Tuesday, August 19, 2008

SL and students

I'm not sure who said this quote or where I heard it, but when I did I knew I'd been hit with some real wisdom:

"There are two types of people in this world, those that believe people can be categorized into two types and everyone else."

I would consider myself in the latter group, however when it comes to discussing educational and student adoption (or lack thereof) in Second Life it seems that many fellow bloggers and researchers would rather segregate and divide users into two easy-to-explain groups. Educators and students. Gen X'ers and M Gens. Us and them. It's hard to believe that in this complex and diverse world that anyone can really think they can quantify such groups so easily.

If you travel across the country and speak with educators from very different geographical locations, in higher ed or K-12, with students from very different socioeconomic backgrounds you know that such categorization is simply not helpful. I've ranted about the so-called 'Digital Native' before, so perhaps you're with me on this. But hopefully, you can see the difference between learners in your own classrooms and conclude that grouping all-students-everywhere into one group and then making blanket assumptions about them would just seem silly.

Some recent online articles trying to make sense of education and student involvement in SL do just that however. I thought I'd take a quick minute to point out a few, their salient points and the views that seem detrimental to the continuing research in this area.

First, is "How we should encourage cheating in youngsters" by Roland Legrand over at the Metanomics blog. The article points out that students could be engaging in "'collaborative co-creation' using the internet-tools at thier disposal" and "challenging the underpinnings of education like it is organized now". I believe this sentiment to be very accurate, with educators encouraging such innovations by promoting such online tools as wikis, blogs, Facebook and more. However, he goes on to ask such questions as:
"So are these Millennials the perfect flexible, collaborative inspired
people who will transform society and the economy, and who will stream
into virtual worlds such as Second Life as soon as some virtual
evangelists make them discover those virtual environments?" (italics added)

And even quotes Feldspar Epstien's post in The Metavers Journal, Students vs. Second Life:

In Second Life, the gap between Generation X and the Millennial Generation comes sharply into focus (...):

1. Second Life is primarily filled with Generation X’ers,
unintentionally creating a socially unwelcoming environment for

2. Generation X’ers know how to play in the freeform manner that
Second Life requires, whereas Millennials typically do not display that

While this observation may be insightful and seemingly on que (with everyone else making such categorizations)... is it really helpful? It is true that the average age of the SL user is 30+, but even out of that demographic the percentage of actual Generation X'ers grows smaller with many users being older than the Gen X'er. It's also hard to say that they/we are "unintentionally creating a socially unwelcoming environment," as if all of Second Life was made of the SAME kind of environment. Also, I'd like to see something that says all Millennials do not display the skillset to play in a freeform manner. I know that some of my Millennial students do... some do not. Again, two types and everyone else.

Over at Second Thoughts, the post "Why The Kids Aren't Alright" sums up student users SL experience by looking at their Blog Hud posts, the amount of users on a virtual campus on a Friday night, and a theory of "boredom" reified by one of the student interns at Metanomics.

Most of all, he hated that he couldn't grief people. See, that's the
reality of this generation, and why we need to wait another generation
for virtual worlds to be used effectively, until the griefing impulse
is bred out of this current one, raised on violent video games, or at
least, until there is enough of an institutionalization of virtual
worlds that they are able to successfully restrain the griefing genes.
Violent video games? Really? Give up and wait until the next generation comes along?

I can't say that there isn't reason to believe that certain individuals in the Gen M population don't like violence, even in my own experiences at BGSU. For example, last year Dr. Dena Eber held a student art critique in which two of her students 'crashed' (mildly greifed) the event by attending as horrific avatars. Since this was an art class the so-called griefing seemed appropriate, even performance like. This interpretation was reinforced for me when I attended the MUVE session at Siggraph last week in which Mick Brady (Chrome Underwood, Live Teams Manager at the Serious Game Design Institute) called griefing something like 'the most interesting and important thing happening in Second Life artwork'. (Please note that these were 2 students out of a class of 20... 10%. Imho, that's probably about the same percentage of student population that these articles are accurately referencing.)

Even AJ Tan, the intern at Metanomics whose blog post on boredom was referenced above, goes so far as to say:
In my experience, the demographic of Second Life residents is roughly
in the mid- to late-thirties. For me, these individuals represent
“real” adults who do not celebrate the end of finals week or the
advertisement of a city-wide bar crawl.
As a thirty-something Second Lifer and educator, let me just say... I do celebrate the end of finals week. I'd also like to point out that not all of my students are drunks interested in keg-stands, bar crawls, and/or violent video games. AJ's post on his experiences in SL are a wonderful addition to this discussion however, we need to see more student blogs, responses, and polls in order to better understand what the 'students' are really getting out of SL; students of various ages, geographical locations, races, socioeconomic and technological backgrounds who may offer a wider range of analysis than the tech savy Gen M raised on violent video games.

I would also challenge those intent on changing education - are we creating socially welcoming environments? Are you providing your students with a platform for reward advancement, much like an mmorpg? (I see this as a typical letter grade approach really.) Or are you pushing your students toward freeform play in which information can be applied and developed into a product of learning achievement, much like the structure of SL?

1 comment:

Linda Higbee Mandlebaum said...

What an interesting post. I'd like to share something that happened that relates to that topic in several ways.

In mid-May my partner and I purchased Taupo Region to house Wheelies and develop an inclusive, accessible community. Part of the accessible aspect was leaving items moveable so that if an avatar needed to move something to make the environment more accessible or more inviting, he or she could do that. What a mistake that turned out to be. The entire region was griefed for over a week with things moved—not for accessibility or invitabiity—but for the movers' own purposes and completely away from the items' original locations. In fact, some things have never been found.

After taking several steps to stop the griefing, one of those involved finally invited me to meet him, but he refused to do it out in the open. While I know I can always turn my computer off, if caught in unpleasant circumstances, it seemed wiser to just try to meet the person in a public place. When we could not find a mutually agreeable place to meet, he sent me the location of some of the items that were in the air over our own region. When I arrived, a couple of male avatars appeared, so I immediately left and contacted my partner. He met me at the location and stayed while I dismantled the jumble of articles that had been put together.

What I found fascinating was that the person I thought of as a griefer thought of himself as an artist. He ranted at me while I took his art apart because what I saw as a wild collection of mismatched helter-skelter pieces, he saw as art. He was furious that I was ruining his wonderful artistic expression.

I felt terrible that I had to dismantle what someone else saw as art to get my own items back. I felt furious that he had not taken the time to learn to make his own pieces to construct his own art but had felt it was perfectly okay to take from a community to make his artistic statement.

What I felt worst about was that a gentle young woman with a disability who had been teased and taunted in real life and who thought she was finally in a safe location was terrified. A gentle soul who took the time to carefully select items for her apartment that expressed her own heritage, felt so defeated at what she saw as more of the same mistreatment, left Second Life.

Wheelies and Taupo still exist and still are an inclusive community, but I was forced to ban a few avatars. The banning itself is pointless since a person can just come in as a new avatar, but the griefing set up an atmosphere of mistrust that has never entirely dissipated. Furthermore, items cannot be moved as most have been locked down.

What griefers and others who mistreat one another forget or don't care about is that behind every avatar is a real person with real feelings. I don't like everything that goes on in Second Life by any means, but there is so much good that I refuse to let that behavior cause me to leave SL. It only increases my efforts to improve it.