I’m quick to admit I’m no expert on Second Life. I’ve spent relatively little time there in the past year, and although I have dabbled in SL use enough to pen the post “Reasons to explore Second Life” for TechLearning earlier this year, I really feel inadequately experienced in SL to try and offer my own insights about the environment. (Full disclosure: In all I’d wildly guestimate I’ve spend somewhere around 8-10 hours in SL, total. Not much time.) I know several people who spend LOTS of time there, but to date I just haven’t wanted to immerse myself in that environment for very long. I have lots of “irons in the fire,” it seems, and priorities in other places– I do want to be aware and cognizant of the opportunities for learning as well as diversion which SL offers, but I haven’t wanted to spend the hours I think it would take to become “literate” in SL as more than a newbie.

That disclaimer stated, I did find Sylvia Martinez’ latest post “Second Thoughts on Second Life” thought provoking on several counts– Clearly Sylvia has spent much more time in SL to form opinions about many of the issues I continue to wonder about relating to that virtual environment. The first observation which struck a chord with me from her post was the following:

Like many conferences, I’ve found that simple conversations and random meetings with new people are more interesting than the formal events. This is more about collegiality than professional development. Also like many conferences, the format of formal events [in Second Life] is even much more instructionist than in real life, simply because of the limits of the interface. Sitting in a virtual lecture hall is hardly revolutionary, even if you do it wearing wings or a cat costume.

I appreciate Sylvia’s use of the word “instructionist” to describe the formal lectures which I’ve tried to attend both with my SL avatar and with my mind. I tend to use words like “teacher-directed” and “lecture-based” to describe that largely passive learning modality, but I think I prefer the term “instructionist.” Of course, just because SL learning gatherings may have seemed instructionist yesterday is no indication they will remain so tomorrow. I’m reminded of twitter use during NECC07 and since… the interactions between learners empowered by twitter are really amazing. Someone described twitter as “real-time life blogging,” and my first thought had been, “Why would I want to do that?” When you see all the great ideas and links people continue to share on Twitter, however… as well as the sometimes random and funny comments or updates… It certainly takes on a face of greater value. But I digress a bit….

On the current status of SL as a professional development platform and environment, Sylvia summarizes her observations by noting:

At this point, I think the constraints of the platform overwhelm any advantage as a reliable professional development environment for educators.

My brief forays into SL for PD support that perception.

Sylvia’s observations which are very much in line with my own thinking about the diffusion of innovations research as it relates to learning and educational technology fill the following paragraph:

…what early adopters of any new technology often fail to realize is that the things that hook them about new technology are exactly the reasons the next wave of adopters will hate it. The high-risk, high learning curve, first-to-market excitement that is so attractive to early adopters is like a big red warning light to the next wave… while Second Life as a professional development platform may be just the ticket to rev up the engines of early adopters, the rest of the educator population is going to look at every crash, every naked avatar that shows up in the middle of a meeting, and every interface quirk as confirmation that technology is not ready for real classrooms or worthy of their time.

The takeaway from this seems clear: Second Life is a great diversion and gathering place for the educational innovators and early adopters among us, but it is not and will not likely be a catalyst for broad-based pedagogical change in schools anytime soon. That does not mean it doesn’t have value or amazing future potential! I think, however, that as I consider the ways I want to use limited heartbeats in learning and promoting the cause of constructive change in schools, SL is not currently and seems unlikely to become in the near term one of my platforms of choice.

The digital literacy divide which exists in most of the schools where I work helping teachers and students is amazingly huge. While I do have some opportunities (like last week’s digital learning academy) to work with teacher volunteers who have a higher level of motivation to learn and use digital tools than your “average” midwest teacher– more often I’m sharing professional development sessions with captive teachers just as likely to be “clock watching” (to borrow Ewan McIntosh’s term from his keynote about PD during last year’s K-12 Online Conference) as to be really paying attention and learning.

I was comparing experiences last week with another educator who has been leading summer professional development sessions for teachers, and both laughed as well as cried at her stories of teachers who got frustrated they had to work with more than one browser window open at a time, and others who continued to have trouble double clicking on desktop keyboard shortcuts. It certainly is eye opening to see just how far “behind” many teachers are compared to students in their use of and even awareness of digital tools. My line of thinking here can be summarized this way I suppose: Second Life is cool, and it’s amazing to see what is possible as well as imagine what is coming…. But I really don’t see a strong connection to professional development for the majority of teachers in Second Life. Innovators and early adopters (camps in which I think I fit in many cases) yes– but early majority, late majority, and laggard teachers? Certainly not.

Sylvia makes some other thought provoking points in her SL post, and I don’t think her initial apology about blog post length is needed or warranted! Hey, blog reading is a voluntary activity…. for those for whom a post is too long, they’ll just stop reading. No apology is necessary! One of these additional good insights regards the “s word.” She writes:

Second Life is primarily a platform for adults to explore their sexual identity. Ignoring the overtly sexual nature of Second Life is like going to a strip club and then wondering why there are naked people there.

I think this is another reason I’m not drawn to SL and haven’t chosen to spend a lot of time there. I’m not suggesting people who love SL of being insecure with their sexual identities or wanting to explore that side of the SL world… I’m not accusing anyone of anything. I am observing, however, that for me personally, being in SL has seemed a lot like driving around the outskirts of a town’s red light district. I’ve visited ISTE’s home in SL, EduIsland briefly, Creative Commons in SL, and dropped in briefly on the education conference in SL a couple of months ago. But in all these cases, I have still had this sense of skirting the red light district. The people I know (in real life) who love SL mainly like to hang out with other people there and dance. That is great for them, but that’s not something I really want to do with my time… I guess I’d rather be thinking about ideas. (Yes, I do like to do things other than read, write blog comments, and blog myself…. but if you’re thinking I probably need to expand the ways I spend discretionary time, your point is probably well made and certainly well taken.) If I wanted to dance, I think I’d be better off actually arranging for a babysitter and taking my wife to a real dance club…. Now that is something we haven’t done for years! 🙂 (More disclosure: My kids and I do periodically turn up the stereo connected to my iPod from time to time and dance like ridiculous music-video star wannabes, but if I did that in public with my wife I might have to walk home or find a taxi!)

The last point Sylvia makes that I’d like to echo and reflect on regards the intrinsic or instrumental purposes for which people seem to be using SL currently as a learning environment. She writes:

Learning ABOUT Second Life is different than learning IN Second Life, but the two get conflated.

When I use a technology tool, I generally want to use the tool to be exposed to and work with ideas. When the technological environment seems opaque, meaning it has limited transparency to allow direct access to ideas, I think its perceptual utility for me is greatly diminished. This also describes my disinclination to spend lots of time in SL, at least to date. Yes it’s cool, yes you can do some amazing things, (it IS cool to fly) but I haven’t really LEARNED a great deal about things other than “how to use Second Life” when I’ve been in-world. Clearly that could be a function of the limited time I’ve spent there. I agree with Sylvia, however, that much of SL use currently seems to be focused on learning “about SL.” For now at least, I’d rather read blogs, listen to podcasts, and watch videos which permit me to have that “direct access to ideas” that I find myself craving and therefore seeking when I’m online.

What’s your take on Second Life as a professional development and learning environment for teachers?

Technorati Tags:
, , , , ,

If you enjoyed this post and found it useful, subscribe to Wes' free newsletter. Check out Wes' video tutorial library, "Playing with Media." Information about more ways to learn with Dr. Wesley Fryer are available on wesfryer.com/after.

On this day..

Share →

11 Responses to Second life as a bleeding edge PD environment

  1. vejraska says:

    Let me just point out that I think it is ironic that your last post was about unstructured practice…hmmm, isn’t that what SL is for educators?:) Where else can I go to play and learn? What else causes me to stretch my technical legs and try things like scripting in a place where others are there helping me figure it out? I could read a blog about scripting, or watch a you tube video about it, but that to me is the equivalent of reading the directions on how to hook up my new dvd/vcr…I would rather just start randomly plugging stuff in until I get it right. I could find a workshop, and try to learn it that way, along with 20 other people, each on a different technical level. I could travel to multiple conferences, spend lots of money that my school doesn’t have, be away from my family, and MAYBE I will have some great interactions and get some great ideas….
    OR….I can kiss my kid goodnight, then hop onto my laptop and go find a great conversation, or start one in SL, and MAYBE I will get some great ideas, or I can log out and go to bed Why wouldn’t I use SL? One of the hardest things about teaching the way that I do is feeling isolated from my colleagues. Now I have found a place where I can actually talk about what I do and not feel like a freak (even if I am dressed like a frog). It is like any other thing in life, it requires balance, and you get out of it what you put into it. I don’t think it will ever replace the traditional conferences and hours of mind-numbing professional development, but I can tell you that my expectations for f2f professional development have skyrocketed! OK, I have said my peace, now you can write me off as an SL addicted, middle aged teacher who has had an epiphany if you wish…or you can come find me in SL and tell me what you really think:) I’ll be at the bloggers café.

  2. Sandy Wagner says:

    Sure, I have learned lots about Second Life IN Second Life. I have also had the opportunity to talk to some of the most innovative educators about how we are using Moodle (and other course management software), video creation software, blogs, and the web in general as classroom tools for our students. These may be bleeding edge educators, but we all start somewhere.

    I have had these conversations at strange times, convincing me that professional learning communities can meet at 9pm. One thing is for sure… Just as with my students, if I can get my teachers engaged in exploring how to use technology, be it with SL or any other tool, they are much more likely to use it than if I force them to sit through a training where they are watching the clock. Yes it has its limitations. For now, I am trying to think of it as an ongoing conference. One that can be accessed from the convenience of your living room, after the kids have gone to bed and I have had a chance to unwind.

    Skirting the red light district is the same in SL as it is all over the internet. But because of the interactive nature, sometimes the red light can come to you in SL. That presents a challenge for sure, but a challenge that isn’t much different from the challenge of the online world in general.

    Due to the popularity of your blog and your reputation (which are both well earned!), you have the opportunity to talk to some of the best minds in the world in educational technology. We do not all share your fortune. We do not all have widely read blogs or attend conferences often. SL is giving many educators, myself included, that opportunity.

  3. Very interesting and much needed post, Mr. Fryer.

    For quite some time, I’ve been posting similar thoughts about Second Life but from the standpoint of educational use in the classroom:

    As for professional development, I felt very much the same way you do a couple of months ago when I questioned whether I wished to remain a part of Second Life in any fashion especially after Atlanta where I was “stoked” about the dialogue occuring about educational technology and I wanted to have a way to continue that in as many ways possible. Thus, The Bloggers Cafe formed where educators could gather to discuss and debate education and ed tech. http://www.techlearning.com/blog/2007/07/is_it_time_to_add_sl_to_your_p.php

    It has saved me from leaving Second Life because I using it as another environment for my personal learning environment in much the same way as I do wikis, blogs, nings, podcasts, and f2f. It is virtual f2f. I am no longer there to discuss SL and I’ve never been there for anything beyond exploring the educational and professional possibilities of SL.

    Once again, thanks for a great post that I’m sure will promote great dialogue and that is what I’ve been hoping for: http://www.techlearning.com/blog/2007/05/you_dont_have_to_believe_every_1.php

  4. […] Second life as a bleeding edge PD environment (tags: secondlife professionaldevelopment) […]

  5. Doug says:

    Since Sylvia’s blog is not accepting my comment, I’ll post it here:

    Second Life is very nice, but it has a seedy side like you said, plus it has growing pains (lots of lag, crashing, etc.).

    It’s basically like most social software tools (wikis, blogs, forums…), which need to be customized, I believe, to be more suitable for education (for example, moodle). To be customized, they need to be open source. Second Life open sourced the client software, but not the server software, and they still control all the servers.

    Until Second Life is fully open sourced, I think the Croquet project and Sun’s Project Wonderland have a better educational potential:

    I’m hoping to look more into the java-based project wonderland sometime soon. I checked out Croquet, but it seems to be LAN-based (only people in your local area network can connect to a world), I have no idea how to connect to other people around the world with it like in second life, plus programming in Smalltalk/Squeak is so different from other common programming languages like java or C#.

    By the way, your blog erased my comment 4 times. Something is definitely wrong with it.

  6. Wesley Fryer says:

    Good point Mrs. V– you’re right, I do champion unstructured learning environments, and SL certainly is one… Please don’t interpret this blog post as a criticism on my part of the choices others are making about using SL, or the value they have found and continue to find there. I did say and will repeat that the limited time I’ve spent “in world” certainly gives me a limited perspective, so I’m not claiming to be an expert here or suggest my own valuation of others’ experiences in SL… I’m more just thinking out loud about what I’ve experienced in SL so far, and the comments Sylvia made which resonate with my own.

    Sandy, I am glad to hear you are finding SL a rewarding and worthwhile place to meet and visit with others, and learn. I think that is what Sylvia was acknowledging in her post about the collegial value of having interactions there… sort of hallway conversations. I definitely agree that those types of informal conversations, whether they happen in real life or virtually, tend to be the more valuable learning moments for me personally rather than formal presentations or lectures. (the “instructivist” moments)

    It’s difficult to impossible to generalize about a context or location and have that generalization match with others’ perceptions– this is true for school contexts as well as SL. I don’t intend to try and generalize for the entire population in saying “SL doesn’t seem to be for me right now”– My main point was that SL is a place for the innovators and early adopters, and is not likely to attract the early/late majority teachers. That said, of course there is value in getting together as innovators/early adopters… I’m going to be back in SL at some point. I am wanting through this blog post and conversation to clarify some of my own thinking about SL, why I may be less enthusiastic about the educational potentials there right now… and also see what others think.

    Thanks to each of you for sharing, I hope more people will chime in. Thanks also for that link to Project Wonderland, Doug, I hadn’t seen that before and will check it out. I apologize for the blog comment issues, I’ll look into that– I know if you try and add multiple links it can go into moderation– I have been pleased with Akismet’s ability to keep actual blog spam to a minimum, but I’m sorry it may be inhibiting conversation as well…

  7. Wesley Fryer says:

    Ryan: Thanks for your comments and sharing those links… I need to read more of what you and others are writing about SL who have spent more time there…. and please, feel free to call me Wes or Wesley! 🙂

  8. Hi Wes (and all),
    Thanks for the extensive thoughts about my blog post. I did make a distinction between professional development and collegiality expressly for the reasons Sandy and vejraska stated. Teachers are a relatively isolated profession and any chance to have collegial exchanges is a good thing in my book. I hope you all read my original post, since there are parts that Wes didn’t comment on that I think are pertinent.

    I also said that there are powerful epiphanies to be had in SL, and you can certainly see that some people have had their lives changed forever. But the point I was making was this is not function of Second Life, but of having a powerful learning experience, gaining mastery over something, and wanting to share it with others. “Hard fun” is a precept of Seymour Papert’s view of constructionist learning, and SL gives some people that experience. This TYPE of epiphany should be treasured and shared, but everyone isn’t going to have that reaction to the same platform or tool.

    And blog spam! Argh! It’s SO annoying and nothing seems to be the PERFECT solution. I apologize to you Doug. And you are right, open source would be an interesting exploration. I’m not convinced, though, that any 3D world will ever be really useful with a 2d bifurcated interface (screen and mouse).

    Ryan, you know I support what’s going in Second Life and have joined the Blogger’s Cafe. I really hope you read my original post and comment. I think there are a lot of nuances to these issues, it’s not just that I am FOR or AGAINST Second Life. It’s one of the reasons I felt my post was both too long and too short. There is never enough space to explore all the subtle parts of any issue, and yet, if you go on too long, it’s not useful either.

  9. Gary Stager says:


    Why/how would making a commercial site like Second Life Open-source make it better educationally??

  10. Mrs. Durff says:

    I don’t think this is what you meant, but I have trouble double-clicking too. I think it is related to the various challenges with which I have been blessed. So I change the default in the control panel of my computers.

  11. […] Second life as a bleeding edge PD environment – Wes Fryer […]

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Made with Love in Oklahoma City