Lessons I learned from 7 years of working in education in Second Life

I first entered the virtual world of Second Life (SL) in January of 2010 during a workshop on SL offered at my college (the Northern Virginia Community College).  I came into SL with the expectation I would hold a class in there and teach face to face in a virtual world.  I soon realized that my vision for teaching in SL was not practical, but by visiting many educational regions, I saw that there were in SL exciting, assessable, educational activities that students could benefit from.  It has been a fun journey down a winding path with many unexpected twist and turns. You can read about this journey at my blog http://blogs.nvcc.edu/gperrier/.   The result is a model that works for our college and in 2015, we brought about 800 students to the campus to complete activities in Biology and Health Sciences.


The purpose of this list of lessons is to share what I have learned about education in SL over these six years.   I came into SL with the wrong vision and had to change.  Visiting other campuses I saw lovely buildings and classrooms that no one used, but also saw creative novel designs that students were using.  I made mistakes and I learned.  I saw others make mistakes and I also learned.  I saw others successfully using new paradigms of education in virtual worlds and I learned.  I do not claim this list is exhaustive, but it is an attempt to capture and share with others the lessons I learned.  The list focuses on education in institutions of higher education in SL, not on K-12 or other virtual worlds, but I think many of the lessons would also apply to K-12 and other virtual environments.  If you want to discuss these lessons more, please email me at gperrier@nvcc.edu.


The lessons are grouped under six different headings: Getting started, Building, Student issues, Instructional issues, Professional development, and Program development.



Getting started (5 Lessons)


Visit a good orientation site during your first week.    This will allow you to understand the basics of SL quickly.  I suggest Caledon Oxbridge, but there are others good sites.  There are often “tutors” available at Oxbridge who will help answer your questions about SL.


Understand the different viewers people use to function in SL and select one for use.  I selected Phoenix Firestorm (called Firestorm) because it would still run on older versions after an upgrade was released and thus the IT department had to reinstall it only between semesters.  I found most people eventually use Firestorm.



Network widely to understand what others are doing, to meet people take advantage of the many educations groups in SL (the Science Circle, VSTE, ISTE, VWER, VWBPE, Virtual Pioneers, and the SLED list serve)


Visit as many other campuses and educational regions (sometimes called sims) as possible to see how they present things, what educational activities they have, and to look at their classrooms and meeting areas.  This gives you design ideas.  The Science Circle has an impressive list of such regions and landmarks so you can visit them.


Before bringing students to SL explore what others have done, what has worked and what has not worked.




Building (17 Lessons)


            When you visit a region in SL realize that everything you see there (buildings and other structures, educational activities, equipment, plants, animals, etc.) was built by someone.  Many of these items can be purchased from the people who built them at stores in SL or on the SL Market Place webpage.  Building is both a skill and art and it takes time to learn. There are regions such as the Builders Brewery that have displays that help you learn to build.  Slowly over your first year or two learn the basics of building.


Remember, building is fun and creative but the difficult part is translating the build into an assessable educational activity.  Avoid spending so much time on building that the educational part is neglected.


Get people who are skilled at building to do the building.  Focus yourself on the educational component of the build.


Do not build activities without first thinking of why and how instructors and students will use them.   Try to get the people who you hope to use the educational build to comment on the design.  Many campuses assumed that if they build something nice, instructors would start to use it.  This has been shown over and over to be incorrect.


Do not duplicate the real campus in SL.  SL allows builds to be much more creative.  Duplicating the campus needlessly consumes a lot of funds, time, and prims (Land impact units) and usually has little educational value.


There is usually no need to duplicate activities others have already built in SL.  You can ask the region owner to let your students visit those sites.  With approval, you should treat those activities the same as the ones on your campus in terms of how students are expected to use them and be assessed.


Unless something has a potential educational value, do not added it to the campus, with the exception of landscaping.


Provide a pleasing landscape to the campus, make it visually appealing. Consider lighting for night and other light conditions.


When building structures favor open and roomy rather than enclosed and confining. This is in part a personal preference; but I have found that people new to SL function much better in open roomy spaces.  Outdoor office such as a deck or beach with a few chairs work well.


Make walkways wide and have doors automatically open as one approaches; moving and opening doors are frequent problems for people new to SL.  Unless necessary, do not have doors on buildings.


When students are expected to sit, select seats/chairs/cushions that are very easy to sit in.  Avoid seating that can put students sideways or backwards.  If it is possible to mess up sitting, students will, which can be frustrating for them.


To avoid Nearby Chat interference, keep meeting areas and faculty offices at least 25 meters apart.


Provide a menu driven teleporter for your campus that makes it easy for students to move to the desired activity or location.  It is amazing how lost students can get.


If you have students doing an activity in a forest environment, make the trees phantom so that people can walk through them.  This makes it much easier for people new to SL to navigate in a forest.


Consider adding a few fun things to your campus: balloon rides, boats, dance balls, animals, nature sounds, etc. to make it more entertaining for students.


Have a visitor counter on the campus and keep good track of who visits, and for how long over the semester.  I download the counter list to an Excel file several times a week.  These numbers are important when documenting use of the campus.  People who visit once for less than 10 minutes are probably not students.  You will find that several avatars with names like Riley, Brenden, Selena, and Natalia often visit for a few seconds.  They seem to be checking on regions, but no one I have talked to knows who they are for sure.


If no one is using your region or campus in SL you can expect random people to build on the campus, usually high in the sky. Once you do start to use the campus, you need to find these builds and return the prims.  It is a good idea to check your sky up to 4,000 m every few months and return things that should not be there.  Make your land settings so visitors and students can only build in sandboxes and they cannot move things out of the sandbox.

Student issues (11 Lessons)


Not all of your students will be able to access SL from their own computers due to a bad graphics card on their personal computer or a weak internet connection. There are also some types of computers that seem to have problems with SL.


When students cannot access the virtual campus from their own computer(s), they will need alternative ways to access the SL program (in my case Firestorm).  Be sure to have the campus IT install the desired SL viewer on some student computers on campus.  These programs will need to be updated a few times a year.


Note that students can often do a temporary download of a SL viewer on public or college library computers.


When bringing in many students, suggest that students create an Avatar from off campus because there is a limit on the number of avatars that can be made from one internet address per day. I had a few students encounter this problem. This can also be a problem for workshops with many participants signing up for SL.


When possible set some times during the first week of the semester or quarter to be available in a student computer room to help students get an avatar and get to the correct region in SL.


Offer students the opportunity to complete a SL orientation when they first enter SL.  There are many good orientations in SL; I send them to Caledon Oxbridge, plus I cover the basic commands (moving, camera, zooming, etc.) in handouts the students are given.


Provide detailed student handouts that direct students how to: obtain an avatar, download the desired SL viewer, get to an orientation region, get to the campus region, get to the desired activity on the campus, move around, and make some initial setting changes (such as graphics) so their computers can run SL better.


Put code of conduct information in your handouts. Ban people who will not stop being disruptive, rude to others, or are consistently inappropriately dressed for your region.  Fortunately, I have only had to ban one student.


Allow at least a week for students to complete a SL activity.  This reduces the number of students on campus at any one time, reducing lag, and accommodates students when or if they have technical problems.  Many students will work on the activity at the last minute, complaining they cannot do the assignment if they have technical problems.  You should expect this.  I warn students several times over the period that they have to work on an assignment to not wait until the last minute and that assignments must be in by the due date and time.


If you expect many classes to use the campus, keep the campus open.  It is difficult to add student avatar names to security programs when bringing large numbers of students on the campus.  Most instructors will not be able to provide you their student’s avatar names.  Also an open campus allows other educators to visit and promotes networking.  The exception is for K-12 programs, which need very secure regions.


Do not expect all students to love SL.  Some will hate working in SL, some will get really excited and tell you it is a great learning experience, but most will just do it because it is an assigned activity.  Very few students will continue in SL after the class.



Instructional issues (18 Lessons)


Use SL for its strengths (see below) and limit things that are best done face-to-face in real life such as class lectures and exams.


I have seen SL effectively used with students for: Small lectures, Interactive activities, Medical and legal role play scenarios, Office hours, Review sessions, Slide Presentations, Tours Student-teacher conferences, Poster sessions, Displays, and Hunts.  Students can use the virtual campus for study group meetings, but though I have encouraged this, I have never seen it.


Avoid situations where a class of students must attend an activity or lecture in SL at a specific time.  There will always be students with technical difficulties that prohibit them from gaining the full educational value of the activity.  In general, anytime you have a group of students in SL, expect some students to crash and be gone for some of the time, or students to have other technical issues with SL such as with accessing voice, sitting, clothing, etc.  Often when many avatars are in one area in a region, the computer speed slows down (Lag) and things move slowly. This is why holding formal lectures and exams in SL is problematic.


Be aware that a region can restart at any time and everyone must leave the region for about 5 minutes or log out of SL.  This can be very disruptive, especially for formal lectures.  You will get a notice 5 minutes before the region closes.  So be prepared to inform students what to do: relocate within SL or log off for 5 minutes.


A low stress why to start interacting with students in SL is by holding concurrent office hours in your real office and on your SL campus.  I find that during most semesters more students come to my office hours in SL than to my real office because they can come from home or work. I give students a few points for visiting me in SL during office hours during the first two weeks of the semester so they get into SL and know where to come for help.


Learn to use the slide boards, whiteboards, and web-boards in SL.  When marking on a whiteboard in SL using a stylus and tablet attached to your computer works well.


When interacting with students in SL, use nearby chat or IM as much as possible.  This allows students to copy and paste the text into a Word doc so they have a record of what was said.  Some students will have problems using or hearing voice.


When conducting tours for a group, put everyone in a group and use group voice or group IM to talk to everyone, this allows you to talk to everyone even when they are out of voice range.


Do not expect all instructors who are sending students into SL to come into SL themselves.  Most instructors will never be active in or share your enthusiasm for SL.


When managing a campus in SL, you need to provide a range of options for instructors, from being active in SL to the opposite extreme of never even having an avatar or coming into SL themselves.  Make it easy for them to send students to the educational activities and get assessable outcomes and they will use it.


To make it easy for instructors to use SL, for each activity provide a detailed handout for students that walks them through the activity step by step.  Instructors need simply provide this handout to their students and the students can enter SL to complete the activity.


For more difficult activities, consider developing a machinima video of how to do the activity and post this on YouTube.  You can provide the URL in the handout.  Jing and Obsproject (https://obsproject.com) offer free programs for making these videos.


Make the handouts easy to modify by instructors, so they can tailor them to their curriculum needs.  My  handouts are all in Word and posted to the Department folder in Blackboard.


When possible make the activity handouts available on the virtual campus as a notecard, so visitors can also do the activities.  I find some high schools that are active in SL send students to my campus to complete specific activities.


Provide a means to assess student achievement for each activity.  The activity handout can end with a set of questions for the students to complete.  Or if the students make an object (e.g. a glucose molecule on my campus) have the students take an image of that object. If the students are engaged in role play, after the role play, see if the students captured the lessons presented to them.


The handouts should direct students to email graded material to their professor.  I also ask them to email an image of their avatar at the site, so I know they at least were in SL at the correct location.

As often as is reasonable, use both formal and informal means to evaluate the educational value of the activities and modify the activities and handouts to improve the educational experience.  I find about 10% of student feedback is useful and modify the handouts each semester based on student comments.


When your educational activities are not giving the desired results, determine why and redesign the activity.  If you find that the activity requires a level of faculty involvement you cannot attain, redesign.  If you find that the activity requires students to have a level of skill in SL that few will have, redesign.  This requires that you remain flexible with the vision for the activity.  It is the educational experience and learning that is important, not a specific design.



Professional Development (3 Lessons)


Times for events in SL are usually given in SL time (SLT) which is the time in San Francisco, California on the west coast of the USA where Linden Labs is located. You will need to know the time different between SLT and your local time in order to get to professional development events at the correct time.  SLT changes with the change between Standard Time and Daylight Savings Time in the USA.


There are many educational organizations in SL that offer professional development opportunities.  Joining the group associated with each educational organization allows you to get notices of events.  For example, each year VWBPE (Virtual Worlds Best Practice in Education) holds a multiday conference in SL.  Also, each Monday night at 5:00 pm SLT VSTE (the Virginia Society for Technology in Education) holds some event on their region.  These are often professional development opportunities.  The Science Circle has weekly presentations on some topic in science.


There is a rapidly growing literature on education in SL.  These articles are found in peer-reviewed journals as well as in many other publication venues, both in print and on-line.  These are often focused on specific disciplines: for example, I recently saw to peer-reviewed journal articles on medical role-play in SL and an educational tool.



Program Development (9 Lessons)


Look to where there is a need for on-line instruction at your institution and how the SL environment might provide this: for example make-up labs for snow-day closures, or ways to make hybrid and on-line classes more interactive.  I found that snow-day closures and the need to make up labs online drove many faculty members at my institution to using SL.  During spring semester 2016, at least 25 faculty members at NOVA were sending students to SL to do make-up labs.


Foster support from multiple levels within the college or university: president, provost, deans, department chairs, IT.  This was an idea someone shared with me, but it is critical to keep this in mind.  Make sure they are aware of how you are using SL to enhance education and address instructional needs.  Promote the program wildly in your institution.


Do not expect many faculty members at our institution to be active in SL.  Faculty members’ reluctance to get involved stems from the steep learning curve associated with SL and the fact that there are many on-line educational tools to select from.  At most educational institutions there are only a few faculty members who will ever be really active in SL.  In part, the frustration with lack of adoption by faculty members led many higher education institutions to close their SL campuses in 2012.


When providing workshops and profession develop opportunities to introduce the SL program to faculty and staff at your institution, focus on how VWs can be useful in education and not so much on getting everyone an avatar and having them visit the virtual campus.  I only got workshop participants to follow-up after I stressed the use of VWs in education.  When they have an avatar and are visiting the campus, they  can quickly become overwhelmed with the obvious steep learning curve required to feel comfortable in SL.


Have extra avatars you can let people use.  I understand you can have 5 avatars per email address.  I have 20 avatars that I can let people use at SL workshops.  This saves a lot of time at workshops that people spend creating and editing their avatar.  Also there is a limit on how many avatars can be made from one internet address at a time. I have also given these avatars to administrators to have them visit the campus.  I can park the avatar where I want the administrators to appear. I have even let students use these avatars when they were experiencing serious problems with their own avatar.  Note students can make additional avatars if there are problems with their initial one or they forget the password.


Once you have students using the campus and a track record of some achievement, look for easy-to-obtained small grants to pay builders to develop new activities or improve existing activities.


Have fixed costs, such as the annual payment to Linden Labs or salary support for a campus manager, be included in the institutions budget and dependent on grants.  When the campus is dependent on grants to sustain itself, it has a high risk of closing.


So far (2016), Linden Lab continues to provide an educational discount on the annual tithe for a region.   Be sure to ask for it, if it is not offered.  I get an invoice from Linden lab at the end of each January.  For the last several years with the educational discount this has been for $1,770 for one whole region (256 meters by 256 meters).  I work with the controller’s office on campus to make sure a check is cut and mailed to Linden Lab.  In 2012 there was discussion that Linden lab would stop providing the educational discount and many colleges and universities left SL at that time.


Do not expect campus IT to be happy about maintaining SL on student, classroom, and lab computers, but do request this as needed.