Spurred on by the little article in the Sunday Tribune about an Irishman who paid someone to construct a simulation of Dublin city centre in Second Life, I decided to pay it a visit. For those of you who don't know, this is a 3D virtual reality that is accessible to anyone with broadband. Participants acquire an avatar (or 3D representation of themselves - or at least who they'd like to be) which can wander around chatting (using text) with others in the same virtual space. It's an amazing concept really in that you can interact with objects and people, the latter being anywhere in the world.
I had been meaning to visit this "place" for some time based on articles and comments I'd come across about the potential of such technologies in education and sure enough there are models of universities (some officially endorsed) within the virtual space, complete with links to streaming video, live lectures and other events. So this was my first foray and I must say that the technology is very impressive. I can see the attraction for people in wandering around, but I guess that after a while the time spent "walking" from place to place is questionable. The main concerns I have, though are similar to those that have been discussed recently in my institution (and others) with regards to other social networking software such as Bebo, mySpace, etc., namely the issue of (in)appropriate behaviour and the extent to which we, as a professional institution, have a "moral" (and I use that word in a general sense) duty of care to our students.
There is no doubt that such systems are often used for purposes other than information sharing and education! The problem then is that if students are being required to use an open, public chat system how can we protect them from those with sinister intentions. Perhaps, it is argued, that students are adults and we shouldn't be concerned about this aspect, that they will encounter it whenever they go on to the web, but I'm not so sure. All it needs is for one unfortunate experience to lead to real questions about our institutional and professional ethical integrity.
So anyway, I ventured into the virtual space creating two avatars representing students to see what would happen. Actually, some interesting interactions took place. I had made a simple story that these students were studying German (picked randomly as a topic, forgive me!) and it didn't take long before they encountered German speakers (who also had good English) and were even being offered assistance and some basic lessons. Impressive initial outcome. However, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn't take long (3rd 10 minute login session) before the female avatar starting drawing attention that was less than entirely "wholesome." And so there the experiment ends. Brief, with initial potential, but really in the end perhaps a little too risky to recommend. As for the male student, well he was invited to a virtual pub, which to be honest lacks the atmosphere (and alcohol!) of the real thing!
Anyway, I came across work being undertaken by other educational institutions on aspects of sociology and psychology of virtual spaces and there seem a plethora of papers on such topics emerging. Linden Labs, the providers of Second Life even provide ethical guidelines for researchers, showing the extent to which there is academic interest. To be fair to the company, they also provide secure areas ("private islands") for educators that will only allow registered students entry and there seem to be a number of these with programming and multimedia design courses in evidence.
Anyway, I'm back in "first life" now and despite the almost constant rain this week, it has just a little more appeal than the online version.