Will Second Life be the next big thing in teaching? Tech expert Kathy Schrock discusses how it’s helping teachers improve their game right now.

When Kathy Schrock asked her school district to buy a virtual island, she faced a little skepticism. Eventually, she got her way. Now Schrock is the proprietor of Lighthouse Learning Island, a state-of-the-art center for tech education and professional development for teachers, located somewhere in the cyber world of Second Life, the online virtual community.

The administrator for technology for Nauset Public Schools in Massachusetts, Schrock has a passion for taking the latest in tech and using it to help teachers. And with the interactivity that Second Life offers, Lighthouse Learning Island is a surefire way of taking things a big leap forward.Schrock, who works with teachers all over the world, was used to teleconferencing.

“I’d been using synchronous online environments like Adobe Connect, where everyone has mics and cameras,” she says. In Second Life, however, members use avatars, graphic representations of themselves like cartoons, instead of live video. This cuts down on equipment, making online interaction simpler and less expensive. “When I saw Second Life, I thought I could do professional development in a very engaging environment,” Schrock says.

Schrock’s first Second Life experiences were hardly auspicious. “I was harassed,” she says. “I got real nervous and shut it off.” But with mentoring from educators already on the site, Schrock quickly saw its massive potential as a professional forum.

“I asked my superintendent to create an avatar, and he looked around,” she says. Impressed, the superintendent agreed to purchase a Second Life “island,” an area walled off from the rest of the online community, which allows the district to control access and content. Schrock convinced three other school districts to pitch in, and in mid-2007, she began real-life professional development in virtual reality.

Teachers immediately took to the virtual environment. “They were all sitting there with me, talking to each other, breaking out into groups for discussion,” she says. Not that it was all work from the get-go. “I couldn’t even touch pedagogy until week four,” she says, acknowledging the distractions online. “When I gave them Second Life money, they went shopping for new clothes and hair for their avatars.” Once everyone had discovered the possibilities of the Second Life world, they settled down to business.

Schrock has trained seven teachers so far; one now works with another education-related Second Life site called Skoolaborate. Teens use the site, based in Australia and New Zealand, to collaborate on simple
creative projects.

Schrock and her alumni aren’t alone in using Second Life for education. Some 1,300 educators around the world attended a May 2007 conference on the subject—held, of course, in Second Life’s virtual world. (Read more about the conference).

A teacher in New York has used Second Life to help conduct a unit on self-image, with the kids using avatars to visualize their body ideals and issues—something that would be more difficult to do in real life. And there’s still a lot of potential, as Second Life lets students and teachers model complex objects: A working volcano, for example, could be created from scratch to study geology.When asked whether she thinks Second Life will become the next big thing in ed tech, Schrock is circumspect.

While she is very enthusiastic about it, Schrock isn’t sure about its immediate future as a killer app. “I don’t consider Second Life the be-all, end-all,” she says. There are a couple of downsides: It uses a huge amount of bandwidth, especially if all the kids are using it in the same classroom. And it requires a fairly hefty computer, with a powerful video card, to do it properly.

“If you can’t do it well, it’s very frustrating,” she says. And even with security measures in place, there are inevitable concerns about kids roaming freely in any online environment. But Schrock says she would welcome a Second Life–like site that catered exclusively to educators and students. “That would be nice,” she says. It might just take such a step to make virtual-world teaching a real-world reality.

- David Rapp

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