I’m not that old, but I’d never heard of the Internet when I went to school. And while I achieved my own educational goals attending a traditional brick-and-mortar school, today’s virtual learning capabilities open up so many more options for students. I’m sure that Internet companies in my area will remain in business, given how much we’ve come to rely on the Internet for education and gaining information in so many ways.
And the options don’t stop coming. Internet companies in my area take pride in being one of the stepping stones to revolutionary methods of educating youth as well as adults. Many schools now offer virtual classrooms with a teacher at the helm and students posting comments on a chat line or forum. But researchers are investigating options even beyond that. One recent study at the University of Texas at Austin used the popular online world Second Life as a virtual classroom for an English course.
Second Life is an open-ended online world. Users design their own surroundings, and create avatars as their characters to work there. The avatars can interact with each other; they can cooperate towards a common goal, or make business deals with each other, or sabotage each other. Second Life can facilitate some interesting experiments that might not be possible in real life.
The class conducted in this world was a two-semester freshman literature and rhetoric course. During the first semester, students were asked to study types of architecture, write about architecture, and then build an ideal campus on Second Life. Students were to compete to build the best buildings. While the instructional objective was for the students to integrate visual and verbal rhetoric, the students perceived the tasks as irrelevant and were frustrated with the amount of time and effort they had to spend on it. Another problem, as revealed through post-course surveys and interviews, was that building required a great deal of skill in maneuvering through Second Life. Some students had to spend extra time on the project because they still needed to master the controls.
The second semester, students were asked to research role models and write an essay on the role model of their choice. Then they changed their avatars to look like their role models. Several group discussions on leadership were then held at various locations on Second Life, and each student was expected to take on the persona of their role model for the discussions. Students generally found this activity to be more relevant than the building activity of the previous semester, and it didn’t require as much experience with Second Life to be able to complete.
What does this mean for using Second Life as a virtual classroom tool? The researchers came to several conclusions.
1. The use of Second Life must be integral to the activity, and the activity must be integral to the course objectives. Students become frustrated when they’re required to spend time performing activities that don’t seem important.
2. The activities performed on Second Life should be within the ability of each student. The activities should test and enhance the students’ understanding of the topic, not penalize them for being less familiar with using Second Life. As the study shows, building on Second Life requires more skill than interacting with other avatars does.
3. The activities should be more cooperative and less competitive. The students in the study related more to the cooperative activity of discussing leadership with their role models than they did to the building competition. As interaction between users in a new environment is one of the unique features of Second Life, that feature should work well for other activities.
I would like to thank Edudemic for allowing me to guest post, My name is Ruben Corbo and I’m a freelance writer for many websites including Broadband Expert which helped me find internet companies in my area before I began writing articles for them. When I’m not writing I’m normally producing or composing music for short films and other visual arts.