This chapter provides an introduction to learning and teaching in the virtual world Second Life (SL). It focuses on the nature of the environment and the constructivist cognitive approach to learning that it supports. The authors present detailed accounts of two case studies and provide preliminary analysis of the way in which the environment helps students to achieve both explicit and implicit learning outcomes. The formal assessment for these studies allowed the content, style, narrative and working pattern to be decided by the students. They believe that this approach provides a useful stepping stone between content driven and problem-based teaching techniques. Initial results seem to indicate that students have brought in learning from other areas with a mature approach that enhances their transferable skills in group work, project management and problem based learning. The authors suggest that loosely specified assessments with suitable scaffolding, within the rich environment of Second Life, can be used to help students develop independent, self motivated learning. To support this they map criteria from problembased learning literature and link the learning experience to types of learner.
Current practice in Higher Education is moving away from didactic content delivery and the transfer of abstract concepts (Goodyear, 2002), towards constructivist, student-centred models with increasing emphasis on the skills that support independent, self-motivated learning. This trend, reported on by the influential Tavistock report (Cullen et al., 2002) is increasingly facilitated by use of e-learning technologies such as virtual learning environments (VLEs), social networking applications and virtual worlds.
While content remains important, the availability of Google, Wikipedia and many other on-line content repositories allows educators to put more emphasis on, transferable, lifelong and problem solving skills. This shift in emphasis can be facilitated by appropriate assessments that allow a broader range of learning outcomes to be assessed. Ideally we want to create a situation where both content and learning skills are practiced and assessed either directly or indirectly. The key to this is to provide activities that intrinsically embody the desired attributes. In the same way that we can develop physical ability by setting an assessment of ‘playing a game of football’, so we can develop other abilities by setting appropriate targets in a suitable environment.
Second Life (SL) (Linden Research, 2008) is a 3-D, online, virtual world using similar technology to the Massively Multi-user On-line Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) such as World of Warcraft (Ducheneaut, Yee, Nickell, & Moore, 2006). Contrary to the typical model where content and activities are devised for users to consume, content is built and owned by its users. Second Life provides tools and guidance for manipulating the environment; allowing action scripting, object construction and an economy that supports the creation of virtual businesses. Students can ground their academic knowledge in meaningful practice and rehearse skills through interaction within a realistic environment (Jonassen, 1997). This also allows for setting tasks and activities in keeping with the problem based philosophy to support exploration and self learning skills. The community aspects of SL provide a rich resource for social constructivism. The focus on user created content means that for any significant project a group of people need to get together, share knowledge and disseminate what they have done to the wider community. Resources in-world are often backed up by web pages, wikis and discussion forums that act as tools to support development and promote the aims of the group. An example of this is the Plymouth Sexual Health (Kamel Boulos & Toth-Cohen, 2008) that supports the in-world activities of the simulation. The International Society of Technology in Education (ISTE, 2008) website provides a good example of a community of practice where Second Life provides an additional aspect to an existing web based resource.
Users with experience of strongly-themed role-playing games can find that SL lacks depth and detail but it does allow a closer relationship between the virtual (SL) and real worlds. At its simplest SL can provide a mediated communication mechanism that is little different to a video telephone meeting and no less ‘real’ than a telephone conversation. Although the different forms of avatars can be startling at first it is as well to remember that nearly everything that looks like a person is a real person and a good proportion of outlandish looking things are people too.
The activities of in-world commerce are significant enough to be covered by Business Week (Hof, 2006) and are measured in hundreds of thousands of US dollars with the in-world currency, the Linden dollar, freely convertible to US dollars. Real world concerns from media (BBC, Channel 4, Reuters) commercial (Nike, Amazon, IBM), and a growing number of universities have a presence ‘in-world’ as it is called in SL.