Why Second Life is already second-best for education

The announcement by Linden Lab in the past 24 hours that their discounting of pricing for educators and non-profits would cease in January 2011, has engendered the expected level of outrage. And rightly so, given the critical mass of educators that have generated significant outcomes for Second Life. In fact, it could be argued that it’s only the good news stories generated by the non-profits that have helped offset some of the negative aspects inflated by parts of the mainstream media and others. The comments section below the announcement is well worth a read: even taking out the initial emotion, the overwhelming attitude is that it’s time to downsize or move on. Of course, the migration to OpenSim grids is already well underway, for a range of reasons.

As someone who follows virtual worlds pretty closely, I thought I understood the specific reasons for the move from Second Life fairly well. However, I only got the full picture over the past month, when I needed to explore options for my own education-related build. Without boring you with detail, I’m looking at conducting some research that will involve some fairly complex simulations. When I wrote the proposal for the research, I was already assuming that Second Life wouldn’t necessarily be the platform due to cost constraints (and this was before the price-rise announcement). That assumption was confirmed after some detailed discussions with a number of people, including someone developing a number of education-related projects including one aligned with my own proposal.

Based on those discussions and my own observations, here’s the key reasons I’ll not be working in Second Life for my education project (and most likely using either Unity3D, OpenSim or both):

Content creation: Although SL provides some great scripting options, the learning curve is significant and there’s minimal support for defacto design and modelling platforms. This leads to the need to either hire an SL builder or give up a significant chunk of time to learn a scripting language that’s not transferable elsewhere (except in some respects to OpenSim).

Structured learning: There is minimal ability in SL to guide avatars through particular experiences. Heads-up displays can work to some extent, but the scene-by-scene capability of Unity3D is head and shoulders above.

Reliability: ignoring historical challenges, the fact remains that down-time in SL is totally at the mercy of Linden Lab. A standalone OpenSim grid or a Unity3D installation aren’t as susceptible.

Client: SL being still being a standalone client makes it a bigger challenge to use for education that a web-based client. That may change in the medium-term but it’s a deal-breaker for purposes where dedicated PCs aren’t an option.

Ease of use: One of the key weaknesses of SL is it’s ease of use, particularly for new users. It’s something that has improved and will continue to improve. Although competitors aren’t markedly better, they certainly aren’t worse.

I want to make an important point: Second Life deserves to continue to grow and I’m still confident it will, albeit with a very different focus to what it has now. The decision on education pricing fits the wider business model as it now stands. Even that is fine, if it’s based on confidence of a new market and unshakeable faith that the current shortcomings of SL will be overcome soon enough. On the face of it, that market isn’t apparent and the improvements still seem a while away.

I’d love to hear from educators / non-profits at the coalface. Emotions aside – have you started considering moving away from Second Life, and if so why?

Update: Linden Lab have made a follow-up statement with a rather interesting take on things.


  1. Bjorn Ericsson says

    I am going to paste here exactly what I wrote on the official Linden Lab blog regarding these news:

    As an educator, and active administrator in maintaining a major European university (over 14,000 students) presence in Second Life I am not impressed with Linden Labs so called business strategy.

    Yes I am upset and disappointed about this incomprehensible call of action from Linden Lab.

    I usually speak positively about Linden Lab and Second Life during my classes and seminars, trying to promote and bring more institutions, corporations and residents into Second Life, but it seems I will have little to say in the future. Anything postive that is…

    Universities, and non-profit organisations, not only bring new residents into Second Life in form of students and business associates connected to immersive education, but also educate all these students in how to use Second Life, how to navigate this virtual world and interact with others.

    In cases more often than not, these new residents will take on their own virtual life, and want to fund their account with real money and purchase a home, on virtual land.

    Residents created Second Life, this is how Linden Lab pays them back?

    What happends to all the non-profit organisations who are dedicated, devoted and give their heart (not to mention hundreds of man-hours unpaid work) to help new residents in form of guidance, arranged classes and exhibitions? They join other virtual worlds where maintaining an educational institution, or organisation, is cheaper.

    What happens to all the wonderful artwork, museums and galleries in Second Life who is currently available for anyone to watch and be immersed in? Artists and galleries must beg for money?

    What happens to non-profit projects who use Second Life to support and help disabled people suffering from dyslexia, aspergers syndrome or other disabilities? We ask the disabled to pay our bill?

    What happens to residents when there is nowhere to go for amusment, immersive learning or mutual colloboration? They leave Second Life!

    The Black Swan was a monumental landmark for artistic creativity, and so was The Greenies. The Scottish castle which was built to it’s real-life counterpart, or the moonlanding sim, not to mention The Second Louvré, these have all, like many others, left due to high maintainance costs.

    A non-profit organisation in particular is vurnurable to funding from external sources, and once the funding stops due to high costs, the presence of that organisation will vanish (join another virtual world).

    We do not expect to pay for learning how Second Life works, and if we are eventually forced to pay for it since there are no help areas, no classes or building tutorials available, how many new residents will then join? How many old residents will stay once there is nothing new to learn?

    If you think that universities and non-profit organisations will stay regardless of paying double the price; we won’t.

    Who cares about learning anything anyway, education is nothing important and the future is all about money, money and money.

    Anyone involved in virtual worlds and education can see the future of this; the oiltanker which is Linden Lab is not only running low on fuel, it is also steering for a reef.

  2. Lowell Cremorne says

    That’s really well put Bjorn.

  3. Nicole Yankelovich says

    I hope you and your readers will consider Open Wonderland (http://openwonderland.org/) as a platform for developing educational virtual worlds. In particular, the platform is highly extensible, so it is well suited to creating multi-user simulations or connecting virtual world content to external data feeds, databases, and devices. Our Facebook page is a great place for educators to ask questions or get more information about Open Wonderland (http://www.facebook.com/openwonderland?ref=ts).

  4. Your readers might consider OpenCobalt as well at OpenCobalt.org
    It’s a little weak in construction tools, but it’s staff are improving importers. It runs on the “change-the-code-while-running Smalltalk language. It’s quick to install and start (no server needed) and runs peer-2-peer.

  5. Camilo Galeano says

    Second life is undoubtedly the father of modern virtual worlds and served as a platform for exploration in education, and we should not try to remember that Second Life was created with the clear objective of being a tool of social entertainment and they have decided maintain that focus.

    It’s time to use the experience we leave second life and apply them in other environments such as OpenSim, you must create pedagogical models that fit these 3D environments and lead to the tool meets the needs today are education institutions to implement new ways of acquiring knowledge.

    I am currently the executive director of the company 3Dsoft and we are leading a team that is in charge of building a virtual training platform based on OpenSim based on problem-based learning, we are working on integration with Web services and management tools content.

    here you can see something of the platform: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upyL5SDERx8

    Camilo Andrés Galeano
    Chief executive officer – 3Dsoft
    Learning in Virtual Worlds
    E-mail: c.galeano@o3dsoft.com
    skype: camilo.3dsoft
    WebSite: http://o3dsoft.com/

  6. very nicely written and balanced

    i moved away from SL (19 sims) and have been in OpenSim for 10 months or so and love it. educationally speaking, there is nothing that i need from Second Life. yes, that means i have to create most of the things i need, but then i love to learn =)

  7. We are closing shop. Our immersive literary simulation will move to a private grid hosted by Reaction Grid. It’s for all of the reasons you cited, plus one:

    We don’t need a big metaverse to accomplish what we wish with classes. In fact, it’s antithetical in some ways. For this build, we want isolation from other users except those who are invited to create accounts or who use premade ones.

    That is sad in a sense, because our 2D Web content has always been issued under Creative Commons licensing and we want others to stop by, casually, to use it.

  8. It’s interesting how much the internet has changed education. It has changed the way we learn. I wonder how far it will go? Maybe there will be no need for institutions in the future…just a computer?

  9. Suzanne Aurilio says

    I’ve been conservative with investing in space in SL since we started to in 2007, so the capacity we’ve built could be moved to another platform with little loss. I’d started looking at other platforms 2008 anyway, for the reasons you mentioned you’re not investing in SL for your next project. We’ll likely wait out our contract, (we just renewed) and see what develops.

    Suzanne Aurilio,
    San Diego State University

  10. “I want to make an important point: Second Life deserves to continue to grow” – why?

    SL is a paid service, they will grow if they are serving customer needs. we aren’t talking about some charity here, why do they “deserve” to grow?

    lol, i don’t know why this time that got to me!

    as i commented earlier, it has been a joy to be in OpenSim and greater creativity has resulted from the freedom inherent with having your own grid =)

  11. I have used Second Life since 2007 to educate architecture and design students, and actually a whole range of platforms (Unity3D, Unreal, Garage Games) over the years. It’s a shame that this change has occurred, because even though SL hasn’t been flavour of the month for a while, it still works incredibly well as context to immerse participants in a shared design space. Alas the persistent design space we have, and which I was hoping we could have percolating for say 20 years, now will probably be simply switched off at the start of 2011.

  12. Once again, educators seizing the bully pulpit to purvey falsehoods. What we’re *actually* seeing with this latest “punk edu” controversy is a minority of sectarians — I call them technocommunists — whining once again that the server code isn’t opensourced, that all content, even content they didn’t create, isn’t copyable and portable to other grids, and that commerce is even integrated at all. This core of complainers turn out to be total frauds as I’ve found with just some basic journalistic investigations. They barely make any content themselves, and what they do make are just simple textured boxes (and that’s ok — that’s why it’s not true that you need to hire “expensive” builders).The loudest complainers have no expensive custom builds at all!!! AJ Brooks and Ignatius O. in SL have only *freebies* — all-perm builds like those made by Lordfly for Clever Zebra as a loss leader. Such few prefabs they have are modestly priced and they could easily ask the makers to license a transfer. Oh, they might not like that idea, as the new open sims have no intellectual property rights and no permissions system — they are collectivists who discourage commerce.Education in America is a business — a big business. And it is also integrated to free enterprise and intellectual property — *and that’s ok*. But it’s not a state of affairs that suits this tiny minority of whiners, mostly from second-rate podunk colleges.Most educators in SL have not succeeded in engaging students. And the reason for that is because they don’t free them to build and manage the land on demand — they lock them out of land groups and deny them permissions out of fear that they will grief or make inappropriate content. They don’t grant students their IP rights — they either pay them little and grab their work as “work for hire,” or expect them to “volunteer” work that is grabbed by the campus as their IP. It’s a shocking lesson to be teaching kids. Instead of encouraging kids to create and build and sell, the Marxist-style professors badger kids into being good little collectivists and giving everything away — and then turn around and become hard-nosed capitalists as they grab their IP for their own value to go on getting grants from the state or private foundations.

    Most edu campuses as a result are dull, stultifying experiences with predictable Soviet-style stadiums and boxy modern architecture from free prefabs — and if there is a sandbox, it’s on auto return. You don’t have to be a skilled 3-d content creator to create in SL — the existence of prefabs and modules everywhere, often for free or very low cost, means anyone can enjoy the thrill of modifying their space and expressing themselves. Most educators haven’t tapped into 1/100th of the capacity of SL — they haven’t innovated or contributed by making compelling locations or inventions. Instead, they greedily suck down all the freebies they can hoard on their sims — freebies that were intended as loss leaders for commerce, not intended to wind up in the edu cul-de-sac.Open Sim isn’t a place that has a wide variety of people from all walks of life doing all kinds of creative things. It’s a sterile zones of ideologues trying to keep each other company while the sims crash. There isn’t the serendipity and wealth of content that you have in the more real-life like SL. That’s because utopian ideology reigns in Open Sim, and one that isn’t conducive to life — for long.Scene-by-scene tutorials and guids are all over the place. Not only are there the tutorials like Oxbridge and many other similar newbie stations, there are builds such as I’ve commissioned in Ross and Iris where people can learn second-tier skills in an immersive interactive environment. I have no particular technical skills and again, use the work of others I pay for because I respect their IP and their need to make a living, in order to make a creative space.As for Rezzable, Greenies and the Black Swan — ugh! This cynical exploiter RightAsRain Rimbaud invented a device to easily copy everything on a sim, regardless of whether he had permissions for it, and cynically copied to other grids with it. Why would you celebrate such outright cynical theft? Only after a huge outcry including from some of his underpaid contract builders did he revise his device ostensibly to copy only items for which one had permissions in the system. But the damage was done. Rezzable sims, like other such ideologically-based “Free” projects in SL are a testimonial to just how failed Chris Anderson’s ideology in fact is when really tested and monitored. These people didn’t sell content or admission or rent to vendors. Instead, they thought that by making everything free, paying a few high end builders to create content, that they’d get old companies like perfume manufacturers to pay them huge amounts to advertise. It’s really a cynical idea, because it treats people like mere cannon fodder to advertising schemes. And it failed. Educators got a whopping FIFTY PERCENT discount off sims and maintenance fees. Those who could settle for only 4096 meters of land got land FOR FREE. And the output from this pampered and insular bunch as been very little. Linden Lab did the right thing reversing the grand giveaway to this unproductive and whining bunch.

  13. You’re a very good example of what I’m talking about.

    o Refusal to embrace intellectual property and commerce — brow-beating people into creating content for Creative Commons — which doesn’t pay people for their work

    o insularity, finding the big wide metaverse “antithetical” to your educational mission. Imagine that! The world is in the way. Maybe because if more of us came to see what you were doing, we’d never send our kids to be brainwashed by your sects.

  14. Second Best to what, is my question. Sure, perhaps all those things are true. Perhaps they always have been true. The question is, what does it better? I’ve attempted assimilation on several of the “open sim” solutions mentioned and they were far below acceptable. I beta tested Blue Mars….not impressed as yet….and it has some pretty big negatives in terms of user created content and control. Philosophically, it’s not going to be comparable to Second Life as a platform in terms of user created content…it’s not engineered to be that kind of space. So, if Second Life is second best, would somebody please tell me what’s in first place, because I’m tired of looking.

  15. Lowell Cremorne says

    It’s a great point Steorling. My take would be that each platform has its strengths and weaknesses, but that in the aspects I discussed, there’s a platform that’s better in some respects. Right now, the Unity 3D approach shows a lot of promise from a simulation viewpoint.

  16. Kickaha Wolfenhaut says

    Lowell Cremorne writes: “Ease of use: …It’s something that has improved and will continue to improve.”

    Good grief, I hope you’re not referring to the abysmal Viewer 2 !


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