Second Life: a distraction for universities

Many universities are using Second Life as a learning tool. However, the place to watch for longevity as a true tool is in OpenSim deployed worlds. Virtual world adoption has passed the initial media hyped stage of three years ago and now we will see those that are finding it a useful and valuable educational tool and not a distraction.

The initial hype swept up many educators and institutions as it seemed that Second Life was this incredibly immersive learning environment. It certainly can be, if enough time and talent is involved.

Many universities have found that without a substantial effort by skilled individuals, their sims are of little value and indeed just a distraction. There are some very good programs in Second Life, such as an associates degree offered by Texas State Technical College but there are also examples of the complete abandonment by significant institutions. Notably, Princeton University pulled out of Second Life this month.

Princeton certainly has a pool of skilled individuals, and the monetary resources, to be in Second Life (even with the educational discount, Second Life is still fairly expensive – especially compared with other collaborative education tools such as wikis, Google Groups, BuddyPress, etc.).

OpenSim options are far less expensive and can either be deployed through a virtual world hosting company or deployed on the institution’s own hardware (as opposed to Linden Lab’s yearly $55K option for a private Second Life setup). In researching hosting companies be sure to read Hypergrid Business who maintains a list of hosts as well as articles about them. I am biased toward Reaction Grid who has stellar service and a very stable deployment.

OpenSim can seem to not be as robust as Second Life but it is very close (and in some ways, superior – MOODLE is typically part of standard OpenSim deployments). OpenSim is still considered alpha software but our experience after six months with Reaction Grid is that it is just as good for our purposes as Second Life (Linden Lab’s latest changes to their terms of service give us pause in developing any tools within it and if whether we will always retain full copyright – three years ago Philip Rosedale, founder of Linden Lab, declared that your creations are real and that you should be able to profit from them, now that language has changed to being granted a license from Linden Lab for anything you create).

In my opinion, virtual worlds are not quite “there” yet for mainstream adoption by educational institutions. Second Life has too many issues, politics, and policies that cripple it for education (policies such as age limit and copyright) and is too costly with difficulty in showing a true ROI.

OpenSim is developing quickly and, as it becomes more widely adopted, it may become a clearer choice (there are currently  more “private” sims in OSGrid than in Second Life).

Virtual worlds are another communication channel and will continue to evolve and become easier to use. Once they become easier to access, hold more people in one place, and get past some of the negative stigma that Second Life has created (mainly adult content and over hyping by he media), then we will see more widespread use. Once that happens, more developers will create activities and materials that can be leveraged by others (we are a very small example of that with Ener making free office furniture and buildings and having spaces for creative people like the rest of the iliveisl team).

Right now virtual worlds are very much at the stage where everyone is still printing their own books in a manner of speaking and building many things from scratch. It would be hard for a real world Princeton to excel at education if they had to build their own chairs, LCD projectors, and so on.

For many institutions, Second Life was a distraction, for a few it continues to be effective. It takes passionate and talented people to shape any technology into a truly meaningful and effective tool.

Does Linden Lab have those people?

With the loss of Pathfinder Linden and the abhorrent treatment of Jokay it would seem that the educational focus is over. OpenSim is open source and very talented people are developing it with many individuals actively using it for education.

Will OpenSim be “the” virtual world for education?

Only time will tell. The web changes quickly. Five years ago MySpace ruled social networks and Twitter had not been created yet.

reposted from the iliveisl blog