Just as there are teaching approaches that tend to work well in Second Life™, there are some that work badly. That isn't to say they can't be used, and that sometimes they may be the best way for the odd class or part of a class, but if you find you are planning to run a course with a lot of these types of teaching in it, you might want to reconsider. You might have to teach in this way, and if you do, it is possible Second Life is not the place to deliver the classes.

These strategies are:

Lecture

There is a question of why lecture at all of course. Is it as easy and efficient to video your presentation, make a slideshare for your slides and use the time for Q&A with the students that need or want it. That, however, is a rather bigger question than use of Second Life to teach. The question to ask yourself is what does your lecture gain from being in Second Life? It may, depending on the nature, timing and target audience gain an international audience which is great. If you happen to have access to four islands it is possible to lecture to about 200 people (I have seen this done) although it isn't technically the smoothest thing. With a single island you are limited to 80 as an absolute limit, and realistically to about 40-50 if you want them to have a chance to see your slides.

Lecturing hits a number of things all virtual worlds struggle with. In fact Second Life manages them very differently to alternatives such as Lively, and manages them in a style which makes it more suitable for a lecture than Lively is in its current incarnation. More avatars means the sim has to work harder, and everything slows down. It places a lot of reliance on a lot of technology all working correctly: your connection, either voice or streaming audio, everyone else's connection and voice/audio and so forth. It can be done and sometimes it is the only option, but lectures should be rare in Second Life.

Demonstrate

Why do a simple demonstration in Second Life? You can do wonderful interactive, immersive displays (see Explore…) and let the students play in their own time. In real life demonstrations are often essentially impossible thanks to cost or safety issues or both. In Second Life the cost to duplicate your work is essentially zero, and the health and safety implications of an experiment in Second Life are limited to computer use rather than anything else. (There are costs associated with presenting in Second Life - staffing, island rental and so forth, as well as the initial development, but the cost to repeat is essentially zero.)

Static Content

This web-page is a classic example of static content. There is no doubt that sometimes static content is the best way to present material. The question is, why do this in Second Life? Webpages do mixed text and images better than Second Life does by and large. You can link out to web-pages easily enough from Second Life, so why not use the technology. You can even, to a currently limited extent but hopefully increasing over time, bring web-pages into Second Life to present the information that way.

Static content can, and almost always is part of what you will present in Second Life of course. Whatever you are teaching, there will be some stuff that just needs to be said and static content is the best way to do it. But would the learners be better served by a website, or even printed material on paper, to present the information? Are you taking advantage of what Second Life has to offer? Presenting static content as part of your overall materials in Second Life is great, but working out how to present it, where to present it and the like is part of the challenge of teaching well in this new environment.

Low Interaction

Second Life, like a web environment, offers lots of ways to allow your learners to interact with things. They can, like hyperlinks, click on things. They can watch video, listen to audio etc. But, in Second Life they can also move around. They can explore their environment in a tangible way. Students, and others, can sit on things and if they embody their avatar they can gain some kinaesthetic sense from playing animations. I built a display for a book called Willow Springs. In this book there is mention of a butter churn and we managed to find a butter churn with an animation in it. The students, who really had no idea about churning butter before, could see their avatars (themselves) churning away and come to understand what was going on better. You can create quizzes to open doors. You can have materials that play without obvious interaction as the students move through areas and so on. Some of these things are very similar to good website design, some are uniquely Second Life, but interactivity helps the students engage.

Duplicating Real Life

There are many and various layers to this. Do you need to duplicate your lecture theatre or your seminar room? Why? Sometimes, of course, the funding that you've pulled down requires that - the university is funding your project and wants a corporate presence and believes that one of the university's buildings is the best way to do that. But beyond that, is there a positive benefit to duplicating something you and your students see every day? The answer can be yes, there are a few builds I've seen that duplicate real life university buildings and work really well. But in the vast majority of cases the answer is a resounding no.

That doesn't mean you can't be inspired by real life of course. If you're teaching Dracula and you don't happen to live near Whitby, a class space inspired by the real Whitby is almost certainly a good build to give your learners some sense of the place. If you are teaching glaciation and don't live near a glacier, then building one for yourself, based on a real life glacier is probably better than building a faux-glacier based on the textbook. If you are working on protein-protein interaction, building scaled up models of your proteins as you might with molecular models is fine (although there are nice tools to create surface maps in Second Life too).

The trick here is really to try and immerse your learners. To make them feel like they are there. To engage them on many levels. A model of Whitby is far more likely to do that if you are teaching Dracula than a copy of your lecture room. Sometimes you have to make compromises. If you are teaching a horror novel where the sense of being trapped and the walls closing in is critical you might want to ignore the normal precepts of Second Life and make the venue hard to navigate and use, whereas normally Second Life you want things to be easy to access and move around in so students will engage with the materials. But if you are teaching church history and addressing York Minster, no model in Second Life will ever capture the true feel of the real place. If you live close enough to have a field trip to York, you should probably consider doing it that way. If that's not an option, Second Life does offer you a very good way to explore a model of the real place, probably the best other way to see it.

Summary

Second Life teaching works well when the students are engaged, immersed and active. It works poorly when they are bored, passive, disengaged. To a large extent, of course, this is the same as in Real Life. However Second Life offers us a number of ways in which to engage, immerse and activate the learners many of which for reasons of time, money and safety we can't do in real life. Focussing on what you can do, trying to make the bulk of your teaching change in ways that engages, immerses and activates the learners will let you get away with the classes when you can't really do that. If you can't get away from the styles that don't work well, is Second Life really for you? Examples of good content may be found via the SaLamander wiki; discussion on the SL-Educators list or blog; search in world and by searching the SLogosphere (the Second Life blogosphere).


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