Christopher tm Herdt (cherdt) wrote,
Christopher tm Herdt
cherdt

Future Salon - Teaching Literature in Second Life

Note: I am still in the process of editing and organizing this post, but the majority of content is here.

I noticed an event listed on upcoming.yahoo.com recently for a presentation on teaching literature in Second Life. I decided to "watch" the event, basically as a way to remind myself that it was going on while yet being noncommittal. However, one of the event moderators, Melanie Swan, noticed that I was watching the event, read my profile, visited my web site, and sent me an e-mail encouraging me to attend because it really seemed in line with my interests! I couldn't pass up a personal invitation.

The presentation was sponsored by the Philadelphia Future Salon, part of a network of Future Salons. The 15 or so attendees were an interesting group of people: Melanie described herself as a futurist, the Dean of UArts was there, and the event was hosted by a lawyer at Buchanan Ingersoll who said that he has had numerous cases involving Second Life.

The presenter, Beth Ritter-Guth, is an instructor at Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has incorporated Second Life material in her classes, as well as teaching "in-world" classes.

You can find some of her materials here:
Beth projected her Second Life character onto the screen. I have never logged into Second Life before, so it was interesting to see what it looks like.

Avatars and the Pull of the Norm
Beth is kind of short and has a ton of curly brown hair. Her avatar, on the other hand, is a busty blonde with a flouncy white dress. Why?

In part because she can. Beth said that she is often disappointed to find that schools, businesses, and people make their Second Life avatars and homes as much like themselves as possible. They build classrooms to look like classrooms--instead, she built the House of Usher and Grendel's Lair.

Also, she decided to perform an experiment: mask an academic mind behind a Barbie-doll exterior, and see how people treat her. (She said that she was treated ill only by other academic women, whose avatars wore conservative skirt-suits with their hair in tight buns.)

She then showed us a PowerPoint slide in a virtual classroom: a screen within a screen.

Pros of Second Life Environment
  • Increased student engagement
    Anecdotally, Beth said that students really connected better with the texts.
  • Low technology learning curve
    The interface is intuitive enough that people spend less time learning how to navigate and more time focusing on the learning materials.
  • Access to instructor
    Beth said that students were much more likely to visit her Second Life office hours than her real life office hours. (It is unclear whether this is due to convenience--time and location--or because it requires less gumption.)
  • Available to everyone
    Although only her registered students receive any evaluation for their coursework, the materials are freely available to all Second Life residents.

She walked us through the Poe house, which was filled with artifacts from Poe's works: a raven, a black cat, a loose floorboard containing a beating heart, a penguin, and more. Then she explained a classroom scenario:

Instructor: Did you do the reading?
Class: Yes, we did the reading.
[Poe House walk-through in Second Life]
Class: Neat! What's the deal with the penguin?
Instructor: Did you really do the reading?

The class then went back to the reading (or perhaps for the first time) with a renewed interest in the source text, thanks to the Second Life walk-through.

Cons of Second Life Environment
  • Connectivity
    Not every student, particularly at the community college level, has access to computers that can run Second Life, or have fast enough connection speeds to make Second Life feasible. (Right now she includes Second Life as optional supplemental material.)
  • Reliability
    Even during the presentation, Second Life was sometimes slow and Beth had a hard time navigating to the areas she wanted to show us. This would be a problem in a serious production environment.
  • Funding
    Beth receives no institutional funding for her efforts, and many educational institutes are wary of Second Life. [I looked up the price of a Second Life island, which at a 50% educational discount is $837.50 for the setup fee, and a $147.50 monthly fee.]
  • Time
    If you're already busy in real life, how much time do you have to devote to Second Life?

Educator Tips and Resources
There is an active mailing list called SLED (Second Life Education), accessible via Second Life's education page. Beth also mentioned a Garden Classroom--an area where educators can go to learn more about education in Second Life.

She also mentioned that a lot of people, even those who should know better, play fast-and-loose with copyright in Second Life. She definitely promotes good citation, and explains that citations and attributions can be added to Second Life objects (as metadata, I believe) and additionally she creates footlocker objects to store comprehensive citation data for the classrooms she creates.

Questions that occurred to me later:
  • What about a distributed, open-source alternative to Second Life?
    I think that many institutions will be wary of buying-in to this sort of thing unless they have more control over it. Particularly given the "wonkiness" we experienced, I can imagine that companies and universities would want to run their own servers. Yet, avatar data would need to traverse multiple servers. (It looks like there is at least one project that hopes to achieve something like this: Croquet. There may be others.)
  • What can Second Life do beyond engaging students enough to do the assigned reading?
    Such a purpose isn't going to cut it at an Ivy League law school, where the students have already done the reading.


Beth was showing us around Renaissance Island (or perhaps it was Renaissance House), which had information about Shakespeare (and possibly other Renaissance writers and artists). She said that the land had been donated, but that the content was contributed by many people over time. Eventually, for unknown reasons, the owners of the land decided to pull up stakes (perhaps they left Second Life; I'm not really clear on what happened). Not only did the land go away, but all of the objects that people had developed and contributed to the project were gone as well. The contributors rallied, and convinced Linden Labs to restore Renaissance Island and all of the objects.

Beth then said that she was impressed at the way the community came together in this time of crisis, much like the way the community came together after the Virginia Tech shootings....

WHAT?!? Lady, you did not just say that. My eyes went wide, my jaw dropped. I don't care how many hours you spent scripting these objects, there is no way I can ever compare the loss of virtual material possessions with the loss of real human life. I realized that the presenter was probably psychotic and had a much better grasp of Second Life than she did the Real World. [I'm sure she was merely looking for an example of community support and VTech came to mind, but I still found the association uncomfortable.]

I was considering walking out anyway when well_lahdidah sent me a text message and said that I needed to meet up with her and kayshabeast and maldis for our dinner reservation. I excused myself and left.

It was still an interesting talk that has given me a lot to think about, but it definitely ended on a sour note.
Tags: avatars, second life, telepresence
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