Sunday, March 11, 2007

Second Life for education

A few days ago it was on the radio that Randstad (a Dutch job agency) is establishing a virtual office in Second Life. When you think about this it's really fascinating. Large banking companies (e.g. ABN Amro) and also IT companies (Tam Tam from Delft) have their virtual offices. But what's the purpose? Why do you want to be on Second Life as a company? Randstad claims e.g. that it can help people to prepare their job interviews. Create your very own Avatar and go to Randstad to see whether there is a suitable job for you. When you decide you want to apply for the job you can arrange for a job interview with a virtual employee from Randstad. The claim is that it will help you when you have to go to a job interview in the real world. That's an interesting claim, because a virtual interview can be hardly compared to an interview in real life. What about the 80% of non-verbal communication? You can probably write down all kinds of answers as your contribution to the job interview, but how will you behave when you are in a real interview situation. Will there be stress, will you look the other way when answering a question, instead of looking someone in the eye? It's kind of different when sitting in the quit surroundings of your home, where you can think in a clear and sensible way about the answers you want to give. Moreover, your Avatar can be much more attractive than yourself. I've created an Avatar myself and it's easy to give it any look you would like, of course far away from your own look: I was surprised how many athletic young men were running around in Second Life. This may give more confidence than you would have in real life.

Another interesting aspect is that you can actually invest money in Second Life. You can buy so called Linden dollars from your real American dollars. The exchange rate is about L$270 to one US Dollar (Wikipedia, March 7, 2007). Residents can create new goods and services, and buy and sell them in the Second Life virtual world. It's possible to buy land and build a house on it. I recently read an article in which the author suddenly became aware that he was looking into a house where someone was reading a book. He felt uncomfortable about it, feeling a voyeur, as if he was really looking into someone's home. Well if you ask me, why sit in a Second Life house to read a book??

Second Life has also emerged as one of the cutting-edge virtual classrooms for major colleges and universities, including Harvard, Pepperdine, Ball State, New York University and Delft University of Technology. Second Life fosters a welcoming atmosphere for administrators to host lectures and projects online, selling more than 100 islands for educational purposes, according to a New York Times article. The article quoted Rebecca Nesson, an instructor at Harvard who brought her Legal Studies class to Second Life in the second half of 2006. "Normally, no matter how good a distance-learning class is, an inherent distance does still exist between you and your students," she says. "Second Life has really bridged that gap. There is just more unofficial time that we spend together outside of the typical class session." Joe Sanchez, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin evaluated the use of Second Life in education in an interactive qualitative analysis, finding that once students overcome the technical and interface difficulties with Second Life, they "indicate a preference to social learning activites and find it enjoyable to interact with other avatars while learning in this space". At the University of Twente we are currently thinking about organizing (virtual) summerschools for students who want to enhance their knowledge and skills in math. Should we also bring this to Second Life (apart from the question what possibilites you have to deploy existing assignments with mathematical formulas, etc.)? I think it's interesting enough to take a closer look at. Being present at Second Life may be(come) an important unique selling point if you want to attract new students.

There is one major worry though. A Dutch professor in economic psychology stated that the Second Life economy is much more vulnerable than the economy in the real world. Companies are present on Second Life for economic, commercial reasons. They make investments and expect to gain any form of profit in the future (in money or otherwise). When they find out that their commercial objectives are not fullfilled there is a great risk that they will shut down their virtual office again, which may initiate a chain reaction.


Ton said...

Hi Stanley,

I think that the economy of SL is merely small, and roughly comparable to the economy of a small self-reliant town. If you look at the 'real' companies moving into SL, they don't expect a ROI inside SL, they expect one outside SL. They want their ROI in terms of PR, increased contact with customers, and as a result increased 'real-world' sales. To them SL is a channel, not a market.

Meanwhile the stability of the SL internal economy depends on the transaction inside SL, and the 'real' companies play almost no part at all in that.

So, let's say that all 'real' companies leave SL now. That would not have an impact on the in-world economy. Because the 'real' companies do really not take part in the internal economy.

It would however have a big impact on how SL is perceived, and a wave of negative PR for Linden Labs would follow. That would bring SL into the red again (they just started making a profit as of last month), and could mean the end of Linden Labs and as a result SL. So the impact of 'real' companies on the SL economy is at this point merely indirect.

By the time they may have a direct impact, that will mean that the SL economy has grown, leaving the small town scale behind. With that growth the interconnection with the 'real' economy will have also increased a lot, integrating it into the worlds economy. By then the effect of companies leaving will be the same when they are leaving elsewhere: bad both for the location as well as the company.

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