The online environment offers limitless possibilities for learning and other ways of thought expansion. Like the before mentioned video lectures on the net, the institutions of higher education are increasingly seeing the benefit (for themselves and society at large) to free education from its brick and mortar constraints. But not only YouTube seems to be a suitable platform for online learning, the virtual environment of Second Life is also experimenting with forms of classroom and college simulations. The obvious benefit of these kind of real time virtual environments of course being that one can participate in real time, ask questions, make comments, debate issues and concepts etc. from virtually anywhere in the world.
Via Publishing Talk, which posted this very nice article on Second Life lectures from the London School of Journalism, Adele Ward gives a very good sum up of the possibilities this environment can offer:
“Unusual though it may look to anyone who hasn’t tried teaching or learning in the virtual world, SL offers advantages over other distance learning methods that make it feel more like a face-to-face environment. Lecturers can deliver their talk to students from around the world and receive immediate feedback and questions from their audience. The level of interactivity is somehow helped by the fact that each participant appears as an avatar, giving the impression of all being in the same room.”
Ward notes that although these and similar Second Life lectures are mostly free (as in price and in free to attend), there might also be possibilities to offer virtual teaching as a service to registered (and thus paying) college students.
In the spirit of openness I hope these lectures do stay free, as they also offer the possibility to become starting points for online learning communities.
This idea of learning communities is exactly the mediating factor which might bring elearning to a higher level, argue Nancy Evans, Thalia M. Mulvihill, and Nancy J. Brooks, in their article ‘Mediating the Tensions of Online Learning with Second Life’. They state that many online learning resources are one-dimensional. These forms of communication limit the personal element in education. They argue that Second Life and other multiuser virtual environments (MUVE’s) can integrate technology into education, which from the outset has been a human environment. As they state:
“Because it can meet human needs for belonging, esteem, and self-actualization; complement users’ motivations for engaging with technology; and aid in building relationships and personal connections in an online environment, Second Life offers a valuable medium for enhancing and enriching online education.”
The main question they pose in their article is actually a very interesting one: Is human interaction still necessary for teaching? Yes, they conclude, for the development of a real sense of community leads to greater communication, reflection and self-discovery.
Learning in a communal setting, interaction, recreated experience; how appealing the arguments mentioned above seem and how promising the online environment can be, I am (still? For the moment?) very critical about these kinds of virtual online interactions. First of all, they are in no way a replacement for real life interaction. The idea of ‘experience’ that is recreated in these virtual environments seems clumsy and does not life up to the expectations. A good example of the clash between promise and actuality and between possibility and reality, even within the virtual environment, can be seen when comparing one of the promotional videos on elearning in Second Life (which still makes me feel rather nauseated) like the one below with the real time elearning situation as offered by the London School of Journalism below that. See the discrepancy?
Just look at the low viewing figures of the latter (in You Tube), the extreme dullness of it all….
And worst of all, the very appalling visuals. This is not to say that I do not hope that these kinds of environments do find a place in scholarly learning, education and communication. However, a lot needs to be done to get people to actually participate in these kinds of events and to turn them into real time online learning experiences. And I doubt an environment with the look and feel of Second Life will convince scholars, researchers and students of the many possibilities the virtual can offer. But the future might bring other and better multiuser virtual environments.
Let’s please start with some more sightly graphics…