By Paul Temple
You must remember Second Life. Oh, come on, of course you remember it! In the mid-late 2000s it was everywhere, not just in universities but in business, government, all over the place. It was going to be the new way of doing, well, everything – working, learning, entertainment, you name it. What was it? A virtual reality set-up, where you could create an alternative world, and adopt a different persona online, your avatar. Why? Because in your avatar guise, in your virtual world, you could do things you couldn’t otherwise do. What things? Just things, OK?
Coventry University, for one, thought it was terrific – I remember them showing us how it worked. Students, or their avatars, went to “Coventry University Island” in Second Life and attended a virtual lecture or seminar given by the avatar of one of the teaching staff. Or went to the virtual students’ union and had a virtual beer (I may have misremembered that bit). Obviously an improvement on boring old university reality. All the Coventry staff had their old-style First Life names on one side of their business cards and their Second Life avatar details on the other side – including, I recall being told, the Vice-Chancellor. Why was this better than just teaching students face-to-face, one human being to another? Now you’re being deliberately obtuse: this was cool stuff, using the internet for teaching and learning, it had to be good. The students were bound to love it.
That was then. I can’t find anything on Coventry’s website about Second Life being used today – the last reference to it seems to be from 2010. A comment on the Wikipedia entry for Second Life suggests that globally it now has around 600,000 users (ie, next to nothing in internet terms) doing online gaming and so on. So just another failed higher education IT project? Well, yes, but does it tell us anything more?
There’s a critique of the way that firms use strategy (in addition to Mintzberg’s one about it not working) on the lines of it being much more fun to sit around dreaming up new strategic plans than to deal with humdrum daily business. I’ve bored a number of student groups with my case study of how the electrical engineering firm GEC was destroyed by betting the farm on a glamorous new strategy that went wrong; even so, coming up with a bold strategic vision is much more likely to get you promoted than making a change that hardly anyone notices. Are new IT-based teaching and learning methods in higher education a bit similar? – much more fun to get the university to adopt a whole new box of tricks (getting the VC to answer as an avatar, fancy!) than to make minor changes to teaching programmes which hardly anyone will notice. And, being sceptical of things like Second Life when they come along will probably get you labelled as an old stick-in-the-mud, unable to see the benefits of new methods, not moving with the times – even, worst of all, the HR anathema of “not being a team player”. (I’m sure that GEC managers who thought the new strategy that wrecked their firm was bonkers had to put up with this. Did they derive some bitter satisfaction when they collected their P45s?)
How much time and money did Coventry, and others, spend on Second Life when they could have been improving face-to-face teaching or any aspect of the real-world student experience? The particular irony is that as researchers we are constantly emphasising the social nature of knowledge production and transfer: that is why we work in universities and spend, with our students, so much time in them – even the OU emphasises “one-to-one contact and social interaction” on its website. Just about every student survey shows, pretty well top of the list, that students want more personal interactions with their teachers. But then we get distracted by the latest shiny new toy that comes along promising improvements that we know will be hard to achieve using our old ways. We are all supposed to be committed to innovation and change, so we feel we have to try new things, even though we know that they will stop us doing currently important things. We seem to keep hoping against hope that, this time, it really will work. There seems to be an unresolved tension here somewhere, between the world as we know it really is, and the world as we’d like it to be. Second Life turns out to be not a pale imitation of First Life, but a distraction from it.
SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.