Meanwhile, In Second Life…

So yesterday I ran my first class in Second Life for a while. For student project work I’ve even rented some land there for a while (having previously managed two islands for the University).

Overall it was a good experience, and for my class it worked very well. There was a lecture and a building exercise and some experimentation with co-editing web-pages from within Second Life (this last a little flaky – in part the result of too many dynamic web-pages for the SL client to manage, in part because of too many client connections for Google Docs to reliably manage).

But returning to Second Life certainly made me think again about it, and the place of virtual worlds in education today…

Some good stuff. At the start was the usual faffing around getting audio levels sorted so that everyone could hear – with a couple of students having to log out and back in to get it working, but not too onerous. But having experience with web-conferencing, these issues usually crop up with other technologies too, and was barely any more troublesome. But compared to previous years, students all appeared with amazing avatars. This part of the new user experience is greatly improved, with dozens of very engaging avatars for users to choose from, from a very easy and accessible menu. Check out some of the avatars below. I also noted some content built with the ability to import mesh data into Second Life – allowing for vastly improved models, but haven’t been able to explore this much yet.

Class in Second Life

Yet another Second Life class

The class went well, students seemed engaged (and no-one snuck off after parking their avatars… we had a few questions and activities to keep people moving!). The tutorial and building also went well, and students seemed to enjoy a simple building exercise. I had thankfully emphasised the importance of installing and testing Second Life prior to the class, and most students took me up on this.

Building in Second Life

Building in Second Life

Some not so good stuff. I was reminded me how just much there is to learn about Second Life to be good at Second Life: avatar and camera control, gestures, groups, permissions, navigation, and construction – most involving numerous menus and pop-ups. Some of the factors that led to Second Life’s past success, the sheer scope of what can be done with it, and the rich possibilities it offers, seem to lead inevitably to an overly complex and overloaded amount of stuff to learn if you want to do more than just hang out at virtual beach parties. Firewall issues blocked at least one student – still an issue for campus and institutional access. And I only had the confidence to attempt this class knowing that the vast majority of students would have suitable hardware at home. Given that 4 years ago I was able to run Second Life on a (then) 4 year old laptop, I would have hoped that this wouldn’t be an issue at all nowadays, but it sadly still is.

I had a brief visit to the mainland too… to be met by a sea of grey as textures took unbearably long amount of time to load – again a result of the freedom Second Life offered has been that some areas of Second Life are overly packed with high-resolution textures that tax both bandwidth and graphics cards to present. Something less problematic on the more controlled island environment. Lag also seemed notably worse on the mainland, and my client crashed to boot.

I’ve also been using Open Wonderland – and compared to Second Life or OpenSim it remains something of an ugly cousin: avatars are more basic, avatar animation is poorer, 3D content usually looks more primitive. But… there is no client to install. It seems to be easier to use with firewalls. For users (not necessarily builders) there seems so much less to learn. So for at least one forthcoming project that I’m involved in getting started Open Wonderland seems to be the current favourite. Something that works reasonably well for the average user is better than something awesome but only for the super-users or for those with hours to spare on learning how to use it.

My return to Second Life (and OpenSim and OpenWonderland… yes, all three at once!) coincides with returns by Bex Ferriday and Mark Childs, who’ve also blogged about their accounts and experiences. Which at least tells us one thing – having survived the hype and crash, virtual worlds (if not Second Life) – are still finding roles to play and needs to fill in educational practice.

P.S. At one point I asked the students if, before the course, they had heard of Second Life – and when and what they had heard about it. All responses indicated that they had heard about it, other responses were a little more varied.. For information, this is what students had to say about it…

: years ago
: few years ago
: media and bad things, probably 2009
: surely everyone? I heard about it a good few years ago
: The Office (US). Dwight is still a salesman in second life, but he can fly
: From friends, about 3 years ago
: That someone had gotten rich off it, years ago.
: Around 2008, kept hearing about companies buying areas and making virtual areas?
: i heard bad things too!
: about 8 years ago?
: few years ago
: 2005/6 it was a game...
: maybe2008/9?
: 5 years ago
: a few years ago. people setting up businesses and things on it

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