Monday, June 09, 2008

Second Life... compared to what?

The Big Question this month on the Learning Circuits Blog is:

Second Life Training?

I take a very simplistic view of this. I see SL as just another place to go, with its own set of rules and, inevitably, with its own culture. You can learn things at the street corner, as you can in Second Life. It depends on who and what is there and the culture shared by those present. This is already the case for Second Life, of course, since cultures are created by users sharing the same space and the same tools. SL could therefore become - or perhaps already is - another informal space in which human activity can be organized. From that activity learning is of course possible. But turning it into a formal space for learning is fraught with risks, as many of the contributors have pointed out. The problem with formal training is that there's always something planned, programmed and enforced about it. SL is designed to be both informal (unpredictable) and artificial (programmed and controlled). There will always be a risk of contradiction and cultural confusion if learners are expected to use it as anything other than an indicated resource. Bandwith isn't the only problem; implicit cultural values and questions of learner identity are as well. But if SL is simply an alternative resource, it doesn't seem to me very different from other resources, from books to sims. It's something that requires a larger framework, one that clearly belongs to the real world, to achieve its meaning.

More fundamentally I see the SL phenomenon as similar to Esperanto, though it certainly is considerably more seductive. Like Esperanto, SL proposes an artificial and simplified version of natural human activity. For it to be truly useful as a standard device for learning, its use would have to be very widespread and its acceptance (independent of use) universal. The barriers to that seem to me such that, apart from local initiatives characterized by strong direction and a clear notion of structured goals, this is unlikely to happen on a major scale.

On the other hand, I expect that in the near future other VR environments will emerge, environments whose base culture (the way people interact) will be radically different and much better adapted to learning. And if they are truly adapted to learning one could assume that they just might be adaptable to teaching as well! This would constitute the revolution many of us have been waiting for or even helping to provoke: turning the current educational paradigm - designed for teaching only - on its head.

Learner identity has always been the key issue for me in any learning process. Second Life does two things that I consider suspect: it promotes fantasized identity, possibly inhibiting the natural evolution of real identity, and it reinforces traditionally overblown instructor authority by compounding the manipulative powers and artificial power of "knowledge authorities" through the addition of technological prowess. The culture of instructional intimidation which has been with us for centuries is manifestly still with us today, even on the putatively democratic Social Web!

Although I see this side of things as a step backwards, the contribution of SL to the historical process of putting learning before teaching may be pertinent. It consists of provoking experiments and eventually identifying best practice. It also consists of demonstrating the limits of this type of environment. A little more practice, a little more cultural analysis and a lot more innovation might bring us to a truly useful version of the power of virtual worlds. There are already other initiatives taking place. There's no reason why the virtual cannot pay its respects to the real. For the moment, Second Life is drawing the buzz and the curiosity on the basis of the attraction of fantasy and escape. It may be nothing more than a necessary prelude to something deeper and richer.