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, Iâ€™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?
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