Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Being where the students are

One of the mini-themes that came up in the symposium follow-up session yesterday was about if and why students are already in SL. I made the point that one of the arguments quite often put forward around the importance of universities (and, for example, libraries) getting into SL is because that is where the students are.

I’m not sure I buy that argument. Are students really in SL already? My minimal experience says, no, they are not – at least not in any significant numbers. Not yet.

That leaves us, as educators (I include myself in that group very loosely!), in an odd position it seems to me. Not only have we got to be convinced that 3-D virtual worlds will allow us to impart learning better than we do now, but we also have to convince our learners that there is sufficient benefit to joining SL as well. A pretty tall order right now – or so it seems to me?

Babbage Linden made the point that only about 1 in 10 of people get SL anyway. I don’t have any reason to doubt this figure. So in a tutor group of 30, only 3 will naturally understand what SL is about – the rest will not get it, some will give up, some will persevere without really liking what they are being asked to do, some will be totally bemused... you get the picture.

Why do so few get it? I can’t answer that question… I do get it, or at least I think I do, but I can’t easily verbalise why (though I have tried) – so I’m at a loss as to why others don’t.
What are the comparable figures for other Learning 2.0 applications? How many people get blogs, or Twitter, or whatever?

I guess that is why applications like Facebook do so well currently – because the percentage of people who get what the application is all about is significantly higher.

What does this mean for educators in SL? Well firstly, it gives us a pretty steep hill to climb. No worries, I enjoy climbing - so I don’t think it is a reason to lose interest entirely, though it might make us modify our expectations a little?

I think it probably also means that we need to give up thinking about SL as an inclusive activity for all students. Instead, we should see it as one option among many – a valid way of completing an assignment, but not the only way. I think that means that we need to think quite hard about what kinds of assignments we give to people. For example, a given bit of group work might be able to be completed by using a face to face discussion, or by collaborating thru blog writing, or by an in-world activity, or by some combination of the above – with the resulting coursework being submitted as a jointly authored ‘traditional’ essay, a set of blog entries, machinima, … whatever. There are, of course, significant implications for assessment – and our understanding of the expected learning outcomes of any bit of work is, as always, absolutely paramount.

Professionally, I’m out of my depth at this point. I speak only as a lay person – and I should therefore probably shut up. But the overall point is that we need to reconceptualise “being where our students are” as “engaging with out students in ways that are meaningful and useful to them” and we need to remember that SL currently only fits the bill for a small proportion – for others it will be blogs or in Facebook or ... and for some it may continue to be in the lecture theatre! :-)

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