17 October 2006

Get a MUVE On

With online teaching and training on the rise, the search is still very much on for the most effective way of delivering online courses, and encouraging interaction between participants at a distance. Second Life (www.secondlife.com), is the newest, hottest thing in the online teaching world. Gavin Dudeney of The Consultants-E (www.theconsultants-e.com) and presenter at Knowledge Oasis Muscat's eGames Conference (10 – 11 December, Crowne Plaza Hotel, Muscat) looks at the learning and educational opportunities offered by Second Life.

Harvard University are running classes there, and so are Trinity College Dublin. Suzanne Vega performs there, and Kurt Vonnegut talks about his writings ‘in-world’. You can even take a class in creative writing, or learn how to become a video director there. All from the comfort of your own home.

The place is Second Life, a three-dimensional online synchronous environment, known in technorati circles as a Multi-User Virtual Environment, or MUVE. The time is now. Think of a video game, where you can take on a 3-dimensional character (or ‘avatar’ in MUVE-speak) and visit an entire ‘world’, populated by real people, who are accessing Second Life from their own computers. You can chat, both via text or audio chat, exchange ‘objects’, even buy and sell land! Second Life may not be new – MUVEs have been around since the later 1970s - but it is most definitely sexy, to the point where the BBC Horizon series is planning to make a documentary about it, and it has appeared on BBC television and radio, and in magazines such as Business Week.

Founded by the Real Networks CTO Philip Rosedale in 2003, Second Life (SL) is a privately owned virtual world, which currently has approximately 740,000 users. In Second Life you sign up for free, design a 3D representation of yourself and move around a rich online world, in which the residents interact, build houses, design clothes, make gadgets, dance at virtual clubs and, yes, attend classes.

But is Second Life all just fun and games? There are plenty of people who refuse to refer to Second Life as an online game, and rightly so. Whilst there is plenty of gaming occurring ‘in-world’, there is also a burgeoning collection of more serious projects, from courses in ‘cyber law’ taught under the auspices of Harvard Law School (
blogs.law.harvard.edu/cyberone/), to awareness-raising projects for young people (http://www.holymeatballs.org), and even a group dedicated to discussing and exploring the potential for education in such environments (www.simteach.com).

So what is it exactly that makes Second Life more successful than other online social environments in recent history? And why are educators being drawn to it in droves?

Currently, most online teaching and training is done via Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), or learning platforms – one of the most popular being Moodle. Yet there is something inherently flat and static in a VLE, based as it is on webpages. And no matter how much socialization work and pair and group interactions one builds into an online course in a VLE, one rarely has more than a flat photograph of each participant as the embodiment of their real life character, and emoticons and other emotion-conveying devices never really capture the essence of a person, nor entirely mitigate any potential for misunderstandings which may arise from the almost exclusive use of the written word. Despite the availability of text chat for communication, and even of voice chat in VLEs, online course still tend to lack the cut and thrust of real time interaction – the synchronous, or ‘real time’ element of communication.

For this reason educators are starting to look beyond the idea of a VLE to something that emulates the real world in a more immediate and recognisable form - and they are looking to MUVEs such as Second Life for the solution.

Second Life is particularly adept at handling media, supporting a variety of audio and video sources, as well as public text chatting, private messaging and audio communications A combination of these elements can provide a rich learning environment in which more traditional text-driven elements such as reading material can be delivered alongside real opportunities for communication which transcend the disembodied offerings of most online schools in which text chat and email play a large part, or tutoring is carried out by a faceless tutor working in a call-centre style environment.

Take a look at a set of personal interactions in Second Life and you will notice how much more ‘real’ and warm they can seem, when compared to similar examples in a VLE. With the physical presence of people in the same space or room (albeit in cartoon form) one has more of a sense of the person behind the text or voice, and this is enhanced by the clothing they have chosen, how they stand while they talk to you, if they wander off to look at something while you are chatting with them) and generally how they behave. My character, for example, can often be found wobbling on a unicycle, or on rollerblades or riding a virtual Segway, as I run training sessions in Second Life. Non-verbal forms of communication - as well as cultural features – are suddenly part of the communication again, and this is perhaps the most significant difference between a MUVE and other distance training platforms.

Whilst it is definitely too early on in the educational exploration of the possibilities of virtual environments to draw any final conclusions, the anecdotal evidence from the courses and classes in Second Life suggests that both learners and teachers find it a less intimidating and richer way of working than other distance tools they have experienced .

To get started in Second Life, you simply download the software (
www.secondlife.com) and sign up for a free account on the same site. Once installed and running, you create the virtual representation of yourself, customising your look, the clothes you wear, and how you move and interact with the other ‘residents’ and then set off to explore the ‘grid’, as it is called.

If you would like to try it out, come and look for my character, Dudeney Ge at EduNation in Second Life, a private virtual island designed for teacher training. Bring your rollerblades - I’ll be more than happy to help you explore.


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