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Learning That’s Out of This World — Really!
Again I am a little late meeting a writing deadline. But I can explain! I have been taking a graduate school class on multi-user virtual environments (think Second Life), and I think I am addicted to building stuff.
For this class, we have been using Second Life to explore what learning can look like in an online alternative reality. I already had an avatar in SL, which I set up a little over three years ago, but I had only been “in world” a few times over the past few years. I could see some interesting potential, but clearly this was an environment for adults. So as a teacher, I didn’t really see it going anywhere for me.
Taking this grad school class, however, has changed my view a little bit. Previously, I visited places created by others and listened in on talks or watched people dance while my DJ friend (in real life, a teacher I knew through my summer job) spun some records. But this class I am taking required us to visit and explore, in groups of four or five, with certain goals in mind, and later to report on our explorations by sharing information, images, and links. We had started to create – just a little – in this class, and it was fun.
The next step for our group was to create a campsite area. We’re getting to my obsession now. I had found out about some “freebie” places in Second Life, where you can go and “buy” (for zero dollars) lots of things – most of them cool, some of them truly freaky – to use where ever you would like. There were even pre-fabricated “houses” you could build anywhere you had “permission” to create. Our school’s special “island” gave me such permissions. At first I tried building from scratch. I stretched and squashed and rotated cubes until they looked like walls and ceilings. I applied “textures” to them to look like brick, wood, shingles, or other building materials. What I made was passable, but I wasn’t in love.
Then I threw down a pre-fab house next door. It looked SO. COOL. I started filling it with furnishings and other fun items (like a pool table and a David Bowie poster) and I began landscaping the ground around it. I even built a fun area on the roof for socializing with classmates. At some point, I also built a space-age looking house on another part of the island, but I had to delete it because I was using too much of the island’s limit on building and I had set up in an area reserved for students from a different class. Last night when my team was finally able to meet together “in world,” we tore down the old structure I had begun and built an entire pub. One guy went off to other places to find a bar, some signs, a keg, and other pub-worthy goods. I added a floor to the upper section to create an “upstairs,” then added stairs and curtains for all the upstairs windows. The other gal on our team altered the colors of the building itself and added wallpaper and other décor. The other guy landscaped the exterior and furnished the downstairs. We had a lot of fun, made a lot of mistakes, and laughed a lot. But you should see our pub now!
So, what place does this over-sharing have on a technology education blog?
There is a Teen Second Life. I’ve never been there, and any adult who has been there first needed to prove their educational role and then stay confined to certain pre-determined areas in order to gain access. The teens there apparently do a good job of ferreting out anyone who pretends to be a teen to get in – and gets them booted out! I have heard about schools that conduct mock trials and other class activities within the Teen Second Life environment, and the interesting things they find out about young people, identity, and self-image in the process. There have also been some surprising developments involving young people with disabilities who normally don’t communicate or have contact with others in their everyday lives. There is definitely something to be said for this opportunity to communicate, express oneself, and be creative in an alternative setting, including things that are “NPIRL.” (not possible in real life)
As I began to think about how much fun this experience has been for me, and how much I have learned how to do in such a short time, I felt both a strong sense of accomplishment and a slight pang of dread. This way of learning WORKS. It’s highly motivating and exciting. But the students I teach are mostly too young to even use the Teen version of Second Life, so I feel like I am learning about this in vain. I do see potential for professional development with other educators, and I even have a “gig” lined up where I am going to speaking later this month to educators in Second Life about how we use Google Apps in conjunction with Gaggle student e-mail at my school. Just like my online Masters program, people from all over can come together to meet like-minded individuals, but in a in a visually stimulating, highly interactive world.
I really want to be able to work with my students in this way. I want them to engage in the kind of learning that makes them lose track of time and take immense pride in their creative works. But this isn’t really the best medium for the age level I teach, and I must resign myself to the fact that I serve an important role, as their technology teacher, in preparing them to learn such environments when they get older. After all, working with adults in this arena is a bit like herding cats. What would it be like with nine year olds? (Now I’m feeling better about not using a multi-user virtual environment with my kids.)
But I do know this: such environments ARE a big part of the future of education. I think everyone who has a stake in education should be at least looking into what these applications are and how they can be used with students.