Second Life doesn’t have to be expensive or inflexible
I often hear people saying that Second Life is too expensive and too complicated to be useful in education, or that it’s just a gimmick with no real learning value. But having done a small pilot in Second Life with six distance students on an MA TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) programme last year, I discovered that there are many points in its favour, and it doesn’t have to be excessively expensive or inflexible. It’s true, you and your students need a broadband connection and a relatively high-spec graphics card in order to use the platform effectively, and there’s an investment of time needed for everyone to create an avatar and learn the basic skills of movement, speaking and viewing within the virtual world. But if you can get over those initial barriers, there is a lot you can do in Second Life without having to buy or build anything, and without having to get students to meet synchronously inworld.
In our MA TESOL pilot, the task we gave students was to observe English language lessons taking place within a language school in Second Life and reflect on their observations in the group’s discussion forum. What made the activity both inexpensive and flexible was a) that we partnered with an existing community in Second Life (the language school), and b) that there was no requirement for our learners to meet synchronously, as a cohort, in Second Life: each student made their own arrangements with the language school to visit at times convenient to them. This relieved us of the need to schedule inworld meetings that would be suitable for both the student in Singapore and the student in the USA. Students used Second Life as a kind of extension of the real world where they could individually carry out project work. We used Gilly Salmon’s five-stage model to structure the tasks, and all interaction between students took place via the asynchronous discussion forum on the Blackboard virtual learning environment.
While this approach worked very well for students of language education, I can imagine it being transferable to students of many other disciplines. History students could visit the Roman Forum; art students could visit the Sistine Chapel, and space science students could visit the NASA station. Students could be given a structured task to carry out, involving peer interaction on other, asynchronous platforms, such as a discussion forum or a wiki.
In our pilot, Second Life added welcome variety and interest for students, as well as providing a meaningful opportunity for students to carry out a real-life task that they might need to do as TESOL professionals (observation of a language lesson), from the comfort of their own homes or offices, and at times of their choice.
I will be talking about this, and other things we learnt from the Second Life pilot, at the ALT-C conference on 8 September.