One of the curiosities for me about my current Teaching and Learning in Virtual Worlds class is the question: What makes it easy for some students to work in Second Life and difficult for others?
This term 14 of 20 my active students have no previous experience in Second Life. Of them only one identifies himself as a gamer who has played an MMORPG (in this case WoW). This is the extent of my objective knowledge of the group. What follows is anecdotal and wildly speculative. My speculations will I hope lead to questions and hypotheses that could be studied systematically.
Since this is the 5th group of students that I have had in this course, I have noticed some things about my students, the platform and my teaching that may be patterns.
Teachers as learners
In my 12 years of teaching teachers I have drawn the following (speculative) conclusions:
- We tend to be people who have excelled in a traditional educational environment.
- Those who have excelled in a traditional educational environment are used to getting A’s, expect to succeed, and have limited experience with failure and ambiguity.
- Unlike gamers that are used to failing in order to succeed, we do not easily persevere in the face of failure. Frustration comes easily, especially when a computer is involved.
- Teachers in a technology program are as a group somewhat braver, more innovative and non traditional than the average teacher.
- While I get the exceptions, most of my students have excelled in a traditional educational environment.
- My students approach SL with a range of curiosity and terror; and more often than not a combination of curiosity and terror.
- Successful students get hooked on some aspect of the virtual world environment: the playfulness, the building, the self expression, the global community… They don’t necessarily become ongoing members of the VW community, but they are able to apply experiences they’ve had to their own teaching and learning and they seem better able to relate to their students about online lives.
- I identify unsuccessful students as those who complete the course but never fully understand why it is necessary for educators to know about this medium. They go through the motions and are able to move, dress and teleport with their avatar, but they don’t feel any connection to their virtual representative. (4 people out of 46 student or 8.5% from the last four classes: 2 out of 16, 2 out of 14, 0 out of 12, 0 out of 4)
- At the start, my successful students are as a group no less terrified or needy than my unsuccessful students. I do think there are differences but I don’t as yet know what they are.
The VW platform
- There is way too much going on - on the screen in any virtual world but especially SL. Too many buttons, too many menus, too many popup windows - it is more complex than photoshop! On the other hand the basic interface in V2 was too basic. People who are used to exploring new pieces of software have a much easier time getting started.
- The SL experience challenges people in a number of ways that differ from person to person.
Avatar movement and view controls are the first and hardest to master. Once a user can maneuver their avatar and their perspective they have a much more comfortable experience. But they do not realize that this is the most important thing to practice in the beginning as it provides no immediate gratification. (Dressing one’s avatar is much more gratifying and ultimately less useful.)
Multiple communication channels offer one of the most powerful aspects of VWs, but are way over stimulating in the beginning. The open chat window helps you look back at missed discussion, but it takes up a lot of room on the screen. Starting an Instant Message takes several steps (people -> my friends -> double click) that are cumbersome and forgettable at first. Received IMs are easily missed until the learner is able to notice all of the varied buttons, windows and alerts on her screen. Voice seems to work right away for some people and for others it doesn’t come until they are SL experts in every other way.
Getting back home is difficult and scary for new users. A learner can’t set the classroom as home until she has joined the university group. 4 Weeks in and I haven’t gotten all students to notice my (repeated) group invitations. So though they all now have a landmark to our classroom they have not all got it as there home landing point.
- I am using three distinct platforms that add to the overall cognitive load: SL, Moodle and Email. Because Email is ubiguitous, it may seem strange to mention it as a separate platform. I like to use email for things that are time sensitive - but find it doesn’t work. I find that learners do not “get” as much from email as I expect. It is too much to manage that third source of information.
About me and my part
I am becoming aware of some of my own qualities that aid in and detract from a smooth transition to the virtual.
- I believe in the power of kindness and relationship in the art of teaching. I think this works for everyone.
- I am in-world early and often to help and scaffold (invite phone calls and 1 on 1 appointments in SL). If I can get each learner to spend 5 hours in SL during the first two weeks I believe I can make it a successful experience. People who don’t spend that much time or who don’t ask for help after the first two weeks sometimes slip through the cracks. It takes me a full month to know every one of my online students.
- I am flexible as to what I expect from learners with different needs. While this is helpful for many, my flexibility is a double edged sword. Often the people who find SL disturbing also find my flexibility disturbing. They want to be told exactly what to do and what is expected without wiggle room.
- I am unable to design a course before I know the participants. (This could be a much deeper psychological problem than I am willing to admit :) I am always redesigning. This is extremely disturbing to the same people who find my flexibility and SL’s other worldliness disconcerting. I cannot over emphasize this because it is a limitation of any study that might be done about my students in SL. This will be a confounding variable that must be teased from the factors related to the platform and learners.
As I writing this I see some things that could be highlighted at the beginning of my next course. Avatar control, communication and getting home obviously need more explicit attention. And controlling my impulse to redesign may be worth the price of a couple of counseling sessions ;-)
A more gentle introduction to failure as a learning practice may be helpful too. And while I believe that as teachers we can reach everyone. It helps to know the different needs of learners. I am still no clearer about the learner characteristics that may support more or less success.
Dear reader, as always I would love your comments, own reflections, and challenges to my speculations.