Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Online, real time 

Loyal reader JW, perhaps responding to my note the other day on podcasting, sends a link to an article on the use of "Second Life", a virtual world where student interaction can occur, and is being encouraged by faculty.

The three-dimensional virtual world makes it possible for students taking a distance course to develop a real sense of community, said Rebecca Nesson, who leads a class jointly offered by Harvard Law School and Harvard Extension School in the world of "Second Life."

"Students interact with each other and there's a regular sense of classroom interaction. It feels like a college campus," she said.

She holds class discussions in "Second Life" as well as office hours for extension students. Some class-related events are also open to the public -- or basically anyone with a broadband connection.

...San Francisco, California-based Linden Lab develops the infrastructure for the online society, but it's up to its virtual residents to develop the content in the community.

That's one of the reasons some are skeptical about how much of an impact "Second Life" will have on the educational landscape.

"'Second Life' on its own doesn't force anyone to do anything," said Marc Prensky, a leading expert on education and learning. "It's a blank slate, and whether it develops into a useful tool depends on what sort of structures are created within it."

Just as in a classroom, you have to create structures to get someone to do something, of course. I have found that the best online experiences are very structured. In one application of experiments within Aplia, for example, students sat around town and even at home in another state but participated in a demonstration of how markets find equilibrium and how a trade provides information (the selling price) to all others. I've tried unorganized chats, and that doesn't work for me. Students still prefer the private email (I get 5-12 a day) to something on a bulletin board or a synchronous chat.

Making the class stay out of the classroom and go online to experience something can work. Providing experiences in that environment, though, is hard.