July 2, 2022

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A Second Life For Educators

9 min read

An interview with Berry Beattie, a lecturer in Leadership and Organizational Behaviour who is exploring the potential of Second Life as a medium for educators.

We are sitting in Berry’s “office”, which consists of some loungers on a tropical beach. The sound of lapping waves and the cry of seagulls can be heard in the background. Berry is relaxed, dressed in his swimming trunks. He is in his early forties with a tall and bronzed body.

Q: How long have you been in Second Life, Berry, and how would you describe the experience

Berry: I first entered SL in late February of 2007. I happened to read about it twice in one day: in a computer magazine and then in the magazine of the Institute of Directors. This made me think that there was something here to be explored, so I downloaded the software, entered SL and have been here ever since. It’s been a fascinating journey so far in terms of the psychological and sociological aspects, as well as the creativity which can be seen all around. It’s incredibly absorbing to form part of the creation of a new society, a new way of developing relationships.

Q: How many people are using SL now?

Berry: Since 2001 when it was originally launched, SL had grown steadily but relatively slowly, reaching nearly 1.1 million ‘residents’ at the end of October 2006. Then it began to be noticed by the serious press and since November 2006, growth has been explosive with approximately one million people a month signing in. As of today, there are approximately eleven million people who have logged in to SL. This means that it has now reached a critical mass and it will certainly continue to grow and evolve. In terms of the steady SL population, we are talking about one million people who use SL regularly (five hours or more per week), so this is still a small figure in comparison to other social networking platforms such as MySpace, LinkedIn, and YouTube. However, there are a number of critical differences between a Virtual World such as SL and these other social networking sites.

Q: Such as?

Berry: Well, a virtual world by definition is three-dimensional, which allows for a far wider range of creativity, since people can create three-D objects. But it goes beyond that: it allows for easy multi-person synchronous communication, immediate connectivity to external web sites, and since there are few ‘rules’, it allows people to easily explore and innovate. To give an educational example: NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has a site devoted to demonstrating various meteorological phenomena in a way that is highly immersive, and goes much further than a web-based demonstration can go. Also, there is a real market economy between the residents, with more than two million USD changing hands every day.

Q: There have been many articles describing Second Life and its potential for education and business. How do you see these aspects developing?

Berry: Over the next five years, I’m sure that we will see a major shift away from the Web 2.0 platforms towards what I call the Web 3D or Virtual Environment platforms. This will accelerate hugely as the technology is now open source and eventually, an avatar will be able to move from one virtual world to another seamlessly, just as we can now move from one web site to another. At another level, people’s expectations will change too: I’m working with a group of senior university managers on the potential uses of SL, and we have discovered something quite interesting: there is a group of 15 to 25 year olds who are more than comfortable with the Web 2.0 technologies, and who appear to have little interest in avatar-based virtual worlds. They use a range of different platforms regularly and are happy to jump from one to another. However, there is a growing group of under-12s that is using virtual world technology such as Club Penguin, and this group will not only be familiar with virtual worlds, but will expect to access their information and develop their relationships through Web 3D. In effect, this means that there is a five to seven year ‘window’ where organisations have an opportunity to develop their Web 3D presence. Just as happened with the internet, what is now perceived as a ‘game’ will become an essential part of the technological infrastructure, and within ten years, any organisation that does not have a Web 3D presence will be losing market share rapidly. So, whether organisations like it or not, they will be expected to have a virtual world presence. Those that are entering the field now have an opportunity to explore and build with slightly more leisure. One of the greatest difficulties organisations face is in deciding what kind of presence to have and how to use the technology to maximum benefit. In a couple of years’ time, the costs of development will have increased significantly, the time-frame will be much shorter, and I expect to see many organisations throwing money at the technology in an attempt to catch up. And a lot of this money will be wasted, since not enough time has been devoted to thinking through how best to use it.

Q: How can SL be used for business education?

Berry: Ah, there’s an interesting question! There are over 200 educational institutions, mostly American universities, with a presence in SL. The Educators List serv now has over 3,000 members, and all of them are seeking how best to use the technology for educational purposes. What is interesting to me is that the primary educational groups are in Health, Technology, the Arts and Social Sciences. Apart from Babson, INSEAD and Boconni, I am not aware of any business school with an established presence that use SL regularly. And yet the potential to use SL for business and management education is really major: here we have a global society with an average age of around 38, a real economy to experiment with, a wealth of real social relationships to establish, a technology which allows a cohort of students from around the world to interact synchronously, and an environment which itself fosters innovation and creativity. In addition, it provides a really cost-effective way to provide tutor-student interaction. So, the potential is enormous. But how best to use it? Well, one thing I’m sure of: the worst thing to do is to try and recreate a classroom in SL, and bring in a specific group of students and give them a lecture (Berry laughs). At the moment, I see two areas where business education could maximize effectiveness: the first area relates to ‘serious games’ or ‘roleplay’ or ‘case studies’. At the moment, many courses rely on case studies and ask students to comment on them, or role play their way through them. There are also many computer-based simulations out there. But all of these have a degree of falsehood about them – either they are historical, or based on conceptual models or expect the participants to undertake roles and even characteristics which are not ‘natural’. Using SL, one could get a group of students to actually develop a business, make products, market and sell them, analyze the issues involved and report back on them based on totally real interactions with the rest of the population. In terms of leadership, one of the issues that multi-nationals face is how to develop motivated virtual teams operating across the globe. What better environment could there be than SL for the development of such skills? Indeed, a number of companies are using SL for that purpose already. So SL provides a platform for developing leadership and management skills in a real context. The second area is the provision of tutorial and mentoring support. The use of avatars for interaction seems to have an effect that is far stronger than mere e-mail or even chat communications. As students’ expectations rise, educational institutions will have to find ways of providing a ‘mass-customized’ service, and virtual world technologies provide a cost-effective way of providing individualized support in a superior way to the current Web 2.0 platforms such as Blackboard or Moodle. These will not disappear, of course. There are groups working on how to meld them into SL right now. But virtual world technology is more effective and attractive for this kind of interaction. Beyond these two areas, there are I am sure, many other potential educational tools and techniques which are yet to be created.

Q: What other uses are there for Second Life?

Berry: Primarily, I see SL as being a portal, from which one can then explore all the other IT-based platforms. There are many things that SL is not yet good at, and the other kinds of platform will be around for a long time to come. But SL does provide an interesting and fun way to link into other platforms. Beyond that, there is the whole area of modeling future scenarios, which I believe would be almost impossible to do with other kinds of technology. For example, many colleges spend fortunes on the design and construction of buildings, and yet it seems to me that very little progress has been made in terms of educational space design over the past century. We still see lecture theaters and seminar rooms in most institutions. Surely there are ways in which we could improve educational spaces? And how can one include the various stakeholders involved in the design of interior spaces? SL provides a way in which potential designs can be trialled and tested, with stakeholder groups invited to comment on and critically assess various options. The designs can be adapted virtually overnight to see what impact they might have on how the building will function once it is built. Not only would this save an enormous amount of time and money, but it would also help people to prepare for the changes to their work and life style, thus minimizing resistance to change. Another area is the ability to link in directly with live feeds from RL. So, a conference, a speech, an exhibition, a fashion show, a meeting – all of these can either have a direct live link or else be replicated within SL, thus allowing audiences to be far larger than they currently are, and allowing for a high degree of interaction between people in RL and avatars in SL. This is a major growth area within SL at the moment. And a third area where I believe virtual worlds out-perform other platforms is the whole issue of relationship-building. In SL, it is easy, quick and cheap to establish relationships. What has been fascinating for me is how quickly one becomes accustomed to making and breaking relationships on the basis of limited interactions. Although one is dealing superficially with an avatar, there is a real person behind it, and especially with the use of voice technology, the relationship-building within SL is absolutely critical. One’s behaviour is judged quickly and quite harshly, but as long as you act appropriately, people within SL are extremely helpful and supportive. It has astounded me how much time and effort people are willing to invest in assisting others for no extrinsic reward. This means that one can meet people very easily and develop very strong ties with them across geographic and functional boundaries. In turn, this can lead to professional and educational opportunities which would otherwise never occur. Serendipity counts for a lot, and unlike blogs and wikis which tend to be group-specific, one never knows who one might come across within SL.

Q: What are the drawbacks and issues relating to SL?

Berry: There are still a number of these… firstly, there are the technological requirements. You have to have a computer that can cope with the graphics. Generally speaking any computer bought within the past 18 months can cope. In fact, I’ve used SL on a three-year old portable on a telephone connection. But there are still many institutions that have older hardware, and naturally, there is an investment cost there. And then there’s the load on the ADSL lines, since it is highly demanding in terms of bandwidth. Interestingly, there’s no real issue relating to firewalls, although many IT people are wary of that. Another aspect is the fact that SL is still liable to crashes and bugs. It has been developed ‘on-the-fly’ at a relatively low cost of approximately 20 million dollars. And the fact that there is surging demand, coupled with ever-increasing expectations tends to mean that the platform is more ‘delicate’ than other Web platforms. So I would not recommend it for any mission-critical task.

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