Monday, February 19, 2007

Literature Alive! and other Tales

I wouldn't consider myself a gamer in the classical sense. As a product of the 80s, I am fond of games like PacMan and Space Invaders, and I spent quite a bit of time at the local 7-11 playing pin ball with my brother.

I like games that can be used to teach basic concepts (vocabulary, decision making, etc.), but I only like them if I can see and appreciate the added value for a student. There is no point in using a game to teach a concept that can be taught a better way. The EduFrag project, for example, helps make "skill and drill" more fun than I could ever make it in real life. So it is worth it to me to use.

Second Life isn't a game; it is a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE). I have been toying with it to see what it can be used for in the classroom. Can it be used to teach a concept in a new way? Are there other ways to deliver content that are more practical? What are the risks? Do they outweigh the benefits?

In talking to various people about Second Life in higher education, I have come to understand why I think it is so valuable as a teaching tool.

As a community college instructor, I am very sensitive about the amount of money our students have to pay out in order to receive a good education. I am also aware of the personal restrictions they face (full time jobs, families, etc.). Second Life allows me to take them on virtual field trips without ever leaving PA. It also allows me to present content in new ways.

The Literature Alive! project is part of the Community College without Borders project. It is aimed at bringing humanities education alive in Second Life by combining academic, corporate, and residential ideas together.

Right now, this includes two living classrooms in the Knightsbridge sim. In real life, Knightsbridge is a posh section of London. The SL creator, Debs Regent, is building a life life living community in-world. Each house in-world is fashioned after an existing house in real life. So, I rented two.

One house is my SL residence, and is like a living farm (the Amish have them...). Basically, the entire house is furnished in Victorian period furniture. Every is clickable. When you click on it, you get notecard with a reading, an assignment, or a web link. There is a home theater on the second floor with movies (right now just my presentation from BCC), and there will be a working library on the third floor. This is the classroom for my summer Brit Lit students. These are online students who might never meet in real life, but might in SL. Also, the classroom is open to all educators for use.

The second house is a student gallery. This is a place for students to place displays. Right now, one of Bryan Carter's students is creating a display on the History of Optometry. In real life, I would have never met this student, but SL allows me to help this student create citeable material in prep for medical school. I pay him Linden to be my research assistant because I don't want him wasting his time sitting in camping chairs to make Linden. So, I pay him to help me set up displays and to do his research. In this sense, SL is incredible because it allows this student to have the help of two professors. Bryan Carter is his grade granting professor, and will guide him through the research process. As a colleague, I will help support Bryan and the student by providing some space for rich content. Without SL, I would never have met either of them.

I have also met other incredible educators like Sarah Robbins (Intellagirl Tully). I observed her class the other night, and was blown away by how she uses SL to teach live.

So, we know that Second Life can be used to deliver content and experiences that we could never provide in real life. The connections, themselves, are worth it. And, the academic resources are tremendous. But, what are the risks?

For one, there is a lot of adult content. As I told Vicki Davis when I was giving her a tour, there is a lot of content that is not edifying. This is a concern for K-12 teachers. But, how do we respond as college educators?

Well, here is the bottom line. When I was at Penn State, I took students on Spring Break service trips for Habitat for Humanity. During the day, I was responsible to guide them and make the experience worthwhile, educational, and appropriately fun, But, in their evening free time, they were free to make their own choices. I could guide them toward positive content, but the decisions resided in them. The same is true in SL; students make decisions about their free time. Since they are adults, they might choose to partake in seedy content. But, if I provide them with edifying content, they will soon get bored by the other stuff.

More risky than seeing naked pixels is the emotional side of SL. In other games, UnReal Tourney or the Sims, the player does not have to worry about the feelings of others. But, in an environment like SL, there are real people playing, and it is hard to portion out heart, head, and game.

Sometimes, games like SL can draw a population of people who lack social skills in RL. Since all of SL is about written communication via chat, it is sometimes hard to sort out the good from the bad. Also, since no one has to verify anything (including gender), there is no way to know if someone is honest. There are quite a few people that don't believe I am really a teacher, for example....they think it is part of my "game." So, it is important to go over social skills with students. Again, it is very much like the field trip might meet a cute avatar...but you are only here for a careful.

The collaborative nature in SL is incredible. This, alone, makes the tool worthwhile. My students will be meeting students from all over the world. On Friday, I am hosting a dance for college students to help them get connected. The inworld club, Aerolite, has been very good to allow me to use their facility to host student social gatherings. I am excited that my students will broaden their social connections while learning basic concepts like cause and effect writing.

Overall, SL is a powerful educational tool. There are some risks...but all learning involves at risk at some level.


Brett Bixler said...

Interesting! I've stayed away from the affective side of SL, but you raise valid points. I've written about the cognitive side at . I also believe that SL shines when you have an educational need for an environment that must be explored/manipulated, coupled with the need for social interaction.

I do have to disagree with you terming SL a game. I don't think it is a game. You can play games in SL, but SL itself is a social experience.

Beth Ritter-Guth said...

Yes, I thnk you are right...SL is more than a game.

Dan Seamans said...

SL certainly isn't a game but games have created expectations with regard to interface and overall immersive experience that can help guide us when designing educational experiences.

Certainly SL (and similar environments) have their risks, but this is risk that is worthwhile given the potential rewards.