Second Life is an internet based virtual world in which people interact with one another via avatars and engage in a range of activities. They can explore the world, meet and form friendships with others and even exchange goods and services.
You use this environment to build virtual objects with the option to add interaction. You also create and personalise your avatar which can be a representation of you, the opposite sex, an animal or even an abstract shape.
Role of education in Second Life
Where does education fit into all of this? This virtual world enables people to undertake activities which include virtual meetings, training sessions and teaching via a virtual school or university. Many universities around the world have built an online version of their campus within Second Life and use this to give lectures, teach new skills or to enable students to work together on projects.
This is useful for students enrolled on distance learning programmes who are unable to undertake a traditional undergraduate degree due to a variety of factors. This type of system allows them the chance to meet and interact with other students as well as keep up to date with assignments. It can also prevent feelings of isolation and loneliness which can occur in students who work away from a university.
Many students are comfortable with social interaction online such as social networking sites, virtual worlds and games. They see this as a challenge – especially if they are keen gamers, and embrace it rather than ignore it.
But there will be students who are less enthusiastic about this technology and shy away from using it. The aim then is to encourage them to overcome any hesitation and learn by exploring. They are free to make mistakes and to undertake tasks in new ways. This means the onus is on the teacher or educators to create a safe environment where they can find their feet.
The aim is to build a community in which students participate and collaborate as a way of learning about a range of subjects. They design and build new places, undertake a variety of tasks – which have been set for them by their teachers, and acquire knowledge in new and exciting ways. This guarantees an experience which they are unlikely to forget.
A new educational model
A virtual world offers a new learning model which is based upon high levels of interaction, engagement and experience. There are opportunities to learn and develop in ways which are not possible in the real world. Plus it cuts down on the need to travel to a college or university which is a boon for students on distance learning programmes.
Virtual worlds such as Second Life enable many students to make connections between abstract concepts as well as understanding the basic theories. They have the chance to experiment within this type of environment and the freedom to make mistakes without the risk of censure or a lowering of their self-esteem.
Is Second Life viable?
However, there are arguments for this type of technology with opponents claiming that it has reached its ‘sell by date’ and is superseded by newer forms of technology, e.g. cloud computing. They argue that Second Life and other virtual worlds have had their moment of fame and that many users are becoming disillusioned with the technology. They are looking for the next big thing which includes cloud computing but this appears to be more of a problem in industry than academia.
Second Life and The OU
But there are universities who continue to use Second Life. For example, The Open University (The OU for short) provides a wide range of distance learning courses on the television, internet and via Second Life.
So, we could argue that there is still a place for Second Life which should form part of any learning strategy now and in the future.