Initial Assessment of the Pilot Project
An initial assessment of the project has been undertaken based on outcomes from the pilot course Power, Passion & Greed: Georgian London 1714-1830 as reflected in student journals.
While on the one hand it is the very technology of the virtual world which allows for student immersion in Georgian London and all of its inherent advantages it is also the technology which provides the greatest challenge. Within the university setting the capabilities of the computers available to students is problematic and as one student noted the ‘computers available to Humanities students were clearly never intended to run such intensive programs as Second Life and this made using the program quite slow and arduous’.
Frustrations were not limited to the computer hardware but were compounded by issues of internet speed and consistency both in the university setting and often for students trying to work from home who reported with some virulence on the ‘ineptitude of...[a telecommunications company] and their inability to provide a decent, constant and moderately quick internet connection’. Students who lived in, had no internet at home or had limited download quotas had to ‘spend a number of days going into Uni over the holidays to try to work.’ Even allowing for the fact that internet capability is perhaps more problematic in Australia, which currently lacks the capacity of other countries, these technology issues impacted significantly on both the staff and the students and negatively impacted potential learning. Consequently, assignment tasks were set up to be available for completion in both Second Life™ and in written essay form.
There was also the issue of differing levels of computer literacy. There is a tendency to think that students today are computer savvy and will either know how to use MUVEs or will quickly learn and we were perhaps naive in our initial expectations. Even students who considered that they had ‘a reasonable proficiency with computers’ did have some problems with Second Life™ as it was a program they were completely unfamiliar with. Despite workshops held early in the course, which provided valuable introductory information and hands on practice, and the ongoing support of the lecturer, some students found Second Life ‘too foreign’ and resorted to the written assessment version of the course.
Students who persisted with Second Life™ still commented that it was ‘riddled with problems, the graphics are outdated, the building engine is fiddly, the interface is lacking’.
However, despite student journal entries that claimed Second Life™ was ‘like playing with a child: temperamental, argumentative and a hard thing to follow’ on reflection at the end of the course many students, as discussed in greater depth below, felt that despite the technical difficulties Second Life™ was ‘an enormous help in understanding a period so rich with important events, people and modern beginnings’.
Strongly allied to the technical issues associated with the use of Second Life™ as a learning tool were the issues of the time and cost of the technology learning curve. Obviously the construction of a historically accurate virtual Georgian London was time consuming however, even simple tasks within Second Life™ can take on herculean proportions for teacher and student alike. As one student commented, ‘It once took me 45 (frustrated!) minutes to move Newton’s desk from one side of the library to the other and not have it tilting into the floor’.
Clearly the previously considered technological issues can make even basic functions incredibly slow and students found that when technology failed there was little to be done ‘except wait for the site to reboot and become fast again.’ However, as this student goes on to point out it was the resultant time wasting that added to the frustration. Today’s student is often time poor and many were quick to point out that ‘to achieve anything worthwhile in SL modelling you need to put in the long hours to develop the skills...Possibly even more time than could be considered reasonable in a one-semester course.’ At least one student was not happy about the amount of time required especially as they felt ‘there were no marks associated’ with the amount of time they had spent.
For some students the combination of technological issues along with the frustrations of the interface and its limitations for historical reconstruction meant that, as one student articulated, ‘I spent a lot of time doing [things] when I would have preferred to be working on the actual content of my research project.’
The dichotomy of experience in Second Life™ is apparent in the sequence of extracts from student reflective journals below:
- The amount of time wasted simply registering an identity in this brave new world of virtual reality could really have been far better spent reading and discussing primary and secondary sources...the readings...proved a far more ‘enriching” and “fascinating” description
- [Second Life allowed me to] live history... to actually have a hand in re-creating a small element of this historical landscape was thrilling and instead of seeing study as a chore it became a pleasure, something I looked forward to doing when I got home.
- Whilst I did not find Second Life as user friendly as I might have preferred, I would still consider it to be an effective and unique aid to the study of history.
- I think SL should be dispensed with as a formal part of the course (unless there are more contact hours) but instead encouraged informally as a supplementary way of learning that does not have any bearing upon the formal assessment.
- I don’t think Second Life could ever come close to replicating a living breathing passionate historian...where it will prove a boon is with students whose learning preference is for visual representation...akin to a visual and personal time machine.
- Focusing on one area and then recreating it visually helps the mind to completely grasp the information collected. It would be amazing if we could create our own spin off SL just for history. We could have different periods each with depictions of the countries at that time. Students and others interested in history could stroll down the Red Square in Moscow during the reign of Catherine the Great and then they could just walk over to France and learn about Louis XV’s and his many mistresses!
One student both liked Second Life™ as an amazing idea and disliked it because although he recognised that it was “a powerful sandbox” he felt that Second Life™ was not the right tool for educational purposes. He added that “in 5 years or so when a company comes out with a more purpose built tool for education...it will be immensely popular for teaching.”