The debate about Second Life numbers and the press' desire to believe the Linden Lab hype continues and has been widely discussed and reported (e.g. here, here, here and here).
The debate is quite interesting, not least in documenting the breadth of attitudes around SL, since it encompasses those who think that SL is the best thing since sliced bread and those who think it is the worst thing since sliced bread :-). However, it seems to me to be largely the wrong debate to be having, at least from the point of view of the education community.
The debate we should be having is about whether SL is able to serve any useful educational function.
And I have to say, having spent a little time in SL over the last few months, I'm somewhat skeptical. Not that I dislike SL, far from it. I'm just struggling to see how it will be used in the near future to support real learning activities in any meaningful, large-scale way. The technology required is too advanced (in hardware terms) for many users. The ability to dynamically embed external content to clunky. The technology too closed. Even the 1 to 1 and group communication / collaboration aspects of SL, the primary area where there does seem to be real potential, is laboured by being chat only.
Don't get me wrong, there is real potential in SL and similar environments. And my skepticism about its educational usefulness is tempered by an acknowledgement that I don't have much imagination! The fact that I can't see how SL will be used in the context of learning probably just means that I'm not clever enough to think of how to do it. That's why I'm happy to see a small amount of Eduserv Foundation money going into research in this area.
On a related note, a recent post on the DigitalLibrarian blog questions whether librarians are right to invest time in SL right now, given other demands on their time. I don't know the answer to that question - though I must admit that I have a lot of sympathy with the sentiments expressed in the article. It seems to me that any investment in SL at the moment is a risk, though one with potentially valuable outcomes, and needs to be seen as such from the outset. Whatever the current technology is capable of, things will undoubtedly change pretty rapidly, whether from within Linden
Lab or from outside. The things we learn from SL right now, notably in the area of online collaboration, will hopefully be useful more broadly as we move forward (i.e. the value should be independent of the success of SL itself).
But what SL (or its successors/competitors) desperately needs, as soon as possible IMHO, in order that we can better learn from it, is:
- mashable (i.e., simple, flexible and dynamic) content integration (a la Web 2.0),
- proper VoIP integration,
- open standards-based interfaces and
- support for large group events (without having to replicate events across multiple islands).
One assumes that these kinds of features are coming... but I'm not sure when.
As an aside, I did my first presentation in-front of an audience in SL yesterday. I was asked to talk a little bit about the current grants call to the UK Educators group - a small-scale virtual equivalent of a JISC townhall meeting if you like. Quite a few people turned up and I enjoyed it - though I was at least as nervous at the start as when I give a f2f presentation :-). Hey, it's not often that you go to a work-related meeting at which a dalek turns up!
I had read Jeff Barr's guide to giving effective presentations in SL before I went, though I have to confess that I failed to use gestures as much as I should. The question and answer session was pretty hectic and it was useful have Pete Johnston also in world to help keep track of which ones I'd answered and which ones I'd missed. Overall, I think it went OK.