Monday, 17 November 2014

Exploring play in Second Life

Well I did it - I completed a MOOC!

Exploring Play: The Importance of Play in Everyday Life was created by colleagues across various departments of The University of Sheffield, and launched on the FutureLearn platform. It was a really interesting seven weeks, looking at play in a range of contexts, from children to adults, and its role in everyday life. There was much of interest to those of us who work in Learning Technology, including explorations of gamification, augmented reality, and virtual worlds such as Second Life. I learnt much which will stay with me and hopefully influence some of the ways I work and learn.

It was the Second Life segment that perhaps piqued my interest the most, as I've always been a bit of a SL skeptic, seeing it as not much more than a big complicated chatroom for people to create fantasty personas and flirt with strangers. I'd also, wrongly, dismissed SL as something that had died out years ago; the next big thing that never really happened.

This section of the MOOC was led by the Information School's Sheila Webber (and her SL alter-ego Sheila Yoshikawa), demonstrating the iSchool's rather lovely Second Life island. Other examples showed some great work where students have been taught chemistry in SL labs with great results; elderly Parkinson's patients have used it as cognative therapy; it has been used to create an enabling forum for Second Lifers who are disabled in the "real world"; and situations in which the virtual world gives a feeling of community to distance learners.

For the first time in many years I was inspired to have a dabble with Second Life (previous attempts were just to check that, no, my creaking graphics card couldn't really handle it), first creating myself an avatar. This I made to look like myself - bespectacled, slightly paunchy and with a rather fetching striped jumper (I didn't do a lot of interaction with others, but I did get a passing comment: "Where's Waldo got old!"). It was a surprise to enter a world where I was surrounded almost exclusively by gorgeous women, chiseled hunks, and fantastical creatures. Perhaps this shows I'm comfortable in my own skin, and don't need a fantasy avatar, but I fear it just shows a distinct lack of imagination!

One of my first stops was the University of Sheffield's iSchool island, feeling something of a trespasser as I wandered round it alone on a Sunday afternoon. Even though set out as an idyllic Japanese-style island, it still impressively managed to feel like part of the UoS, in little things like the use of the University fonts and signage. The remnants of fascinating-looking projects were all around - they must have been great to see being actioned in real time.

Elsewhere I explored a few more educational resources, including a museum of Communism, and a space travel museum. I started to realise that Second Life isn't just an immersive, goal-less game, but a parallel Internet, which is navigated by individual avatars, not a text-based web browser, and where webpages are constructed on pretty, shimmering islands, not a blank white page. Yes a lot of these "pages" are chatrooms, but there's a wealth of information and educational resources out there too.

I don't think I'll become a Second Life "resident" - one life is enough for me! But it's great to see this virtual world is still so active, and that educators are using it in innovative ways.

Pete M

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