The 3rd part in a series of posts looking into the use of Virtual Worlds in Education
After spending the last two weeks researching what's going on with the use of Virtual Worlds in education related applications, I came away feeling that Second Life (abbreviated ‘SL' from here forward) is by far the predominant tool in this (and any) Virtual World space. This week, my goal is to sink my teeth into SL, see how well it works on my laptop and cable modem, how easy or difficult it is to use, and how useful it may be.
When I first checked SL out a few years ago, the computer I was using was a little old and was not maxed out with RAM, and the performance of the environment was just too slow to use. This led me to think that this (poor performance on computers that are not optimally configured) may have been one of the significant factors behind what seemed to me to be a lagging use of the environment. After all, SL has been around for years, and certainly seems cool and interesting, but of the people I knew using an array of Internet technologies, none were working with SL. This time, on a newer more powerful computer, I was able to easily move around the environment, and it seemed that functionality was more than adequate to allow me to play around and see what the environment had to offer. This page provides System Requirements specifications. It is certainly a widely used tool these days, as each time I logged on there were over 50,000 other people logged on!
After creating an account and logging in, I proceeded to search for and ‘teleport' to various worlds, which was easy to do. It was also pretty easy to move around and change my perspective. I even learned how to fly! By paying attention to the options available on the screen, and trying things out, the basic navigation issue was not terribly challenging. What struck me as more difficult was figuring out how to actually interact and do things. It took a couple hours of playing, and the help of this tutorial I found on YouTube (below) to get the hang of things. One of the difficulties I found with the environment was the lack of a consistent way to tell what a world has to offer. Some worlds (a.k.a. Islands) in SL provide a nice overview, usually on a billboard or sign of some sort, close to where you land when you ‘transport' there, but not all do. It would seem very beneficial to me if there were some standard sort of mechanism, maybe linked to the map, that would make it real easy to know what's available in a given SL world, and make it easy to teleport there (the map tool provides some functionality like this, but it seems a bit short in terms of completeness of functionality and ease of use). [If I'm just missing something here, please comment and point it out! – KW]
Touring a Virtual College Campus
As one example of my wanderings and attempts to work with SL, I traveled to Bryant & Stratton's virtual Campus (which I found by searching for ‘colleges' in the search box in the upper right hand corner of the SL screen).
After transporting to the virtual campus, I saw a “Welcome To Our Virtual Campus” sign that pointed out 7 different facilities on the campus. I walked over to the Open House building, where I immediately saw a large board labeled “2009 Online Commencement”, with a ‘Start' button, but I could not get it to do anything (even though I followed the instruction to select the ‘Touch' option from the right-click menu). This was kind of typical of some of the frustrating experiences I had as I came across objects in SL that looked like they were going to do something, but often didn't. It turned out that this object signified a live event that had already happened, and there were some arrows near the board that would allow you to scroll through listing of awarded degrees. The only reason I discovered that was because an avatar approached me and initiated a chat, and this was when SL finally felt like it was coming to life for me. Once I realized where and how to chat interactively, this gentleman (Scott Traylor, Director of Admissions at B&S, who exists in SL as ‘Traylorman Lane') was very helpful and provided some insight into how Bryant & Stratton is using SL to engage prospects with online open houses and virtual tours, and to give existing students across their 15 campuses a chance to interact in a different way.
I spent a little more time strolling around the virtual campus and saw useful information services like kiosks (these typically led to external web pages), and places to apply online or request a brochure.
Other SL resources for Education
I was particularly interested in checking out museums and other types of online resources in SL that can be useful to educators. I poked around a little and visited some sites. Being able to see images of paintings or other purely visual media is a certainly a straightforward application of the toolset. Another interesting construct was this rich technology timeline mural (image below), found at the New Venture Hall at The Tech Virtual museum. There is a statement on this mural that says “This mural is an invitation to dialogue about the vision of Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart …”, but it was not obvious to me how to participate in that dialogue (or even if it was possible to do so). The mural itself contained a great deal of information, and seemed to have been contributed to in some sort of interactive fashion. In any case, it was clear to me that I wanted to further explore sites like this. I will continue this post next week and look further into these kinds of resource sites.
- I spent far more time working to learn about SL than I care to admit – 2 or 3 time more than it takes to learn most of the other Internet tools that I blog about. There is a pretty significant user ramp-up effort required to learn how to use the tool, and you need decent bandwidth and a PC with some power, to have a smooth experience. Simply put, SL isn't an environment where the casually interested can just stop by and try it out – it requires more of an investment in time than many other Internet tools.
- Second Life certainly has some useful and intriguing functionality to offer, such as getting an introduction to a place you haven't visited, learning more about what that real-world location has to offer, tapping into an array of resources about a topic in a fun and different manner, and attending live events and performances. It also serves as a virtual meeting place, with sophisticated and unique functionality (but it does require a good deal more effort to use than other remote technologies, like conference calls, web meetings, forums and chat rooms, etc.).
- The most advanced means of interaction, and the best way get the most out of SL, is to interact with other users by chatting, IM'ing, or talking directly. Of course, there are also imbedded mechanisms and online interactions, such as web links, video and audio casts, scheduled events, and the occasional more creative interactive object. If one gets into building and/or transacting business in SL, that's a bigger effort, and gets much more involved/interactive.
- One of the most impressive aspects of SL is the thoroughness of many of the built out worlds. There are many tours of existing places, such as the entire city of Amsterdam (although this isn't a particularly wholesome place for student-aged young people). You really can get some sense of what a place is actually like. One caveat of navigating a large area can be waiting for sections of the world you are in to render while you fly or walk around – this can make it difficult to see what's around you without going in a given direction to get it to build out.
I look forward to spending a little more time in Second Life, and wrapping up this series of posts next week with further insights into SL resources that can be useful to education.