Using Second Life as a platform for cyberlearning & cyberculture

Recently, a few people looked up my blog to get an idea on what I’m currently doing using Second Life® as a “platform”, and commented that they were expecting more information about that here.

Well, there is a reason for almost everything, and the first thing that came to my mind is that this is mostly a blog on Second Life’s society and psychology (with a few tips, tricks, and guides thrown in-between 🙂 ). Like many others, I try to avoid mixing “real life” with my “second life”, not at the least because of my respecting other’s restraints in publishing more of their own real life information, but also due to some aspects that will become clear by the end of this article.

First of all, you must understand that I do have a technical background (it’s not hard to find that out), but I have been involved in practically everything, some things with some success, many others which have been utter failures. I sold web sites as well as kitchens; I painted shops at malls and carried hand-painted handcrafted tiles in my car across the country; I worked in big open offices in my cubicle, as well as in tiny shops with perhaps 24 m2 and 3 companies inside the same space; I configured computers, routers, and phone switches, while at the same time publishing literary books, planning ad space on outdoors for cultural events, or sending letters inviting authors and artists to exhibitions; I ran international events in congress centres with attendances of 15,000 people, some of them technical, some of them cultural, but I also organised small discussion events not unlike the Thinkers’ events (and about the same topics as well) with an attendance of 15 or so people. I co-managed companies with 20,000 customers and companies with 20; I did accounting for tiny companies and marketing for non-profit associations. And I also was a organ player at a local church and sang (very badly, mind you) in choirs. Whew. Does this sound like bragging? Not likely. When I was a teenager, I very seriously wished to have an artistic career (like so many do). But I quickly found out after learning four different musical instruments that I would never be able to play one professionally, no matter how hard I studied; my painting/sculpting skills are so bad that I was absolutely ashamed of doing such a mess with the tools I had, although I had some training in aesthetics, techniques, and art history; I like photography and even cinema, but can’t hardly expect to compete even with the clumsier amateur; I could discuss philosophy, but would always invariably mix up authors; and when the Web came out in 1993, I found out that I would never be a Web designer, despite having the dubious honour of setting up Portugal’s first ever Web page and teaching the team that did the second one; to a certain extent, the only moderate ability I did have was writing reasonably well (enough to get an award and publish a book) but definitely not good enough to make a living of it. Also, it doesn’t help that I live in the least literary country of Europe, where there are probably more “literary awards” than readers…

I soon found out that I’m not good enough on anything, and, as a teenager, I had to deal with that. It was tough and frustrating to be around groups of people that had lots of talent in so many different areas, and have most of the training they had and even master most of the skills they had acquired, but be completely unable to do anything they did ? all my attempts were, at best, laughable. As a teenager, this was something hard to swallow.

When I graduated from high school, it looked like the only thing I would ever be “good” at was to be the first in something new. Take web design, for instance. If there is only one web designer in a whole country, it’s easy to get people’s attention. As soon as the second web designer pops up into existence, I’d quickly fade into the background (my lack of an aesthetical eye would be too obvious). But at least I had achieved something ? being the first. The others would always come next, and they would always be much better. I can’t compete in quality, so I’d compete in the “visionary” field. And that’s what I mostly did in the past, oh, 15 years or so. When people around here started playing role-playing games (a novelty in the late 80s), I already was part of an organised association promoting role-playing games as “intelligent games” and as a tool to promote education and literacy skills, giving small workshops, conferences and even talking at the national TV about that. When the commercial Internet came along, I did the same approach. And right now ? you guessed it! ? I’m doing the same with Second Life.

“Being the first” is a tough career opportunity. There is no market for “being the first” because nobody knows what your product is for. This means getting laughed at a lot ? people simply thinking that you’re raving mad and pulling their legs. “People are going to use Web sites for their shopping? Come on, go away.” That’s what I heard in 1995, all the time. People sniggering or even offensively insulting my “radical” ideas ? that was something I dealt with, over and over again. It happened with role-playing games, with kitchens, with hand-painted tiles, with web pages ? and, naturally, with things like Second Life as well.

Sometimes a few of these ideas paid off. People do their shopping online these days ? e-Commerce is not another “buzzword from the visionaries”, but something still growing, despite the Internet bubble having burst. There still are non-computer related games companies around, some of them selling things like Magic: The Gathering and their successors and making zillions of dollars. That’s the trouble with “being the first”. If you’re lucky, you’ll succeed, but if you’re not, you’re going to be a laughing stock for a long while, with lots of people shaking their heads and smiling condescendingly. Only a few survive to tell their tales.

Thus, we come to 2004 and my “discovery” of Second Life by mere chance. Dispatched to an island in the middle of the Atlantic in search of customers for the company I was working with, I had an awesome broadband connection, and enough free time to spare (which is something quite uncommon in my life). One weekend in July I was bored and wanted to try some game on my Macintosh. As you might expect, I’m also a terrible game player. I tend to favour simulations that are turn-based or at least slow-paced that allow me to think first and react later. I also like 3D thingies, and a combination of those are not easy to find. Most 3D games are simply shoot-’em-ups or “pseudo-role-playing” things, which I never liked much. Sure, these usually grab my attention perhaps for 20 minutes or so ? then I quickly understand that I’m simply not skilled enough to play anything. You can imagine that Internet-based gaming never was something I considered seriously; the closest to that was a Play-By-Mail (snail mail, not e-mail) I used to play for a few years. I was the worse player in the game, but I found something more interesting (to me, at least): diplomacy. That was much more fun than watching your armies getting trampled over by newcomers with much more skills in organising campaigns. At least, I took pains to write elaborate letters to my enemies and allies, convince them to come together, to discuss our options, to create banners and fancy titles, and, well, do all sorts of things that your usual “create-army-conquer-world” type of games do not offer. Again, I was the laughing stock of that game, but at least the other players found me amusing 🙂

So, here I was, 1000 km away from my RL friends, stranded on an island, with an excellent Internet connection, and some spare time. You must understand that PC users are luckier ? they have zillions of choices, but, as a Mac user, I could only search at Apple’s software download section for “3d game strategy”. You’ll see that this will still show Second Life listed there. Not being a MMORPGer (for the reasons listed) I was expecting something quite different. Yes, like many, I had tried ActiveWorlds in the time it was called AlphaWorld, ten years ago, and after 3 hours, I thought that this would never work ? people simply wouldn’t populate an empty space (which takes so much time) to make it “appealing”.

After trying SL for a few hours, I was hooked. There was this something about SL that I needed to understand, and I would never stop before I found it out: what is Second Life for?

My immediate reaction was that SL was a sociological experiment under the disguise of a “game”. It was hard to shake off that feeling. Remember America’s Army ? another one I just watched for a few minutes, it simply requires much more skill than I could ever dream of possessing ? which is stated as a “game” to simulate combat techniques and pick out “team leaders” as potential candidates for the US armed forces. Well, I first got the serious impression that SL was something similar, but not targeted towards the military, but the civil society. Some sort of “recruiting simulation” for social leadership.

Then I went back to Linden Lab’s site and took a look at the board. Philip Rosedale, was, of course, familiar ? yes, I’m that old to remember he had invented audio streaming ? as well as Mitch Kapor on the board. The others are easily looked up ? they have their curricula listed on Plaxo ? and what I found out was a small start-up in California, with lots and lots of talented people from key technological areas, who, at some point in time, have been “visionaries”. And they were releasing into the market something completely “different” and not even sure what it was about ? a game? An “experiment”? A “platform”? A “country”, as I’m so fond of quoting Philip?

It took me about one month to figure out what Second Life was to me ? a tool from visionaries, for visionaries. This basically means that the notion that “you can build everything” can use the different employments of the word build. Yes, you can build lovely houses out of prims; but you can also build communities; or build economies; or build much more ? build the Metaverse, whatever that is.

Always eager to explore “new things”, that’s exactly what I did with Second Life. The first idea I got was, of course, advertising. Around 2001 or so I was presented with some clever web solutions involving 3D (not VRML, which is the “academic” side of 3D on the Web). People were marketing it to recreate real things virtually, like museums for virtual tours, or setting up booths visually on an exhibition floor. I found the concepts interesting, but they all lacked something ? people. The virtual space was always empty.

Not so in Second Life ? the virtual space is crowded with human beings all around. They communicate, they exchange ideas, they congregate according to interests, they make friends, they make business. This is the difference of SL: it’s alive.

So I started writing e-mails to companies and public institutes and offer to do small presentations on SL. Again, I was laughed at by most (except a Canadian company doing clothes), but I still “felt” I was in the right path. Perhaps advertising in SL in 2004 was too early and too radical; or giving virtual tours was something most entities were really not so happy with, since during the Internet bubble, this was the kind of project that costed millions of Euros without any visible benefit ? people simply didn’t use those virtual recreations. No critical mass, and an expensive setup.

By mere chance I got in touch with ARCI, a small non-profit organisation that was teaching IT to teenagers, victims of abuse, that lived on safehouses, removed from their parents. Suddenly the pieces started to fit in the puzzle: here was a small organisation, with a few dozen users (the teenagers), already computer-savvy, with broadband connections, spread geographically, and using IT to promote their skills, and which needed to remain anonymous (a legal requirement ? their homes are kept confidential, as well the teenagers’ identities). Second Life seemed almost to be designed for it: it allowed all teenagers to be in a virtual space together (they could connect from their homes) in order to get training; it protected their identities and those of their teachers/educators; it worked on the technology they had (recent computers with broadband access); and it was dirt cheap. It’s hardly surprising that things worked so well 🙂

“Cyberlearning” (c-Learning) and “cyberculture” were thus “born”. Right now, when you listen to these new buzzwords, you’ll dismiss them as a “novelty” which hardly turn a few heads. People are tired of hearing about “yet another remote teaching technology”; every month or so, something new pops along the way. Entities have spent millions to develop complex Web-based e-Learning tools to recreate “virtual classrooms”, complementing those with forums and chat rooms to have teachers and students interact. I’m not sure how successful those have been. I’ve read tons of documentation about it, however, and it’s almost like people are afraid to post the results. The only success cases I know of are the ones that had external funding ? say, from European funds ? or private sponsoring and that you didn’t need to care about the “investment”, only with the running costs.

Well, Second Life is the ideal place for virtual classrooms, despite its so many quirks. Setup is done in a few minutes, just rez in a few chairs and a slideshow presenter. The students only need to download their copy of SL, create an account, and join the class. There is no need for any additional tools or long months of developing things. Even without HTML-in-a-prim you can create notecards to spread notes in the virtual classroom; and, of course, add online information on the Web (like having transcripts of the chat history). Students can meet online and exchange ideas all the time, not only when the teacher is logged in. And if you wish, you can even complement the setup having video or audio streaming, with just the cost of downloading, say, the free QuickTime Streaming Server and installing it. So, what else do you need for “cyberlearning”?

Total cost in software: zero. Development time: minimal (beyond having the course materials ready). Training time for people to use the “application”: a few hours for them to adapt to SL’s interface (which is not unreasonable). Does it come to a surprise to you that the SL Educators Mailing List has a few hundred people already, and that the traffic on that list is quite high, with dozens of messages per day? For me, it’s only natural.

Picture from Novo Futuro's fundraising event in 2004
This is a picture from last year’s fundraising event.

During the period of 11-14 November, ARCI had a small booth at a big charity event to raise funds for the children and victims of abuse of the Novo Futuro association. We presented Second Life itself and what the teenagers have learned to do with it ? several of the children were anonymously “showing off” their skills, most physically in front of the computer we had there, a few logging in remotely from their safehouses. As you can imagine, this impressed quite a few people who would never dream that young teenagers some of them having had limited access to computers or technology in general) were able to create so much in such a short time. Some of the children are notorious “problem cases” at school or even at their safehouses; but in SL, they excel in “building communities”. This is part of a study which is under progress and which hopefully will show that things like Second Life are much better to have teenagers acquiring several skills, both technological as well as social. “Teaching through playing” is a motto we have used often. By looking at “Second Life as a game”, SL attracts the kids’ attention, who view it as an environment for self-expression, building interesting things, and communication. In the mean time, they learn to operate a computer (or even to build one from parts), to launch Second Life, to understand visual 3D concepts and some maths, and, of course, to learn things like Photoshop or audio editing/streaming tools to be able to offer clothes for sale or to set up their own clubs. ARCI managed to get a new set of interested social/health care institutions who are willing to give SL a try. 2006 will definitely be an interesting year to watch. Sadly for me, it also means it will be a year where, due to a recent job move (ARCI is just my “second job”), I’ll be probably even busier than usually and not fully committed to the cause of “SL evangelisation”, which demands a whole article on its own 🙂

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