Dr Helen Farley writes:
In 2007, US information technology research and advisory firm, Gartner, predicted that 80% of active internet users would have an avatar in a virtual world by 2011. Educators welcomed the news and flocked to Second Life to set up their virtual classrooms, amphitheatres and lecture halls. Many saw virtual worlds as low cost environments that could afford authentic learning for students. Yet others saw it as a training ground for those activities too expensive or too dangerous to replicate in the real world. Many universities, USQ among them, bought up virtual land to host conferences, tutorials for geographically dispersed students, career fairs and all manner of learning activities.
Well, 2011 has come and gone and Gartner’s optimistic prediction has failed to materialise. With the suspension of the 50% educators’ discount in Second Life, many educational institutions simply left the virtual world. A few set up in other virtual worlds such as various hosted Open Sim environments, but most just chalked the enterprise up to experience and left virtual worlds behind them once and for all.
So, what went wrong? Why didn’t virtual worlds such as Second Life realise their enormous potential for education? I joined with a group of researchers, themselves experienced virtual world educators, to see just what the issues were. I have joined forces with Chris Newman (Queensland University of Technology), Sue Gregory (University of New England), Lisa Jacka (Southern Cross University), Sheila Scutter (University of South Australia) and Marcus McDonald (RMIT University) to investigate just what happened. We began by reflecting on and documenting our own experiences. And we came up with a range of issues that we’ve broadly grouped into the following four categories:
1. Issues relating to the institution
Deploying and supporting any new technology in an educational environment takes a considerable commitment from the institution. Invariably, there is a direct cost associated with purchasing or securing access to the technology. But it doesn’t stop there: educators need technological and pedagogical support. They need release from other duties to accommodate the extra time needed to design meaningful learning experiences and to just get their head around the new technology. Deploying virtual worlds into an institution requires the same kind of commitment and sadly, many institutions failed to adequately support virtual world initiatives.
2. Issues relating to staff
Under this heading we placed a whole grab bag of issues from educators failing to cope with the steep learning curves associated with the environment to lack of knowledge about the technology. Add to this, sensationalist media overemphasising the sordid, sexual side of Second Life, sensitivity to ambivalent student feedback about the virtual world, and spiralling teaching workloads and it becomes easy to understand how the barriers of entry into Second Life might become insurmountable for all but the most determined educators.
3. Issues relating to students
Of course, negative student attitudes to learning in a virtual world could potentially derail even the most well-planned and well-resourced virtual world initiative. There’s been endless discussion, and I’m not going to go over it again here, as to whether today’s students are really digital natives. Certainly, the experiences of the research team threw doubt on the idea, finding that many students just didn’t possess the necessary digital literacies to readily cope with and flourish in the virtual world environment. Additionally, many students didn’t recognise education in these environments as being genuinely educative. And, as mentioned above, when academic promotion is so often dependent on positive student evaluations, educators are very sensitive to negative comments from students.
4. Issues relating to virtual world environments
No discussion of deployment of virtual worlds would be complete without considering the vagaries of the technologies themselves. The research team, along with a myriad of educators right around the world, jumped in feet first to use Second Life for learning and teaching. We were the early adopters and we patiently built our mastery over the environment in the belief that the technology would keep getting better. Well, the technology didn’t keep improving: the lag, sub-optimal graphics, lack of stability and voracious need for bandwidth didn’t abate. In the meantime, gaming engines have continued to improve, making the Second Life environment look and feel like a poor cousin. Additionally, there are severe limits on the scalability of nearly all virtual world environments. For those disciplines characterised by class sizes in the 100s or 1000s, virtual worlds were simply not viable as an alternative venue for learning.
Where to from here …
It’s naïve to believe that we have considered all of the reasons why educators have left virtual worlds in droves. To further plumb the depths of educator experience, we have deployed a survey through social media, mailing lists and also to our virtual world buddies. We want to look at why educators entered virtual worlds initially, what were their experiences and why they left. We’re looking at all sorts of factors that have potentially impacted on their decisions. And it’s not just Second Life we’re looking at but Jibe, Open Sim, Kitely and others. I promise to report back with our findings. In the meantime, take a look at our paper we presented at the recent ascilite Conference in Sydney and see you inworld!