Sunday, May 13, 2007

Second Life symposium

Last Thursday I attended the Eduserv Symposium Virtual Worlds, real learning. The main event took place in London, but it was also streamed to 3 venues in Second Life (SL) and people in SL could join an Instant Messaging board where they could comment and post questions. There were screens round the lecture room which showed one of the SL venues (mostly the venue on Eduserv Island). In the photo you can see 2 of these screens; when I took the photo, the Eduserv person who was leading events in SL was using his text editor.
I try not to make the postings on this blog too long, and not everyone interested in IL will be interested in Virtual Worlds, so I will blog a bit here and later will do some additional stuff on the Livejournal blog I set up a few years ago for our Educational Informatics module. From Eduserv, there are bookmarks on and other blog entries will be using the tag efsym2007 at Technorati. Also the whole thing is hopefully being put online in due course.
The delegates included another information lecturer, Mark Hepworth from Loughborough Uni, and some librarians, including Lyn Parker from here at Sheffield. There were also academics from other disciplines, people involved in/in charge of educational development or technical services, people researching in the area... job titles weren’t given on the delegate list, so I’m not sure of the exact composition. The food was nice, BTW, although it was the kind where waiters circulate with trays of stuff and greedy folk like me have to be on the alert to grab.
Although the day wasn't supposed to just be about SL, in fact a lot of talk focused on it. Presenters were Jim Purbrick (of Linden Labs, the developers of SL), Roo Reynolds (Metaverse Evangelist at IBM: yes, that really is his job title), Hamish Macleod, talking about the University of Edinburgh’s involvement, Jenny Scott from the journal Nature, talking about their experiments in SL including their “Second Nature” island, Gilly Salmon on her research, and finally Stephen Downes from Canada (all the other speakers were Brits) who had been asked to provide a critical perspective and Stephen duly obliged. Here are some themes and issues:
- What it offers in educational & information terms: the advantage of SL in particular seems to be that it has more parallels with Real Life (RL) than some virtual worlds and so is a more gentle introduction for non-techies. The fact that there is a real economy in SL (see below) also means that people can practice marketing, production etc. Of course there are librarians in SL, and libraries and library suppliers (see It still seems an issue, though, as to what form libraries should take. Librarians have (to me) more of a function than libraries in SL. On the other hand, the "gathering space" role of a library seems to have a place in SL as in RL, whether for educational or community activities. There seem to me LOTS of questions to do with IL and SL (e.g. what IS information literacy in SL?) which has the researcher in me gleeful ;-)
- There are already examples of people in Higher/Further education taking their students into SL, an example is a chemistry lecturer (multiple choice quiz dressed up with obelisks). Most popular are subjects where being able to construct and manipulate things (sciences, engineering etc.), do stuff with artificial life, & explore social issues like identity.
- The business/economy aspect of SL seems to be a controversial, but possibly success-defining, aspect of SL. The Linden speaker gave the stats: that 41% of the 6 million people registered on SL are female (presume that means: claim to be female), the average age is 33 (except on the teen version of SL, of course) and US$6 million a month are changed into Linden dollars. There are two sides to it: the fact that the Linden/US dollar exchange means that the Real Life (RL) and SL economy are linked, and not just for the developers. You can become an entrepreneur in SL: also you can spend lots of money on casinos and "adult" activities. Stephen was arguing that this meant it was too comfortable and like RL, and also that the strongly commercial element meant conflicted with public service and educational aims. On the other hand, these RL monetary links encourage a diversity of people into SL and encourage more diverse activities (even leaving aside the sex and gambling). The second side is to what extent Linden are going to make everything Open Source.
- There were debates about whether SL was a game, and whether it was Web 2.0. I have my views on this, but am not clear why it matters so much to make a decision on these points. I suppose it might if you were facing misguided colleagues who thought All Games Were Evil.
- Privacy and confidentiality. There is commercial confidentiality (e.g. at IBM they have created a behind-the-firewall private metaverse, so they can have confidential virtual meetings) and also the privacy of individuals, including students. One question from the "backchannel" (participants in SL) was about whether students would want 2 avatars, one for class, one for themselves. Seems very likely to me, and my perception is that students may wish to keep private & academic separate, under their control (which is their right).
- Practical issues. There certainly are some e.g. apparently at the moment they are constantly updating the software you need to download to use SL; getting central computing to install software and then upgrade it once a year is hard enough. Diana Laurillard (who chaired the panel session at the end) seemed determined to accentuate the positive. Indeed, she appeared to be berating us for asking about “technical issues” and barriers rather than burbling with excitement about the new opportunities. However it seemed to me that this discussion of practical issues was a sign that people were contemplating using it with diverse cohorts of students (i.e. not just geeky/edtech students who are going to think it is interesting even if they are having to cope with stuff that doesn’t work). That there were practical issues in access was emphasised by some of the chat going on in 2nd Life about reception of all aspects of the seminar e.g. “I have nothing” “audio and video (but video is inverted)” “now white screen”.
This has now been an excessively long post. Perhaps I am burbling after all. At any rate I'm starting to get some SL/IL ideas.


Alja Sulčič said...

Hi Sheila, I must say it's also interesting to read a review written from a real life delegate of the event. You made some really good points!

Hope to see you in-world soon :)

Alja (SL iAlja Writer)

Kate said...

Thanks for this Sheila. As we plan our online MA in new literacies, it is really useful to read about Second Life - a really informative post!

John Lindsay said...

Sheil'a comments about the role of librarians and libraries does I think want exploration.

Those who are old enough to remember a card catalogue will remember see references, see too references, and the rest of the apparatus. Now all we have is grep.

Handel, produced by William Christie is Hendel. Hercules may be Herakles, and so forth.

The opportunity of the sort of display SL uses, with the idea of the card, means we could return to virtual card drawers, so the alphalist on search could have entries added.

But then we could go much futher. Gulliver's travels is a second life, and I am a strudlbrugg; so we can search JSTOR, Project Muse, Ingenta and the rest, and Walpole can appear as an avatar, along with Pope and Handel, Kent, Gay and Burlington :)