Grid Scholasitcs…

If you do a quick search for “eCampus,” you will find articles wherein the writer enthusiastically proclaims, “these are the campuses of the future!” While eCourses come in a variety of forms, just how much do people learn, anyway? Moreover, how can students be measured beyond the standard regurgitation that is required for passing tests?

There are, of course, a number of eCampus software companies. Although, no research to date has proven this type of long-distance learning actually works, I would proffer long-distance learning is questionable at best and an abysmal failure at worst. For a number of reasons, the least of which involves ensuring the student meet the minimum criteria of viewing lecture material, submitting acceptable work, and achieving comparable test scores to those of the sister courses where such things as cheating (google anyone?) are much harder to do. Enter tomorrow’s teachers.

The instructor’s challenge, and what is arguably key to a solid learning foundation, is engaging student participation. This is where the phrase “abysmal failure” may apply to such courses. While instruction models vary, they are largely limited to the tools the eCampus software companies provide. The tools provided attempt to create a somewhat structured course-work flow, to include assignment schedules, a class roster, and a grade-book. While these are necessary tools for managing coursework and tracking student progress, the instructor is still faced with fostering interaction within and between students. For it is this free flow of communication from whence learning and even great ideas sprout.

The standard tools include everything from a web forum-ish layouts to video courses, wherein the instructor tapes the lecture for students to view at their leisure. Within this framework, most instructors will require at least one written assignment per week along with the standard mid-term and final exams. In some cases, the instructor may even throw in a pop quiz to ensure their students are at least reading the material. Even if they are not exploring material that extends beyond the lecture. The asynchronous nature of this model is undoubtedly the greatest hindrance to student engagement. Which brings us to the question of the day.

Is it possible to leverage the immersive quality of virtual worlds to address not only  synchronicity issues but to increase the degree of student participation as well?

Linden Lab seems to think so. So much so, that they have assigned Pathfinder Linden to oversee, among other things, the educational aspect of the grid. In addition to regularly weekly meetings, they also have two list serves: SL Education and SL Research List (sled and slrl, respectively), for focusing upon just such issues. And Larry Johnson, of The New Media Consortium (NMC), recently breathlessly proclaimed, “I think it’s safe to say now that nearly every college and university has some sort of project in Second Life.

Mr. Johnson’s rather bold statement aside, and ignoring the fact that the majority of these pilot programs appear to be focusing upon futuristic learning models, the old idiom, KISS, comes to mind.While the idea of game theory, instructional bots and hands on practice medical exams are certainly alluring, the very basic classroom model is certainly worth exploring.

Consider this scenario, for example. Some instructors are faced with the challenge of organizing online classroom. Within a repertoire of tools, among which is the standard eCourse ware, they also have the option of using second life.

Interesting. How might one leverage such a tool?

For starters, a classroom setting, replete with chairs and a podium, and the requirement that students “attend class” once or twice a week would be in order. In addition to coursework assignments, such as reading and perhaps even written exercises, students would be graded on attendance and participation. Reading assignments would be provided at least one week prior to the start of each class, along with a list of key subjects that will be covered during the in-world class. Students would also be required sign a waiver for recording class sessions prior to admission, as they would be required to use voice during the course. This latter is important to ensure the student is participating in the discussion as opposed to say, chatting with someone in IM.

The usefulness of this approach is self-evident. The quality of attending an online class increases due to the synchronicity brought to the equation. This in turn fosters student engagement and the very real potential for true learning. The added benefit is immediate feedback as well as a sense of camaraderie that is gained from the students sharing the experience of learning their material within the confines of the new frontier. The end result? A reified learning process as well as a solid foundation for building a network that can extend beyond the student’s time in school.

This approach brings with it another advantage. And that is introducing the student to the rich landscape of virtuality and the possibilities within. If those exploring second life as a viable venue for educational institutions will only keep in mind, you can cover a lot of territory with baby steps, then just perhaps, second life has the opportunity to truly usher the educational sector into the wonderful world of virtuality. Just perhaps…

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