Harvard's virtual education experiment in Second Life

Right now, Second Life is not a great place to hold business meetings. I've written about this before, but I'll sum up some of the obvious problems: A poor UI, robust technical requirements, a steep learning curve, an inability to scale, and numerous distractions.

But what about meetings that are educational in nature? Earlier this month, I interviewed Rebecca Nesson, an affiliate of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and an instructor at the Harvard Extension School, about her experiences teaching Harvard's first-ever class in Second Life. The course, CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion, brought together a large group of geographically dispersed students who were interested in exploring "persuasive, empathic argument in the Internet space." While Nesson said there were some early difficulties with connectivity (some students couldn't access SL from behind work firewalls) and establishing a virtual classroom protocol, overall she deemed the experiment a success. I am highlighting here a few quotes that I found to be interesting, and may even be applicable to other organizations considering Second Life for education, training or project management:

Comparing Second Life to other distance-education technologies:

"I think that the Second Life had quite a lot of advantages for people. One of the main things is that Second Life really allowed us to create a sense of class community — something that develops fairly naturally in a face-to-face class. So students appeared at class and had that chance to meet each other, something that rarely, if ever, happens in distance education classes [using] previous technologies. And that helped keep students engaged in the class."

On the advantages of virtual, text-based discussions:

"... In all my years of teaching classes, there are always some students in the class who are very hard to get to speak up. You can ask them a direct question, but basically, unless they are put on the spot, these students will not volunteer their own opinions in class, and I think that there are various reasons why people are reticent and don't want to do that. Sometimes I think people are shy and don't want to be put on the spot — all the conversation stops, and everyone turns to look at them. In some cases, students for whom English is not their first language, it really can be an intimidating thing to have to extemporaneously put together English sentences like that in a classroom environment.

In Second Life, that problem of students not participating in class discussions just totally disappeared. And when I thought about it, these reasons, these challenges of speaking up in a regular class went away in this environment. In Second Life, when you want to contribute something to the class discussion, you just go ahead and start typing it in your chat box, and nobody turns to look at you, even if they do notice that your avatar is doing the typing motions, they are not actually looking at you, it's just your avatar, and your avatar is not doing anything embarrassing. When you are ready to enter your comment into the conversation, you just hit enter. And it doesn't have that moment where everybody stops and looks at you. Your comment just goes right into the conversation, along with everybody else's. So i think a lot of the anxiety that goes along with the public-speaking aspect of participating in class discussions, is just removed in this environment.

On the flip side, we didn't have any trouble with students who dominate the discussion. There's always been the phenomenon of the student who ends every sentence with a conjunction in order to not stop their comment, and you can do that as much as you like in Second Life, and it doesn't stop anybody else from participating in the discussions. What's nice about that is very frequently people who usually speak a lot in class have a lot of very good things to contribute, and it's hard as a teacher to shut somebody down in order to make space for other students, especially if you do feel that you want to be encouraging of their interest and enthusiasm. And this just takes away that problem as well.

So for me the idea that I would actually end up almost preferring to run a class in a text-based environment to a voice-based environment, that was a huge surprise."

Nesson describes many other aspects of using Second Life as an educational platform, ranging from how to moderate classroom discussions to using audio and video in Second Life.

Harvard seems to agree with Nesson that the CyberOne experiment was a success, and is worth following up. The Berkman Center and the Harvard Extension School conducted another course in Second Life this spring, and in the fall Nesson is scheduled to lead Virtual Worlds, a course that will examine "models for virtual world law and government, economics and business, cultural norms, art, education and activism."

Harvard is not alone in exploring the potential to use Second Life for education -- according to the Second Life Educators Wiki, 125 schools, colleges, and universities have used Second Life. Other virtual reality platforms and 3D software applications can be used to bring students together in a virtual environment, too -- I've participated in demos at Boston College that used 3D gaming engines and modding software to create simulations and virtual meeting rooms.

This brings us back to the issues with holding business meetings in Second Life. Why do so many schools see benefits, while business users often see problems? I think one has to consider how business meetings are different than educational sessions. For instance, college classes tend to be more structured, take place over multiple sessions throughout the semester, and have a clear leader (i.e., the instructor). For students participating in distance education, virtual worlds may be a much more attractive forum to interact with other students and instructors, when compared with streaming video and static webpages. Some business meetings share some of these characteristics, or may realize some of these benefits, but at the end of the day, when I want to meet with my colleagues or partners, it's easier and more convenient to do so in person, or in a conference call.  

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