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Research and Theory Review

Page history last edited by Lynda_Cannedy 10 years, 9 months ago





Second Life:  More than Meets the Eye


Virtual worlds are 3D, online environments where individuals engage in various activities as avatars. Second Life (SL) (www.secondlife.com), an immersive and interactive virtual reality environment, is one of the most popular virtual worlds. Philip Rosedale, the founder and CEO of Linden Lab, created SL and made it available to the public in 2003. Several million people worldwide have used SL and typically 50,000 to 65,000 people are logged on at any given time. SL is the most active virtual world in higher education. More than 100 universities in the United States and other countries rent or own virtual land in SL (Baker, Wentz, & Woods, 2009). At first glance, SL may appear to be a game.  Upon closer observation, however, one finds a digital world where users can create content, including objects, buildings, furnishings, and landscapes. This open-ended aspect of SL encourages creativity limited only by the imagination. Besides content creation, avatars are capable of flying and teleporting from one island to another and communicating through text chats, IMs, and voice chats (Schiller, 2009). SL even has a virtual economy, with a currency called the Linden dollar (L$), that can be traded for US dollars.


Can Second Life be used as an effective tool for teaching and learning? Certainly the 3D environment for communication and interaction, the ability to create, and the structure supporting a virtual economy have made SL an innovative environment for teaching and learning.  Most researchers seem to agree that, in theory, great potential exists for SL as an effective educational tool.  However, the literature has not yet proved if or to what extent the use of SL has on improving learning outcomes (Schiller, 2009).  It is necessary to investigate the strengths and weaknesses of SL as a current educational tool and to consider the experiences and perceptions of SL users to make informed decisions concerning its educational use.


Second Life offers many current educational strengths.  It exposes students to a new technology.  It tends to increase student engagement by immersion, and the layer of semi-anonymity created through the use of an avatar may help some students to feel more comfortable about speaking up. It can provide a platform for more informal interactions among students and between students and faculty (Baker, Wentz, & Woods, 2009).  Many students enjoy the opportunity to interact with other learners for both academic and social purposes (Boland, 2009). With its capabilities of fostering innovation and interaction, SL offers a good medium for promoting learner-centered teaching (Schiller, 2009).


Several educational weaknesses could overshadow the strengths of Second Life.  The majority of students are not familiar with SL and a fairly steep learning curve exists for new users (Taylor & Chyung, 2008). Students not only have to learn how to use SL in general, but must master specific tasks that are key to their academic use of SL (Boland, 2009). SL has what researchers refer to as a "low interaction fidelity interface", in which navigation takes place with a mouse, keyboard, and screen, which can discourage learners (Taylor & Chyung, 2008). The openness of the SL environment may cause encounters with "griefing", behavior intended to disrupt the experience of others, and may include vandalism, graffiti, nuisance, and blight (Bell, 2009).  SL also contains adult content, some level of sexuality, disturbance, and misbehavior that could offend or be inappropriate for students (Schiller, 2009).  


Although research on SL is incomplete, certain principles of e-learning design should be applied to make SL a useful educational tool. To be effective, the goals, activities, feedback, and interfaces of a SL learning object must align with the desired instructional outcomes. Learning required to progress and succeed in Second Life should be the same learning required by the instructional objectives of the learning object. Complexity must be managed and instructional support and scaffolding should be readily available. Explanatory feedback should be provided and reflection should be encouraged to solidify lessons learned (Clark & Mayer, 2008).


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