Higher Learning

Many people see Second Life™ as simply a game… or if they’re feeling particularly jaded – “a glorified chat room”. Not so for the burgeoning number of educators and students who are making SL their destination of choice for higher learning.

My own personal decision to join SL was born of boredom with my previous online reality – TSO (The Sims Online). What I wanted to find was something different, something more. I found it in SL – a place now familiar to me but I’m learning that my understanding of SL is limited when it comes to the possibilities and uses of my lil home as some sort of platform for all kinds of things, from marketing engines to education. You mean there might be ways to utilize SL as a ‘platform’ for something useful? Well, other than my private utopia of shopping bliss, playing with my barbie, and socializing? Whaaat? Though I should have gotten over my own narrow view of SL as my own backyard, sometimes I struggle with it.

More and more companies and educational institutions began to explore SL as a viable platform to enhance their capabilities. I decided it was time to try and get my head around understanding the scope of this. With no small amount of effort. This is still an area that fascinates me and yet intimidates me because it sometimes seems so surreal and beyond my limited experiences. I took some time to understand what educators might see in SL and why they might look to this virtual playground to suit their needs.

Educators are finding that using SL can increase the potency of online learning. In a system where many of the practices and environments have been the same for many generations, it’s interesting to note that schools like TSTC – Texas State Technical College – are making strides to bridge the gap between their time-honored traditions and the students they hope to impact. Really, what could make more sense?

TSTC was established in 1965 to “meet the evolving workforce needs of Texas’ business and industry community”. How fitting, then, that the forward-thinking educators would work to expand this learning into new arenas that would meet the demands of their current, more technologically savvy student base. In a world that has sped up to include most people being ‘connected’ 24 hours a day, it’s innovators like those at TSTC that are stepping up to meet the advancement of technology and the busy, multi-tasking lives that many lead. Part of the driving force behind seeking changes and advancements through online learning is the need for schools like this to maintain relevance going forward.

“No longer is it okay for a teacher to simply state ‘this is how we’ve always done things and you need to sit at that desk and use this no. 2 pencil just like your father and his father did before you.’ What’s needed is to meet the students where they are, ” says RickA Techsan, project manager for vTSTC. “and to update the traditional classroom or online education setting to make room for text messages, cell phones, and iPods™.”

I asked KevinRB, a TSTC professor who using SL to teach a photography class, what motivated TSTC to explore SL as a viable education platform. “We are finding that the student-teacher relationship is much more engaging in SL than that of a traditional online course,” he says. “In Secondlife, the class can meet and have an avatar to identify with in the form of teacher or classmate.” Advances such as voice in SL have made communication more fluent for all parties, thus increasing the personalization of the class experience.

Teachers are also finding that their uses for Secondlife can be limitless. “As a forum, we can create, build, or show much more diversely than in the physical classroom,” says KevinRB.

Forging their own path, the people behind bringing TSTC to SL are daily in the face of convention and tradition. To hear them speak you cannot doubt their passion, nor can you question the altruism in trying to bring education into the 21st century. Though I have no training or experience in teaching, I can miss the awesome opportunity these individuals have been given to embark upon a new frontier… one that must, to some tried and true traditional educators, seem like a futuristic idea without merit.

Very much trekking into unknown territory, educators are finding there are many benefits of rooting their online educational courses in an environment such as SL. Notably there are many more factors on the upside of using this platform, than on the downside. “Initially,” says RickA, “we are finding that test scores are above those of the same courses taught in basic online classes.”

On the downside, lack of user-experience in, or understanding of, SL can prove inhibiting for students entering for the first time to take a class. The teacher’s familiarity platform proves to be essential in order to lead their students through the ‘orientation’ of their new environment. “In order for a student to be successful in this environment,” says KevinRB, “it’s important that they have an understanding of how to navigate their way through and to relinquish any hesitancy they may have about using the platform.”

Entrance into SL is only the first step for these educators in bringing the learning to the students. Through advances in using this platform for learning, it opens the door to a whole new set of people who seek higher education but are limited geographically or by other means or interests.

I first studied up and learned about vTSTC about a year ago. That’s when most of this article was written for inclusion into an SL news site. Unfortunately, that never happened – might have been my shitty writing! I did make some corrections to the text that appears here, but most is from that original foray into expanding my mind 😀 Since the time I wrote this, in the fall of ’08, TSTC became the ‘first to offer College Certificate and Degree Programs in the Virtual World‘.

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