Did I just let my third grader select an avatar, then navigate the unchartered waters of Linden Labs’ Second Life virtual world? Well, not quite. Recently, however, I visited The Tech Museum in Silicon Valley. There, my daughter discovered a set of desktop computers running a custom version of the Second Life software.
At The Tech Museum
The custom version of Second Life was geared towards youngsters. Once you “login,” it guides you through the selection of an avatar and clothing.
You can find more photos of The Tech Museum’s exhibit here: http://thetechopensource.thetech.org/forums/second-life-museum-exhibit-floor
Once you’ve made those selections, users can learn about the basic features of the application, including how to get around. I noticed that many of the stations were occupied by students of a similar age as my daughter. Here’s why they enjoyed it so much.
1) Self expression.
Third graders have reached an age where they’ve begun to assert some independence. They pick out their own clothes in the morning, have clear opinions on what they like and dislike and have completely developed a sense of “self.” Selecting an avatar and outfitting it with a tricked-up outfit feeds directly into this notion of “self” and more importantly, self expression.
2) Presence indication.
Kids who play Club Penguin know about presence indication. But for others, Second Life was their first exposure to a “massively multi-player online game” (MMOG). They found it fascinating that not only could they walk through a space, but they might come across boys and girls sitting to their left or right. My daughter saw another avatar and shouted to her friend, “Hey Sarah, I found you!” Wait till they found out that they can also find and interact with avatars (other people) halfway across the globe.
Second Life has taken its share of “hits” from the user community. Many have voiced concerns about the complexity, especially for the ability of new users to get acclimated and started. My daughter and her friends, however, found the custom version of Second Life intuitive and easy to get started. Perhaps software makers ought to design for the elementary school user first! After all, who’s smarter than a fifth grader?
Second Life for Primary Education
While I don’t believe virtual worlds can (or should) ever replace face-to-face instruction and interaction, I do think the technology can play a part in primary (and secondary) education. Two scenarios come to mind.
Access and Reach.
In rural areas, the elementary school may be 50 (or more) miles away. Assuming the availability of “access” (i.e. perhaps a mobile device with adequate computing facilities), teachers can convene a virtual classroom setting for a given day’s lesson. In metropolitan areas, this arrangement would work quite well during “snow days.”
Complementary Teaching Tool.
Introducing virtual classrooms could be an interesting way to complement the teaching environment of the conventional classroom. In addition, students would get a head start in learning the conventions and etiquette for online behavior and familiarize themselves with technological tools that will surely become a significant part of their adult lives.
Thank you, The Tech Museum and Linden Labs for introducing kids to the virtual world. My daughter identified it as the most enjoyable aspect of her museum visit. Her friends love it, too, which tells me that technology and primary education may be a match made in … a virtual world.
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