Second thoughts about Second Life

I was pleasantly surprised by a flurry of faculty interest in Second Life earlier this week. Normally, when faculty express interest in integrating technology into teaching and learning, I am thrilled. However, I have to admit, this time I was less excited, and here’s why.

I have been in and out of Second Life (SL) for several years. Each time I engaged SL it was to explore its potential for teaching and learning. Admittedly, there was much in SL which interested me. But, I came away each time feeling that the teaching I experienced in SL was “ho hum”, or worse. Nevertheless, I keep going back thinking that I would discover one more thing that will really make a difference in my opinion of SL as a teaching tool. My latest visit of SL in December 2009 was kind of fun. But, again I walked away scratching my head. This week I started digging on the Web to find experimental research evaluating SL’s effectiveness as a teaching tool. I have not found much useful research as yet, but I am just getting started. I will begin searching scholarly journal databases this week. At this time however, I am claiming my right as a bona fide geezer to take the “Harrumph!” position towards SL.

Can you think of one popular online tool or technology that hasn’t been touted as the newest way to engage students, and improve learning? I think we as educators are just too ready to adopt and promote the latest & greatest technology for teaching and learning without evaluating its true effectiveness. Don’t misunderstand me. I LOVE technology; I make my living with it. I simply feel that teaching using something new (even though SL is no longer “new), is not as important as teaching well.

As I move deeper into my research on SL, here are the thoughts running through my head:

  • In a learning context, how do I square what the research suggests about cognitive overlead with a rich, busy, complex environment like SL?
  • What topics/subjects/disciplines are most likely to benefit from learning interactions within SL?
  • How should teaching in SL differ from a classroom approach?
  • Who does SL include/exclude?
  • In a learning context, does the use of avatars actually make communication more authentic/personal?

If you know of experimental research on SL, please let me know. I’ll report my findings as I go along.