Martin Oliver, Project team member
London Knowledge Lab, IOE

I promised I’d send a position statement, so…

– Defining Second Life

I can’t even try and answer this question without the image of the blind men and the elephant springing to mind. There are various aspects of Second Life that are of interest, and each research tool will allow us to engage with some small section of these; the overall definition remains mysterious. So, we have the base code, which might be studied as a text or using formal methods from computer science; we have the version of second life that people have created (e.g. all the prims and so on constructed using the code), but we’ll never have a complete description of that let alone a total understanding; there’s what people do using those (all the social features of second life, amenable to social research methods but obviously wide open in terms of current analysis); and then wider still be have social constructions of second life, such as accounts in discussion fora, the press, amongst the public, and so on. I’d be hesitant to claim that any of these on its own “is” second life.

– Defining learning in the context of SL research

This, again, opens up an area that’s not amenable to easy answers. Second life can be used as an environment in which learning, in a conventional curriculum sense, can be tested and measured. But it’s long been recognised that such forms of assessment miss out huge amounts of what’s learnt even in formal education. (All the discussions around the ‘hidden curriculum’ are good examples of this.) They’re obviously going to miss out the majority of what’s happening in this informal setting.

So, instead, I think that it all comes down to picking a position on learning and seeing what (small things) this illuminates. Personally,
I’m interested in the kinds of identity claims that people make on the basis of their participation, and how others react to these. The
development of these (both in terms of what is claimed, and the credibility of these claims) is what I’d point to as an example of learning.

– Second Life Literature reviewing

My impression is that a body of work is developing, but it’s fragmented and disconnected. Work needs to be done synthesising this and identifying gaps so that the topic can be explored in a more coherent manner.

In the meantime, I think it’d be foolish to abandon existing approaches to research from fields such as education, sociology and psychology. Of course, new research approaches might emerge, but until we get a better sense of what it is that the other approaches are failing to reveal to us, any attempt to develop new tools to study that thing are bound to be problematic.

– Research ethics or ‘ethics’ ethics?

These worlds raise all sorts of interesting ethical questions. The TV documentary (last week?) about relationships in virtual worlds makes
a good example – is a relationship enacted virtually using avatars an affair, or not?

Nonetheless, as researchers, we’re not just interested observers of all this. By taking up an unconventional position (enquiry, rather than just casual interest or use) we complicate our relationship with the people and things we’re studying. This has to introduce additional ethical questions. One of the most basic, though, is what it is we think we’re studying – people? Texts? A system? Our positions on this (deliberately plural – see above!) will have implications for how we generate and discuss data, from the technical level of whether or not it’s ok to record or chatlog things we happen
to see, right through to the kinds of claims we make about people, the system and its use. And that’s leaving aside the fundamental issue of what it is we choose to study in the first place, which surely has to be an ethical question.