When Karl Harrison demonstrated a stuffy looking lecture video – complete with a blackboard – within the SecondLife island he’s created, my heart sank. I’m at the Shock of the Old Conference in Oxford, as usual on the look out for good examples of using technology in effective ways rather than just for the sake of it. Now this lecturer might well have been excellent but the contrast between the old and the new couldn’t have been more acute. Why are we trying to transfer our working practices which are hundreds of years old into these new environments instead of using the technologies in ways appropriate for the medium?
I think Karl was just having a bit of fun with this though. He then showed how a 3-D molecular model could be presented in SecondLife and have his avatar walk around it and potentially interact with it. Now things were coming alive. Even more impressively he started flying around the superb virtual Oxford University he’s created, entering buildings and reading information about them.
The potential educational applications of interacting with 3-D environments like this are infinite and limited only by our imaginations. For any subject where understanding of 3-D objects is necessary such as in chemistry or architecture this technology is clearly going to be transformative.
The question I have is what educational benefits there are of these environments for subjects which are less physical. Is the overwhelming feeling of engagement and immersion in virtual worlds enough in itself to motivate students to learn better? Or is it the interaction with other avatars and the social nature of the virtual space which is the key affordance of this technology? SecondLife is clearly applicable to any subject if one of these factors is powerful enough.