Surprising Research Results

Thinking…This past week I had the privilege to attend my first RL workshop on Second Life®… locally, at the University of Aveiro, on their 1º Workshop on Communication, Education and Teaching. The University of Aveiro is one of Portugal’s youngest universities — a bit over three decades old — and, due to its strong ties to Portugal Telecom’s research lab, it is one of the leading Portuguese universities in telecommunications and computer science.

They were closely tied to the very beginning of my country’s Internet and the home of the first Portuguese search engine (long since bought by Portugal Telecom) and it is not surprising that they were, once more, leading the other research institutions in Portugal with the sponsorship and organisation of this workshop/conference.

No, it wasn’t “SLCC Portugal” — not yet — although we even had the privilege of having Robin “Linden” Harper, VP for Marketing at Linden Lab, as a keynote speaker (Robin is even sweeter in person than her avatar!). Instead, it congregated the current universities and colleges who are doing serious research using Second Life — from education to pedagogy, sociology, architecture, journalism, and also the odd computer science doctorship. Oh yes — around here, people are getting their master’s thesis and doctorships in Second Life. Very surprising for a country which practically just had one representative (Eggy Lippmann) for a couple of years and still has only 50.000 users on SL today — many of which quite recent, as the Portuguese media just “woke up” to Second Life less than half a year ago.

Unlike other countries in Europe, Portugal is at odds with the rest of their European partners. The Portuguese love technology; however, with the same strong feeling, they hate to pay for it. Windows is routinely pirated; open source solutions displace proprietary software on the public institutions; the Internet is accessed from universities or offices because people don’t want to pay for access — intercepting open wireless access points is routinely done and people brag about it publicly. Second Life was only adopted when it became free to join. The Portuguese mistrust credit cards and would never use the Internet to buy anything — which also means that there are practically no Premium accounts: everybody is a basic account, with a few exceptions, like Aral Levitt — our local equivalent of Anshe Chung and the richest Portuguese in SL — although she has only five sims 🙂 (and of course she’s the sweetest in person!)

This also means that universities here have no funds for anything (except salaries). The professors and researchers, however, are very creative — except for University of Aveiro, who managed, with a huge internal collaboration effort, scrap up enough money to build their island (the buildings were done by five talented students supervised by three teachers), the other research institutes have to pay for their land out of their own pocket. The University of Oporto uses a room on a popular mall; the Univerisity of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro rents a skybox from Anshe Chung; the University of Rio Maior uses one of the social areas of the University of Aveiro (their soccer field!) to do their in-world classes… other universities use sandboxes, rotate among public places, ask people to lend their small classrooms or public auditoriums, and so on.

They’re very, very creative in getting their students — from grad school to masterships to doctorships – in-world, teach their classes, have them work in SL, and publish the results in spite of all difficulties. The teachers and researchers are stubborn, energetic, and very positive about Second Life — nothing will make them stop, not even lack of funding!

And the high quality of their research projects have astonished me. Perhaps it shouldn’t; or perhaps I have been too distant from the academic community in Portugal for too many years; or perhaps I haven’t been following the research areas as I should have been. I have read a few papers and communications, here and there; but most of them are really “curiosities” and not very relevant for me.

On this workshop at Aveiro, however, I was very pleasantly surprised, since some of the studies showed things that I have long suspected — and even wrote about — but they were only opinions. Sure, my own opinions come from anedoctal evidence — talking to people, thinking about what they tell me… and trying to figure out where things are leading. But most of the time it’s just an “opinion”, more or well reasoned out, but an opinion nevertheless.

We’re all entitled to “opinions”. However, there is a world of difference between an “opinion” and a qualified opinion by an expert. And there were quite a few experts that came up with their conclusions — backed by scientific research. In some cases, I was astonished to the conclusions they came up with. And I’ll be certainly be much more confident in emitting some of the opinions — now that they’re scientific results.

A good scientist is always a skeptic, and so it’s fine to “disagree” with the researchers. However, once it’s scientific fact, it remains so, unless new research finds contradictory results and these are published and reviewed by their peers. We can “disagree” with science (ie. accepting creationism instead of evolution) and obviously many people do that; however, there is no way to say this scientific result is wrong unless, of course, you’re also formally trained in the scientific method, did your own research, and published your own results showing why something is wrong. Until that happens, what I’m now revealing is science fact.

Don’t replicate Real Life

This is something I tend to tell to all my customers: don’t recreate your RL buildings in SL, create new ones. Don’t do auditoriums and classrooms for holding out classes; create new things that only SL can do. Instead of recreating a clinic for giving classes on cardiology, build a model of the human heart!

Most of my customers cannot understand why they should be doing that; they’re too stuck on RL, and think that what works in RL, will work in SL. Well, I always thought it didn’t. Now I can prove them that scientific research showed that the best and more effective way of putting SL to use to bring a message across is to put the medium to work for your message, instead of replicating what you’ve got in RL.

It’s something that most companies will still have to figure out on their own — trial and error. But they’ll soon figure out why it won’t work so well. There are many reasons for that, but the general consensus was that SL should be handled like, indeed, a second life — a tool allowing immersion in a different environment — and not necessarily an “exact replica” of the classroom that will replace it. Instead, it should be used as a new complementary teaching tool, an additional environment for study and research, a further classroom, and not a digital replacment for existing spaces.

Interestingly, many universities currently in SL actually disregard this rule as well. 🙂

Informality leads to better communication

Well, this is no news for most of you who’re reading this in English 🙂 But in Portugal, classes and communication and business are always stiff and formal. Addressing people follows a protocol; “casual is out, formal is in”. Now, however, my fellow Portuguese can take a look at what the researchers are doing, stepping over the barrier between the “teacher on one side, students on the other”, and all working together collaboratively — and very informally. The teacher becomes a “mentor” — a friend — not a “remote authority”. And this leads to better results for the students: they learn more, they ask more questions, they work harder.

This will obviously not be very remarkable across the Atlantic, where similar models have already been thoroughly tested in RL classrooms with similar results 🙂

SL classes are much better than RL ones

My favourite study was about some research on several classes done on SL, on all subjects, from marketing to making clothes. The conclusions were astonishing: classes are well prepared, students arrive before time, all classes are written down, materials are plentiful, the teacher keeps in touch with the students after the class has finished, students are motivated and help each other (when the teacher crashes suddenly) and so on. The researcher behind this study was so surprised that she thought she found the cure for the plaguing disease affecting all teaching in Portugal — students showing a total lack of interest in any matter.

This is only marginal, but it’ll lead to the next conclusion, which was fascinating…

Text-based environments level the ground for all students

This, of course, will get the voice team fuming and complaining that I’m insisting to flog on a dead horse, specially because when “everybody knows” that voice will be used primarily in the classroom, and that it’s obvious it will improve communications, since voice is much faster than text, and all the usual arguments.

Well, think again. Scientific research proves exactly the opposite. On a text-based classroom, shy students will speak up, be participative, and will behave absolutely normally. Students will all be more participative, in fact! They interrupt the teacher with relevant questions; but, if the need arises, it can also be possible to use a simple protocol so that everybody gets their turn (in fact, that’s how SL classes work).

And since teacher will have to type a lot… they will be better prepared, hand out notecards and presentations, and the students will have access to all notes — instantly. A chat transcript can be posted and archived.

Well, all these — and more — have been the old arguments of the voice-impaired group. However, this research went even further. When people asked the researchers in the conference if they would have bandwidth problems when voice would be introduced in SL, they shook their heads, and patiently explained that you can’t teach inside SL with voice. Voice is for the RL classroom; the SL one, to be effective and worthwhile, has to be text-based.

This was another nice surprise to me, since I had always assumed that classes and conferences would benefit a lot from voice. Well, a myth has fallen. Listen to the scientists: they have used voice; they have tested it in real environments (and not “wishful thinking” ones). Voice is for fun and entertainment; real work is done in a text environment. And now it’s notjust poor old voice-impaired Gwyn being stubborn; now it’s scientific research, and to disprove these claims, someone has to publish their own paper showing the contrary. 🙂

Mixed-media conferences

It was also my first impression of a mixed-media environment; this might be completely boring to who has attended a lot of similar events, but for me, it was a première. So, if you never attended a “RL conference about SL”, here is how it works: 80% of the audience has laptops and are on wireless… and are connected all the time while the conference goes on. We chat with each other in SL, about what we’re listening in RL. Video cameras stream the audience back into SL, and you can also attend there. It’s a bit odd — the speaker is often facing an audience who is typing all the time! — but I guess it’ll become common as time goes by. In fact, there was no need for physical presence, except really for going to the coffee breaks and having lunch together 🙂

One can only wonder if these will be the model of the future conferences in the world. Although I never attended one of these “new generation”, bring-your-own-laptop-to-the-auditorium conferences, I know that it’s common these days to bring your laptop and remain in MSN or Yahoo or GTalk while the speakers are talking. But… that’s not the same… as being in-world in SL, meeting all the participants there (the ones you know and the “new faces” you’ve never seen before), watching the presentations both iRL and in SL at the same time, and often having participants that are not “physically there” but being streamed from elsewhere… it’s a mix of being on one of those hippy LAN parties and a conference at the same time. Also, ages are completely irrelevant — this conference had young students of 21-22 years mixed with PhDs of 30-35, and professors of 40-50, all behaving in much the same manner!

In a sense, the “informality” of SL — where people of all ages, genders, religions, and countries mix together — spills over to conferences about SL. It was the first time I talked to professors and scientists I had never met before and addressed them on the second person of the singular; a distinction that an English speaker will not appreciate, but for most other European languages, that’s a form reserved for friends and family.

And friends and family (literally…!) was what I found at this workshop/conference. Superbly organised, although the planning phase was shortened by a month to accomodate for Robin’s presence (it’s never enough to thank her for her willingness to come and her patience to endure the horde of journalists who have reported her visit to Portugal and wanted all sorts of personal interviews), this event consisted of two parts: a one-day workshop for beginners and advanced users of Second Life and a two-day conference where communications were presented, mostly on ongoing and finished research work, with some time to do two in-world panels on education and business in SL (open to the SL public and done in English). And, of course, the many informal meetings at coffee breaks and lunch, where it was common to complain about the total lack of funding for universities to buy their own private islands and further their research on their own, controlled environments.

All in all, for someone who usually finds these things immensely boring and a waste of time, this has been one of the best conferences I have ever attended — although, of course, I’m a bit biased and still looking for someone with a “neutral” opinion on the conference. I’ve definitely learned a lot, well beyond my expectations. And that’s always worth the trouble of attending!

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