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How Could We Make Second Life More Teacher Friendly?

A few days ago I was watching Daniel Livingstone’s presentation Immersive and Web-Based Virtual Learning Environments, and although most of the things he talked about were not new to me, it did strike me that teaching in Second Life at the moment is no piece of cake if you don’t have certain technical skills. Sloodle is an interesting project that tries to make Second Life more teacher friendly, but can you imagine an average teacher (who has already struggled to learn how to use Moodle) installing Sloodle and setting it up with his or her own Moodle site? Or setting up a quiz for students within Second Life by finding and modifying a quiz script? I honestly can’t, and I think that until we can make teaching in Second Life as easy as using a web-based learning system like Moodle, I don’t think we can expect a lot of existing teachers to do any serious teaching in Second Life (for the sake of the argument let’s just say that Second Life (or a similar virtual world) is an environment we want to use in education, and that we want to have our teachers to teach in it). You all probably know that it’s difficult enough to explain what Second Life is all about, not to mention convincing teachers to get an account and get seriously involved in it!
Teaching in Second Life can be confusing
So, what would we need to make Second Life more teacher friendly and consequently more student friendly? I think the best way to achieve that would be to integrate some teaching and learning tools right into the Second Life (or any other virtual world) client. Let me give you an example of how that could look like.

First, a quick look back in time. The things we have to do right now in Second Life to set up a quiz or a similar activity remind me of the internet in the middle of the nineties. Back then, internet was a cool thing tool that most people were still unaware or even afraid of. It was really cool to have your own website, but it was not easy. You had to get some server space, learn HTML (remember how proud we were when we managed to use frames? ;) ), and then you had to know how to upload files. Argh. Only the real enthusiasts bothered to learn all that. Compare that with the ease with which you can nowadays create (and publish) a website in iWeb or the wonderful one click web publishing - everything is so easy that even my grandfather was able to learn how to blog in a few hours! And that’s just how Second Life should become if we want more people to adopt it. We need better interfaces, more interactivity, and the ability to create content without the need to edit the scripts directly. Everything should be as easy as blogging with the Sloodle Toolbar currently is (well, once you manage to set it up :) ).

What we’d need is a user-friendly tool with which we could manage our courses. The best would be if learning management tools were available right in Second Life - in a similar way that group administration works right now. Can you image how great it would be if we had an extra ”Learning” button somewhere in the SL interface? This button could open a list of all courses an avatar is currently attending or teaching. With a few clicks, you could get more info on each of our courses, search for new courses, start your own course etc.. Right now there are already many interesting courses that are being taught in Second Life (not just by educational institutions, but also by individual residents), but no easy way to find them and keep track of them.
Learning and Teaching in Second Life
I think every Second Life resident should be able to set up a course - pretty much like you can create your own group. Linden Labs could charge a small fee to open a course (as it does with groups), and have special discounts for large educational institutions that provide more courses. As a teacher of a course you should be able to change some basic settings, manage the list of participants (students and teachers/tutors) in each course, make course materials and notes available to students, have a list of assignments with deadlines and grades, have the ability to view attendance stats in your virtual classroom (a certain space on a land you or your institution owns), have the ability to set up and rez objects that contain a certain script with a few clicks without having to manually edit the script (a quiz chair for example or and info point for students) etc. Of course, it’d be great if you could connect this teacher tool to other learning environments (Moodle or others) with just a few clicks, and even able to view and edit the content of SL courses on the web. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, so let’s try to imagine how such a tool could look like:

Course management in Second Life
And then of course, students should in my opinion also get some help to keep track of their courses in the 3D virtual environment. They should be able to view basic course materials, send messages to the teacher and other students (either using the virtual world’s IM channels or maybe even send IMs to other chat clients outside the virtual world - Skype, Google Talk, ICQ etc.), get reminded of upcoming lessons (wouldn’t it be great if you were automatically offered a teleport to the class location 5 minutes before the start of the lesson?), receive notices of changes, have the ability to upload reports, write posts, answer quizzes, rate courses etc. Of course, the content of all their courses should also be accessible through a web browser and on any mobile device.

These are just a few ideas of how I think future teacher/students tools in 3D online virtual worlds should look like. I don’t think it’d be a good idea to build an education-only virtual world (some sort of 3D Moodle) that focuses just on education - at least not until our avatars are able to travel between different worlds with all their luggage. In my opinion we need to provide better support for education in existing virtual worlds - education is after all one of the very important aspects of our lives, so why shouldn’t it be more visible and better supported in the so called real-life simulations? I hope we will start seeing more tools like this soon, and that providing such tools will make second life easier for both “virtual” teachers and students. As virtual worlds are slowly making their way into mainstream and evolving in more open and connected spaces we now have the opportunity (and perhaps even a moral obligation) to bring out our own ideas about the future of education in virtual worlds and also demand better support for teachers and students in these new environments. That is why I would like to end this post by asking you, dear reader, this question:

What do you personally think should the killer app or tool for teaching in virtual worlds be like if it were to bring 3D immersive environments a step closer to the average teacher and make studying in these environments easier to follow for learners?

Originally published at http://ialja.blogspot.com/2007/06/how-could-we-make-second-life-more.html