Are Virtual Worlds Still Going or on Life Support?

One of the biggest problems I have with Google doing anything new is that the whole world goes Google Gaga. Of course, the same happens when Apple releases anything new. While I love G+ and iPads just like any other good EduGeek, I want to still hear about all of the other things that are going on in EdTech circles.

Like those things called virtual worlds. Anyone remember them?

I can’t seem to find much movement or news on the Second Life front, especially sine they decided to cut off the education discount. Did anyone manage to create a good iPhone/iPad app for Second Life? One that actually feels like the desktop browser and not some text-based role-playing game from the 80s?

Encouraging news is that the Sloodle project seems to be still moving forward – releasing projects that work with OpenSIM as well as Second Life.  But what else is happening out there in the virtual worlds… um… world?

The front page of Second Life now makes me feel like it is “eHarmony 2200” back from the future to show us what romance will look like in 200 years. So I am a little scared to log in myself and see…

Well, that and I think the island I left my avatar on fell victim to a budgetary axe a while back. So no telling what I will see when I log in.

Thoughts from a former Second Life advocate

(In response to Matt’s previous post re: the Second Life educational discount…) Actually, the educational discount was pretty good if you consider the amount of space you get on an island and all you can fit there – education, advertisements, meeting spaces, etc.

Where the expense really comes in and caused many institutions to balk is development — people quickly realized that building/programming in SL was not easy by any means for most people without a computer science degree. You’d end up either farming out the development to emerging technologies groups on your campus or paying big bucks to put something up. (Or you’ll find some geeky instructional designer who quickly falls in love with it and dumps hundreds of hours into developing in SL.) If you don’t have either of these and you’re using SL for education, you have to invest time in researching areas and finding places that will help achieve your objective.

Yes, I admit — I was a big-time SL advocate in the beginning. I’ve since been able to step back and realize just how much work and exactly how realistic it is (isn’t) to invest time/money in this project. SL had tons of potential, especially in education … it just isn’t practical.

I’m wondering what this SL alternative is that was mentioned in the article. (I’ve been away from SL and virtual worlds for so long; I apologize if there’s an obvious answer.) I think even with this alternative, the excitement over virtual worlds will decrease dramatically. My reasoning is this — sure, you have an open source alternative. But chances are (and Matt, please correct me if I’m wrong) you’ll have to self-host, meaning you’ll have to find hardware to put it on and people to maintain it. I know this is almost sounding cliché but with budgets being slashed as drastically as they are this year and projected for next, most places are just not going to be able to justify the expense. I suspect many schools were already seriously looking at their SL property to be included in the cutbacks we’re all facing, and LL’s announcement just made their decision a lot easier.


The Realistic Long-Term Sustainability of Online Learning

The university I work for recently hosted a luncheon with Douglas Rushkoff, social media theorist and author of books such as Life, Inc.  If you haven't heard of Rushkoff, he has some pretty good ideas (some that are fully radical in nature) that are all good food for thought. He was asked to comment about online learning and what he thought of it. His response was, unfortunately, based on the same mistake that I see many people make when discussing distance learning. He compared an excellent face-to-face course with a mediocre-to-poor online course.

We have all had really good face-to-face courses – taught by an energetic, enthusiastic instructor that really had some creative teaching methods. The truth of the matter is that most face-to-face courses are not like this.  Excellent face-to-face instruction requires a certain personality type… one that is semi-rare.  Rare enough that I can probably safely say that there is only a fraction of the number of really excellent teachers out there to cover all the classes that are being taught face-to-face.  Not to mention that even the best teachers will have off-days from time-to-time due to getting tired or even sick.

An excellent online class, by contrast, is more dependent on the skills of the instructor, rather than the personality.  These skills can be taught if the instructor is getting it wrong. You can't teacher people how to be an interesting, entertaining public speaker – but you can teach them how to build community, social presence, and immediacy, as well as how to design activities and assignments to take advantage of the online setting.  Not to mention that the more asynchronous a course is in design, the less it depends on an instructor's enthusiasm or energy level at a specific time of the day.

This is why I feel that online courses have a more realistic long-term sustainability than face-to-face courses. You need teachers with skills and not a certain personality to make them good.  We will always need face-to-face courses for certain subjects and just to keep human contact alive, but I think it would also be a good idea to transition the face-to-face courses that aren't working in to an online environment (training the instructors that don't have the personality to teach face-to-face on how to run a successful online course).

Rushkoff also quoted someone from Second Life as saying that SL will be photo realistic in 10 years time.  Rushkoff disagreed with this, stating that no matter how much we advance, something else will come up to keep it from being realistic.  I have to also slightly disagree here. If you go back in time and study art history, you will come to a time when people thought you would never have totally realistic paintings and portraits of real-life people.  They thought there would always be a limit to paintings.  Then, the camera was invented, and before long… you had totally realistic portraits.  I think with virtual worlds (and computer graphics in general), it is only a matter of some new discoveries to make them totally photo realistic.

I don't want to make it seem like I am picking apart everything Rushkoff says – those were just two points I wanted to comment on.