25 Years of EdTech: 2007 – SecondLife

[Continuing the 25 Years of Ed Tech series]

Online virtual worlds and Second Life had been around for some time, with Second Life launching in 2003, but they begin to see an upsurge in popularity around 2007. Colleges and universities began creating their own islands, and whole courses were delivered through Second Life. While the virtual worlds had strong devotees, they didn’t gain as much traction with students as envisaged, and most Second Life campuses are now deserted. Partly this was a result of a lack of imagination: they were often used to re-create an online lecture. The professor may have been represented by a seven-foot-tall purple cat in that lecture, but it was a lecture nonetheless. Virtual worlds also didn’t manage to shrug off their nerdy, role-playing origins, and many users felt an aversion to this. Interestingly these Dungeons & Dragons roots for ed tech keep recurring, when CMC was new, we had MUDs and MOOs. I’m not disparaging this, I’ve read as much Gary Gygax as the next nerd. But when these roots are so evident, it can be a barrier to those who aren’t so inclined. What this raises is the question of scalability – does every ed tech have to be suitable for everyone? Does it matter if some people feel put off by it? Does this advantage some groups and disadvantage others? These are genuine questions, and SecondLife is not special in facing them.

The technology could be glitchy as well, which meant that many people never made it off Orientation Island in Second Life. The problem here then is that the technology becomes a focus, the predominant topic of conversation. That is fun to explore if ed tech is your interest, but do the technology issues and the nature of the different environment get in the way when you’re teaching calculus, say?

However, with the success of virtual and augmented reality such as Minecraft and Pokémon Go, more robust technology, and more widespread familiarity with avatars and gaming, virtual worlds for learning may be one of those technologies due for a comeback. Like many other applications of ed tech, the pattern may be one of over-enthusiastic initial adoption, when it is applied as a universal tool, to more selective appropriate application now that enough general familiarity with the technology has be acquired.


  • Lynne

    One issue often overlooked by enthusiasts for Second Life was the accessibility challenges it presented for anyone with visual or manual difficulties. I’m partially sighted & struggle with anything requiring a high level of hand-eye co-ordination. I did try Second Life on more than one occasion & simply couldn’t function in that world. It’s hard to learn when you can’t get past jumping up & down under a tree, naked…

  • John Kirriemuir

    I’ve been waiting for you to hit 2007 and wondered if you would do Second Life. A well-balanced summary, there. That time in Virtual Worlds in education (2007 to 2010) was particularly interesting. Not always for positive reasons.

    Part of the problem was Second Life itself. It didn’t provide anything genuinely groundbreaking, but took a lot of elements provided by other titles in the medium had provided and melded them into something interesting and very marketable (somewhat like Halo in the FPS game genre). What SL also had behind it was Linden Labs and a lot of capital, and they were quite happy – for a while – to subsidise the education platform (good) and happily send out ludicrously inflated press materials which some less ethical journalists very happily regurgitated (not so good, and some of the roots of what became GamerGate came out of this). Leading to, often, ridiculous overhype over what SL could and would do, which did not help academics and researchers interested in fairly evaluating the educational potential, or getting permissions to use it within their host institution.

    It didn’t help that competing Virtual Worlds in the education sector didn’t stick around for long. There were many which rose and quickly fell, but most were of low-profile and/or low-funding. Even Google’s attempt didn’t stick with a critical mass, as Google were pretty half-hearted about their attempt. It would have been so much better if there had been a high profile, sustained, and usable (in .ac.uk institutions) true alternative to Second Life. But, there wasn’t and that was pretty unhealthy.

    A large part of how I ended up jumping ship from 9-to-nominally-5 academic life to doing mainly games in education work in the academic sector was because of Phantasy Star Online on the Sega Dreamcast at around the turn of the century. Online (dial-up! and it worked!), a Virtual World, with several interesting communication systems. From this I eventually became interested in Second Life because of the PhD thesis of Aleks Krotoski. She also gave me my first in-world Second Life tour, which I vividly remember as being starstruck at the time (Bits was and still is my favourite video game show for the intelligent reviews).

    When Andy (Powell) and the Eduserv Foundation got heavily interested, I ended up running Virtual World Watch for several years (which they funded), Second Life wasn’t the predominant Virtual World being used in education. But it quickly became that, which was a real shame and a major problem. I’ve put all of the Virtual World Watch materials online – all Open Access, and there is a lot there to read and look at/listen to – and it’s evident how SL pretty much squashed all the competition, despite significant deficiencies of its own. And on that point, the software always requiring the highest performance machines, and relatively open net access, were major stumbling blocks for many academics and UK universities.

    The accessibility was – and still is – a major problem. I say this as someone who gets quickly physically and mentally tired – as well as motion sickness – from some contemporary VR systems; even back then, I found SL difficult to use (though this was not helped by using it on a very dodgy Internet connection from my house in the Outer Hebrides). But the big academic problem of that period was the lack of balanced critique. Frequently, academic commentators on SL divided into Marmite-esque “Love it!” or “Hate it!” camps, with scant few of us in the more nuanced middle. The first major Twitter battles I saw, over a decade ago, were between UK academics arguing over this. Again, the underlying PR from Linden Labs and their need to quickly attain profitability largely underpinned this, resulting in many of the useful lessons of that time not being dissected by academia. That thing about history repeating itself if you don’t learn the lessons: hmmm…

    After several years I developed the view that SL was particularly useful in quite a few specific learning scenarios which mapped directly onto defined real world physicality e.g. birthing simulations for trainee midwives, or working in a quarry without suffering an accident, or examining and manipulating a molecule close-up. Basically, where there were physical limitations e.g. because of real world object size, or dangers e.g. chemicals, or medical training. But, for more general/vague uses e.g. a broad subject area such as “teaching mathematics”, it would often just be adding an extra layer of technical complications for little additional gain. Oh; the universities which tried to recreate a faithfully accurate representation of themselves in-world – those I particularly loathed as it was a deliberate avoidance of the functionality benefits of the software. Similar, in a way, to ripping whiteboards out of schools and replacing them with early 20th century blackboards and chalks.

    SL is still used by quite a few educators, though – perhaps thankfully – in a much quieter, and far less overhyped by the owners, manner. I keep wondering if it’s a good time, a decade and more on, to do an academic-quality retrospective and draw out some useful critiques; the occasional paper pops up on the radar every now and then when others do this, so it’s not been totally forgotten. The wider field of games, simulations, virtual worlds and virtual reality, will always be of interest and use to the wider field of education, learning and teaching. So, yes, history repeating itself and so on.

    (Sidepoint: Back in that day, Andy had a side-business on Second Life ‘making’ and selling shoes. Jump to today and the most high profile game – Fortnite – makes a staggering amount of revenue not from selling the game, which is free, but selling clothing and outfits (skins) to players. Circle of life etc.)

    • mweller

      Wow, thanks for the lengthy response John. I think using SL to make videos to explain something is also one of those quiet uses.

  • John Kirriemuir

    I forgot an analogy. You know when makers of vegetarian or vegan products make a ‘sausage’ or a ‘burger’, and it sort-of looks the part but doesn’t taste great and you wish they had used their vegetarian or vegan ingredients to maximum advantage instead of trying to copy or imitate meat products? *That* is what it’s like in Second Life, to see that someone has put their time and energy into creating, as identical as possible, their academic institution in-world.

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