As an instructor of educational technology, I am always exploring and experimenting with tools that have the potential of solving a teaching/learning problem. This story is about one of those experiments.
I teach a graduate course in instructional design for our Instructional Technology/E-Learning degree program. It is completely online and the students enter with good technology skills; most work as teachers or IT professionals in K-12 settings. In an online course without face-to-face interaction, students can feel isolated and socially disconnected. I wanted to use a tool that would help create a sense of “co-presence” – of being together – so I decided to incorporate Second Life. Besides the social benefits, it would let students experience firsthand the power of a 3D immersive learning platform. Second Life is an online graphical environment inhabited by characters called avatars. It mimics features of the real world, such as gravity, topography, and communication; there is even an in-world economy. Second Life has game-like attributes, but there is no shared goal – no way to “win.”
I used a constructivist teaching approach. Instead of telling the students about immersive learning, I planned activities to help students learn about this medium by experiencing it and immersing themselves inside of it. I designed a sequence of learning activities to prepare students and scaffold their learning. The Second Life activities included:
- Creating an Account
- Learning the Basics
- Virtual Field Trips – instructor-guided tours of a space developed by ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) and another created for staff training by a Florida school system
- Immersing in the Experience – explore an additional educational location (chosen from a list I provided)
- Reflecting upon the Experience and Sharing Perspectives – via discussion board.
To my surprise, students were not familiar with Second Life. They had heard of it, but thought it was a gaming tool. I had to spend time helping create accounts and teaching the basics. There were also technical, safety and security issues, as well as the time required for preparation.
Despite the challenges, students met the learning goals. Based on their firsthand experience, students were able to evaluate the instructional potential of Second Life from a learner’s perspective. Most felt that the medium had great potential for instruction and professional development. However, they were concerned that schools would not allow them to use it with students. The tool also allowed students to “visit” educational spaces and interact with educators from around the world – something that would not be possible in a face-to-face format. In addition, the tool helped create a feeling of “co-presence” in the online class.
Given the instructional affordances of 3-D immersive virtual environments, I would use one again. I would, however, explore other environments that are more “secure” and “safe.” Incorporating this kind of experience into a course can help transcend the limitations of geography. I can see the potential in courses on social work, nursing, art, culture studies, and language.
- Second Life Education portal
- 7 Things You Should Know About Virtual Worlds (ELI)
- Video about ISTE Island (note: the island is now closed)
Dr. Poonam Kumar is Director of Online Learning at Saginaw Valley State University, about 90 miles north of Detroit, MI.