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Universities using Second Life? Don't believe the hype

If the hype is to be believed then Universities are scrabbling to get into Second Life with the aim of attracting students and setting up virtual collaborative environments. Systems such as Second Life and ActiveWorld’s are notable for their potential to both change and enhance not only the teaching environment but also Universities outreach activities. At least that’s what you would be led to believe until you begin speaking to the people on the ground.

We have been using various virtual world systems since the launch of ActiveWorlds in 1995. Teaching students in both New York and London simultaneously gave us an early insight into the potential of these environments for collaborative lectures. Since then Second Life has come along and grabbed the headlines with its rich environments and ability to set up your own ‘Island’ on which to build. Both Oxford University and Edinburgh have recently released their own Virtual Islands with lecture halls and learning centres. For an insight in how Universities are using Second Life take a look at the Campus at Ohio State University:

Yet mention Second Life in many academic circles and you will be greeted with cries of derision and a snub for wasting your time looking into such trivial activities. Indeed having just come back from a conference where I dared suggest the use of Second Life for e-science outreach in the UK I was left feeling slightly socially inept for using such environments for research. The reaction by one member of the academic community was indeed towards the side of anger with regards my view that such worlds can be used for distributed teaching and collaboration on papers.

We therefore require a step back – Oxford have recently launched their own Second Life campus but just talking to some of the people asked to use it I have serious doubts on its take up – and this is from an academic community that should be embracing such developments.

Of course Universities shouldn't jump on the Second Life bandwagon for the sake of it but neither should they dismiss it out of hand. For those who dismiss such innovation take a look at the movie by Dr. Tony O'Driscoll on Experiencing the Sensibilities and Imagining the Possibilities of Learning in Three Dimensions:

To be honest its hard enough to get academics to write blogs – even by those in the realms of Internet based research – Second Life it seems is still a step too far for many. As for me? I'll carry on trying to push forward the use of Virtual Worlds for academic use, specifically next for Agent Based Models and Geographic Exploration.

Just don't mention the research on these pages into Game Engines and real-time interaction..


  1. I agree. As intellectually compelling as the concept of MMOW teaching is, in my own minimal ventures into Second Life, I found that it took far too much effort for me, let along my far more technologically-challenged students, than it is currently worth. Reports from those using Second Life at my university (Northern Arizona University) are the same -- a lot of effort on the teacher's part, and a major challenge for their students. These barriers could change in the future, of course, but for most teachers in the trenches that future is quite a ways off.

    (also posted with a link to your post on my blog at

  2. Anonymous3:47 AM

    I also agree. The only people who seem to believe Second Life is ubiquitous are those people who spend all day on it. I also agree with Alan's assessment of the learning curve required to use it. As we talked about in a similar post here, this familiarity with this type of environment could be what will divide the computer generation from the next.

  3. IMHO second life isn't there yet because of constraints on speed and richness, until it has voice and carries TV quality video of facial expressions it simply isn't going to be as good as meeting colleagues face to face.

    In terms of teaching I also think it isn't there. We are looking at using 3D environments (Google Earth principally) to explain landscape features to learners and what we are really interested in is what exactly does the environment add? Being able to 'fly' into a valley looks flash but does it really helps students to understand, remember, communicate about the concept? I strongly think some aspects of 3D environments will help teaching but we need to be aware that some activites won't add anything at all and, if other elearning is anything to go by, can actually be worse than traditional methods.

    If you're interested Google 'Sloodle' which mashes up a Virtual Learning Environment (Moodle) and Second Life. Again, when things speed up and get smoother it will be powerful but IMHO it isn't there yet.


  4. Anonymous4:41 PM

    I went to a great talk about this at the Eduserv Foundation. Stephen Downes was very insightful as ever:

    I think SL will be more of use to some academic schools than other. I can see why a geographer, or an engineer may use it, less so a linguist, or historian.

  5. I really disagree in a way. It's a child's play to learn the ways of the Second Life. I'm talking about ages 14 - 25. The real problem is that teachers can't keep up with the technology. It's like in a movie. If you miss the begining you'll keep asking your neighbour about everything. I'm 28, I spent an average of 2 hours a day in SL and yesterday I performed in my first SL live concert.