There comes a time when you have to admit you were wrong, or perhaps misguided, or simply that you were a little bit ‘out of time’, or perhaps – better said – that somebody let you down and maybe it wasn’t your fault. And this is one of those times, because it’s goodbye to Second Life for me, at least in its current incarnation – in terms of teaching and training – and I’d like to try and explain why…
When I started with Second Life it was a much smaller place than it was now. There was no voice, it crashed constantly, there were ´Black Wednesdays´without access as server updates were done, and there was lots and lots of downtime.
During that time I persevered… I learnt the tools of the SL trade – I learnt to build and script and texture… I made a lot of friends and I built our first island and there we offered free teaching spaces for people, and eventually started the annual SLanguages conference. And the reason I did all this is not because I was convinced that SL was the future of education, but rather that I thought it was the future of the web (not SL, you’ll understand, more the notion of 3D). But I also thought it had a place in education in certain contexts.
Indeed, I learnt to script in SL by taking lessons in SL, and it was a fantastic experience. And I used that knowledge to further our SL presence…. taking on two more islands, going into the rental business and scripting a large set of free tools for educators – tools which enhanced language teaching, tools which integrated with web services, bringing in blogs, wikis and much more. It was an exciting and creative time.
And SL improved too. Black Wednesdays disappeared and the viewer became more stable. Voice was introduced and changed the face of many events (when it worked), and so on. But there was still one thing that didn’t change – it was cripplingly difficult to get started with SL for the casual visitor (unlike, say, Skype or Adobe Connect) and the ‘first hour experience’ was terrible.
Add to this the need for high-end equipment, a fast Net connection, decent phones and a microphone, some money to make you look a little less like Spongebob Squarepants and all the rest and you get a system which doesn’t lend itself to much use over and above the committed. And, having worked in education and technology for a long time, I know that these people are still few and far between. On a scale of 1-100 I’d put SL at the 100 end of the scale in terms of people being willing to invest the time and effort…
The period in which I found myself having less time to invest in SL also coincided with the new viewer which brought HTML on a prim to SL and made a lot of tools (mine included) largely redundant. And I’m very happy about that – media is now much easier to use in SL, as is any web content, and this has changed the lives of many educators who now don’t have to fudge solutions in-world.
But I can’t get on with the new viewer at all – all those windows popping up, three clicks to do what it used to take one click to do, useful things hidden away, useless video RAM application.. I could go on, particularly as I now spend a large amount of time in SL waiting for my avatar to change from a cloud of smoke into the sexy, virile cartonn character we all know and love. But often I can’t go on (at least in SL) because voice isn’t working properly and loads of people are chatting about that rather than about anything useful.
So I’m on a quad core machine with 8GB RAM and 2 x nVidia 9600 cards and a downstream that regularly comes in at around 12MBits. How is this possible? Every event I go to there are regular users (people who know how to configure and run SL) complaining that voice isn’t currently working for them, that they can’t hear anything. It happened to me and a large percentage of the audience today at a high profile event on Shakespeare.
Of all the improvements (the changes to the forums, the blogs, the bloody shopping site and all the rest) why is it that the overall experience isn´t really that much better than it was two years ago? I think that’s where I’m heading…. it’s frustrating not to improve at a better pace, it’s frustrating to see competent users still having voice and other problems and, well, it’s just frustrating sometimes.
But you see I really do like SL – I like the fact you can build and script, share video and music (when it works) chat to people using text and voice (when it works) and I like the social side of it an awful lot. I have plenty of friends in SL and I like to sit and chat with them – it’s been social, it’s been fun and it’s also been professionally fruitful a lot of the time.
But really, I can’t help thinking I get more out of blogs and Twitter (in terms of professional development), and more out of other social platforms (and I’d include Elluminate and Adobe Connect in there too) than I can see myself getting out of SL these days. So whilst I will continue to interact socially there, the thought of trying to teach is really quite painful.
It´s one thing to run an event like SLanguages (though it is still fraught with dangers such as voice problems, new users not training up before attending, etc.) but quite another to try to run an interactive and participatory class when the toolset is limited and when the investment needed is so great. And I’m not even talking about the financial investment there, either…
Some time ago I co-wrote a chapter for a book about Second Life. Tha chapter my colleague Howard Ramsay and I wrote was entitled “Second Life: Overcoming the Entry Barriers in Hogher and Further Education”. Looking back at that chapter now I can’t see a great deal of change, and those entry barriers are, at best, a real detractor in terms of getting educators in, but – at worst – they are very good reasons not to even start.
Sometimes it does come down to the shiny-shiny, and for me this is one of those times. SL is too demanding and too unreliable for most educators. It pains me to say this, but I just don’t think it’s improved enough, or become easy enough for most people to bother. There are better ways of doing most things you can do in SL in terms of education, and – almost five years down the line – as far as I’m concerend SL hasn’t delivered enough to make it worthwhile.
I still think the future of web interactions is 3D, and I still think avatars are a grand idea, and I still love the concept of a vast space to be wandered and enjoyed… but I have to conclude that in pure terms of investment (time and money) SL doesn’t make much sense, at least for most educators.
So later this year we´ll be dropping two of our islands and handing over the SLanguages conference to a team of people who have the drive and enthusiasm to take it forward (I’ll truly miss organising and running that) and we’ll be refocussing time and budget on mobile learning, which I now think has finally come of age (screen size, usability, connectivity, etc.). Some call it fickle, but I think mobile has come on in leaps and bounds in the past couple of years, and the possibilities are very exciting. Plus, you don’t need high-end equipment and shedloads of patience with mobile, most of the time.
I know many will be surprised and disappointed at this turnaround, and some will see it as vindication of their ante-diluvian views on technology, but hey, whichever camp you fall into (even the ‘told you it was crap’ camp [ which it patently isn´t, so don't bother! ] ), you’re most welcome to leave a comment here…