Second Life and Virtual Worlds
Online virtual worlds and Second Life had been around for some time, with Linden Labs launching it in 2003, but 2007 marked a peak in interest, particularly in education. Second Life provided a virtual world, which people navigated through constructed avatars, interacting remotely with the avatars of other users. Unlike most virtual games of the time, it was an unbound universe, and users could create their own environments on “islands” they leased. People made real money by offering services within Second Life, for example, by allowing people to camp on their island, selling real estate, or making virtual goods for avatars. These were traded using Linden Dollars, which could be exchanged for “real” money via PayPal. Unlike games, there was no specified goal or end point, rather it provided a virtual, 3-D meeting space. This allowed universities to establish their own islands, and on these construct virtual campuses. There was a good deal of interest in its potential in 2007, with Jarmon, Traphagan, Mayrath, and Trivedi (2009) having estimated “that by 2012, 80% of active Internet users, including Fortune 500 enterprises, will have a ‘Second Life’ in some form of 3-D virtual world environment” and that “these virtual worlds are expected to have a large impact on teaching and learning in the very near future with pedagogical as well as brick-and-mortar implications” (p. 169).
The most common use was to deliver virtual lectures, but Baker, Wentz, and Woods (2009) reported a range of applications:
Princeton University’s SL campus hosts music performances in their virtual Alexander Hall. The SL campus of the University of North Carolina hosts a virtual health clinic. The University of Kentucky’s SL site includes a library help center and an admissions and visitors center. Vassar College’s site has a live video feed from the college’s real-life quad. Faculty members can hold office hours in their virtual offices at the SL campus of Bowling Green State University. (p. 60)
The Second Life world could be integrated with the Learning Management System (LMS), particularly Moodle, to create a hybrid “Sloodle” system, which sought to utilize the strengths of both environments (Kemp & Livingstone, 2006).
While virtual worlds had strong devotees, they didn’t gain as much traction with students as envisaged, and most Second Life campuses are now deserted. Taking a tour of the deserted campuses in 2015 (which still cost $300 a month to maintain), Hogan (2015) reported:
I didn’t see a single other user during my tour. They are all truly abandoned . . . . They mostly are laid out in a way to evoke stereotypes of how college campuses should look, but mixed in is a streak of absurd choices, like classrooms in tree houses and pirate ships. (paras. 5–6)
This quote hints at one of the issues with Second Life — a lack of imagination. Campus scenes were often used to recreate an online lecture, for instance, a professor may have been represented by a seven-foot-tall purple cat, but it was a straightforward lecture, nonetheless. What this gained over simply live streaming a real lecture was not always apparent.
Virtual worlds such as Second Life had strong roots in role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons; though it didn’t manage to shrug off its nerdy, role-playing origins, and many users felt an aversion to this legacy. Interestingly, these Dungeons & Dragons roots for ed tech kept recurring: when CMC was new, MUD (Multi-User Dungeons) and MOO (MUD, object-oriented) were amongst the first widespread uses. This was part of their appeal to many advocates, but for other learners these roots were off-putting.
The technology required good computer hardware with a high-end graphics card and high-speed (for the time) broadband connection to run effectively. Without these, and even with them sometimes, the rendering of the 3-D world could be slow, and glitches in navigation could arise. In addition, there was the problem of “vandalism” when users destroyed or defaced property, or “griefing” when disruptive users interfered with classes held in public spaces, although given the type of online abuse found in environments such as Twitter, accounts of paintballing a lecturer seem almost playful now. Accessibility was a significant issue with no screen reader support, so they were difficult, if not impossible, for visually impaired learners to use. The navigation also required continual manipulation, and so students with dexterity problems found the environment difficult to navigate and never left the Orientation Island. The problem Second Life demonstrates is what happens when the technology itself becomes the main focus and is the predominant topic of conversation. This can be interesting to explore if ed tech is the main interest, but the technical issues and the foregrounding of the different environment can get in the way if the subject is, say, calculus. What this raises is the question of scalability and applicability — does every ed tech have to be suitable for everyone? Does it matter if some people feel put off by it? Does this advantage some groups and disadvantage others? These are genuine questions, and Second Life is not alone in facing them.
We can perhaps think of social software as “horizontal” or “vertical.” Horizontal ones are those that have a relatively low threshold to engagement — Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are all examples of these. This has been key to their success — they can utilize the benefits of the network without requiring intensive contributions from all individuals. Even browsing adds to the value of the network. And then there is vertical social software, such as Second Life, which has a high threshold of participation, and users tend to spend a lot of time engaged with it. The consequence of this is that these tools need to meet a range of needs, hence Second Life could be used for work, socializing, shopping, and so on. But it means they are unlikely to acquire the broad appeal required for the mass networking seen in the horizontal social software tools.
One of the issues with Second Life was that it very strongly divided people into pro- and anti-camps, with little balanced perspective. As I mentioned at the end of the previous chapter, bouncing between extremes is not productive. This was partly a result of the monopoly that Second Life came to have in the space. Several alternatives existed, but Linden Labs had greater financial backing than most of these. The cost of maintaining islands increased, and the openness of the platform came into question. The Virtual Worlds Watch project, which followed UK academics’ use of the range of virtual worlds, provides a useful archive for much of this history (Kirriemuir, n.d.).
However, with the success of virtual and augmented reality software such as Minecraft and Pokémon Go, with more robust technology and broadband, and with the widespread familiarity of avatars and gaming, virtual worlds for learning may be one of those technologies due for a comeback. Like many other applications of ed tech, the pattern may be one of overenthusiastic initial adoption, when it is applied as a universal tool, to a more selective and appropriate application now that enough general familiarity with the technology has been acquired. Second Life could have been useful in specific domains, where the virtual setting allowed users to do things they couldn’t easily accomplish in the real world. It is this application that has continued to see development, for example, virtual worlds for medicine, chemistry, and engineering. The overenthusiasm for Second Life may seem naïve now, but I share some sympathy with Hogan (2015) who, after his tour of deserted campuses, concluded, “I actually like how most of these islands represent an attempt by education institutions to embrace the weirdness of the web. The current crop of education startups seem bland and antiseptic in comparison to these virtual worlds” (para. 14).