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June 08, 2007

Second Life: a personal view

Eduservislandlogo I was asked by Eduserv's PR company for a couple of paragraphs about my views on Second Life.  They'd looked at this blog (and possibly at the ArtsPlace SL blog as well) and hadn't found anything suitable.  I realise now that they are right... despite blogging and speaking fairly often about Second Life, I've never been particularly up front about my views on it.

So here goes...

Well, firstly, I guess that it is pretty obvious (both from my blog entries, particularly those on ArtsPlace SL, and to those of you that can see me online thru the friends list in-world) that at a personal level I really like Second Life and that I'm spending a fairly decent amount of time in-world these days.  I try not to count the hours(!) but I admit that I tend to use Second Life most days, usually during the UK evening.  So, if you need to find me, that's where to look!

Why do I like it?  That's harder to say!  I've never been a big gamer - in fact I can only think of one occasion in my life where I've got hooked by any kind of gaming software (Tony Hawkes 1 on the PlayStation if you are interested, and even that didn't last long).  Before anyone screams, I know there's an issue about whether Second Life should be called a 'game' or not.  For what it is worth, I tend to think that it shouldn't but that it shares some superficial gaming characteristics.  One way or the other, it doesn't strike me as a major issue.

But I digress... I am a confirmed 'hacker' (I use that term in its positive sense) and have been more or less ever since I discovered the joy of programming sometime back in the late 70s.  I see hacking/programming as a craft (not as engineering, though I'm a Software Engineer by degree, and certainly not as a science) and, for me, it works best (i.e. is most enjoyable) when it can be combined with some level of design - whether that is interaction design or visual design or whatever.

Second Life, with its combination of building skills and programming skills, seems to me to bring these things together very nicely.  I think that's probably why I like it so much.

So, what about from a professional perspective?  Why has the Eduserv Foundation got interested in Second Life?  Why did we hold the symposium and fund Second Life projects in this year's round of grant making?

Well, it seems clear to me that there is significant interest within the education community in the use of 3-D virtual worlds in learning.  This interest was most visible to us from the reaction we got to the symposium and the grants call, both of which swamped us with responses in the area of Second Life.

You'll note that I seamlessly switched from the generic, 3-D virtual worlds, to the specific, Second Life, there without any problem.  This isn't surprising to me.  I made the point at the beginning of the symposium that Second Life is where most of the 3-D virtual world learning action is at the moment - so it makes perfect sense, to me, for us to focus our attention on it.  The Second Life brand is the Hoover of the 3-D virtual world space at the moment - or so it seems to me.

Whether this level of attention is justified is another matter of course.  As with the early days of the Web, what we are seeing at the moment is a lot of experimentation - with no-one being quite sure what works well and what doesn't.  We're seeing lots of people in the education sector getting excited, getting involved, getting in-world, and then trying to work out what the hell they are going to do when they get there.  Those people are usually operating alone or in small units - there is still little high-level strategic commitment to Second Life or 3-D virtual worlds.

I see the Foundation's role as helping to move our understanding forward in this area - helping to facilitate a debate about what works and what doesn't.  And if appropriate, helping to grow that ground-level excitement into something more permanent.

I have a gut feeling that 3-D virtual worlds are going to play a significant role in education in the future - but no more than that right now.  Part of my interest in helping with the debate is because I am genuinely interested in where things are going in this space.

On Second Life itself, I think it has strengths and weaknesses - but that is pretty much inevitable at this stage of the game.  I don't know whether the future lies with Linden Lab or not, and I don't really much care.  I don't mean that offensively, by and large I think that Linden Lab are doing a great job, I just mean that I see what people are doing now in Second Life as an important part of the learning process - an essential part of the debate I mentioned above - and it doesn't seem particularly critical to me me whether we are still using Second Life itself in 2 or 5 or 10 years time or whether we are using something else.  Other environments will come and go and we, as a community, will adapt to them - and hopefully help them adapt to us!

At the symposium, these was a significant debate about the commercialisation of Second Life (and, indeed, of education itself).  I must admit, I don't buy the negative side of that debate - the side that says that Second Life can't be usefully used in education because it is a commercial enterprise that supports a commercial virtual world.  Perhaps I'm missing something, but to me, that feels like a non-issue - or at least, it feels like an issue that is already with us in almost every other aspect of education!  Perhaps I'll return to this in a future post.

Anyway, that's a quick summary of my views.  If you are reading this at the PR company, I hope it helps - if it doesn't, drop me a line and I'll have another go!

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