I am currently not permitted to access Second Life (SL) from the computer on the desk in my office. Similarly, my students are not able to access SL in our computer labs. Why? I have been given three different explanations:
- "SL is an IT security risk";
- "SL is full of sex and violence, and we don't want to be involved in that";
- "SL is only a game".
Unfortunately this narrow-mindedness is not uncommon, particularly in large educational institutions, where administrators are driven by factors unknown to those of us striving for an improved learning experience for our students.
But there are some who have the foresight to understand the benefits of learning in virtual worlds. Dr Alan Finkel, Monash University's Chancellor, spoke about SL in his plenary lecture at the recent Australian Universities International Alumni Convention in Singapore: "The biggest mistake of all would be to dismiss Second Life as a toy... these virtual worlds are an opportunity, not a distraction."
Despite the restrictions, I've spent a lot of time in Second Life at home, assisting with the development of Monash Island, providing support during an in-world conference, and collaborating with others as I learn about education in online virtual worlds. The experience has been eye-opening, and I have personally seen the benefits. My work in this area has resulted in my involvement with a new undergraduate unit in 2009 - Digital Selves.
So, virtual worlds are likely to be part of our future, and they will certainly play an increasingly important role in education. As Dr Finkel says, "Can you imagine the new ways of using technology that educators will develop over the next fifty years? It is a certainty that students will be privileged to enjoy an immersive educational experience that is far better than what you and I experienced and indeed, far better than what we can currently imagine."