Students vs Second Life

Average Gen Xer? Maybe not?

When I started thinking about education in Second Life, and the reactions of students of university/college age to it, I rather naturally turned to think of my own experiences, and of ideas and prejudices I held as a student of approximately the same age. It took me a little time, and the reading of an article by Joe Essid and Lee Carleton, to realize that that particular approach was never going to work. Today’s students are, for the most part, not of my generation (Generation X), which typically includes folks born between 1964 and 1982. Instead, they tend to be those folks born between 1982 and 2002 or thereabouts – the Millennial Generation.

Why make this distinction? Each generation has a tendency to differ greatly from the generation directly preceding it (which is precisely why these otherwise seemingly arbitrary groupings are made). Ideas, political notions, morals and ethics all have a tendency to change, as the younger generation both learns from and rebels against the previous one. As Generation X rebelled against the strictures placed upon the Baby Boomers, so the Millennial Generation rebels in its quiet, refined manner against the excesses of Generation X.

In Second Life, the gap between Generation X and the Millennial Generation comes sharply into focus, in the two ways that I will discuss further:

1. Second Life is primarily filled with Generation X’ers, unintentionally creating a socially unwelcoming environment for Millennials;

2. Generation X’ers know how to play in the freeform manner that Second Life requires, whereas Millennials typically do not display that skill.

First, the social and political atmosphere of Second Life. Statistically, more people from Generation X participate in Second Life than from any other generation. The ramifications of this are two-fold. It’s harder for Millennials to make contact with other Millennials in this scene, since they constitute a minority of the population. Millennials no doubt feel somewhat uncomfortable interacting socially with folk outside their own generation, whether it be because they sense the cultural disconnect between themselves and older folk or for some other reason. Second Life is chock full Generation X’ers, and they have filled it with their own fashion sense, outlooks, learning styles, and politics – what an intimidating world to enter for the Millennials. Generations X’ers are the Millennials’ parents, and also those strangers their parents warned them about. Add to that the fact that the Millennials are much more likely to have many friends with whom they communicate face to face and then organize those friends and their own lives using technological gadgets and the Internet, rather than meeting people over the Internet. Second Life is simply an unfriendly place for you to go, even if you are not a typical, timid Millennial.

Second, Second Life is an environment in which you need to be able to set goals and tasks for yourself in order to get anything out of it – it is a non-directed playground in which to let the imagination run free. The Millennial Generation has not learned to play this way. They are not used to “making their own fun.” Throughout their schooling they have been given regimented tasks, with pre-determined goals; time outside school is often dominated by a flurry of parentally- determined activities. They are more likely to play games that are directed than to come up with their own games – a Millennial is more likely to play Guitar Hero than to spend time noodling about with a guitar.

The Millennial Generation has an overwhelming sense of ‘busyness’ that pervades their lives, so that not only is learning in a directed fashion a habitual thing for them, it’s also a way of doing things more quickly. Targeted exercises speed up the process of transmitting and garnering information. Additionally, students are looking to do close to the minimum of coursework required to pass, in order to spend more time socially with friends, a priority in this generation.

The educator who uses Second Life as a learning tool will be teaching an additional subject – how to play in a freeform way. The concept and practice of freeform or open-ended play was easier for Generation X, in a way – we were rebelling against another world entirely. Difference and imagination was embraced. It was like a little Renaissance. Even though our schooling focused somewhat on directed study, by university age we had hopefully been weaned off it – by the system. The Millennial Generation, however, needs now to be taught to play this way. They need to be drawn out of their risk-averse shells gently – they need to be led, not pushed. They are not bold.

Second Life is a place where the adventurous prosper and creativity is king – and being able to play in an open-ended way is a necessary skill. Educators need to accommodate their students by creating a somewhat directed environment for them to learn in, and then wean them off it and release them into the open.

For further information on this topic, check out “A Playful Pedagogy for Second Life“, Dr Joe Essid and Lee Carleton, 2008, to be published later this year.

Comments

  1. Enlightening. Bookmarked.

  2. It could be a couple of other things:

    1) The average millennial isn't old enough to play adult SL (born: 1992, age: 16), only the 1982-1990 born can.
    2) GenX is at the right age to play: the entire generation is old enough to play, was raised on playing video games, and mostly has the money or time to play.

    If you are going to talk about the statistical spread in SL, don't just look at the raw numbers. Those are misleading, look at the relative numbers. As a percentage of the total population of their age group, do GenX versus Millennial versus Baby Boomer play SL? As a percentage of the eligible players?

    For example, does a larger/smaller percentage of the total population of 21 year olds play SL? Compare that to the same statistic for 31 year olds, etc. If the total population of 18-26 year olds is 5 million and the total population of GenX is 25 million, then you should expect, on average, 5 times the number of GenXers to Millennials playing.

    Yes, the numbers become small as a percentage of the total number of people of that age, e.g 5000 versus 500,0000, but this is just normalizing for population distribution and age distribution, rather than grouping all of a generation, including one not even old enough to completely use SL and irregardless of the number of them. Now, we know the Baby Boomers had a much larger generation size, population-wise than the GenX, how about the Millennial?

    I think it is better to exhaust the potential population distribution (and wealth if possible), than to start to say that the Millennials are less “creative and freeform” than the GenXers. That's an awfully big generalization from a thin analysis of the numbers.

  3. So, I decided to do a bit of investigation:

    SL Reports:
    18-24 year olds account for 15.42% of usage time
    25-34 year olds account for 34.76% of usage time
    35-44 year olds account for 28.31% of usage time

    The census bureau as of 2004 (the latest year I could easily google data for) Reports:
    18-24 year old population is 20,971,000
    25-34 year old population is 40,032,000
    35-44 year old population is 44,108,000

    So, accounting for population distribution, the 25-34 year olds spend slightly (~2%) more time in world, per percentage of the US population, than the 18-24 year olds.

    There are a couple of caveats to this data, its from 2004 census and its only US, but since the original post tried to draw conclusions based on US child rearing habits of the past couple of decades, I don't feel too bad about using the same basic data. Also, it is usage data, not population data in SL, but I couldn't find data specifying the numbers of users of the various ages in SL.

    So, given a bit of better data analysis and the relative similarity of the usage data, I feel that it's specious to conclude that the Millenials basically need things “spoon fed” to them.

  4. Actually, the starting point for “Millennials” vary. The useful, if a bit dated, book Millennials Rising by Neil Howe and William Strauss uses the 1982 date. I agree.

    Starting in about 2000, I began to detect the very habits and changes in incoming first-years at our university that Strauss and Howe describe. And thus this demographic is JUST the right age to begin using SL “legally.” NOT that all residents are 18 in any case.

    I'm a typical Gen-Xer (Ramones, not Beatles; pessimistic, not chipper; edgy, not conformist). The book told me a lot about non-Millennials! Take that, smug Boomers!

  5. I agree with the advice about giving a “somewhat directed” environment for students to learn in but I am a bit skeptical about the distinction between generation X and the Millennials. Many of the millenials are just coming into college now so maybe the perceived difference is perhaps more developmental than related to differences in generational experience. From my limited experience with SL- I am a Baby boomer by the way-and I see lots of people in my generation who are as lost in SL. Maybe what's needed is a somewhat structured SL experience that encourages self directed play- maybe a gradient of structure…I don't know.

    Tiessa, great analysis but some of us older than 44 play in SL too. 😉

  6. Eloise Pasteur says:

    Unconvinced that the arguments hold together.

    Students in SL who are millennials will only suffer the from the need to be able to freeform play if their class consists of instructions such as “go and explore Second Life and write a report.” Whilst there may be classes like that, most classes have someone creating a structured learning environment and setting goals – whether you call them the teacher, lecturer, professor or whatever. No need to set your own goals as a student in Second Life, you still have that authority figure there to do it for you. However, your analysis may suggest a reason why students tend to view SL as a place to learn only and don't remain active outside of class time, although in my experience about 10% of students go further than that despite the demands on their time which is a much higher rate than LL think are retained (of all users) going through the orientation process (they currently estimate 1%).

    Any given class in Second Life has the same structure as a RL class. There are a small number (maybe only 1) of Gen X's or Baby-boomers, and a larger number of Gen Y's/Millennials. The students come with a pre-formed pool of their contemporaries with whom they have or will develop a relationship, and probably outnumber the older generations locally. Perhaps we should apply your analysis and stop teaching them altogether since they won't trust their RL educators either and are outnumbered in their educational institutions by those evil older generations?

    Now, if we move away from considering students your comments about why SL doesn't appeal widely to millennials might hold up – except SL doesn't appeal widely as it exists to any generation. Gen X-ers by your dates may predominate (although one of the other comments suggests this isn't as heavy a domination as you think when adjusted for population profile) and this may be a generational thing. It may also be a financial thing (Gen X-ers and older have the free cash to be in SL from home reliably and well more than Gen Y-ers), it may be a time thing (kids are older and demand less time, working a single job, etc.) and I'm sure there are a several other things that are related solely to being older rather than generational differences that could equally be advanced to support this.

  7. Hi there,

    A most enlightening and thought provoking article. I am involved in tertiary education and have been pondering the best way to utilise the immersive environment of SL to teach Mandarin Chinese to my undergraduate students (the very generation you are writing about). I have definitely noticed that when I have a structured lesson in SL that has clear objectives and rules my students join in fairly enthusiastically, but when I try to set up let formally structured events I get very little response from the students.

    If SL is to survive as an educational platform the issues you raise need to be thoroughly researched and addressed. This is a fascinating area – what motivates, stimulates and captures the imagination of our students and how can we leverage these driving forces to achieve our educational goals. I will definitely be buying your book when it comes out.

    Scott Grant
    Chinese Studies Program
    Faculty of Arts
    Monash University
    Australia

  8. Hi there,

    A most enlightening and thought provoking article. I am involved in tertiary education and have been pondering the best way to utilise the immersive environment of SL to teach Mandarin Chinese to my undergraduate students (the very generation you are writing about). I have definitely noticed that when I have a structured lesson in SL that has clear objectives and rules my students join in fairly enthusiastically, but when I try to set up let formally structured events I get very little response from the students.

    If SL is to survive as an educational platform the issues you raise need to be thoroughly researched and addressed. This is a fascinating area – what motivates, stimulates and captures the imagination of our students and how can we leverage these driving forces to achieve our educational goals. I will definitely be buying your book when it comes out.

    Scott Grant
    Chinese Studies Program
    Faculty of Arts
    Monash University
    Australia

  9. I agree, very enlightening

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