Culturally Afforded Tensions in the Second Life Metaverse: From Sustainability Initiatives in Europe to Sustainability Practices in the United States

Culturally Afforded Tensions in the Second Life Metaverse: From Sustainability Initiatives in Europe to Sustainability Practices in the United States

Stella K. Hadjistassou (KIOS Research Center for Intelligent Systems and Networks, University of Cyprus, Cyprus)
DOI: 10.4018/IJWLTT.2016040102
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Abstract

This study investigated the culturally contingent tensions afforded by the implementation of Second Life in transatlantic communications among 13 college-level students at a Southwestern academic institution in the United States and their instructor and an assistant professor and his graduate student at a Greek-speaking academic institution. The transatlantic transactions unfolded in IBM's virtual Green Data Center, where students and instructors engaged in critical discussions on their local community, IBM, the European Union, and the United States' sustainability practices. By analyzing students and instructors' virtual exchanges, chat medium, and reflective comments, three categories of culturally enacted tensions were identified. These contradictions pertained to (a) emerging intercultural communication, (b) assigned collaborative activities, and (c) the use of the Second Life Viewer as a communication tool. The study demonstrated that contradictions can be contingent on institutional, broader cultural and historical constructs, Internet-mediated tools, and the different linguistic and cultural values and expectations related to relationship building and interactional dynamics. The study highlighted the importance of acknowledging such structural tensions as affordances for teaching and learning. Further, the study emphasized the need to take into account the institutional, pedagogical, instructional, and broader cultural realisms that impose constraints on teaching practices and participation in social virtualities.
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Introduction

Technology integrated instructional materials harnessing Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 tools, such as e-mail and Second Life (SL), have formed catalysts in expanding the classroom ecology in English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classrooms. They have also offered opportunities to investigate the culturally distinctive values and practices that generate culturally afforded contradictions (Thorne, 2003; see also O’Dowd & Ritter, 2006; Murphy & Rodriguez-Manzanares, 2008 for an overview of the studies on contradictions and intercultural exchanges). Studies on intercultural partnerships have demonstrated that online communicative activity is not enacted on hyperpersonal communication (see Walther, 1996, 2007) but rather on the historically and culturally derived expectations that lead to contradictions (Thorne, 2003; Ware, 2005; Basharina, 2007; Hadjistassou, 2012). In SL, multiple studies have been undertaken to investigate the emerging interactional dynamics in molding learning and teaching practices, role-playing, collaboration, caring, participation in problem-solving activities, and oral participation (see Clark, 2008; Deutchmann, et al. 2009; Peterson, 2010; Jauregi et al., 2011; Liang, 2012; Ho et al., 2012; Zheng, 2012).

These studies have shed some light on the learners’ roles in transforming the collaborative dynamics through students’ participation in linguistic actions and caring for their peers (see Zheng, 2012). They have also opened the path to reconceptualize and experience intercultural communications in three-dimensional interactive environments afforded by a learner’s virtual persona. However, none of these studies has investigated culturally generated contradictions per se in such semiotically related learning environments (see Gee, 2005). These studies have not explored the role of tensions in molding students’ and instructors’ interactions during transatlantic transactions, in building new affordances for discussions on sociopolitical issues, such as sustainability practices, and in engaging learners and instructors in task-driven activities. Transatlantic transactions in SL unfold in a simulated, game-driven platform where the learners’ multilevel and simultaneous engagement with interactive artifacts, images, symbols, socially built identities through avatars, communication modes generates new learning experiences (see Gee, 2005; Clark, 2008; Mennecke et al., 2011; Liang, 2012; Jauregi et al., 2011; Zheng, 2012). Engagement with multiple interrelated sign systems in this virtual environment is a complex process which requires further investigation in order to understand the enacted tensions and affordances for realizing interactions and learning.

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