Educators: students of experience

Ninja Bunny, one of the examples of the pets created by Judy Robertson's class.

As students, even when we come to education wanting to learn, and therefore are supposedly mentally prepared to take new ideas on board, we all have a tendency to balk at new and unexplored things, whether that be the course material or the tools that we are given to learn with.

But does this always have to be the case? With proper management of expectations and knowledge about our tools and material, can we not reduce the rate of rejection?

“Iggy’s Syllabus: A Student’s Take on Second Life and Education”

Joe Essid’s (Ignatius Onomatopoeia, or Iggy) last round of students benefited greatly from the experiences of the students who came through his classes previously: the most recent students engaged with Second Life rapidly and positively, having had the benefit of one-on-one orientations,  assignments that combined Second Life skill-building tasks with course content, and information about Second Life‘s uses as a creative learning platform. The earlier students were provided with far less in the way of introductions to Second Life; they were prone to wonder what the point of learning with Second Life was, and tended to finding it boring.

Back in August of this year, AJ Tan, a Cornell student working for Metanomics over his summer break, published his opinions about Second Life, and why he found it boring. The upshot of his argument seems to be that he wants to be entertained and led, perhaps even pushed, at all times and under all circumstances. He does not expect to have to ‘make his own fun’. “I do not wish to go out and find something to do, I have to do enough searching in the real world. I want to be entertained. Virtual worlds are supposed to be an escape from reality – Second Life is too close a parallel to the real thing.”

Educators will be relieved to know that while there are plenty of students out there with opinions similar to or the same as this, it’s not the only opinion out there. Generation Y may require a little coaxing, but Second Life can allow enriching and interesting learning experiences for them, if only they are taught to give it a chance.

One of Essid’s students, Bridget K,  wrote a piece in her writing journal about the educational uses of Second Life, with a decidedly positive bent. It is apparent that she was inducted effectively in the uses of Second Life, and has found the experience beneficial and engaging. All this, despite having acknowledged that her generation “sees education as ‘ineffective, irrelevant, and unproductive’ (Houck).”

Bridget notes that “Second Life provides a unique educational setting for students.  Learners become immersed in their own education and in the environment he or she is in (“National Education Technology Plan”). Second Life provides the educational tool of role-playing.” From the way this reads, she has found plenty of ‘fun’ experiences within digital environments, along with educational value.

Additionally, Bridget notes that “Second Life will benefit our educational system if used correctly.  There should be a balance between real world educational tools and virtual world educational tools,” which sounds completely reasonable. At the end of the day, Second Life is a tool that can assist us in living our lives, but is not something that should take the place of them. Therefore, it should not take over in an educational setting either.

“The snowmen armies: reflections on teaching first year computer science in Second Life.”

Judy Robertson recounts her tale of teaching using Second Life; specifically, teaching Linden Scripting Language (LSL) to her first year computer science students.

She too has come up against the boredom factor when teaching with Second Life – perhaps more students from gaming backgrounds not used to making their own fun? The class is made up of students of various ages with different academic backgrounds, and yet this attitude seems to pop up a lot. As Iggy found, those first few hours in which a student is exposed to a new idea, a new platform on which to learn, are precious and crucial to that student’s concept of how the idea or platform can be used, and their worth.

When confronted with the notion that Second Life is boring, Judy says, “In my view, this is like being given a big box of plasticine and whining “but there’s nothing to play with”. The point is – you’re meant to make it yourself!” Even more so than in other courses, perhaps – the computer science students are expected to design and implement their own creations in Second Life, so they are using a great deal of the functionality of the digital environment, being required to both build and script.

“It’s a lot of fun for me to teach, and based on the learning logs from last year, a lot of fun for the students to learn with.” Despite complaints of boredom during the term, it seems that students can and do come to appreciate and enjoy Second Life in the long run. Some of the students have found learning LSL to be easier than learning Java, which they are doing in a concurrent course. Judy speculates that this is because more rigour is expected in the design and implementation of Java applications. I speculate that despite the lack of documentation and features, that the scripting community, in addition to the course helpers, also improves the ease with which the language can be learned and used.

Iggy managed his students expectations and experiences; he took his experiences with his first groups, learned what did and didn’t work, and made changes.

It sounds like Judy’s class could have done with a little more management in the first few hours. Due to the excessively large number of students (138!) in the one class, she could not have had one-on-one orientations. However, some of the other methods Iggy used, such as distributing articles about Second Life showing it in a positive light and highlighting its creative potentials for his writing students, could have decreased the number of students complaining about Second Life boredom and vastly improved the overall learning outcomes.

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