Virtual environments give way to new models of learning. ”Second Life” represents such new alternatives to traditional approaches on education, bringing teachers and students closer together. Despite its layout, ”Second Life” is not a game, it is a persistent virtual world suitable for learning.
It comes in two versions, the ”adult” one, not censored and a teen version which has strict controles over who cand use it and close guiding of potentially unsuitable content. When starting using ”Second Life” an avatar needs to be created. This character represents the virtual version of the real person and it can visit various sims (simulations based in areas of virtual land). Within ”Second Life” the avatar can do many kinds of activities: study at a university, visit a museum, go skiing, meet friends and chat etc. This content is not made by the proveiders but is entirely user created. It takes a while to learn to use ”Second Life” – typically the first hours are taken up with learning basic movement and viewing controls and with exploring different environments. Applications allow the avatar freedom of speech, movement and interaction as he/she can walk, talk, change clothing, hairstyle but most importantly communicate with other avatars.
”Second Life” relies on four basic elements: proactivity (avatars must be “doing” something at all times), interaction (avatars must be interacting with the environment, tools, objects and others while working), collaboration (avatars must be working in groups which become communities of practice, supported by the facilitator) and constructivism (avatars must engage with experiment, test and explore activities without predefined learning paths, methodologies and solutions).
Users feel they are part of the virtual community, reflect on their role and context within the engagement (imagination) and negotiate their role within the community so that they can work collaboratively and gain more than if they were operating individually. Second Life offers opportunities for this level of engagement through avatar communications which has not been possible with online 2D text based interaction previously because the 3D constructed environment and visual/kinesthetic sense of ’body’ and ’place’ allows students to interpret this environment through their physical sense of presence, space and self gleaned from the real world. In this way, the community of practice can be seen to underpin learning on the island in formal and informal contexts.
“Second Life” is seen as a great tool for immersing students in an environment where they can explore, experiment and discuss without the barriers that real life can present. Activities that could prove expensive or dangerous in real life can be simulated at lower cost and risk than in real life. If the teacher wishes to create a lesson about animals there are virtual zoos, if he/she wants to practise shopping language there are ”real” (well, virtual but real) shops to visit and buy things. Students reluctant to speak up and take part in face-to-face discussions can find the virtual world an easier place to contribute in. Both teacher and students escape traditional routine classes to visit various places in order to practise speaking, language functions and discourse elements. There are multiple advantages: visual support , voice etc. But most importantly, students are ”hidden” behind the avatar which lessens the burden of stress. Besides being entertaining and highly engaging, ”Second Life” also has the quality of supporting crosscurricular approaches on learning as students can cross the barriers of their real school, of language and subject content. The virtual classroom enables geographic barriers to be broken down and a sense of community to be built amongst disperse students. On a higher level, it can improve students’ social skills such as tollerance, communication, adaptability, self-esteem, self-confidence etc. Interactivity and social networking are built into learning activities used in the virtual environment. Vygotsky emphasized that social interaction plays a primary role in the development of learner understanding of the subject matter. Through this understanding of cognitive development and the proximal zone for the development of understanding as structured by the learner, instructor, and surrounding influences, the environment is fundamental to providing the structure in which learning can take place.
Learners are motivated to join the community of practice and therefore motivated to participate in the learning activities in a way that also does not happen with asynchronous activities because they instantly have metaphors they can understand – talking, sitting, moving for example – and because the learning is done by the group not to the group. A 3D online virtual universe such as “Second Life” offers extensive opportunities for fantasy as well – avatar identity becomes a central element of the fantasy and the control offered by the environment. This also leads inevitably to the heuristic of ’interpersonal motivation’ since, as has already been established, this is fundamental to Second Life.
”Second Life” virtual environment is becoming significantly common within education institutions many of which have already set up a virtual campus, conducting virtual lessons in Second Life, enabling students to meet, attend classes, and create content together. Many educational establishments are now using Second Life as a meeting space, research various teaching and learning opportunities, test bed and, more importantly, a teaching and learning environment in which learners can participate in collaborative learning activities supported and guided by a facilitator.
Preparing students for life in virtual environments is no longer an aim in itself as such places tend to become, through their constant presence in our lives, less and less ”virtual”, as what we call ”real” relies on a sense of ”reality”. Regardless of the shortcomings which are inevitable in any teaching approach, using technology as a support for student motivation and moreover, as a connector to nowadays requirements on the working market will ultimately render both students and teachers content of the education process they are involved in.
Course Book. Using New Technology in Language Learning 2009, Cambridge, UK: Bell International, Homerton College.
Vygotsky, L.S., 1978, Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.