learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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Learning.now is a weblog that explores how new technology and Internet culture affect how educators teach and children learn. It will offer a continuing look at how new technology such as wikis, blogs, vlogs, RSS, podcasts, social networking sites, and the always-on culture of the Internet are impacting teacher and students' lives both inside and out of the classroom.
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Setting Up Shop in Second Life

What happens when a bunch of edtech enthusiasts decide to set up offices in a virtual reality space? Honestly, I have no idea - which is why I’m so excited about the Center for Advanced Virtual Education in Second Life.

Last October I blogged about how Harvard Law School was beginning to experiment with the immense virtual reality community known as Second Life in a course called CyberOne. I’ve been dabbling with Second Life for around 15 months now, and it’s been fascinating watching more and more educators embracing it.

In case you’re not familiar with Second Life (SL), here’s the skinny. First of all, let’s clear something up - it’s not a website. Yes, they have a website, where you can go and register and manage your account, but if you stop there, you’re missing out on the real deal. The actual SL experience is done through downloading their client software and running it on your computer, just as you would run any other program.

When you launch the SL software, your world suddenly changes. It opens up an immersive 3D graphical environment that goes for “miles” in every direction, in the form of islands. Each island has a theme, or multiple themes. If you can think of it in real life, chances are there’s a place for it already in Second Life. And every place you encounter in SL, whether it’s a virtual version of Harvard Law School or the US House of Representatives or a Darfur refugee camp, has been created by its participants.

There are hundreds of thousands of people involved in Second Life, and often tens of thousands of them will be logged in at any moment in time. If you’re thinking it’s something like MySpace or another social network, that’s not doing it justice. When you use a social network, lots of people may be logged in, but you don’t see them. In Second Life, you actually meet them - their virtual characters, or avatars, can walk right up to you and have a conversation. It’s actually kind of amazing the first time you visit SL and see an animated character walk by. That’s no character - that’s a living, breathing person somewhere else on the Internet who’s looking at your avatar from their own perspective.

One aspect of Second Life is that your avatar is usually not actually “you,” per se. Since you can create your avatar to look like anything you want, it can be tall, short, thin, fat, hairy, bald, Vulcan, potato. Okay, sorry if I lost you at the end there, but yes, your avatar doesn’t have to be human. You can manipulate your character’s features to the point that it looks like an alien, a toy like Mr. Potato Head, a tuxedo cat, or a scintillating disco ball. (I swear I’m not making this up - I’ve seen all of these dudes at some time or another in SL.)

Abdi KemblaMany characters in Second Life tend to be idealized versions of how people perceive themselves, or wish they were like, so you tend to meet a lot of avatars that are really pretty and healthy looking, in a superheroes kind of way. Personally, I’ve taken a different route - my avatar, Abdi Kembla, is modeled on a former child soldier from Somalia. He looks nothing like me - for one thing, I’m not African, and unfortunately I don’t have his cheekbones. But I choose to experience SL through Abdi’s perspective because I’m interested in seeing how others perceive an African character in a world where everyone is usually white or some mythical being.

With my day job and the new baby at home, I haven’t spent as much time hanging out in SL as of late as I would like, but I’m hoping that’ll change to a certain extent, now that I’m getting my very own office there. Since users who choose to buy land in Second Life can set up virtual property any way they’d like, it was just a matter of time before a group of edtech enthusiasts and bloggers teamed up to set up shop together. Fortunately, educator Kevin Jarrett received a grant to explore the educational uses of Second Life, and he’s using those resources to create a complex called the Center for Advanced Virtual Education, or CAVE.

CAVE office complex

The CAVE is a postmodern office complex with great views of the “ocean,” located on an island called EduIsland II. And even though I love a room with a view, I really decided to participate in Kevin’s project for the company he’s keeping. He’s convinced a group of edtech folks, including myself, Doug Johnson, Kathy Schrock, David Warlick and Will Richardson to set up shop in their office space. The idea is to have a place where people can convene and discuss the role of Second Life and other virtual reality spaces in K-12 education. David recently blogged about his own first impressions in SL:

The real pleasure (and instructional potential in my opinion) is the building. There are a lot of buildings here, and everyone seems interested in keeping to a contemporary style of straight lines and lots of glass (makes me feel like a voyeur sometimes). But what if we could have a place to really open things up, with caves where students could add cave drawings, neolithic villages, bronze-age cities, etc. — a continent, maybe where different sections are devoted to stuff from specific millennia — most of it built by learners. Science is wide open as well. I found, at one point, a giant paramecium, floating above a lagoon. I tried to find it again this morning, but without success. So students making 3D single-celled organisms to demonstrate their knowledge of those plasm things would likely be a thrill. But let’s take this up to Second Life 2.0 (sorry). What if the teacher could define certain behaviors of an environment, setting laws of nature, so to speak. And then ask students to invent organisms that interact and flourish in that environment, working within an ecosystem?

One of the challenges of making Second Life appropriate for schools is making it student-friendly. The main version of Second Life can be, shall we say, risqué - the kind of stuff you’d never want your principal to see you accessing at school, let along your students. Second Life already has a “teen grid” that’s for young people only, in order to avoid online predators and the like, but it’s not totally focused on education. That’s why some folks are already thinking about creating their own secure Second Life environments that are used just by schools. This could become a reality because the company behind Second Life, Linden Labs, says they’re committed to make the underlying software available as open source.

Frankly, I have no idea what will come of this exercise. For now, it’s just a lot of fun going there and bumping into crazy looking avatars and trying to figure out what edublogger they happen to be in real life. But over time, I think Kevin’s project will hopefully lead to better understanding of Second Life’s potential as an educational tool.

See you in SL. -Abdi

Filed under : Cool Tools


Hi Andy,

I understand you are my next door neighbor. Please, keep the partying to a minimum (or at least invite me.) :-)

Should all be interesting!


First, thanks for agreeing to join us in SL, and for helping get the word out … but, let’s give credit where credit is due!

Ryan Bretag (Existential Paine in SL), who runs CATER (The Center for Avatar Teaching, Education & Research), a CAVE Facility, is the reason I am on EduIsland. He got his house in April and started this ball rolling. I actually had a room in his house (much as you have a room in mine) until I decided to take the plunge and get my own place.

Ferdi Serim (Hodjazz Edman in SL) bought an identical house soon after Ryan. Both of these people did an amazing job creating facilities that have become the “core” of the CAVE. When I got my place, and I realized they had created such awesome meeting spaces, I was like, how can I contribute? Certainly not by doing what they had done.

That’s when the idea for a residence hall came to me. And to be completely honest, the only people I can say I helped bring in are Will Richardson, you, and Kathy Schrock. The rest of our members are here through connections with this group, especially Kathy, who has worked hard to get people she knows into SL.

So, I’ll close with a big THANK YOU to everyone who is a part of this adventure, as you say, no one knows where this is going … but we are here, together, learning, exploring, developing (hopefully, lifelong) friendships.

See you in-world!


Thanks KJ and welcome Andy to this amazing process!

As KJ said, we are “here together, learning, exploring, developing (hopefully, lifelong) friendships” and it should be one heck of a ride!

See you all around the CAVE!

The most amazing thing for me about SL is what in the early days was called “the Internet Ethos” - where every new person (noob in SL) was welcomed, supported, encouraged and inspired to do the same for those who came along later. Victoria and Clare made it possible for me to come up to speed as quickly as possible. There is one important thing for new people to realize: once you see the value of having a “space” in SL, the opportunities come up and are taken as soon as a good apartment in San Francisco or New York! I got my place minutes after it became availabe. So did Kathy. The CAVE is an answer to this, helping people to get used to (and evaluate) the benefits of having a place. For me the necessity was the ability to stream music, and set up the capacity for live interviews/presentations. Having the space also means being able to set up small meetings as needed. Everyone participating in the CAVE is already displaying the “SL ethos” in powerful ways that may make this virtual world the next evolutionary step in online learning. If this happens it will be because we “make it so”


Thanks for this great post. I spent three hours this morning with Fleet. What a great tour guide he is and I ended up renting a small house. I look forward to collaborating with this group on the educational uses of SL.

Alice Barr

It’s so great to see so many educators embracing the possibilities of Second Life (despite the groans of many naysayers and doomsdayers!)

The New Media Consortium is a great resource and has a super SL presence, among many others. I’ve put together a very small list of some SL resources and examples from various institutions getting involved in SL (http://www.delhi.edu/online/secondlife.asp)

Personally, I figured out some of the basics, but it seems really hard to get deeper into it without a personal space in SL with which to build, develop, host meetings, etc.

I wonder if those laptops for students in Africa could come loaded with Second Life? :)
I very much look forward to the addition of audio to the Second Life grid later this year, as well.

Clark Shah-Nelson

What I value about being online is beyond the information one can gather, it is more related to the connections, the social networking, the human capital part of resource sharing and relationship building. My short time in SL has brought opportunities that could not be matched by any other medium. It is the whole community that makes the experience, and I am glad to be a part of it. We can all hold on and sail this journey together.

Andy/Abdi, it’s been awhile since I’ve bumped into you virtually. Great to see you highlighting important learning spaces in SL like CAVE. There’s of course lots more educational spaces like Info Island, Camp Darfur, Roma, Casablanca, Svarga, Meteroa, and many many others.

You make an important point about creating safe spaces for students to engage in-world. There are a number of new builds like IBM’s complex and the “L Word” community that have their own sign-in pages, orientation islands, and semi-walled gardens. I could easily see this model adopted by an educational consortium to get young people into more controlled environments with moderated access.

Add to that the open sourcing of the client app, and you could imagine requiring all students to use a custom build client that would only allow the student to visit certain sims. Of course at a certain point censorship issues start to arise. But that’s another post…

While second life is a gigantic virtual place, most of our staff of 39 teachers really haven’t heard of it. The only reason I have is that my son and daughter told me about it. I get lost roaming around the place!

Hi there! I am looking forward to learn more about your projects in Second Life. As an NGO based in Africa, we are keen to create RL/SL experiences and linkages in anticipation of many africans entering the metaverse…

I am fascinated by your experiences with your Somali avater and interested to know the response of people…

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