Second Life as a Platform for Virtual Meetings and Distance Learning Programs

Second Life 2
Next month I’m participating in a ‘fireside chat’ on the future of education with a group of leading thinkers on the subject from around the world — in Second Life. We’ll all be there, represented by our avatars, sitting on a beach in this virtual world, warming ourselves by the bonfire, stretching our legs, having a drink, going for a walk among the palms, and chatting both in our real voices and by a displayed IM thread. The chat will be broadcast to others who don’t have avatars (so they can’t be present ‘in person’), and it will be recorded as a vlogcast.

Setting up my avatar, pictured above, was easy — you start by picking from a dozen ‘stock’ avatars. But it doesn’t take long to learn that you can no more keep the appearance you first entered Second Life with than you can keep the appearance you first entered real life with. It just isn’t done. You have to reinvent yourself, change your body, your skin, your hair, your clothes, learn some new moves.

Second Life is very much like real life — but not for the reasons you might imagine. It’s like real life in these ways:

  • There are clear codes of conduct that vary by culture, and these codes are mostly unwritten, and must be learned.
  • Unless you’re a master at computer scripts, you’re pretty helpless when it comes to making anything for yourself. You have to buy everything from others, or pick it up from the popular ‘free’ malls in Second Life.
  • It’s a fun place to hang out with friends and people you know.
  • It’s really lonely if you hang out there alone. There are a lot of lonely people wandering through Second Life.
  • Many of the people you meet are trying to sell you something, including sex.
  • It’s a complex social environment. There is more going on than you can ever know. Life there is unpredictable.
  • Most people judge most other people by appearance and first impression.
  • Most people are very serious, and quite a few seem quite desperate. Even the dance floors seem rather joyless places.
  • There are a lot of ego games being played. It is, despite appearances, a fiercely competitive place. This is entirely unnecessary but it is so. We may adopt new personas with our avatars, but we bring our neuroses and other emotional baggage with us.
  • When someone turns on their mike and speaks with their ‘real’ voice, it can really break the spell. Reality intrudes on one’s imaginings. No surprise that most people in Second Life communicate only with the IM/chat.
  • There is a discouraging amount of reproducing in Second Life exactly what exists and happens in real life. Given the imaginative potential of this world, this is ghastly to behold. 
  • There is the potential of ‘stalking’ in Second Life. It’s kind of dumb, because there are so many other characters there you can get infatuated with instead, but it’s possible, easy to do, and next to consequence free.
  • You learn by making mistakes, not by reading manuals. This is embarrassing, sometimes even humiliating. Some people will be kind when this happens. Some will be cruel. Most will be indifferent.

In some ways, Second Life is ‘better’ than real life. Therein lies its seductive appeal:

  • There are no physically ugly places there. Some places are surreal, mindbending like a good trip (in both senses of the word trip), provocative, stimulating, relaxing.
  • There are no physically ugly people there. Everyone is beautiful, even those who adopt grotesque appearances and costumes. Almost everyone is young, healthy and well-endowed. You need no food or water, or to consume anything to thrive. Everyone lives forever. (Some people may think this is not a good thing.)
  • You can buy weapons, but, from what I can tell, you can’t hurt or kill anyone with them, so they are pretty rare. 
  • Everyone can fly and teleport anywhere else instantly. There are no carbon emissions in Second Life, no pollution, no waste.
  • With some limitations (some severe, others not) you can do some interesting social simulations in Second Life and repeat them over and over, learning each time. You could, for example, create an intentional community, and experiment with real people ‘living’ in it to discover compatibility, learn to create consensus etc. Some aspects of Second Life are much like an idealized Gift/Generosity Economy, which is intriguing to study. You can live quite comfortably, free, or you can spend a small fortune if you want to.
  • You can record anything you want in Second Life, relive it over and over, and erase it whenever you like.

In some ways, Second Life is inferior to real life. These can ‘get’ to you quite quickly:

  • As superficially beautiful as the many created environments in Second Life are, they are strangely flat, two-dimensional. They lack the drama of real-life natural beauty.
  • There are no realistic wild creatures in Second Life. You can choose an animal as your avatar, but you just can’t behave like an animal, and the creatures ‘programmed’ to do things over and over in Second Life are mechanical, and therefore depressing. It’s a wilderness in there, but not in a good way.
  • The visual and aural effects in Second Life are very clever, and because so many people have been involved in their creation they rarely get boring. But they are all two-dimensional, not immersive, and the rest of your senses are not engaged at all. After a while you get a kind of numbness setting in as a result.
  • While it’s a complex social environment (ten million avatars have been created and tens of thousands are online at any time, moving or teleporting from one place to another), it’s not a complex ecological environment. The scenery is lovely but it’s fake. You can’t do ecological simulations there.
  • Voyeurism and exhibitionism are rampant, and tolerated, even encouraged. Staring at others is not a bad way to learn how to operate in Second Life, but it makes you feel uncomfortable, queasy.
  • Your whereabouts can be tracked throughout the vast spaces of Second Life, over time. Big Brother may be watching you. Probably is, in fact.

So what’s the potential here for holding virtual meetings and distance learning sessions in Second Life? I think it’s extraordinary, with a few caveats:

  1. There needs to be a way to require ‘full disclosure’ of your true identity as a condition of participating in serious events like meetings and education sessions. One click on someone’s avatar at a ‘full disclosure’ event and you should be able to see their real photo, age, gender, and highlights of their CV. That context is essential for trust and meaningful sustainable communication.
  2. There needs to be a way to ‘transport’ windows from your computer screen into the Second Life environment. Jumping back and forth from the Second Life view to the desktop videoconferencing or screen-sharing application is just too jarring. It spoils the whole illusion of really being there together.
  3. It would be very helpful (and not just for these applications) to have an nTag-type feature built into Second Life. nTag is a badge that contains magnetic information about your personal interests, skills and experiences, and when you are physically close to someone else who shares these qualities, it lights up and displays what you have in common. This would be relatively easy to add to Second Life, and would be a brilliant addition to it, perhaps even transforming into an important Social Networking tool.
  4. One of the critical advantages of face-to-face learning over distance learning is the ability to demonstrate to students how to do something, and let them practice. This would be much more difficult to do in Second Life, but without it, some face-to-face practice sessions will always be needed, which is a serious constraint. We learn by doing, not just by listening.

Despite these caveats, I’m really excited about the potential of virtual environments like Second Life as meeting and learning tools. I can even imagine having an Open Space event in Second Life, complete with the invitations, the opening forum, the breakout sessions (each recorded automatically), and even, virtually, the exercise of the Law of Two Feet. I wonder if any Open Space experts have thought about this. I betthey have.

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10 Responses to Second Life as a Platform for Virtual Meetings and Distance Learning Programs

  1. Jon Husband says:

    I am ot an expert, but i know OS and have “organized” and facilitated about 20 over the years .. and yes, I thought about what you have suggested .. have not ever done anything about what I thought about, including writing about it. I’ll bet it would work well, and be fun and would accomplish moving things forward around a central question / issue.

  2. Vish Goda says:

    I believe Second Life should be the forum that you use to actually try out your ideas – sort of testing the waters…Just as you say, it is where you can learn from experience without having to pay for it dearly. Having said that, do you really need another discussion on that subject…My suggestion, Dave, is to just go ahead and implement your ideas and then see where it goes

  3. Mariella says:

    Why not playing an intentional community ¿Is it possible?

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Comment from Sean, who’s being blocked by RU’s comment server:A good overview of Second Life’s qualities. A few things though…There are ugly, or at least grungy, places (e.g. Suffugium) and as far as ecological simulations go, do artificial ecologies count, as there are several, like Svarga. Identity verification is available. Filling out the 1st life section of profiles helps, and identity can be built up through reputation and existing contacts and networks. You don’t need to be able to script to build stuff. Plenty of things (like buildings) can be made without any scripting, and there are plenty of free scripts which are easy to tweak if you need to give your objects basic behaviours. Weapons work on damage-enabled sims (there are a lot of RPG sims), but death only means you are teleported back to your home. There may be no carbon emissions within SL, but many, like Nicholas Carr, have drawn attention to the environmental impact of the servers (SL needs a lot of computer grunt to run), although this may be balanced out by increases in teleworking. As for Open Space events, there has been a BarCampSecondLife & a RootsCampSL.Sean

  5. Doug Alder says:

    “There needs to be a way to require ‘full disclosure’ of your true identity “Too easy, like anywhere else on the net, to fake.

  6. Theresa says:

    I’m amazed that you would become so easily won over by second life. A little disappointed. Everybody isn’t beautiful there and not all of us rush in. I went onto Second Life about a year ago and refuse to leave help island until I feel completely competent to make my way around the rest of the site without yielding to the temptation to buy things. Also, I have to make sure my avatars appearance is real and reflects my real age. Its frightening how long I can stare at my avatar, watching her breath as I tweak the appearance. Originally it was supposed to look more like me but the other day I started doing some self portraits and was unaware of how much I was trying to make my own face look like my avatars face. My main objection to Second Life – besides the amount of money I could spend there – is that it is not a commons of any kind. Its owned by the Lindens. Just like a shopping mall or a hotel conference room you think? No, its more like your whole town or country (or world) being owned by a corporation. I suppose I should explore the rest of the site before making a judgement, but I just don’t want to get suckered into spending money there. I know myself well enough to know how easily that can happen. Virtual world’s do seem like a more fun place to meet people online but I think it is misleading to think you will learn any more about them from that kind of an encounter than from email exchanges.

  7. Rod Murray says:

    I’d like to participate in the ‘fireside chat’. Is it open to others? How can I find it?I thought you and your readers might be interested in the upcomingNational Distance Learning Week and my interview of the NDLW NationalChair, Dr. Ken Hartman on my podcast:, see…NDLW: http://www.ndlw.orgThanks,Rod

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Theresa: Won over by the potential, not the current state. I decided to shrug off the embarrassment and just jump in — I know that’s not for everyone. And I too refuse to pay for anything — haven’t spent a cent there and never will (don’t buy software in the real world either — no need). I have updated my profile to show my true self, so I don’t care if my avatar doesn’t look like me (I’m toying with adopting a bird as my avatar). And yes, it’s not a commons, but it is substantially a Generosity Economy, despite its dark material side. As for learning about other people, I suspect you will learn much more about yourself. Nothing wrong with that. ;-)Rod: I’ll ask the convenors of the chat if it’s open and if so, I’ll post a link. If not, I’ll post a link afterwards to the recording.

  9. Alan Levine says:

    Dave- Thanks for a refreshingly balanced view on the social dynamics of Second Life. I look forward to being part of the event in November with you.As often with technology, even in some of the comments here, there is a human tendency to extend their singular experience in a large complex system to the entire system.Our organization, the New Media Consortium, for the last 2 years has been organizing events, meetings, performances, in Second Life. We have had live music, panel discussions, keynotes from leaders such as Howard Rheingold and Henry Jenkins, art exhibitions. Last august we ran a week long conference fully in this environment with more than 150 paid registrants and are planning a larger one for December. All of our work is documented on the NMC Campus Observer http://sl.nmc.orgI am not an overly zealous SL cheerleader, but my experience there and the incredible amount of collaboration (the education community is one of the most giving and open as I have not seen in a long time in other tech spaces) keeps me intrigued. I have expanded my professional network with colleagues around the world much farther than it was before SL.And yes, I think you could quite easily do an Open Space Forum session here quite effectively.regardsAlan

  10. Sabine Reljic says:

    This is great to read a reasonable “post-wow effect” about SL. It is important not to forget that SL is only a part of the technology ecology (an evolving and fascinating one at that) and can/should be used in combination.A nice “video about students today” ( helps everyone keep in mind what really happens with technology and education. I’ve used this to replace the “did you know…?” series to connect better with students and instructors. It does not mention SL, but it certainly helps everyone understand certain realities about technology in general and learning in particular (i.e., collaborative, and the use of technology toward that end).Best,S.

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