Experience from Integration by Lorraine Charron

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In 2007, SL was fresh and new. Users explored, learned, and built in a strange new world. Now, it feels more “social network-like” and less “grass roots.”

A few years ago, SL was the “in” topic at e-learning (online learning) and higher education conferences. Faculty wanted to get in and try it. Well, many did try it, and it was either harder (both for them AND their students) or just not as interesting, useful, or rewarding as expected. Plus, the educational discount was taken away for a time, and that drew away a lot of educator interest too.

Now, it seems SL is hardly spoken of at many of the real life e-learning conferences. However, the educators that stuck to SL have the right teaching methods and level of personal interest (and backing from administrators at their campus) to keep it going. For a campus to really take hold in SL, there needs to be first a “champion,” and then lots of student PLUS faculty support. As with any e-learning tool in use for a while, there is knowledge now of what works and what doesn’t in SL, though educators continue to develop and refine best practices.

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Marketing in SL
SL is not useful as a visibility-raising society for most educational institutions. It is still a “niche” product with low traffic in most places, and it has relatively few users compared to the general real life population. In OS grids, there are even fewer users (sometimes only dozens or hundreds logged in concurrently, rather than the average of ~60,000 concurrent users in SL). It is just not economically beneficial to use a virtual world as a marketing tool – at least if you are trying to market toward existing SL or OS users.

Many college students have never been in SL before using it in a class. Universities have to be very targeted to be sure that their marketing reaches a lot of potential students that may want to enroll in their programs. For example, nursing programs or engineering programs are marketed in appropriate real life trade magazines, hospitals, etc. And there are so many more widely-adopted online marketing tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, that will reach a larger percent of students because they use it regularly.

For educational institutions, there used to be a sense that SL would help recruit students. Administrators thought replicas of campus buildings for students to tour would interest them. But, students really don’t want to come into SL and sit in a classroom like they would in real life. They are not impressed. They want to do innovative things they can’t do in real life. They want to be social in SL, but also to role-play, engage in creative things, and experience unique situations from real life. For example, students who do educational role-play in 1930’s and 1950’s towns dress and act as gangsters or beatniks. They love the way it immerses them in the times they study.

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Part of a University’s “visibility” factor is comprised of the scholarly research articles their faculty members conduct, publish, and present at educational conferences. So perhaps increased research on education (or really on any field—psychology, sociology or economics are rife with possibilities for SL research) would inspire more published journal articles and conference presentations. Thus the awareness of SL’s educational potential within the larger academic community is expanded. For educators to believe in a tool like this, hard peer-reviewed studied evidence is needed to confirm that “yes, SL is useful in these specific educational ways–in the kinds of things that *students* value for learning in SL. It must get them to a place of comfort and skill where they can focus away from technology and get to the point of immersive learning without barriers.

Hype and dashed expectations SL has a bad reputation through stereotypes and misrepresentation in the media. Though a lot of the sex has been cleaned up or taken elsewhere, there is still a sense that SL is a place of lechers, hookers and easy infidelity. And, of course, many still think it is “game” and thus could not ALSO be a place for a high-quality learning experience. Lastly, many think it’s just too hard to learn and navigate. Every semester college instructors, and support people, have to address these misconceptions—until the students overcome their fears and ultimately have their first worthwhile and enjoyable SL learning experience.

If faculty doesn’t connect with a decent support structure (other educators using SL as well as technical and administrative support from their own institutions) then they get disenchanted. It ideally takes a team (the instructor, an instructional designer to help develop SL content in line with the instructor’s teaching needs, and a dedicated technical support staff) to make it happen—and keep it going.

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Transforming instructional design
Where else can a person so easily (and relatively cheaply) joust in a re-created medieval village, go inside a 3-D rendering of a classic painting, or space-walk in simulated zero gravity? There is no other tool that provides the detailed and customized content to engage students so deeply, or where an instructional designer can truly bring the educational vision of the instructor to fruition. Essentially, the capability exists to immerse the user in a customizable, highly-detailed interactive scenario, which is only limited by imagination and the technical skills to create it.

The big “ifs” to make virtual worlds most useful include skills, time, and support. With increased research (i.e. visibility) on SL’s feasibility as an educational tool and with technologies added into the mix, new interest will occur. SL may finally get past the hype curve, out of the “trough of disillusionment,” and into a new period of educational enlightenment and productivity that is better than imagined.

I will tough it out, see what happens, and, hopefully, do my small part to help nudge it along the way.

It is often an ongoing struggle to get “buy-in” from campus administrators to maintain or support SL. Some universities who have strong “champions” do grow interest, gain administrative buy-in, are maintained, and even grow, a virtual presence in SL. But, unlike standard online course management systems used by most students, SL is considered an option. When budgets must be cut, it will often be one of the first things to go.

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Though not considered “formal” education like an officially accredited degree program, “informal” creative and professional offerings (that are FOR SL users BY SL users), have the greatest potential right now in SL. Building classes at Builder’s Brewery or Rockcliffe University (a non-accredited, non-profit organization dedicated to teaching about SL), role-playing classes at medieval sims, relationship-building classes at Star Journey, and so on, are successful. These classes are typically developed and led by enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers who want to help others learn. This may be why a lot of people, that are not real life educators or university students, consider themselves part of the educational community in SL.

When instructors try out the virtual world for professional development, and implement it in their own classes, use spreads among the students. The UNC TLT (University of North Carolina Teaching and Learning with Technology) conference has met virtually for three years straight, after losing a real life budget. It is run by volunteers, much like the wonderful volunteers VWBPE continues to rely upon for support and services. The annual VWBPE conference is a huge factor in extending SL’s educational outreach–particularly with the number and quality of speakers and programs offered.

There is a great appeal in the educational community for free, online conferences and professional development workshops. And it is a huge “selling point” to campus administrators when they don‘t have to send people to expensive real life faculty development conferences or workshops.

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Some schools (such as Rockcliffe) offer non-credit professional continuing education in SL, but want to work toward a more formalized, for-credit structure. Other formal SL educational organizations are trying to gain a foothold with MOOCs (Massively Online Open Courses) to find their place within the system. The University of Washington has a program called “Certificate in Virtual Worlds,” aimed at educators, game developers, web designers, entrepreneurs, and more. It is offered mainly in SL. But, for SL to reach the broader educational community, it will take quite a stretch… and a lot of pushing against the skepticism.

Most involved in SL education (for professional development, personal improvement, or other reasons) seem to already be SL users… or they know active SL users who have coaxed them in. But that is how innovations typically spread before they gain wide adoption—from person to person. Dedicated individuals keep pushing for acceptance by volunteering their time teaching in SL, sharing their SL experiences with real life colleagues and friends, and making efforts to demonstrate the worthiness of SL.

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Research, conference presentations, and workshops, help. There is a lot more published research now that affirms SL’s educational benefits than there was just a few years ago. Interconnecting SL with other social networks, multimedia outlets, and blogs help too. Strong connections with real life organizations (such as the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life) also expands the platform’s legitimacy. The adoption of virtual reality technology will be another strong push in a positive direction. If these types of pushes (which are all marketing in the sense that they promote SL for education) continue to happen, one day the fully accredited college degree programs and formalized, for- credit continuing education, will be a regular occurance in SL.

by Lorraine Stanton/ Lorraine Charron, E-learning educational specialist, doctoral candidate, University of North Carolina

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