Although a lot of the skills that make you a good teacher in a normal classroom transfer directly to teaching in Second Life™, not everything does. This list is not exhaustive, again it is based on my personal experiences so far. If you have other elements you would like to add, with short explanations, I would welcome them. The list of differences I have noticed are:

Lack of visual feedback

Whether you are teaching 1:1 or lecturing to 300 people, you have, unless you have a visual deficit or are blinded by lights in a lecture theatre, some visual feedback from your learners. Are they writing frantically? Are they shifting and bored? Have they sat back with a glazed expression on their faces? You may also have auditory cues to this of course. When teaching in Second Life, unless you also have your class in the same room, these feedback opportunities are unavailable. Although you will doubtless find you develop your own strategies to cope with this, depending on how critical you find it, I personally find that I stop more often and actually ask if everyone is ok and if they have any questions. I also tell people at the start that I will take questions at any time, but that I might not deal with their questions immediately.

Dyslexia may be a visual disability

Dyslexia is normally a hidden disability. Students rarely see each other's written work. Swapping notes certainly used to occur, but students would quickly find a friend who takes good notes to copy from, and not necessarily notice the signs of dyslexia in another student (they often don't know what they are after all). However, in a very text heavy environment, which Second Life classes can be, difficulties in reading, poor spelling and particularly variable spelling - all signs of dyslexia may become very apparent.

This can be a problem, and some teachers who work with mixed classes find their dyslexic learners vastly prefer voice chat to text chat. However, dyslexic students often find that having the teacher or lecturer type complicated technical terms so that they are given the correct spellings from the start can be an advantage. Generating short sentences, and reading short text utterances is also often less intimidating than writing an essay or reading academic papers or text books. There is no single answer to this quandary - dyslexia is a syndrome with many different presentations in different people. However, for a longer discussion of dyslexia and learning in general as well as in Second Life, you might like to read my dyslexia resource page.

Different people will talk in text chat to a face-to-face class

If you are frequently in teaching situations where you ask non-rhetorical questions and wait for answers, you will be familiar with the experience that a small number of students tend to leap in first to answer and some students never get a chance to answer unless you manufacture it for them. You will also be used to creating those opportunities and ways to encourage the quieter students to speak out.

Second Life, and other text chat environments, tend to alter this dynamic. Text chatting is slower, and there is not the auditory cue that X is already talking to stop the slower ones from answering. This often helps get a wider range of responders in class. It can, but doesn't always, mean that students may stop and think before answering and that you get more thorough and thoughtful answers, and perhaps even some deeper learning. It also leads on to the next point of layered conversations.

Layered conversations are common

Because of the lack of familiar cues for turn-taking, particularly in text chat, people will talk over each other. I have no experience of voice chat, but suspect that the same is not true there. However, in text-chat you can use the history and with practice you may be able to follow several separate threads as they develop alongside each other. Your learners may find this even easier than you and find that it is to their advantage when compared to single-threaded learning. There is nothing to beat experience of this to prepare you for it. However, as I have commented elsewhere, I find the best way is often to sit back and let the threads run, only stepping people when people are stating things that are clearly wrong (“the virus E. coli” to choose a pet peeve of mine from frequent news reports), when the conversation starts to die out, or when a thread is drifting too far off topic.

Sidebar conversations and multi-tasking may be common

This, obviously, relates somewhat to the topic above of layered conversations. However, Second Life also allows for extra multi-threading. For example, there are tools to allow group and individual instant messaging and students may use these almost undetectably alongside the main class chat forum (be that text or voice). If students are in a real life classroom together and chat is being used they may also use verbal communication outside of Second Life to supplement their interactions. Students may also use instant messaging to you. There is nothing, short of peering over shoulders, that you can do to stop this. You may even find it has benefits. Whatever your opinion of it you should be aware it will happen, and you should be prepared for it to happen to you as well, as you establish relationships in Second Life you will find people IM you at the most inconvenient times.

AFK (away from keyboard) notification does not necessarily mean lack of attention

Second Life has an automatic afk tool. This can be turned off Advanced>Character>Character Tests> and unchecking Go away/AFK when idle although it is far to say your new students will be unlikely to find this at first. (If you can't see the Advanced menu, Cntl-Alt-Shift-D will turn the Advanced menu on.)

So, most students will go away in two circumstances. First is if they don't teach a key or move the mouse for more than 5 minutes (this time can be adjusted via View>Preferences (Cntl-P) and the General tab), or secondly if they are using Second Life in fullscreen mode (recommended on a PC) and they change windows, for example to check their email or to look up information on a website.

Neither of these are necessarily indicative of lack of attention. If students are engaged but otherwise passive listening to you or others, they may well not touch their mouse of keyboard for more than five minutes. Similarly, if you have asked them a question to which they do not know the answer, looking up the answer is actually contributing to their learning and the class despite initial appearances.

If you are using text chat, the chat will continue to scroll on their screen whilst their avatar is afk, and history will capture it whilst they are looking at a different screen. The student may also be able to hear the class in both of these circumstances if you are using voice chat. Just because the student is apparently not paying attention according to Second Life, does not mean they are actually not paying attention.

Of course, they could also be using a chat room to set up a party for that night so it is no guarantee that they are paying attention either.


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