Corrected: A previous version of this story misstated the number of users that are estimated to be on Second Life at any given time. That number is 50,000.
For educators who think real life does not offer enough opportunities to practice their profession, there’s Second Life, an Internet-based virtual environment that counts thousands of educators among its enthusiasts.
Second Life bears a passing resemblance to an online game, with users represented by digitally drawn characters, called avatars, that can interact and engage in a vast array of activities. But a growing number of K-12 educators and groups have come to see the 3-D virtual environment as having educational potential that is very real.
“Think of Second Life as a world, an extension of the physical Earth, and a place where you will find a thriving educational community,” said Peggy Sheehy, a teacher in New York state who has become a Second Life evangelist to the K-12 community.
Linden Research Inc., the San Francisco-based company that owns Second Life, considers education to be a core function of its virtual world, according to Claudia L’Amoreaux, an official at the company, which is commonly called Linden Lab.
The company offers educators a 50 percent discount on fees for using Second Life and has started the Second Life in Education listserv, known as SLED, which lists 5,000 “residents,” many of them precollegiate educators, Ms. L’Amoreaux said. Higher education institutions are there in even greater numbers, viewing Second Life, in part, as a marketing tool.
But Second Life, though it has been made more user-friendly over time, is still not for the technologically faint of heart. Getting involved requires climbing a steep learning curve.
Other caveats cited by experts include the costs of participating and the inability to transfer work from Second Life to other online environments.
Christopher J. Dede, a Harvard University education professor who is in an expert on the use of technology in education, said the older computers still common in schools are another limitation.
Participants in Second Life and other “virtual worlds” say the use of avatars and seemingly 3-D environments add a different dimension to their online lives. Popular uses of Second Life among educators include a range of communication, networking, and learning activities.
Education groups, some of which exist outside of Second Life and others that operate there exclusively, offer lectures, seminars, and demonstrations that draw in participants from around the world. Less formally, virtual coffeehouse chats, concerts, and balls create settings for relaxed online contacts among educators.
Educators can choose from many of the hundreds of education-focused user groups that share conversations, resources, and activities.
Educators engage in professional development by passing around text documents, short videos, animations, and audio. While most of Second Life is barred to children, some schools have bought space for hosting student activities and instructional demonstrations on Second Life’s Teen Grid, which is off-limits to most adults and where access can be further limited to a school’s teachers and students.
Participants are encouraged to create structures in 3-D that mimic real-life spaces and buildings, both in current and historical settings, or novel structures that help learners visualize data and concepts, such as science experiments or geometric shapes that users can manipulate. Second Life is full of designers and builders who tackle such projects, for hire and sometimes for free.
The making of short videos, called machinima, has flourished in Second Life, especially on the Teen Grid, where students write scripts and film on virtual locations and sets.
“Many school computers simply don’t have the video-processing capability to run Second Life,” he said. “Its footprint in schools is limited by that.”
Though hundreds of virtual worlds exist—many of them specialized for games—Second Life stands out because of its effective marketing, which has helped create a “pretty sizable population,” said Aaron E. Walsh, the director of Immersive Education Initiative of the Grid Institute, a Boston-based company that focuses on virtual worlds.
Second Life nominally has 13 million members, though only a few hundred thousand are considered actively engaged. Around 50,000 users are online in Second Life at any given time, Mr. Walsh said.
One convert is Kevin Jarrett, a teacher in the K-4 computer lab at Northfield Community School, in Northfield, N.J. He spent six months on sabbatical exploring the educational potential of Second Life, financed by a $10,000 grant from the online Walden University.
“It was amazing, absolutely amazing,” Mr. Jarrett said of the 20 to 30 hours a week he spent online. “Everyone was interesting, doing cool stuff. They were helpful, polite, and kind—all lifelong learners.”
Now back to teaching, Mr. Jarrett regularly volunteers to help newbies get started in Second Life at an education-oriented space, or “island,” run by the International Society for Technology in Education. He also blogs at www.storyofmysecondlife.com.
He and other veteran educators can reel off things educators are doing in Second Life, from talking with peers from other countries, to attending concerts, to building a working volcano, to designing science-lab experiments.
Second Life’s main section, or grid, is only for adults; some parts have X-rated content; other areas are rated PG, as in the territories run by educational institutions.
Another, separate grid is reserved for teenagers; no adults are allowed without special dispensation and a background check.
Individual members, upon joining, create an avatar and can then record personal profiles, search for activities and events, and make electronic links to friends they meet there, among other activities.
Individuals or groups can purchase virtual land that can be used for marketing, training, and selling—using “Linden Dollars,” which are convertible into real currency.
Education-oriented organizations sometimes use their space for conferences about how to use Second Life. At a one-day “Stepping Into History” session last week, sponsored by the Alliance Library System, a library-support organization based in East Peoria, Ill., and LearningTimes, a New York City-based company that produces online conferences, about 60 educators and museum professionals took tours of four historical simulations that will be used with students beginning next fall.
The virtual spaces re-created aspects of ancient Babylon; New York’s Harlem in the 1920s; Springfield, Ill., and the White House at the time of Abraham Lincoln; and England at the time of Henry VIII.
The International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, has been in Second Life for a little over a year, using it primarily as a membership-recruiting and communication tool, said the society’s chief executive officer, Don Knezek. The Washington-based group has invested in its own “island,” where it hosts meetings, activities, and events, notably a weekly speaker series and educator coffeehouse.
The group’s massive annual National Educational Computing Conference, which this year will be held June 29-July 2 in San Antonio, will feature numerous sessions in Second Life.
ISTE has three staff members working in Second Life as part of their jobs, said Mr. Knezek, who said the group got involved as “a scouting operation.”
“Basically, what we were after is figuring out how to reach more of our members and engage them with the organization in a more meaningful way,” he said.
Since January 2007, the number of ISTE members, who total about 85,000 worldwide, that also have Second Life memberships has grown from none to about 2,500.
ISTE also rents out some of its “land” to 17 other education organizations.
Some educators are interested in Second Life’s potential as an education tool with youngsters—something that currently is permitted only under tightly controlled conditions.
Some other virtual worlds are intended for children. Not Second Life, except for its “Teen Grid,” or on safely walled-in private “estates,” which some schools have established.
Ms. Sheehy, a middle school teacher in the 4,800-student Ramapo school district, in Hillburn, N.Y., said the the Teen Grid has 22 educational establishments. She oversees Ramapo Island, a private area there used exclusively by the district’s teachers and students.
Ms. Sheehy has trained 40 Ramapo teachers on how to hold learning activities, which she said “gets students invested and engaged.”
In a science class, for example, a group of 8th graders built an avalanche. Math classes have used shopping to teach “market math.”
“It’s not about the technology; it’s about the learning,” Ms. Sheehy said. “I’m supporting a standards-based curriculum that is authentically translated in the virtual environment.”
Another major provider on the Teen Grid is Global Kids Inc., a nonprofit group based in New York City that runs after-school programs and hosts activities on Teen Second Life for teenagers at the city’s schools as well as other places.
Activities include service projects, such as raising money for humanitarian aid to the Darfur region of Sudan, and making short movies, called “machinima,” that are filmed on locations and movie sets on the Teen Grid.
But Second Life also offers challenges to educators, experts say. One is that the virtual environment is often affected by service slowdowns, which can wreak havoc on classes being conducted there.
Mr. Walsh predicted that school districts will use virtual worlds widely for classes only when they can host them on their own computer servers, for reasons both of performance and student safety and privacy.
Mr. Dede of Harvard contends that the high-fidelity imagery used by Second Life may appeal to adults, but that it is not needed for youngsters to enjoy using it, and yet it unnecessarily increases the technical demands on users’ computers and networks.
Another problem is the expense. “It costs a considerable amount of money to use Second Life, compared to using other [virtual world] shells that are not as well publicized,” Mr. Dede said.
A more fundamental problem, according to Mr. Dede, is the “basic belief of almost everyone working in Second Life, that, like Coca-Cola, everything goes better with it.” He said many features can be added to make Second Life and other virtual worlds more suitable for education: “I am convinced the potential is there, in terms of virtual worlds and game engines.”
For now, educators should proceed thoughtfully. “If you’re doing a lecture, there’s no reason to believe that listening to the lecture as an avatar in Second Life is any better than in the real world,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the June 18, 2008 edition of Education Week as Educators Get a ‘Second Life’