Boston – John Lester spent more than five years as the official education ambassador for Second Life. His job at Linden Lab, which operates the popular virtual world, was to build a community of college professors and teachers who wanted to experiment with virtual worlds in teaching and research. And by most accounts, it worked—nearly a third of U.S. colleges have a presence in Second Life, according to the latest Campus Computing Survey (though what exactly a presence is remains unclear—for some institutions it may have been a single experiment with the environment).
Then last year, Linden Lab went through a corporate shakeup, and Mr. Lester got a pink slip (and his position was eliminated). Many saw his ouster as a sign that the company was less interested in college customers, especially when Linden Lab announced that it would end its education discount for professors or colleges that want to build virtual classrooms in Second Life. (Linden Lab officials say they remain committed to the sector. See their statement at the end of the interview for more details.)
Mr. Lester spent a few unemployed months soul-searching, then decided to join the competition. He is now director of community development at ReactionGrid, which sells space on other virtual worlds to educators, including open-source alternatives that some institutions are looking at more carefully in the wake of Linden Lab’s recent pullback on the education front.
I sat down with Mr. Lester in a crepe shop near his house, which is now his official office, because all ReactionGrid employees work remotely. He talked about why he still believes education is a killer app of virtual worlds.
Q. So why stick with virtual worlds in education? Do you see this as an area with more potential to grow?
A. There’s promising data out there. Academia moves very slowly, but very enthusiastically, on the research side. You have people getting excited about this new tool to improve pedagogy, but the actual process of that experimentation is very slow. Peer-reviewed research and publication, acquiring grants, and collecting data all takes a long time. So there’s a tension between this explosive use and trial of it and actually showing quantitative and qualitative results that it’s actually improving education. It sometimes makes it confusing to figure out if things are moving ahead or not—if they’re succeeding. But there are some good places to find published research. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research is one of them. I think the way out of the trough of disillusionment is happening. It will happen because of more published data around all of this.
Q. Why has it taken so long for virtual worlds to mature in higher education?
A. At first people looked at virtual worlds and said, I’m going to build a classroom with desks and chairs and all that. I always give the example of an early use of Second Life by educators, back in 2006 when I was at Linden Lab. Somebody wanted to teach plant biology, and they were showing me in Second Life how they had built a classroom with desks and chairs, and they had a board where they were going to show slides of models of flowers and the pistol and the stamen. And I said that’s interesting, kind of, but just because the virtual world looks like a world doesn’t mean you have to do what you do in the physical world. I said, Don’t think of your classroom as a classroom in the physical world. Build a giant flower, and have that model of flower be your classroom. The students in your class could be bumble bees as avatars, because bees pollinate flowers, and the anatomy of flowers is very much driven by how bees perceive them, because bees are responsible for their reproduction. Then it’s no longer a classroom, then you’re talking about an immersive learning experience that really could only happen in an immersive space.
Q. What kind of things do you do in your new role with ReactionGrid?
A. I spend time trying to use the tools in ways that customers are using them, and just hanging out there. I have a club that I started called the “hypbergrid adventuerers club.” We meet three times a week, an hour each time, and we go into different grids.
Q. Unlike most tools in education, virtual worlds seem like something people either love passionately, or they just don’t see what all the fuss is about. Why is that?
A. I think it’s because when it all clicks, when you’re in a learning experience that is working, when you’re in a collaborative environment that is working, it’s a very powerful, high-emotional bandwidth experience. And it is because of the high level of perceptual immersion in the space. It’s because you feel like you’re there. It’s like that moment in a really great movie when you realize, I’m crying—what’s going on? It’s like an emotional resonance. It comes down to the evocative nature of virtual worlds.
In the spirit of equal time, The Chronicle reached out to Linden Lab to ask for a comment on whether the company is less interested in educational customers. Here is a comment sent by Alex Yenni, a spokeswoman for the company:
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We strongly believe educators are an important community in Second Life, as are all of the communities that create and actively participate in making Second Life the unique and immersive place that it is. We chose to not continue to provide a special discount based solely on type of organization, because it does not reflect the underlying economics of developing and delivering our service, and so the 50% discount previously offered has ended as of the end of 2010. Many educators took advantage of the transition program we offered to reduce the impact of this pricing change, and renewed their contracts for up to two additional years at the previously discounted rates.