18 November 2007

How to assess the impact of Second Life for educational purposes

[Taken from a recent email in which I got carried away on a theme... comments welcome.]
I am a Developmental Psychologist and so my perspective has been to look towards the quality and variation in how we learn over development. As children we look to others and copy them and as adults we utilise these skills for our own independent learning. We have to learn to learn, and this is different across contexts. Second Life looks like a game and thus affords a playful quality to the interactions we have and the things we do in-world. This can be exploited for good because we learn well when we are playing and the skills learnt whilst at play seem to transfer well to other domains. So, if we set up playful environments for learning we should expect that our students will play. However, if we set up learning environments that simulate the teaching environment of the school or university classroom this may not afford the same dynamics and in Second Life we should not expect the same type of learning to take place or interactions to exist. The class is there with the teacher but it is still feels like 'a game'. I think the context of Second Life to learning can be both beneficial and detrimental depending on how it is presented to our students. This has implications for how we assess the impact of 'learning' and what indeed we mean when we try to measure the impact of those activities for educational purposes. If we are trying to enthuse then we necessarily need to make the tasks fun within Second Life. If we are trying to instil knowledge we should look to the platforms unique affordances for conveying this. What is it that we can do in the 3D virtual world that we cannot do out of it, or at least what is it that we can do 'just as well' there. I can attend a formalised teaching session and listen to a tutor but if all the time I want to build a castle or fly across to the other side of the island I will not be concerned with the meaning of the class or activity. If the learning tasks we construct involve building and flying then the learning itself is embedded in the platform's unique affordances. This is educationalists current challenge and our biggest questions surround how we might evolve these learning activities. Very few educationalists are currently involved in this. The majority of those who have attempted this are from the UK I am pleased to say. In this way Second Life presents problems for people unfamiliar with the platform, assuming they initially take to it that is. In my experience, about half of those who are new to Second Life and use it for educational purposes do not find the experience useful at all. Not everyone 'gets' that Second Life is only a game when used for that. It is an educational experience only if we define its usage as such; left undefined it reverts to a game. Although, I think everyone can benefit from using it in an academic context given sufficient guidance. It is easy to see how it might replace VLEs like Blackboard, Moodle and WebCT etc. I get my Psychology undergraduates to build up Psychology reports from prim blocks each representing a paragraph or section and to reconstruct the academic argument or knock-down the structure as they see fit. In this way I am encouraging them to think and build in 3D, so the conceptual space is represented differently from anything they could ever do on the 2D web. Other tasks involve mind mapping in 3D, where my students can construct a mindmap of a Psychology essay and look at how the components of the academic work are interrelated in 3D virtual space. I blend the methods so they use traditional Virtual Learning Environments, 2D and 3D web with multimedia and conventional teaching methods. Sometimes a textbook IS the best resource we have at our disposal. These techniques each afford different methods of assessment and it is hard to tease apart how they can be differentiated from each other to place a quantifiable value on the benefit of multi-user virtual learning environments like Second Life. There is the traditional method of using a questionnaire or survey or class test before and then after a session whilst holding a control group who did not do the lesson or activity in Second Life. However, this approach lends itself to many confounding variables, like the participating students' familiarity with virtual worlds or even just their familiarity with things like social networking. Web 2.0 applications or IT in general. So, tight matching of 'experimental' groups is needed for traditional methodologies like this, which in itself can be problematic. We need a way of assessing our impact in Second Life without influencing the process by the observation itself and allowing our assessments to be both valid and reliable. So many factors influence the route to knowledge exchange and the learning of new skills when we start to use immersive technology to teach. Second Life is VERY distracting and there are many ways in which the tool (SL) can impinge on the learning outcomes of our classes and modules. The platform is engaging and immersive but this must also be directed at the learning outcomes we want to teach. The biggest issue s for educators is probably the classroom dynamic and trying to control the teaching session in the way we would want to in a conventional classroom setting. The voice facility of Second Life has had a big impact on our ability to manage a class or learning activity in world. The best use of Second Life though is not in trying to replicate the dynamic of the classroom but rather to innovate with new ways of teaching and attempt to pass over the activity of learning to our students. This may involve relieving ourselves of control of the student/teacher relationship. Discovery and trial and error work well in Second Life. Prescript lesson structure and imposed control do not. Playful learning is essential for active learning and our student can and do engage when we trust them to learn with just enough guidance from us. Diana Laurillard has written more about this process and some ideas of Vygotsky closely link to it. I think the most appropriate way in which we can assess the impact of using Second Life in an educational context is by using a technique called Action Research. In this method we place ourselves with the learner and run through an iterative process of observation, evaluation and change and repeat this cycle improving our methods and trying out new ways of teaching. Constantly reflecting on our methods and adapting to feedback allow us to influence change in the environment as we use it. So rather than a long drawn out process we run teaching sessions with the students in charge of their own progress and self-paced activities. Following these we ask the students to reflect on the learning and methods with self-reflective diaries as well as questionnaires and direct observation. The next session or iteration is adapted in light of these comments and we then see how the next group of students do. There is more individual variation across students of course, but what comes out of this is a deeper understanding of process rather than outcome. We can find out how students learn rather than if they have learnt. I think that qualitative pedagogical techniques such as Action Research are valuable in the sense that in immersive learning environments we need to embed ourselves as teachers and get involved in the process of understanding. Traditional VLEs lack this engagement. We cannot just set up a learning environment and step back from it. That is why the role of teacher or lecturer is vital in this process. By fostering the learning experience we can utilise the virtual world to produce amazingly effective teaching. Assessment is part of the process because we reflect on what is happening and can change it there and then. The impact comes from the interaction with both the content and each other in this process. It is a qualitatively different form of learning and so cannot be easily compared with non-Second Life methods. Is Second Life better than 2D web-based virtual learning? Not yet, it is too early to say. Will it be better? Yes, almost certainly, because the interactions are richer, the content easier to provide, the platform cheaper, the students can be engaged more readily, the technology is more efficient, assessment is easier, playful learning is afforded and tailored environments can be constructed for specific learning outcomes. In short, multi-user 3D learning environments are here to stay and offer a new way of thinking about the individual processes involved in our students' acquisition of knowledge and skills.


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