Teaching in SL – Diane’s notes from our first taught sessions

Note: for descriptions of the classes, see entries under Project Updates Sep, Oct and Nov.

In the past month we’ve facilitated 2 x 1.5 hour sessions in Second Life (and 2 informal exploration sessions of around the same duration) and it has left us thinking that SL does – ! – hold some advantages over our usual VLE.

Having our group meet in a shared space in real time fostered lively discussion, and helped to smooth gaps between the full time and part time students, and between those based locally (London) and those based elsewhere. The students who were ‘signed up’ for the SL sessions expressed continuing interest in various aspects of SL, from its artists, to its educational applications.

To place this in context, however, only 1 in 3 of our students had the time and the technology (suitable computer and broadband) to sign in to Second Life at home. Additional practical issues included finding a time-slot that suits as many as possible (while considering time zones, work and domestic situations, etc.).

For these reasons, the SL sessions were elective; while other students completed a set of 4 readings and written responses in the section on ‘games and education’, the students who were able to access SL attended two trial sessions, and two taught sessions. Each taught session had an accompanying reading task, plus participants are required to submit a 1000 word report.

As for the design of the sessions themselves, we maintained an informal presentation and discussion format with invited speakers. The first taught session was in 2 locations relevant to the topic (which was ‘media education and machinima production’), while the second was held on a rooftop in a steampunk cityscape where the presenter had arranged to project slides on a wall. The topic was fan cultures, fan art and Role Playing Games, and the evocative location was entirely appropriate.

The experience suggests to me is that discussions about the design of educational spaces in SL will not make sense if isolated from considerations of the following factors:

Size of group
Location of meeting (fixed, touring, formal space, informal)
Mode (formal, informal, conventional, structured or improvisational, voice, text-based)
Curriculum, content, subject
Purpose of meeting, for example:
• demonstration
• experience (of a simulation or exhibition)
• collaborative project work (building, making machinima or scripting for example),
• discussion of a set topic
• lecture.

These variable factors are familiar to teachers anywhere. Yet it’s worth thinking about how these things manifest and combine in SL specifically, and in relation to particular needs. Clearly there is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ in relation to best practice in SL (see Swaine 2007, and Joseph 2007 for further discussion of related issues).

Another factor to consider might be ‘voice’ – voice might be useful and practical in some contexts (co-ordinating a group building exercise, for instance) but there is no reason to assume that it’s automatically the solution for educators – unless educators are particularly keen to replicate conventional delivery modes (which might be appropriate – again, it depends). But I’d argue that text has real advantages in terms of small group participation, although the participants and their needs in relation to language and access issues, etc. would have to be considered.

There are potential ramifications of the use of voice, however, that seem rarely discussed in education circles. What if adding voice means removing a layer of fiction or ‘apartness’? What if there are things lost in the process: the capacity for inventive and selective self-representation for example. The ‘exposing’ nature of voice might strip out a layer of playfulness, lessening the potential for shifting roles or alternative dynamics within the group at the same time.

The variables listed in the above table might be obvious, but what is less clear is how these factors will combine, live, in a given session, to influence things like group dynamics.

For example, our fan cultures/RPG session had 8 participants. For a text based meeting with a discussion format this might be the maximum (or optimum) number of participants. More participants might have meant a need for more intervention from the facilitators, and might result in a greater range of degrees of participation.

Working with relatively small groups of mature students meant that we had a great deal of flexibility (in relation to locale, structure and spontaneity). The group ‘cohered’, all participated, and while there the talk was quite ‘free ranging’ the discussion remained on-topic.

With more participants, a greater degree of structure (in terms of presentation mode, declared purpose and conventional location) might need to be in place to prevent the group from disintegrating. If we worked with a larger class it is probable that we would differently organise the sessions. For instance, we might start with a conventional one-to-group address before breaking up into work groups. Again, such suggestions are familiar from our RL teaching practice.

Clearly, then, there are RL teaching practices that transfer into SL. But there are also signs that the (affective, phenomenological, experiential) aspects of SL could provide a foundation for new approaches to learning and teaching. And this would depend to some extent on the ways in which the above listed variables were implemented. Holding classes in SL does not itself guarantee innovation (or shifts in tutor-student dynamics) because conventional formats can be replicated in SL. Which suggests that conventional group or power dynamics could be replicated also.

It would be puerile to insist that conventional approaches to teaching are undesirable simply by virtue of the fact that they are conventional. Importing conventional modes of delivery into Second Life (the lecture hall, for instance) might be effective, expedient and appropriate in some instances – where a large group of new users needed familiar indicators or institutional signatures for the sake of orientation, for instance, or (obviously) for those events where a single presenter addresses a large audience. Both educators and students might be missing out, though, if their experiences of teaching and learning in Second Life were limited to this.

It is a cliché of course, but a major resource offered by SL is social. ‘Social’ in terms of communications within the group, and ‘social’ in that touring SL means meeting people who are eager to share their work (buildings, simulations, exhibitions, etc.) and answer questions.

Obviously this itself raises lots of questions, from issues of ‘quality control’ to ethics. Are the students ‘civilians’ or ‘researchers’ in such instances? What is the role of the tutor?

But these (potentially) positive aspects are intriguing. It is analogous to sending our students to the internet to find examples of particular content (political activism, or fan fiction, for example), and as if when they locate relevant websites, they also find the authors present, seeking an audience, and willing to discuss their work. Potentially, these live, social and communal aspects of SL change the material that our students will access, the manner in which they access it, and their perceptions of those producing said materials. It is perhaps this last point that is particularly interesting in the context of media and cultural studies teaching.

References:

Swaine, Chris (2007) ‘Top 10 reasons to use SL’ May 07, online at http://sledpicayune.blogspot.com/2007/06/top-10-reasons-to-use-sl.html, accessed November 07,

Joseph, Barry (2007) ‘Global Kids, Inc.’s Best Practices in Using Virtual Worlds for Education’ paper presented at SLCC 2007, available in the proceedings (pp 7-13) Second Life Educational Workshop 2007, Second Life Community Convention, Chicago: August 2007.
Online at http://pacificrimx.wordpress.com/2007/08/26/slcc-2007-proceedings/, accessed November 07

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