The following personal reflection on the educational advantages and disadvantages to SecondLife (SL) are based on a single-user’s online experience. In the era of massively multiplayer role-playing games where participants interact in-world in groups (study hall, computer lab, or arcade) as well as online, the following advantages could increase and the disadvantages could decrease.
Disadvantages to SL include the requirements for high-end technical hardware and a specific skill set that can only be learned within the virtual environment (VE). I advocate for the education of the masses in accordance with Paolo Freire. Because SL requires a certain bandwidth capability and computer graphic cards for participation, this creates a barrier for some students.
Second, the skill set to function in SL can only be found in this environment, so there is little opportunity to transfer previous knowledge. Perhaps there are games that have the same functions that would make this possible. SL requires learning by trail and error, which hinges on the motivation and personality of a learner. I’m an adventurer type (global learner), so I don’t mind trying and failing. However, from experience as an educator, not all student have the same will or ease. For instance, an analytical learner would need lots of demonstration videos and the rules prior to login. Therefore, learning preferences should be considered in VEs.
On the other hand, the advantages for SL and other VEs are tremendous. Some benefits include accessibility for persons otherwise unable to participate fully in the real world. The affordances lend themselves to learning various content in authentic environments, and the opportunity to unite people. SL provides for the following accessibility requirements: text chat, language translations, audio, written descriptions of venues, and remote controlled avatars.
I’m unsure if all SL venues provide alternative text, but I did see a lot instructions provided at the locations I visited. For example, at a dance floor, a floating ball provided instructions to click the ball and a menu of dance moves appeared. I’d hope that the JAWS (Job Aid With Speech) screen reader would be able to read it for persons requiring that accommodation. I haven’t done any research on the accessibility of SL specifically. I learned from research on accessibility that text within images in MS Word cannot be read by JAWS like the speech bubbles, so I’m unsure if the directions can be read by adaptive technologies like JAWS.
The affordance of trying new skills in a simulated environment, especially if that skill may be a dangerous one in real life, is a great advantage. In a HealthWorkforce Australia document (Walsh, 2010), the use of VEs was proposed as instrumental for education in dentistry:
“A virtual world which is used at the University of Southern California School of Dentistry exposes students to exercises in diagnosing complicated problems, which in
turn eliminates the use of live patients in a risky environment. Such VW are especially useful during the first half of the curriculum when students are inexperienced in patient
care (p. 15).”
SL provides unique and varied opportunities for gatherings. For example, the Veterans Administration set up an office where veterans can visit and learn about their benefits in SL. Another example is how IBM uses SL to meet virtually with its administrators worldwide. IBM said this environment was much more appealing than teleconferences between boardrooms. I’m a positive thinker, so I believe the opportunities are endless as long as you have the necessary equipment, VE skill set, and motivation. For more information, read my previous post on the use of SL for educational purposes.
Note. This is part two in a series on SL.