Second Life: MOOs second time around

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I spent a little time in Second Life today, as part of the Emerge tour, thanks to Steve Warburton. It was a curious experience in some ways, familiar in others.

Overall, though, I end up sceptical about the real use of SL within education.

I hadn't been in SL before this, other than very briefly after I registered, so the interface was all new to me, and my, my, my, oh my, it's a cruel and unforgiving interface.

My task was to get to the point within the LeedsMet island where the tour was happening. Steve had published a SLURL referring to the location: I clicked on the link and was taken to SL, but not to the location. OK, so something went wrong – no problem – but SL gave me no useful feedback on just what had gone wrong, and the obvious searches for location 'LeedsMet' produced no hits (why? I don't know), and I eventually managed to get there only by mailing Steve (Google's a wonderful thing), who then befriended me in SL and teleported me to his location.

Afterwards, I found myself with my SL `home' on the LeedsMet island (did I do that?), and with a splendid tail and whiskers which, though charming, I don't presently know how to get rid of. SL's built-in help wasn't much help at all.

Blasts from the past

These problems will be fond memories for SL experts, solutions and explanations will exist, and if I develop more SL intuition I'll forget I ever had them, but I rehearse them here to emphasise that SL is not easy to use, and possibly overwhelmingly hard to use for newcomers (please, not `newbies'), unless they're principally motivated by the prospect of playing with SL itself.

It's not just me. I was talking to some (very techie) colleagues about my SL experience, and discovered that they too had spent a little exploratory time in SL, wandering around, interacting with people, and playing with the scripting language, and that they had been equally underwhelmed by usability. Both had toyed with World of Warcraft to the same extent, and compared SL very unfavourably with that, in terms of the user experience (though it seems that WoW isn't any sort of replacement for SL, because WoW's scriptability is focused on the interface, and the world is essentially fixed).

I think this is a problem. A tool is useful only to the extent that its benefits substantially outweigh its costs, but the benefits I can see so far don't obviously do that for most users.

SL clearly provides support for arranging meetings of students – and I can imagine distance students benefiting in particular – because it provides a clear and visual metaphor for meeting and chatting. But it's at least not clear to me that the benefit from this is so great that it pays for the usability cost of using SL. I don't think this would sell SL if used in isolation.

The places that we saw in the SL tour were produced by people working in Leeds Met art school. There's a clear payoff there, since the users in question are there to use this specific technology – they're there to play – and the technology is useful to them for the various obvious reasons.

A final obvious use for SL would be to create interactive simulations for students to use. I can see benefit in this, and it would potentially be cost effective if the lecturer has fun doing it, or gets some other indirect benefit, perhaps related to the reflection on method or essentials such a development activity might prompt. I haven't played with the SL scripting language, nor looked around for existing examples of this in SL, but having seen a fair number of expensively produced educational simulations in the past, I'm afraid I remain very sceptical that the benefits to students would repay the substantial costs involved.

Remember MOOs?

There's an obvious link to MOOs – the only real differences from MOOs are the Linden dollar, and MOOs' pictures being either better or worse than SL's depending on your point of view (nostalgia corner: anyone here remember LambdaMOO and Diversity University, and the great brave new world?). I was quite enthusiastic about MOOs, and a colleague and I spent a fair amount of time creating MOO spaces to support education, interacting with students and colleagues there, and scripting pedagogic objects.

Now, I'm not saying that I couldn't get MOOs to work, so others won't get SL to work, and I'm not saying that there is absolutely no difference between the two technologies; either claim would be foolish. However I am saying that the difference seems a matter of degree, not kind, and that the enthusiasms, benefits, and problems that were there in MOOs haven't suddenly gone away.

I'm uncomfortably aware that I'm sounding like a bad-tempered old git, here: `nothing new will ever work!'. That had better not be true, because I'm currently spending all my time on a project which is a mixture of new technology, and technology that's been about to work, any day now, for the last three decades. No: I'm saying all this, I think, because it looks to me like a lot of folk are mortgaging their next year's work on an approach whose difficulties will already be well-known in the literature under a different name.

Norman, 2007 June 8