Teachers from around the country are gathering together to visit the Alamo in San Antonio, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and the Louvre in France in the span of a few hours without shelling out a dime. They are traveling back in time to Paris in 1900 and meeting in treehouses to share tips with other teachers without setting foot outside their homes or schools.
Those are the kinds of virtual experiences, made possible by a computer and a high-speed Internet connection, that first attracted educators to Second Life, technology experts say. In the immersive online world, started in 2003, participants interact as avatars—virtual stand-ins for real people.
Initially, there was a lot of excitement about the possibilities of using Second Life as a professional-development tool for educators. The International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, for one, set up shop on Second Life, touting its potential benefits and calling on educators to join the community.
But, for a number of reasons, those expectations have largely fallen short, offering cautionary lessons about using technology for professional development.
To begin with, a lack of time, money, and up-to-date technology posed significant challenges. Plus, the amount of training required to become proficient in Second Life discouraged many teachers from thinking of it as a useful and efficient professional-development tool.
“There’s always going to be a real desire for people to connect that way, but Second Life is not always the most accessible or the most stable platform,” says Jennifer Ragan-Fore, who runs the Second Life program for ISTE.
Jessica Medaille, the senior director of membership development for ISTE, adds that “folks who were more tech-savvy and tech-hungry were willing to do whatever it took to envision a world where a classroom full of educators could come from different backgrounds [to meet]. But there are often many hurdles to make that really viable.”
Hosting Virtual Events
Second Life, which was created by the San Francisco-based company Linden Lab, provides a virtual space for users to interact with one another through avatars. Residents, as they are called in Second Life, can interact with other residents, socialize with one another, and attend events being held in Second Life, as well as buy and sell virtual property and goods to one another with actual—not virtual—money.
The Washington-based ISTE has harnessed the power of Second Life since 2006 and hosts a wide variety of events “in world” for teachers.
But Medaille says that Second Life’s strength, in part, is also its biggest problem. “There are so many possibilities,” she says. “In some ways, it’s really great, and in other ways, it makes it even harder for somebody who is coming in to know what they’re supposed to do.”
In addition to the steep learning curve of understanding how to control your avatar and move around the island, the designated space where ISTE holds events, the platform itself is a heavy application that requires at least 512 megabytes, according to the Second Life website, as well as a steady, high-speed Internet connection, says Ragan-Fore.
Social-networking sites and Web 2.0 tools such as Twitter, blogs, and wikis are better suited for the kind of “drop in and drop out” professional development that many teachers are looking for these days, says Ragan-Fore.
“People want to be on the go,” she says, “and it’s hard to access [Second Life] on a wireless or even mobile connection.”
‘Friends in Real Life’
Still, ISTE has decided to maintain a strong presence in Second Life despite scaling back on some of its initial projects in the virtual world, Ragan-Fore and Medaille say. The immersive environment and the passion of those involved with it make Second Life a unique and powerful professional development and networking tool, they say.
The organization hosts a monthly speaker series, weekly social gatherings, and regular tours, in which people attend as avatars, and volunteers run the ISTE Island facilities, where newbies can go to learn how to navigate and use the educational aspects of Second Life.
“One of the things that was very powerful about the community that still exists for us ... is there is a lot of camaraderie in helping people learn the tool and make connections,” says Ragan-Fore. About 6,500 people have joined the ISTE Second Life group, although many more visit the island and participate in ISTE’s Second Life events.
Michael Trump, an instructional technology facilitator for the 28,000-student Cabarrus County school system in Concord, N.C., is one of the volunteers who help out on ISTE Island, the organization’s space in Second Life.
“The way things are set up today, it is much easier to get started and become active in events, but you really need someone that knows what they are doing—a buddy—to help you along at first,” he says. “That’s part of my role on ISTE Island.”
Trump uses Second Life to attend lectures, workshops, and events such as space station tours, diving instruction, and entire virtual conferences.
“I especially like the fact that I can attend events while I’m at home, relaxing in my PJs, sipping coffee,” he says. “Once you become familiar with navigating in Second Life, your comfort level greatly increases. ... It makes it very easy to walk up to someone and start a conversation, make a new contact, and possibly even become friends in real life.”
Jessica Brogley, the district technology coordinator for the 872-student New Glarus school system in Wisconsin and an adjunct educational technology professor for Marian University, in Fond du Lac, Wis., also volunteers on ISTE Island.
“I’m continuously shocked that Second Life isn’t a more popular means of professional development,” she says. “Not only do you learn, you network with other professionals and gain a sense of how fun gaming can be.”
Although it does take the right technology, as well as some time to get used to your avatar, the benefits of being in Second Life far outweigh the negatives, she says.
“I’ve met many people in Second Life that are forward-thinking teachers that not only understand their content, but they are not afraid to explore new ways to reach students,” she says.
“It’s very personal. You get to know people, and you get to care about people,” says Tom Layton, a retired teacher who now volunteers on Second Life for the University of Oregon, in Eugene.
1. Check the school or district network to make sure the computers meet the requirements to support the Second Life application.
2. Plan to have an in-person meeting with teachers to set up their accounts and familiarize them with how to use their avatars, known as ‘residents’ in Second Life.
3. Make sure that teachers navigate their avatars—or “teleport"—to a safe environment where they can learn how to move around, where they should go, and how to interact with other avatars.
4. Give teachers time and opportunities to explore Second Life on their own and direct their own learning. Being too prescriptive about what everyone should be doing can turn teachers off to using the tool.
5. Provide a list of Second Life resources and educational places to visit in the virtual world.
For the past year, Layton has been working with the university on an initiative called Project DIRECT—or Distance Innovations for Rural Educators through Communication Technologies—that brings together a group of 20 rural educators to form a learning community in Second Life.
“If you’re a rural English teacher, there might not be [another English teacher] for 50 miles,” he says. With Second Life, he says, geography is no longer a barrier for meeting people and sharing ideas. Teachers from around the world can gather in the same virtual space to discuss curricula, instructional strategies, and other tricks of the trade, he points out.
Many of the events held for educators in Second Life are large seminars in which dozens of avatars can meet to hear a presentation or speaker. Although that approach has its benefits, Layton says he’s taken a different tack with this particular project.
“We’re much more interested in building communities,” he says. The project is currently funded by a two-year, $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education, which has one year left, but when it ends, Layton hopes the community the rural educators have formed will live on.
Presentations and Lectures
Chris O’Neal, an educational technology consultant based in Lake Monticello, Va., says he uses Second Life mostly as a tool for presentations and lectures on ed-tech topics.
“It’s so interactive. I can take participants on a virtual tour, pull them to specific sections of a website, show them video clips, walk them through steps, and open up documents for them,” he says. “A lot of us have done Skype sessions [or webinars], but it’s not the same as being in a virtual world.”
In particular, Second Life provides a way for teachers to connect even in tough financial times, says O’Neal. “There’s so much travel that’s been frozen for teachers,” he says. Second Life provides an affordable way for teachers to connect and explore professional-development opportunities they may not otherwise be able to afford.
Lori Weedo and Lauren Thurman, two instructional technology teachers in the 42,000-student Escambia County school district, in Pensacola, Fla., created and have managed Second Life Educators of Escambia County Island, or SLEEC, in Second Life for two years.
Weedo and Thurman’s first experience with Second Life was through the National Educational Computing Conference, now called the ISTE conference, hosted by ISTE in 2008. Although the educators were not physically present at the conference in San Antonio, they were able to attend sessions via Second Life, says Thurman.
“We felt like we were really there in the auditorium with other avatars,” she says. That year, her district had set aside money for professional development, and Thurman and Weedo suggested using it to set up an island in Second Life where educators throughout the district could meet.
“It was huge for us because it was during a time when there really was a [budget] crunch, and there wasn’t much money to travel. We found it really valuable that we could continue to learn,” she says.
About 3,500 teachers are in the Escambia County district, and all are welcome in SLEEC Island.
Hosting professional development virtually has helped teachers attend more events, Weedo says, by cutting back on the amount of time it takes to commute to a physical space.
SLEEC Island now offers four-week professional-development sessions focused on integrating technology into the classroom.
“Next year, we plan to do some [professional development] using both face-to-face and Second Life,” says Thurman.
In addition to the time and money saved on professional development, Second Life helps teachers, especially those who tend to be reticent during professional-development sessions, find their voice and participate more, says Thurman.
“People who may have been quietly sitting in a room, who might be a little bit shy, aren’t quite as shy [in Second Life],” she says.
A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2011 edition of Digital Directions as Avatars Wanted