Why Educational Institutions Should Engage Second Life

I delivered a presentation at the League for Innovation in the Community College Conference on Information Technology titled, MUVE Forward with Second Life: Introduction & Implementation Strategy. The goal of the presentation was to answer three questions for faculty and administrators first exploring Second Life and how their institution may begin to engage virtual worlds:

  1. What is Second Life, and what can it do for educational environments?
  2. Should education institutions engage Second Life?
  3. How can education institutions begin engaging Second Life?

To focus on the second question, several key factors strongly suggest that educational institutions should engage Second Life earlier rather than later. If for no other reason, multi-user virtual environments are NOT going away. At the very least, our children are now growing up with them. The picture above is from WebKinz World promoted by real life counterpart stuffed animals. My daughter got the pink poodle – who she named Cotton Candy – as a gift earlier this summer; she’s been playing the virtual version of Cotton Candy since then, and Cotton Candy has several WebKinz friends owned by my daughters RL friends. Charlie the monkey? He’s new; he was adopted from the store and made live two days ago. By my wife. We’re playing in our daughter’s world with her, and it’s a virtual world. And, yes, when my wife started learning the WebKinz environment, my 7 year old daughter stood closely by teaching her (read as: barking instructions) how to buy things, how to play games etc. (grin).

The brand may change; five years from now, it may not be Second Life, but MUVE’s will continue to develop and improve. Bloggers and colleagues at Second Life Research commented earlier today:

In addition, more people are going to try out virtual worlds and decide they want to stay. That’s not only because more game- and social networking-savvy Generation Yers are registering, but also because virtual world graphics will get really, really good, thanks to exponential advances in hardware and software technologies. Forget the blocky shapes and blurry textures that now dominate Second Life. The virtual worlds of 2012 will look even better than the high-definition 3-D gaming environments currently offered by the PS3 and the XBox 360. The virtual worlds of 2017 will be photorealistic, and the simulations will be fantastic. Eventually, new tools, business models and enabling technologies will emerge within these worlds that are more efficient than processes in real life or the text-based Internet.

For me, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s more than a few other significant reasons MUVE’s and perhaps Second Life in particular will not go away; they will continue to develop rapidly. Educational institutions should engage them now to begin adapting to the learning curve – even if only through limited environments. If you’re trying to make the case to an administrator who questions the viability or importance of this new and untested technology…

Investment is heavy. The list of venture capitalists investing in virtual worlds includes a who’s who of financiers: Bill Gurley with Benchmark Capital compares Second Life to Microsoft and eBay in their early stages; Mitch Kapor, creator of Lotus 1-2-3; Pierre Omidyar, eBay founder; Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO; and Ray Ozzie, Microsoft chief technology architect (CNN Money, January 23, 2007)

Interoperability is being pursued. What does that mean? Powerful technology companies like IBM, Cisco Systems, Intel, Microsoft, Motorola and Sony along with virtual world developers Linden Lab (Second Life), Multiverse Network, Mindark and others have begun the discussion of connecting various multiuser virtual environments. At the very least, that potentially means being able to connect in some limited form your Second Life avatar with your World of Warcraft character with your There avatar/identity with your Sony PS3 Home game etc. True interoperability extends the capabilities and promise and potential of virtual worlds. (ZDNet, October 12, 2007)

Second Life “inevitably” will be open source. Having free and open access to run islands/sims/regions on individual servers will cause the virtual in-world area to balloon in size and population. Linden Labs has referred to Second Life open source efforts as embracing the inevitable; the Second Life client is already available in open source format. Account creation scripts can be created by other organizations to bring new residents into Second Life via custom orientation islands (e.g. New Media Consortium for educators; CSI:NY for their mixed media episode). Open source virtual space projects are already underway.

A sampling of educators believe it’s going to stick. New Media Consortium conducted a survey in Summer 2007. Of 202 responses to the question “What is your prediction for the future of Second Life?” 69% said one of the following:

  • It will achieve some great applications but will not go mainstream
  • It is the future of the web.
  • It has great potential, a current taste or part of the 3D future.

Further, a leader in the field of educational technology, Chris Dede from the Harvard School of Education has framed, in one of his keynote addresses, three directions in which educational computing is going: the world at our desktop via the internet and desktop conferencing applications; augmented reality by bringing computers into the physical world with us; and virtual reality that exists as we enter worlds within computers.

Second Life is engaging the education community and vice versa. Campus Second Life and educational discounts for land purchases have existed for quite some time. The number of educational builds and projects in Second Life are increasing constantly and are being well documented via research and conference presentations. Nancy Jennings & Chris Collins from the University of Cincinnati recently published a research report documenting the extent to which and how education institutions are engaging Second Life.

The capabilities of Second Life provide educators with tools we’ve not had in the past to do things we’ve not previously been able to accomplish. To a significant extent, Second Life bridges the “programming gap” for simulation and game creation. Certainly, Second Life has a learning curve, and not every educator will be inclined to learn the finer points of building in-world or programming with the Linden Scripting Language (LSL). BUT, the base infrastructure of a robust virtual environment has been provided; it’s no longer a matter of creating such a tool from the ground up. It becomes much more possible to build fantastic 3D models with unique object coding than it ever has been before. Second Life provides a theme-free environment in which users retain copyright and ownership of any content they create. SL has the capability to communicate with web-based applications via llHttpRequest; that means it has the potential to integrate with existing web-based platforms like learning management systems (Sloodle/Moodle, Angel already have early integration with Blackboard encouraging Second Life projects via it’s Greenhouse grants program). Second Life Research blog addressed, in the same post mentioned previously, the capabilities in more general terms as well.

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