Remember Second Life? Its Fans Hope to Bring VR Back to the Classroom

June 02, 2016

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Do you remember Second Life? Ten years ago, it was one of the hottest tech buzzwords. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, because it was a long time ago, it looked like a video game. It was an immersive virtual world, designed as a kind of visual social network.

The prediction at the time was that the internet might soon shift to be a kind of 3D, animated realm and we’d all use avatars, or customized drawings that would be our stand-ins in this virtual world. We’d move around cyberspace by walking, or maybe flying, from place to place. If it all sounds like science fiction, it sort of was — or at least it was kind of inspired by cyberpunk novels, like Snow Crash.

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Major institutions invested real money in this vision. In 2006 it seemed like every big company was setting up a storefront in Second Life, and many colleges and universities invested tens of thousands of dollars building virtual campuses in this alternative digital reality.

Today we’re at another moment where virtual reality is being called the Next Big Thing. Two years ago, Facebook bought a company called Oculus, which makes a new kind of virtual-reality headset, for the attention-grabbing price tag of two billion dollars. And some are already saying that this technology will usher in the next generation of online education — that students and profs will soon be donning VR goggles to take online classes.

Whether you believe this new VR hype or not, I’ve been wondering what lessons can be learned from Second Life.

Because Second Life is still going, and some colleges still hold classes there. You can still find professors who are passionate about the technology and about teaching in virtual worlds. Just how passionate are they? I found out the hard way. In 2010 I wrote an article for The Chronicle pointing out that some colleges were moving away from Second Life, arguing that the virtual world hadn’t lived up to the hype. I got more hate mail for that article than for anything else I’d ever done. And in one of the strangest moments of my journalism career, I was invited to discuss that article in a forum within Second Life called Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable.

A.J. Kelton's avatar (left) talked with Jeff Young's in Second Life in 2010.
About a hundred people showed up in what looked like a giant outdoor amphitheater within Second Life. Most of them were avatars, and looked like attractive cartoon people with hip clothes, though one wore roller skates, and another appeared as a yellow submarine. It was kind of a strange scene.

Most of them were there to kind of yell at me. The organizers even considered having a virtual bouncer at the ready to kick out anybody who got rowdy, or tried to vandalize my avatar. During the event, a chorus of participants railed against me, and said I hadn’t done my homework. The biggest complaint they had was that I had written that vandalism and sex chat could be found in Second Life, and that actually it could be difficult to limit access within Second Life so that only students could get to a virtual campus environment.

All that was true, but the professor floating around in the virtual world had thought I kind of exaggerated that part of the experience, and that I failed to say all the good things about Second Life that they saw. That I clearly just didn’t get it.

A.J. Kelton moderated the virtual grilling. He’s the director of emerging and instructional technology at Montclair State University, and he’s still involved with virtual worlds. I recently caught up with him, and below is an edited and adapted transcript of the podcast.

Young: Why did that article strike such a nerve?

Kelton: I do remember that meeting, I remember thinking you were really a good sport to even come to that knowing that the response was probably going to be less than positive. I think that it was really more of just these people sensing this frustration in something that they really took to heart. They saw an article that was just like the articles that they were seeing in the Times, and the other places who were writing up similar articles. I know Fortune did a huge article, and it didn’t paint a very positive picture either, and you know, you can’t blame the messenger for that, right? I mean, it all becomes our responsibility to, once the CEO, or CIO, or president sees that article in The Chronicle, for us to say, "OK now, that’s one side. Here, take a look at some of the work we’ve been doing. This is how we protect against that kind of stuff." I think that that anger was misdirected, it just, like I said, you were the face in front of them at the moment.

Young: But why are there such true believers for this technology?

Kelton: When people create an avatar for themselves, especially one that they can customize on their own, there is a sense of belonging, the sense that that avatar actually represents you. People definitely psychologically bond to that avatar, to the point where the research showed that people who experienced something in a virtual world could also internalize that.

I remember this came up very specifically about a woman from Europe who had claimed that she was raped in a virtual world, and she argued, and I don’t remember what the outcome of this case was, that even though she wasn’t physically being raped, the emotional trauma of seeing her avatar in that situation was trauma enough. This was obviously a very hot topic to discuss.

I know people who every time they go into a virtual world they change their appearance. I don’t think I’ve ever changed my clothing. I think my avatar has worn the same thing for eight years, black pair of pants, and a black Montclair State University T-shirt, and that’s it. But there are people who will change their clothes every single time they go in, or if they go to a different event they’ll put different clothes on, or a different avatar, or whatnot. They really associate with that avatar.

I mean you’d need to ask a psychologist, or a psychiatrist, but I’m willing to bet that there is good research that shows that you do associate with that. This goes back, all the way back to role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. A whole bunch of us played when we were kids, you associated with a character that you created, and I think that this is just a digital extension of that.

Meanwhile, Second Life’s creators are working on a new version of Second Life, called Project Sansar, trying to ride this latest wave of interest in VR. I checked in with the CEO of the company that makes Second Life, Ebbe Altberg, about whether he thinks educational apps will do better this time around, with this new generation of Second Life, than in the past.

Altberg: What we’re seeing today, though, is hardware is catching up, the new VR hardware that allows you to have a truly immersive experience by being in the experience, not just looking at the experience. I think virtual reality will play a role where you can put students in context of places. The way I learned history back in my day, it couldn’t have been any more boring, reading textbooks about the Romans. Take me there. I’m a much more visual learner; take me to Rome and let me walk around with the Romans at that time and see what it was like back then. That will happen. It’s already happening where I can actually go to places, where I can time-travel and immerse myself into a different culture or a different situation. Where I will be able to work at a factory without having to go to a factory and work there, or go to a different culture and live with people at whatever time or place.

Young: I still don’t think virtual worlds lived up to that hype a decade ago. Some professors have found success, but the tech didn’t catch on past those early adopters. Why will things will be different this time?

Kelton: I think that virtual worlds have simply been dormant. I don’t know that they ever actually went away, and maybe dormant isn’t the right word, but they’re just in a deep sleep.

I know there are a lot of people who are still using virtual worlds in environments where it makes sense. Back then, because of the hype, everybody wanted to use it, so it may not have been the most appropriate tool for people using it. Ultimately, no matter what, this is always about the teaching. It always has to be about the teaching and learning. If the tool doesn’t fit the need, then it shouldn’t be used. For instance, in medical education, it’s a big deal. They have these emergency rooms where an avatar will go in and has to do things in a particular order in order to be able to be evaluated properly. First, you wash your hands, and then you do this, and then you do that, so they can assimilate that without someone actually ever stepping into an emergency room.

I think that there are still uses, and there will continue to be uses, and I think moving forward as the technology grows up, it was way ahead of its time. As it grows up and becomes more accessible, then I think we will start to see a resurgence back up the Gartner’s hype cycle of virtual worlds. I think that our imagining games is a testament to how willing the human is to involve themselves virtually. I mean, you see these young people playing their games, they’re really into their games. I think that if that can be transferred into the virtual environment for learning, and I think that’s true in the nonvirtual environment, if we could get students as excited in the classroom as they are about playing and failing at the games they play, then we can accomplish something great. I think virtual worlds are an excellent example of that.

Altberg: Yeah, and you will have gold rushes again, and some of them will fail to succeed with this new gold rush. Like every new major change. I mean, it’s like the internet, how many people speculated what the internet would do? How long did it take brick-and-mortars to realize like, Well, this is kind of real, isn’t it? It takes years for people to adopt, understand, and become fluent in these new ways of technology, and trust me, VR is going to be one of those. Just like the internet, and mobile, and a lot of other things have completely changed how humans communicate, collaborate, shop, and do almost everything. VR is just going to take us even further into the direction of the digital domain allowing us to do and be whatever we want in all kinds of different ways.

It will take VR many years for it to have a broad impact, but it will. It’s not "if" anymore. I think for a while there there was an "if," but I think the "if" has been eliminated, now it’s just "when"? It’s pretty soon. For some of us it’s a lot sooner than for others, but in general, three, four, five years from now it’s going to be everywhere, and it’s going to be a new way that we prefer to socialize, a new way we prefer to learn, to teach, to shop, to sell — almost everything ultimately will be impacted by this new technology.

I know I’m risking getting another round of emails here, but with all the issues campuses are facing over representations of race and gender on campus these days, couldn’t virtual reality add further complications? Or maybe that’s all the more reason to create a realm where you can craft an avatar or identity any way you want?

I guess it remains unclear to me what exactly the goal is for creating these virtual worlds for education. It seems like that doesn’t always drive some of the experiments, which I guess is what Kelton and Altberg are saying, that the applications should be the foremost. We’ll see how it all plays out.

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