Within academia, distance learning as an approach to education has its share of skeptics. Regardless of how some feel about the methodology, it has become a viable alternative to more traditional classroom instruction. In fact, distance learning methods such as learning management systems, video conferencing, and CD-ROM programs can yield success in second or foreign language courses as well. While those other computer-based learning tools have produced positive results, this study attempts to gauge the usefulness of an Internet-based virtual reality environment called Second Life. This virtual world, not initially intended for second or foreign language teaching, contains environments that are similar to those found in the “real world” that can be manipulated by users for educational purposes. The subjects in this study—three students in an introductory German class and students of two semesters of composition—45 in number, all felt that Second Life helped their language progression and/or helped inspire their writing. All wanted to see expanded use of Second Life in their classes.
As new technologies become accepted in education, instructors are encouraged to adapt and incorporate them into their pedagogy. Many innovations are intended for the enhancement of the classroom experience itself. Some of these frequently adopted tools are overhead projectors with transparencies, streaming audio and video from the World Wide Web, and PowerPoint presentations with LCD projectors. These tools make the learning experience much more interesting for students and teachers alike. However, there are few widely accepted innovations surrounding Distance Learning. One reason for this is because of the often prohibitive cost of high-speed networking and equipment on both the sending and receiving end of the exchange. But what exactly is distance learning?
Kathleen Davey (1999), founding Dean for Instructional Technology at Florida Gulf Coast University, defines distance learning as “any formal educational process that occurs with the teacher and the student separated by either time or distance” (p. 44). Given that definition, distance learning is not a new phenomenon. Students who are given homework or take-home essays are clearly obtaining their knowledge through a means of distance learning. The evolution of the practice has included heavy use of the Internet and the World Wide Web for course delivery, communication, and document exchange.
However, many in academia have become familiar with the interpretation of distance learning provided by Dr. Jan Wilson (2002) of Jacksonville State University. She states that “distance learning is an educational approach that integrates technology, connectivity, curricular content, and human resources” in order to teach students out of the traditional classroom (p. 638). In that respect, distance learning is relatively new. That, then, would explain some of the reluctance of those in education to implement distance learning in their curricula.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Linden Dollars: The currency used for exchange of goods and services in Second Life.
Second Life: A 3D virtual environment created by Linden Lab where “residents” create “avatars” to represent themselves and where a majority of the content is user-created.
Machinima: Short films made from virtual characters in video games and virtual environments such as Second Life
Second Life Grid: The land masses that make up the largest “islands” in Second Life (see video at http://www.mappanovus.com/ for further explanation).
Wiki: A collaborative Web site where content can be edited by anyone who has access to it.
ESL: English as a second language.
Island (Second Life Context): Virtual space where residents of Second Life can either own parcels of virtual property or some sort of establishment on a parcel of land. These islands are in reality computers in a rack housed at various locations in San Francisco.
Avatar: A virtual representation of a person within Second Life. That representation can be human, animal, or nonhuman.
Resident: Real-life people who interact within Second Life and are referred to as “residents” of the environment.