University of Hertfordshire Virtual Second Life Campus

I posted this entry many years ago and while it doesn’t represent current approaches to VR in 2020, it may be of historial significance to some people

I’m making this post mainly for posterity. One of my first tasks at the university was to create a virtual presence inside the multi-user 3D world ‘Second Life’. Whilst it’s somewhat past its prime, during its hayday, Second Life offered many people the opportunity to become accustomed to 3D environments in a non-competitive setting. That’s to say, it isn’t a game as such but a general purpose virtual world. It included editing tools within the client program and allowed people to collaborate to create vast virtual settlements.

During the time I used it as a platform for teaching students, much was discovered with respect to best practice. The aspects of ludology involved, along with the emphasis on it being a social experience, lent itself well to removing the fear of failure and promoting engagement. The video below shows the visual form of the virtual campus which has now ceased to exist since the lengthy period of funding (6+ years) for hosting has now expired.

In addition to teaching directly inside the virtual space, a memorable experience involved inducting a group of Malaysian students at a partner institution remotely using Skype. My screen, displaying the virtual world, was shared and projected on to the classroom wall and, as questions were asked, the students would, one by one, come up to the front of their classroom so I could see them. While it’s not the most practical use of video conferencing, it was an interesting experiment to see how we could handle communication differently.

As of writing, Second LIfe is still running and available to be explored. I’d suggest that anyone intending to use it in an educational context familiarise themselves with how it works prior to throwing their students into the deep end! As with anything, if people spend most of their time trying to figure out how something works rather than enjoying it, that cognitive load begins to interfere with what should be a positive experience. To that end, make sure you practice in a low stakes setting!

Similarly, owning your own virtual locale can provide some additional security and the ability to moderate the kind of activity that takes place there. Here, even virtual land can be owned and rented to different users – what goes on in those spaces is at the discretion of its owners. In a general sense, Second Life is somewhat chaotic and, while this is part of its charm, there is certainly scope for confusion. Additionaly, with respect to accessibility and inclusion, other variables begin to surface. For instance, the different kinds of cognition employed by people and how those more comfortable with non-visual mediums might find Second Life taxing. We should also be mindful of the technical hurdles people may face, whether that’s the performance of their own hardware or even the speed of their net connection. The virtual world is streamed to its users as they explore and experience it (much like a video), so it’s expected that people have a capable connection.

However, for tech-savvy visual thinkers, SL provides the most emotional bandwidth of any medium out there – you just need to be able to handle the abstract nature of how the virtual world presents itself. If you take the aforementioned matters into consideration, and handle them well, Second Life offers participants valuable insight into what is effectively a (cyber)cultural zeitgest of our time. Just be sure to prepare yourself for a steep learning curve!

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