Second Life has gotten a great deal of attention as a potential educational platform over the past several years, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a free virtual world with built-in voice and text chat, it’s highly customizable and open to user-created content, and it runs on even lower-end computers in Windows, Linux or the Mac OS. After several weeks of exploring this intriguing program and sampling some of the content it has to offer, I feel that the hype about Second Life’s potential is partly justified. However, the software as it currently exists is flawed in ways that limit its practical value for many online educational purposes.

The University of Arizona campus in Second Life

I approached Second Life as a skeptic. I had never used the program, but as someone who follows the video game industry closely, I had read a fair amount about it. Beginning around 2006, Second Life began appearing periodically in news stories or on blogs. Usually, the program would be mentioned when an established company or public figure decided to do something that might otherwise be mundane, but which was novel in the context of a virtual world. Eventually, virtual press conferences stopped making headlines, and many of the companies that had flocked to Second Life decided to cut their losses, having failed to discover a compelling reason for them to remain. More about this trend is available from InformationWeek and Wired.

Education is not business, of course, and I was committed to keeping an open mind when seeing what Second Life had to offer students and teachers. 21st-century skills are the educational buzzword of the day, and I believe strongly that virtual worlds can help build skills like collaboration, technological know-how, intellectual flexibility, multitasking and more.

Barriers to Entry

Some of the most important things to consider when evaluating the usefulness of any technology are the barriers to entry. Is the technology expensive? Is it hard to set up or maintain? How steep is the learning curve? If the barriers are too high, even technology with clear pedagogical advantages may not be worth using.

In the case of Second Life, many barriers to entry are quite low. The program itself is free, and users are under no obligation to spend money at any time. Virtual consumer goods including clothing items and hairstyles are available, as is virtual land, furniture, etc., but the experience is in no way limited for users who do not purchase these things. The cost of a computer capable of running the program could well prove an issue for many people, and this should be kept in mind. The hardware requirements are moderate, though, so even this cost is as low as could be expected for a comparable product.

Installation of the program was a snap on my Macintosh, as was account setup. Anyone with basic computer skills will be able to get at least as far as logging into the Second Life “grid.”

It’s Second Life’s learning curve that presents the first serious obstacles for the average person. As someone who grew up playing video games, I feel that I have a framework within which I can fairly evaluate Second Life’s ease of use and user interface. I’m used to creating and controlling avatars in 3D space—more significantly, I’m used to learning the quirks of such systems, the ways different games “want you to play.” Second Life is not a game, but it is extremely game-like in certain respects.

From a game design perspective, Second Life’s user interface is atrocious. Although I was expecting an elaborate tutorial upon my first login, I found nothing but a small island full of menu screens, most of which presented incredibly basic information about controlling my avatar. The toolbar at the bottom of the screen was fairly self-explanatory, but when I began to delve into the menu system to do things like explore other areas, I was confronted with a cluttered, unintuitive series of icons and abbreviations.

Even worse were my attempts to control my avatar. All the individual movements worked as advertise, but the feel of the controls as a whole left a great deal to be desired. The response time between pressing a key and seeing an onscreen action was noticeably delayed. This, combined with the spastic way my avatar was animated, kept me from feeling as immersed in the experience as I have in other massively multiplayer online experiences. The framerate was also a problem, with certain areas running smoothly, but others dipping into the single digits (30 frames per second is roughly the minimum for a smoothly animated image).

When I figured out how to get around by teleporting to other areas, popup alerts appeared to tell me that people and even automated scripts were trying to give me things. I’m not generally in the habit of clicking “Yes” to cryptic messages on the internet, but I eventually figured out that this was Second Life’s way of letting new areas present you with a welcome and orientation.

Overall, I was not impressed with the user experience in Second Life. I feel that the steep learning curve and confusing interface will make it difficult to use the technology as a platform for teaching anyone who isn’t already familiar with it or with similar online experiences.

Quality of Content and Ways to Use the Second Life Platform

The first thing I did after discovering how to teleport to different areas of Second Life was try to find something interesting to do in the world. Flying was not entertaining for very long, and I was craving some meaningful content to experience. Visiting the areas listed below demonstrated to me that there’s some truly engaging educational content available in Second Life. It also convinced me that there are good and bad ways to use Second Life to present information.

Here are some thoughts on the experiences I had in the various areas I visited.

ISTE Island

It’s not surprising that ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education, has a Second Life island. Content like podcasts, websites and newsletters were located in logical places around ISTE Island, and I found some good information and ideas in the ones that I perused. Honestly, I’d rather encounter these resources in a traditional website, which I find easier and much faster to navigate. Presenting things in both ways and letting your audience choose is probably preferable.

The island was nearly deserted, but I ran across a couple of other avatars and we fell into a conversation about our respective work as teachers and students interested in educational technology. This experience actually went a long way towards answering one of my major questions about Second Life: why not just hold educational meetings using wikis, forums or Skype instead? The answer I arrived at was that in a virtual world, you can encounter unexpected people and ideas in real time.

Sloodle

The Sloodle technology, which makes functions like chat, surveys and presentations cross-compatible between open source course management software Moodle and Second Life, is interesting. However, I found it much easier to find information about the technology by Googling it than by visiting the Sloodle space in Second Life. Part of the problem is that I’m on a wireless internet connection, which means that billboards with text sometimes take a very long time to load. This leaves me staring at a blurry image for up to a minute while I wonder why the program decided to load a tree or floor texture instead of the part of the world with writing on it.

State Library of Kansas

This space was well-designed and fun to explore. It seemed to lead me from area to area, and I was impressed by the elegant way that objects with special functions were designed to draw my eye. I found myself wishing that a web browser was built into the program, however, so that I would not have to keep leaving Second Life to view interesting pages.

As the model for a virtual world library, this is a good start. I would never, ever visit a place like this as it currently exists, but I can certainly imagine a future in which I visit a virtual library and use a currency like Linden Dollars to download magazines or books to a device like the Amazon Kindle.

I ran into a strange technical glitch while walking upstairs in the library: my avatar got stuck in a “falling” animation for about 20 seconds until I figured out how to maneuver him off of the railing. This really drove home the fact that a lot of the interesting things I see being done in Second Life are done as much despite the terrible technology underlying the program as thanks to it.

EduIsland and SciLands

These are huge spaces. My old laptop was really chugging under the strain of exploring them, but I did find some interesting things. Both of these areas appear to be home to multiple education-related organizations, hence their status as networking locations.

While I did find some interesting Second Life-related organizations, particularly on EduIsland, the areas were so disorganized that I doubt I’ll ever visit again. The approach to presenting content that many organizations seem to take in Second Life is something like “Here is a bunch of architecture with random stuff tied to random objects throughout. Come wander around and click on everything until you find something useful.” I don’t think this works.

International Spaceflight Museum

When I first signed up for Second Life, one of the first places I visited was the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I’ve always been interested in space, and I thought that exploring a virtual world had potential for museum experiences. Things like a sense of scale would carry over from the real world into a 3D environment, but there would also be the potential to go places and see things as an avatar that you never could in person.

Both the NASA JPL Lab and the International Spaceflight Museum did a great job of realizing the promise that I had hoped for. Cool stuff like rockets, satellites and meteors were there for the watching and exploring, and I was able to get up close and personal with technology that no one in their right mind would let me near in real life. It was this sense of being “wowed” that gave me my first clues to what makes an educational experience work in Second Life.

Real Life Education in Second Life

The first time I visited this region, it was empty. The second time, it was full of people whose avatars were decked out in crazy outfits (armor, robot suits, wielding weapons) and who were playing techno music and making racist jokes. Not interested.

University of Arizona, Educational Technology Program

This area was completely empty both times that I visited. I’ll wait until I’ve experienced a class meeting in Second Life before concluding whether areas like this are useful.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The museum’s Kristallnacht exhibit was haunting in a way that reminded me of visiting real-life battlefields like Gettysburg.

I think the best use of Second Life as an educational technology at the moment is in transporting avatars—and thereby users—into realistic environments that they could never visit in real life. This might mean historical spaces or events, the surface of the sun or the bottom of the ocean. A well-designed experience of this kind, with attention paid to details like providing contextual information on demand in text, photographs, video and sound, can be really powerful.

A Platform in Need of a Killer App

I see Second Life at the moment as a promising technological platform in search of a killer app—that single application of a new technology that demonstrates to the mainstream user why it is worth embracing. For the Apple II home computer, the killer app was the first spreadsheet program. For digital music, it was the iPod. I’m not sure what it will be for Second Life, but I suspect it will be an immersive narrative experience of either an artistic or educational bent.

In many ways, Second Life’s flexibility as a platform is a positive quality. It allows the world to be populated with content without requiring developer Linden Labs to create everything. This not only helps to keep Second Life free, but it also lets users customize their world and so become invested in it. On the other hand, 100 puzzle pieces created by 100 different people may not fit well together into a whole. Second Life lacks a cohesive vision—like a mansion built by amateur carpenters, it’s confusing to navigate and ugly to look at.

Finally, I find the absence of any discernable goals in Second Life to be a problem. There’s no way to advance or improve my character, and nothing to keep me exploring aside from simple curiosity. This is the aspect of Second Life that is distinctly un-game-like. Other MMOs, most of which are games, have reward systems built in that encourage players to spend time in the world by breaking tasks like exploration into discrete “quests” with concrete in-game rewards. I feel the lack of this kind of motivation keenly in Second Life.