Every decade or so along comes a technology that is so new, comprehensive, interesting and damned useful, that it changes the way that we learn, have fun and do business. Think commercial air travel, the mobile phone and the internet. These were all what management experts like to call ‘disruptive technologies’ because they forced established educational and commercial institutions to change how they operated. Now another of these technologies-come-zeitgeists could be on the way – virtual worlds such as Second Life, Whyville and ActiveWorlds. The most popular of these is Second Life. In a recent speech, celebrated hi-tech guru Mitch Kapor, who founded Lotus 1-2-3, said: “Second Life is a disruptive technology on the level of the personal computer or the internet.”
This is a serious claim that has yet to be born out by experience, including in higher education. But the facts speak for themselves: Second Life has 11.9 million registered users and 1.3 million of these logged on to SL in the past two months. Many users are young – many are students – and businesses have quickly created presences on Second Life as a way of attracting younger customers.
These lessons have not been lost on universities and a string of august institutions have bought or rented virtual land within this virtual world, where programmers have built computerised versions of lecture theatres, seminar rooms, libraries, study gardens and signature meeting halls.
The sites tend to be liberally dotted with bulletin boards and automated web links enabling visitors to discover more about a college or university. But there is more to these digital creations than just good PR. Information technology academics especially are exploring how they can use virtual worlds to teach and train students, conduct simulations and role-play, stage discussions and even conduct experiments.
The question is: can such virtual teaching techniques improve on real life? And the answer – probably not yet known – will determine the extent to which virtual worlds become incorporated within academia as with a true disruptive technology. Or whether the experience will whither as a flash-in-the-pan gimmick. Academics with knowledge of such matters are still exploring the utility of virtual worlds and are generally positive.
There is, however, a key difference between virtual world and the standard web – even flashy sites with lots of graphics – and that is they allow the user to insert a representation of themselves into a digitised environment, and interact with the sights and sounds they witness, including other computerised beings.
These ‘avatars’ on Second Life have names (there is an unlimited choice of first names and a limited choice of family monikers), as well as appearances that are sculpted in detail using three-dimensional imaging software that would help any police hunt.
Some users choose to create avatars that closely resemble their own looks and clothes, others go for something completely different – the opposite sex, or even another species, maybe adding a tail or wings. Avatars usually communicate by text messaging via the SL system, although there is a facility to use voice if and when required.
Dr Sian Bayne, programme director, of the MSc in E-learning offered by Scotland’s University of Edinburgh, stages tutorials on a virtual island and says students generally prefer to text: “Second Life gives students a chance to change their identity. If they used their own voices, it loses some its magic,” Bayne says.
Her avatar, Sian Pankhurst, is a fairly close replica of her real-life self and she (or another tutor) stages SL tutorials twice a week, with avatars sitting around a virtual fire and discussing texts students have read earlier.
Given her course is online and her students live around the world (across Britain and Europe, Africa and Asia – including Sri Lanka and the Philippines), the only way they can meet is in a virtual environment. Bayne considers the virtual world model has an advantage over other real-time digital communications (such as MSN or Skype) in that students can see moving images of each other.
“It offers us a space where students can have the experience of being in a group and a community, even if they are not physically present,” she says, adding that such benefits are not limited to IT courses such as hers: “This is going to become more important for conventional programmes as well – people are living increasingly networked lives.”
All this aside, Bayne says Second Life and other virtual worlds (her course also uses ‘The Palace’, ‘ActiveWorlds’ and ‘There.com’), are not good media for delivering lectures, although this is perfectly possible in virtual theatres where educational talks are often staged – even with miniature power point presentations.
Bayne just believes reading materials are more efficient than lecturing online, even with a virtual persona. Also SL and the rest are not for everyone, even IT students: “Some people hate using it – they think it’s weird,” she says.
Nonetheless, whatever its strengths and weaknesses, it is undeniable that virtual worlds have become a higher education phenomenon, with the United States – home to San Francisco-based Linden Labs (which runs SL) leading the pack. Linden says more than 100 virtual islands have been bought within its world for education purposes. It publicises some notable examples on a special webpage: www.simteach.com
As well as Edinburgh, it is possible for SL avatars to stroll the virtual campuses of Princeton, Ohio, Harvard and Stanford, along with Britain’s Open University (which was always something of a virtual institution anyway), the Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology, AFEKA Tel-Aviv Academic College of Engineering in Israel and the Australian Film Television and Radio School
With fortunes starting to be made within businesses on virtual worlds, selling software development services, virtual clothes, skins, hair and buildings, not only are courses being offered in how to undertake such work (for instance at the new Rockcliffe University island on SL), but virtual worlds are also being used to train business students on the job.
The difference is that they would only lose a handful of the system’s virtual currency (Linden dollars – which trade at around 260 to the US dollar), rather than real cash. One such course is run by Joe Sanchez, a doctoral student in the school of information at the University of Texas.
The course notes that Sanchez has prepared say: “While consumers spend more time using virtual worlds, a growing number of corporations are turning to these interactive worlds as a place to connect their clients in a new way.
“This begs the question: Do virtual worlds present significant collaboration potential for real-life companies? While evolving work practices into this arena may be daunting, the potential is limitless as experts begin to identify virtual worlds as an evolution of the internet experience. Last year alone, the GDP of the Second Life world was upwards of US$65 million.”
After all, Second Life German user Ailin Graef (avatar name Anshe Chung) in 2006 became SL’s first US dollar millionaire, making money from several virtual shopping malls, virtual store chains and virtual brands. And as long as real money is made on these platforms, you can be sure universities and colleges will want to use them.
Pictured is Sian Pankhurst, the Second Life avatar for Dr Sian Bayne - programme director of the University of Edinburgh's e-learning MSc.
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