Second Life and the future of education

By Fabiana Kubke 07/12/2009

The 2009 conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (#ASCILITE09) is currently taking place in Auckland New Zealand.

Scott Diener, from the University of Auckland IT services delivered a great Keynote address centered around Second Life.

A guided tour through the long white cloud island

Diener took us through a tour of the Long White Cloud Island (the English translation for Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand). The lecture hall he showed us is literally inside a mountain that can be reached by navigating through dense native vegetation, the projection screen placed against an imposing cliff face. He then walked us to the University building where we reached an emergency room, fitted with an exam table and vital sign monitors. The ambulance parked at the bay can be actually driven, and driving off in it and hiding it from the eyes of the ’Professor’ seems to have become a regular prank.

It is not about procedural skills

…but about developing critical thinking and group interaction skills in emergency situations. The readings in the monitor can be controlled to create all kinds of simulated medical emergencies where students can learn to communicate in an efficient manner to, as a group, solve the situation. I cannot imagine a medical team being able to efficiently operate without a good development of these skills.

Second Life is not a game

People that interact in Second Life will tell you that it mirrors the rules of social engagement that we have on our ‘real lives’. I have heard also about how the experiences of one’s avatar (positive or negative) transfer to the ‘real’ person behind it. Diener argued that perhaps this transfer between both lives may be similar to the real emotions we feel when we watch movies, and suggests that it may be related to the mirror neuron system. It is an interesting concept. But whether mirror neurons are involved or not in the relationship between avatars and their real life counterparts, one thing that cannot be argued is that Second Life provide the equivalent of a ’real life experience’.

Limitations to the concept of teaching in Second Life

One may argue ‘why do it in Second Life when it can be done in real life?’ The answer is in the ’when’ in that sentence. I am not sure I see an advantage (other than the amusement factor) when it can be done in real life.

But it cannot always be done in real life. Diener suggested that given the rate of population increase in the world it will not be possible to scale educational ’structures’ to accommodate the increasing student population. One solution is not to educate an equal proportion of people, the other is to build resources, like those that Diener is building in Second Life, that are scalable and will therefore be able to accommodate the increased number of students.

But at this time, the limitations are not in what can be done in Second Life, but more on how it can be accessed. The internet and technology needed to make Second Life accessible are not globally available, and they are even less available in areas that could benefit the most from this technology. (For example, he said that even at the University student computers are not able to run Second Life.)

So what’s next?

If I interpret Diener correctly, he had two clear messages around the usability of Second Life. First, here is a scalable system that can overcome the edificial limitations of educational institutions in the future (and accessibility in the present), but that requires more coordinated global strategies around building internet infrastructure that will enable it to be used in its full scale. Second, that those resources which are built in Second Life should be left open for others to use, take advantage of and build upon.

There is a great warning message hidden in here somewhere:

Is it possible that in becoming so keen on developing these types of educational technologies we may end up, in the absence of a parallel affordable infrastructure strategy, limiting education access to a relatively small elite able to afford it?