Second Life

What is it?

SL1A nursing learner walks into a hospital room where a woman who has just given birth is lying in bed. When the learner asks how the new mother is feeling, she admits that she is dizzy, and might need to be sick. Preparing to examine her, the learner pulls back the sheet and finds the mattress soaked with blood. The patient is experiencing a post-partum haemorrhage, and could bleed to death in minutes.

Instantly, the nurse scrambles into action—taking the woman’s blood pressure, affixing an oxygen mask, starting an IV. She calls for help, and her colleagues rush into the room, yelling back and forth as they assess what is happening and what needs to be done to save the patient’s life. After a few minutes of frenzied activity, the bleeding stops, the woman’s blood pressure stabilizes, and the team breathes a collective sigh of relief.

Then they put down their headsets and step away from their computer screens.

The scene is a simulation on Second Life, the 3-D virtual world in which users can create avatars and interact in realistic spaces and communities. (Read the rest of this article.) The illustration opposite is an operating room in Second Life, courtesy of Imperial College London.

In 2003, Linden Lab developed its Second Life virtual world as a place to meet others, socialise and have fun. You can have a relationships, get married, buy clothes, a house, fairy wings, almost anything (with real money) and change the appearance of your avatar (your on-line physical image) with the click of a mouse. With that provenance, can it really be taken seriously by credible education and training providers?

Of all the technologies discussed in this resource, none will challenge the technology sceptic more than considering Second Life as a step forward for education.

Perhaps the key issue is that education systems are designed by education professionals. And to wear the badge of an education professional arguably takes many years of learning the craft from all angles: teaching, designing programmes, managing provision, etc. Consequently, our typical education professional was not born in the early 1990s. But the education paradigm has shifted and it will become increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that many young people have grown up experiencing a different reality – the virtual one.

But is education ‘in’ Second Life really so different? And just what is it about the thought of this approach that makes the sceptic bristle with indignation and disbelief?

None face-to-face learning is by no means new. Correspondence courses, The Open University, distance learning, e-learning, blended learning… All have well-rehearsed advantages and disadvantages – most notably the speed and quality of feedback (be it automated or tutor-written) and the learner’s motivation to continue with a programme that is bereft of shared experience.

But is face-to-face provision perfect? Does it stake its claim on the media-savvy, ever-online learner’s time between lessons? Does it effectively engage the lone adult-returner, striving to feel anything other than socially awkward, in group activities? These spectrum book-ends are useful to keep in mind when trying to understand why so many colleges and universities are using Second Life to enhance their current face-to-face learning, or offer something uniquely different for the benefit of a new audience. And with 10 million registered users, there’s a very real number of virtual learners in the global catchment area.

What does it look like?

Education and training providers can design bespoke learning experiences tailored to the needs of their client group. In face-to-face provision this might include:

  • classrooms equipped with data projectors and audio/visual equipment
  • workshops
  • tutorial spaces
  • social spaces
  • and somewhere online to access course documents and store assignment work.

You then might organise your provision so that learners gather several times a week for lessons with teachers. You may also give learners interim tasks to complete to enhance their learning experience.

A cocktail of initial, formative and summative assessment will ensure learners are on the right programme, receive support when necessary, further stretching if needed, and achieve in a timely manner.

Learners’ enthusiasm may be driven by the effectiveness of the teaching, the stimulation of the subject, incisive and motivational feedback, and the social capital of the group.

And Second Life differs in only one respect – no one if physically ‘there’.

SL3E-learning packages are now common place. Take Safeguarding training for instance. You sit at an internet-connected computer, read text, answer questions, and print out your results. Both physically and mentally you are sat at your computer for the duration. But in Second Life, the user’s experience is quite different. Whist you may well be sat at the same computer as above, you see and control the on-line presence you created for yourself (your avatar) interacting with others. And you have real, not virtual, conversations with others by either typing with your keyboard or talking and listening with a microphone/headphone headset. This is more than texting, more than a phone or conference call; this is an ‘immersive’ experience which enables the user to suspend disbelief and really feel that they are in a room full of others. You can hear them, you can communicate with them, you can learn from them all.

Imagine a Second Life lesson. The teacher is at the front of the class and many learners are in attendance. The teacher uses a whiteboard, PowerPoint or refers to Word or Excel documents just as in the real world. Learners can click on the screen to enlarge what’s on show. Everyone in attendance can communicate with one another using either voice or text chat. A green radio wave icon pulsates above the learner (or rather their avatar) that is speaking, and their voice will be heard by anyone present in the same room, just as inSL4 real life. If a learner doesn’t have a microphone and/or doesn’t want to speak, they can communicate by typing messages on their keyboard. This typed chat can be saved for later viewing.

After, say, a large lecture, learners can then make use of a provider’s flexible, virtual learning spaces to hold breakout sessions, workshops or study groups. Learning environments, or whole bespoke islands, come with a ‘ground’ space, where role play and simulations can be held, and a floating platform for group discussion and smaller presentations. And of course, in Second Life, learners can fly.

The system allows learners to form study groups and work together without having to physically meet up; ideal for individuals who have commitments that would otherwise make collaborative working with fellow learners difficult. Education islands never close, so learners can make use of them whenever they want.

Along with this virtual face-to-face approach, the learning environments also contain more traditional e-learning resources, such as on-line courses and message boards – very much like a VLE (Virtual Learning Environment). Further, Sloodle, an open-source education project, combines Second Life’s rich, interactive, 3D multi-user virtual learning experience with Moodle, a sophisticated institutional VLE.

And it’s not just for academic subjects. Watch this short video showing a gas training centre. You’ll see the learning environment, the learners’ notice board where messages can be left for other learners or the teacher, simple and advanced on-line testing with test results emailed to the tutor and links to the college’s Moodle environment.

Where in the learner’s journey are you likely to come across it?

Naturally, this depends whether Second Life is being used as part of a traditional face-to-face programme or for distance learning.

  • Recruitment
  • Induction
  • Teaching and learning
  • Assessment
  • Reviewing learners’ progress
  • Achievement

How can teachers, trainers & learners use it?

As in the real world, the approaches to delivering high-quality education and training in Second Life are very many and very varied. Here a just a few examples.

Overcoming distance    Guest or overseas lecturers who can’t travel to a provider’s premises can still work and interact with its learners as if they were in the same room. Similarly, learners could gather to use Second Life in a real-world IT suite, or be dispersed around the real world.

Scavenger hunt    Send learners on a ‘scavenger hunt’ around Second Life for objects and information related to their topic of study. A fun way for learners to collect information and increase their vocabulary.

Virtual art gallery    Use virtual art galleries to develop a relational understanding of art history. The tutor can curate whatever exhibition is appropriate for the period or style they are studying, or create impact associations between landmark art works and the works that came before them and after. More than simply flicking between pictures on a PowerPoint, in your virtual gallery, learners can explore the environment you’ve created. They can dwell on certain works for as long as they wish as if in a real gallery. They can chat to other learners who happen to be looking at the same picture, and they can return to the gallery as often as they like as it never closes. They can ask questions, leave messages, learn; in real time or asynchronous.

Live music    Learners (indeed all ‘residents’) can attend one of the many scheduled concerts in Second Life or organise their own live performances. Your avatar can be seen enacting your performance, or you can video-cast yourself onto a ‘big screen’. But rather than just learning the important ancillary activities of marketing and publicity, you can also design your own stage set and atmosphere… And remember, these are real musicians performing live music to real audiences, via a virtual interface; not unlike a TV, but without the need for a TV company or access to air time.

Role play    Take part in a Shakespeare play or visit an early Roman settlement – but as an early Roman.

Tours    Learners can take a tour of places they may never get to visit, such as the Sistine Chapel, Rome, the inside of a Dell computer, or a string of DNA. This can be done as a whole face-to-face group in a real classroom, by a whole group of on-line learners anywhere in the world, or any combination of the two.

Collaboration    Learners can collaborate to create new environments or objects, from the realistic to the bizarre.

e-Learning    And, of course, all established approaches to e-learning are available ‘in-world’.

What impact can it have on learning?

Karl M. Kapp, Professor of instructional technology an Bloomsburg University, Pennsylvania, uses FREEDOM to summarise the impact of Second Life on learning:

  • Flow – balancing challenge and boredom.
  • Repetition – try, try and try again.
  • Experimentation – allowing learners, through their avatars, to experience wherever they want.
  • Engagement – the strong sense of self within the virtual world is both compelling and engaging.
  • Doing – ‘not doing’ is not a viable option in SL, as the user would simply stare at an inactive avatar.
  • Observing – observing, and all of the above, are learning strategies brought into play, and finally,
  • Motivation – for the skilled New Education Professional, the inherently motivated Second Life user can be treated to education and training opportunities at almost every turn.

At its best it will… (where appropriate – help for judging good or better)

At its best, Second Life might be used to supplement a traditional education programme to provide more insight and memorable learning experiences in an engaging platform that entices learners to take control of their learning between lessons. When used for distance learning, Second Life can add shared experience and social buy-in over and above ‘traditional’ e-learning approaches.

At its worst it will… (where appropriate – help for judging satisfactory or worse)

At its worst, learners may be insufficiently prepared for the learning environment and may be overly distracted by the entertainment and social elements. Insufficient thought and preparation by the programme designers may fail to exploit the unique elements of the platform and so fail to really engage learners in learning. Failure to establish, maintain and develop a critical mass of learner activity and interaction may also result in poor overall engagement with the learning programme and ultimately poor success. Insufficient broadband speed and/or technical support may leave learners bogged down with usability issues which prevent full engagement.

What are the safeguarding implications?

Second Life participants must be at least 18 years of age* and codes of conduct within Second Life differ little from those in the real world. Consider the following from The University of Hawaii:

The University of Hawaii virtual island is a virtual workspace intended for exploration, collaboration, learning and experimentation. All avatars visiting or residing on the University of Hawaii Second Life campus are asked to conduct themselves in the same manner as they would for any 21st century workplace. This includes that all avatars:

  • are not to build on areas not assigned to you
  • must ensure that builds are socially appropriate
  • should not interfere with, or edit objects that are not your own
  • should clean up your temporary objects before you leave
  • may not use inappropriate or foul language in chatting or instant messaging
  • may not have, or use weapons of any kind on the island
  • may not attack or deliberately push other avatars on the UH virtual campus. This is a “no-griefing” zone
  • should not intentionally interrupt meeting or classes taking place on campus
  • are prohibited from the selling of goods or services
  • should maintain attire, gestures and HUD’s that are sexually appropriate
  • understand that nudity or sexual acts are prohibited.

Avatars use pseudonyms. When a new user registers they can type in a first name, though with 10 million registered users, few ‘common’ names are still available. Once the system and the user agree on a first name, it then offers a small selection of second names from which the user must choose. Consequently, the default position is for users to conceal their real identity. Options are available to restrict communication to friends only, though this is not the default option. However, access to education islands can be restricted to learners only.

* Teen Second Life is specifically reserved for teenagers, who are 13 to 17 years of age.

Second Life has a real, not virtual economy, trading in Linden Dollars. You can make, sell or provide a service for others and charge real money for your work.

Find out more

For which CIF evaluative statements could it generate evidence?

A1        How well do learners achieve and enjoy their learning?

A1a.1   learners attain their learning goals, including qualifications and challenging targets

A1a.3   learners’ work meets or exceeds the requirements of the qualifications, learning goals or employment

A1a.4    learners attend and participate as required.

A1b.1   learners develop personal and social skills, including, as appropriate, spiritual, moral and cultural aspects

A1b.2   learners enjoy learning and make progress relative to their prior attainment and potential

A2        How well do learners improve their economic and social well-being through learning and development?

A2.1     learners develop relevant knowledge, understanding and skills which contribute to their economic and social well-being

A3        How safe do learners feel?

A3.1     learners use safe working practices in learning and at work

A3.2     learners say they feel safe.

B1        How effectively do teaching, training and assessment support learning and development?

B1.1     learning and assessment are linked to initial and current assessments and related activities are adapted to make sure they build on and extend learning for all learners

B1.2     interesting and appropriate teaching and learning methods and resources inspire and challenge all learners and enable them to extend their knowledge, skills and understanding

B1.3     technology is used effectively to promote and support learning, where appropriate

B1.4     staff have appropriate skills and expertise to provide good quality teaching, learning, assessment and information and support services for each learner

B1.5     assessment of learners’ performance and progress is timely, fair, consistent and reliable

B1.6     learners receive constructive feedback on their progress and how they might improve

B1.8     learning, teaching, training and assessment promote equality and recognise diversity.

B2        How effectively does the provision meet the needs and interests of users?

B2.1     the range, content and context of provision provides learners with a choice of subjects, levels and qualifications, that are relevant to their medium- and long-term personal, career and/or employment goals

B2.4     arrangements for training and assessment are flexible to suit learners’ and employers’ needs

B4        How effective are the care, guidance and support learners receive in helping them to attain their learning goals?

B4.2     learners receive individual care and support to promote their learning and development, and to help them achieve their potential.

C1        How effectively do leaders and managers raise expectations and promote ambition throughout the organisation?

C1.2     the provider raises expectations through a clear and realistic strategy for planning and developing learning programmes and services

C1.6     resources, including staff, accommodation, facilities and technologies, are developed and used to support learning effectively.

C3        How effectively does the provider promote the safeguarding of learners?

C3.1     learners are safeguarded and protected

C3.3     safeguarding is prioritised

C4        How effectively does the provider actively promote equality and diversity, tackle discrimination and narrow the achievement gap?

C4.1     manages equality and diversity, particularly disability, gender and race, and actively promotes equality and diversity among staff, learners, employers, parents and other partners

C4.3     makes sure training in equality and diversity is effective so that leaders, managers, governors or supervisory bodies, staff and learners understand their roles and responsibilities in relation to equality and diversity

C4.4     makes sure that all learners and staff are protected from harassment, bullying and discrimination, including those based with employers and at other sites external to the providers

C5        How effectively does the provider engage with users to support and promote improvement?

C5.2     the views of different user groups are sought and acted upon to plan, manage and improve the provision


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