Answering some concerns

Originally published in The Metaverse Messenger, in the Dec. 12, 2006, edition in the “Learning Curves” column on page 20.

Staff Writer

As some of us explore Second Life as a tool for education, we’ll see many different perspectives. Surely it has always been the case. I can imagine some ancient Greeks sitting around drinking ouzo and talking about the new-fangled teaching innovation.

“I don’t know,” says one, “I just don’t see how having 20 people sitting in a classroom listening to a guy talk can possibly be as good as walking around the hills engaging in dialogue.”

“It’ll never catch on,” says the other. “I mean, can you see Socrates standing at the front of a room like that? He’d choke on an olive pit first.”

Second Life will not be for everyone (either student or teacher) any more than the Web is for everyone. Lecture isn’t for everyone, either. Group learning isn’t for everyone. Yet, some people reject SL in education because it won’t serve everyone.

In general, two kinds of skeptics consider SL, one legitimate, and one simply reactionary. Legitimate skepticism is a healthy part of the process. As college educators we seek to encourage critical thinking among our students, which includes (among other things) the ability to suspend judgment and ask probing questions.

This doesn’t mean we suspend judgment forever, but that we make observations and don’t jump to conclusions. Probing questions will eventually lead either to rejecting a concept or to strengthening it. If an idea is eventually adopted, such skeptics serve it better than wholehearted, naive acceptance.

However, some skeptics simply dismiss it as “silly.” Such a jumping-to-conclusions is the antithesis of critical thinking. I wish such faculty would at least have the intellectual honesty relatively unschooled students do.

We announced a very early effort to probe SL’s potential in a journalism classroom by offering students in a newswriting class the opportunity to cover SL and write for the Metaverse Messenger instead of confining their efforts to the campus newspaper. Two students took it on, including one vocal skeptic.

They quickly discovered SL is not a game, but a platform for human interaction. Both ran into difficult interview situations, and both found reporting and writing in SL challenging in ways leading to skills development completely transferrable to real life.

For instance, they discovered their appearance changed the way other people respond to them. About a month into the experiment, one of the students sought me out inworld to show off the new suit he had purchased. You guessed it–it was the skeptic.

Let’s examine some of the things probing skeptics say.

Second Life is just a game.

You can certainly use SL to play games, just as you can use a pen and paper to play games, but that makes neither SL nor pen and paper a game.

Imagine if the first pen a Martian was used to play Tic Tac Toe. He might view a pen as a game-playing device forever after–a view neither accurate nor useful.

Some made the same assumption about personal computers. Certainly, some people use PCs to waste time, but that doesn’t make a PC inherently a game.

The problem lies in the phraseology, and in what media folks call “uses and gratifications.”

Uses and gratifications research focuses on how a “consumer” actually uses a medium. To oversimplify, U&G says it doesn’t matter how the publishers and creators of a medium intended it to be used; what matters is how people actually use it.

Willis Haviland Carrier created his device to improve manufacturing process control in a printing plant. It lowered humidity, which helped maintain consistent paper dimensions and ink alignment. Its cooling properties were initially simply a welcome fringe benefit.

Today people run air conditioners along with humidifiers to put humidity back into the atmosphere in their homes. Someone focused on original intent might call that silly. But people don’t care that Carrier intended it as a dehumidifier, and Carrier and his people were smart enough to realize the use mattered more than the intent.

Even if Linden Lab had intended SL as a game (and they’ve repeatedly said otherwise), it wouldn’t matter. If people can use it to enhance education, who cares?

Never mind the solid research that predates the Internet which suggests games can teach some kinds of material better than “traditional” lectures in a classroom.

SL is full of porn and sex addicts.

I have been in SL for three months at this writing, and only once have I been confronted by people engaging in sexual activity in a PG-designated place. For the most part, people who like virtual sex go to areas that cater to it; people who like to discuss politics go to areas that encourage political discussions; people who like music go to areas that support music.

The market works. SL demonstrates that although a society is never “perfect” (whatever that means), it works better if you just leave it mostly alone.

The Internet was intended for sharing discussion and data concerning scientific research. Because it’s now used to distribute porn, does that negate the Internet’s usefulness?

Because thousands of ridiculous pictures are taken via cell phone cameras, does that mean photography is silly?

Do the Backstreet Boys mean music is silly?

Do books of redneck jokes mean writing is silly?

It’s not as good as a classroom.

Of course it’s not. A classroom isn’t as good as following Socrates around the hills. Nothing is as good as working one on one with a mentor.

Does that mean we should stop using classrooms?

If the Web isn’t as good as a classroom, should we stop using the Web?

In fact, SL (or something like it) moves us a step back toward the classroom from the Web. It gives a sense of presence that is missing from almost any other distance education method.

In a real life classroom, most students don’t speak up. They may have the opportunity to engage more directly than they do on the Web or in SL, but they don’t act on that opportunity for the most part. In a typical class, three to five students tend to dominate the whole class.

Even in a Web class, students are more likely to speak up. There is some anonymity, and you have a little more time to think about what you want to say and decrease your fear of appearing foolish.

In SL, people seem even more likely to speak up, and if they don’t, their avatars give a sense of presence not possible with the Web.

Why do people participate? I think it’s because you quickly find yourself going beyond newbie stumbling around to having a sense of being able to do things. You have more control in SL than you do in real life. Rather than that leading to escapism, it instead leads to focus, skills development, and ultimately transference to real life.

SL is unreliable.

It certainly is in beta, in my opinion–probably continual beta.

So is the Web. So what? We are learning how to use the new medium; this is part of it.

The Web is still not reliable in the same way that a classroom is reliable. Last year, our entire statewide online learning system crashed. It’s the nature of the medium. You plan for it, take it into account, and get the usefulness out of it anyway.

As I write this, SL has just come off three or four days of problems after an upgrade. I am frustrated. But I’m not going away.

I was an early adopter of using Web technology for education, and it was a lot less reliable in the early days than it is now. I am still better off, and my students are still better off, because I was on the leading edge. If we wait until SL is more reliable, we will lose that advantage.

When settlers headed west, they didn’t have paved roads, road sign, and fast-food restaurants at every exit. It’s part of being a pioneer. It’s still worth it to me. If it’s not worth it to you, that’s your business. That doesn’t mean no one should do it.

In conclusion.

I respect, applaud, and encourage healthy skepticism. However, I really don’t understand the kind of mindset that says, in essence, if I don’t want to do something, it’s useless for anyone, and therefore makes a fool of anyone who pursues it. MUVEs are worth examining. If a given teacher does not see it fitting his/her own pedagogical approach, I hope s/he will at least avoid the trap of dismissing everyone who does see it as useful. Otherwise, someone might come along and confiscate your overhead projector. After all, the bulbs blow out sometimes, so it’s unreliable.

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with people who want to forge top-notch speaking skills to increase their influence and impact so they can advance their career or business. He is associate professor of communication studies at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.