One of the ten percent

Andy Powell delivered a fascinating and thought-provoking presentation yesterday at the UCISA User Support Conference at the University of Reading.  Not that I was there to see it…

As Andy took the stage in Reading in front of around 120 delegates, his Second Life avatar Art Fossett waited in front of an audience a tenth of that size in the Eduserv Island Virtual Congress Centre, ready to deliver his presentation simultaneously in both venues.  Andy’s slides were projected on the large screens in the virtual centre, and (as far as I could understand anyway) it was this that was broadcast to the real life attendees.  Andy used SL’s talk facility, fairly recently implemented, to speak to both actual and virtual attendees together.  For me, the voice channel and 3D sound worked extremely well: it’s very well implemented and I had no problems with it at all, although a couple of my virtual colleagues were unable to hear his talk.  Virtual delegates benefited during the curtailed Q&A session that followed (as Andy warned, it seems that presentations in SL always overrun) by having one of our number also present in Reading and able and willing to relay questions and comments from the RL audience to us.

Although those of us attending virtually definitely benefited from the event being made available in SL, I’m curious as to how much the RL attendees benefited from it.  Despite my previous peenging about highly visible backchannels at conferences and events, Andy was keen to encourage ‘chat heckling’ from SL delegates in order to demonstrate the value of the mixture of text and voice channels running simultaneously.  Being bound by the conventional format of a RL event of a static speaker, slides and an attentive audience, the real potential of SL was rather hidden: as Andy’s own presentation says, while ‘SL can be used to deliver lectures… [it is] most suited to “active” learning styles’ such as building, coding, discussion, role play, machinima and performance.

Andy did offer some caveats for the use of MUVEs in education.  Just as virtual attendees numbered about a tenth of the number of RL participants, so only around 10% of the RL audience had a SL avatar.  Andy cited Linden Lab’s own research that a massive 90% of accounts don’t make it past the orientation stage, and 90 day user retention remains at 10% despite significant changes and improvements within the environment and associated support.  He also argued that as many as 90% of people feel ‘alienated’ by virtual worlds and it is therefore inappropriate to focus pedagogic activities around MUVEs.  Unsurprisingly, there is evidence that they are much more effective for distance learning than for face to face classes.

Issues of identity in MUVEs are deeply fascinating.  At a recent Engineering Subject Centre event exploring the use of SL as a teaching aid, we were asked to identify ourselves and our institutions at the start of the session and almost all of us happily did so.  The suggestion by one participant that we should add this information to our avatars’ profiles, however, caused consternation:  people seemed very resistant to the idea, and one individual pointed out that people who use the same avatar for non-work activities would not be happy to share such personal information with random people they may meet inworld.  Despite the fact that I only use SL for work-related activities, I felt exactly the same sense of discomfort about explicitly associating my avatar with my real world identity.  Similarly, despite signing up for the Twinity beta, I’ve never actually logged in as by the time I got around to it they’d decided to embrace the use of real names – something I’m just not comfortable with. 

However, Andy raised the suggestion that the nebulous nature of identity in MUVEs might be part of what is turning off so many people: as well as students having to remember different RL and SL names for their teachers and peers, and lecturers (and possibly enterprise systems) needing to associate SL names with RL students for assessment and accreditation, appearance and even gender can be completely transformed in moments.  As we all know, we never really know who we’re talking to online no matter how much we want to fool ourselves, and perhaps the way an environment like SL celebrates and revels in that rather than trying to disguise it contributes to the alienation so many people seem to feel.

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