Second Life is a free to join 3D Virtual Environment in which “players” may explore 3D Worlds using their avatar, a kind of Runescape for adults, if you like. It was launched amidst much hype and many jumped on the band-wagon hoping to make a fast buck. Many of the commercial virtual entrepreneurs have since abandoned the site, but one of the groups to embrace it enthusiastically has been the teaching profession. Many schools and Univesities have virtual campuses on Second Life, and teachers conduct classes in virtual classrooms. Language teachers in particular appear to be using the site to make use of the role-playing possibilities that the use of avatars encourages.
The immersive and engaging nature of the platform is often quoted as a reason for teachers to be excited about embracing 3D Virtual Worlds. Explore the solar system in 3D glory! Get inside the human body and explore its structure! the possibilities seem endless, and really exciting.
Furthermore, Second Life offers integration with Virtual learning Environments like Moodle. Called Sloodle the module allows students to enrol for online courses offered on Moodle platforms directly from Second Life, submit assignments and so on to their Moodle course and have all transcripts archived on Moodle. Students enrolled on Moodle, conversely can use their VLE to enter the 3D platform from their Moodle course.
While this functionality appears quite seductive, and the potentials are enormous, after about a week on Second Life I began to feel that the technology is not quite there yet. Sure, I was able to take virtual tours of museums, work my way through biological scavenger hunts, attend conferences as my avatar, even join a free language conversation class. But the primitive quality of the simulations did not provide truly immersive experiences, for me anyway! Nor did I really learn a great deal. Seeing the cell up large, being able to walk around it, zoom in on organelles and receive notes telling me about them was great, but not really more than a good illustration would have achieved. The loss of graphic quality in the 3D world off-set the advantages of the third dimension!
The potential for learning, and therefore teaching, though was clear. By providing an environment which students can explore at their own pace, and in their own way does offer new possibilities for extending what schools do. And the affordances of the platform for foreign language learning was immense! Because you can use your avatar to talk to others, you can set up authentic communicative opportunities which encourage students to converse in the target language. I certainly believe schools and teachers should be exploring the possibilities and using the platform in their teaching.