Holyrood Park as a model for the virtual space it is creating, as the Park has a rich variety of history, geology and local resonances. Hamish explained how Second Life was chosen because it allowed them to practice teaching and learning in a 'constructivist/constructionist context'. The virtual environment can offer tasks, experiences and reflection together with 'appropriate disequilibrium'. While not being a game per se, Hamish described Second Life as 'playful'.
More generally, Hamish explained how Second Life could be important to the University as a new 'point of access', and that the University benefited from his team's work as it gained a place in what he described as an 'important media space'. The University was now starting to consider some issues associated with the use of Second Life, such as the legal aspects of the relationship between the institution and the service-provider, together with the technical demands of the software as well as their effect on the accessibility of the virtual world for students. Hamish reported that the Law School had considered using Second Life for teaching but had postponed any such activity on the grounds that it could not guarantee that all of its students would have the hardware resources necessary to access it.
Joanna outlined Nature's considerable presence in Second Life, in particular its activities on and around its virtual island called 'Second Nature'. Describing Second Nature as 'a sandpit for scientists', Joanna suggested that there are two aspects of Second Life which are significant for Nature and scientists: the 'social' aspect of the collaborative environment, and the 'visualisation' aspect made possible by the in-world building tools. Nature regularly publishes diagrams of three-dimensional molecular structures on paper: Second Life offers an opportunity for 'real' and even interactive three-dimensional models. Second Nature now hosts the M4 (Magical Molecular Model Maker) which interrogates the PubChem database for the data needed to generate a molecular model in Second Life. One particular issue with Second Life in terms of its ability to render complex objects is the built-in limitation on the number of 'prims', or primitive building-blocks, which any one parcel of virtual land can support.
Refreshingly, Joanna revealed that Nature's approach to Second Life was to 'try it', and if they found it to be wanting, to cut its 'not very significant' losses. Nature had also adopted a stance of hosting other people's work, rather than developing new material itself.
Gilly presented on SEAL (Second Environment, Advanced Learning) and her activities in establishing a Learning Futures Academy. Throughout her talk she emphasised the need to work with students to arrive at a vision which would allow institutions to plan for a different future. Second Life's potential in this work is to facilitate the creation of an interactive and creative environment within which 'events' can be hosted. The idea is that the 'immersion' of users in such events will encourage them to express their own desires for a 'learning future'. Echoing Hamish MacLeod's 'appropriate disequilibrium', Gilly explained how the immersion in a different world is designed to 'free up the mindset' of the participants. Noting that many real-life research techniques do not apply very well to virtual worlds like Second Life, Gilly outlined the intention to use a 'cognitive mapping' technique to the logs of in-world 'chats'.
Last up was Stephen Downes. It became clear fairly early on that Stephen is sceptical about the value of Second Life in learning. For much of his talk he argued that Second Life is not very new in concept, and that its appeal comes from the fact that it is a rather conservative, hence comforting, experience. The only significant innovation in Second Life, he argued, is the in-world economy, which is connected to real-life economies through normal currency-exchange mechanisms.
Stephen questioned the future worth of Second Life, inviting us to imagine what the Web would be like if we had commissioned a private company to develop it for us.
Eduserv should be commended for an ambitious and innovative symposium, well executed on the day. I came away convinced that the use of Second Life to facilitate a 'hybrid' conference, part real-life, part virtual, is worthwhile. I remained slightly more sceptical about its real power to affect e-learning to a significant degree, but I was nonetheless subjected to an array of interesting ideas and compelling visualisations. A day after the symposium, I found myself re-visiting Second Life as a result.