Second life stunting growth in 3D course materials?
Like many of us, I was bowled over by Second Life at the peak of the hype three to four years ago. The concept of an alternative world seemed to offer endless opportunities for rethinking many of the learning activities performed online. At the time, it seemed every university we spoke to was enthusiastically setting up a Second Life area and pouring energy into the project with a glint in the eye. It seemed that all this effort would be self-fulfilling. How could Second Life fail to make an impact in Higher Education with so many bright, energetic and funded teams championing the cause?
However, in 2011 all has gone quiet. A Google search for news on Linden Lab results in just four pages of entries and none from the major media outlets. Occasionally we hear that a university has closed their Second Life island. Last year we heard that Linden Lab was laying off 30% of its staff. And now, thinking back over the past four years, I can't think of a single project that has made a significant impact on mainstream teaching. So why has Second Life failed to live up to our expectations?
I can think of at least two reasons. First, the product didn't live up to the concept. The idea of an alternative 3D universe sparkled in our imaginations but this clashed abruptly with the reality of ponderous movement and awkward 'zombie hands' text chat. I believe that the majority bought into the concept rather than the reality and this is why many of us logged in just once or twice rather than becoming lifers. The fact that most other visitors we met were flying in the sky and had rabbit heads didn't help either!
For those of us interested in online learning, the more significant reason has to be that Second Life doesn't add value to many online learning activities. In fact, it often makes them worse. Why deliver a presentation on a small video window in a Second Life world when GoToMeeting is far more effective? Why communicate via zombie hands text chat when Skype is so much easier? Why force learners to spend minutes awkwardly moving through a 3D world when a regular web interface would take them to their destination in a couple of clicks?
The effective uses of Second Life are those that take advantage of its unique characteristic, a 3D environment navigated via an avatar. This occurs when it is the process of navigating an avatar through the 3D environment that leads directly to students acquiring the learning objective of an exercise. For example, Maria Toro-Troconis' Second Life project at the Imperial College Medical School enables trainee doctors to walk around virtual wards to gain an understanding of the dynamics involved. It is also straightforward to imagine how Second Life can be used on courses in architecture, design and engineering.
However, for the majority of subjects, the 3D avatar environment isn't advantageous. There is generally no advantage to observing presentational activities relating to maths, computing, business studies, law, psychology and so on through the eyes of an avatar in a 3D environment. And, as mentioned before, communicative activities in these subjects are often hindered by such an environment. The fact that universities often focus on the theoretical also exacerbates the issue. So, Second Life has become relevant in niche areas but we were all expecting much more and this is the reason for the disappointment.
At Epigeum, we are yet to build course activities in 3D and one reason for this is our observations of others struggling with Second Life. I imagine we are not alone in this and perhaps Second Life has stunted the growth in 3D in the mainstream.
However, we have been guilty of conflating two issues: a Second Life-type navigable 3D world and the broader idea of 3D rendering. To illustrate the latter, Harry Brenton at Imperial College has shown that rendering organs of the body in 3D increases students' understanding of anatomy. The organs are not navigated via an avatar, just presented to students!
The Epigeum development team is now pushing for the inclusion of 3D in our courses, having seen tools such as PaperVision. For us, it is once more time to explore the use of 3D with an open mind.
About the Author
- Sunday, 19 May 2013
- Written by David Lefevre
Co-Founder and Chairman