© 2008 Janet Nepkie, James Greenberg, and Harry E. Pence
EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 43, no. 5 (September/October 2008)
SUNY Oneonta Music Project
One could argue that the virtual world called Second Life represents only another example of utopian literature. The word utopia literally means “no place”: a world that exists only in the imagination. This is a good description of Second Life. Aside from some lines of computer code, it exists only on the computer screen and in the imagination of the user. The question to be determined is whether virtual worlds like Second Life offer new capabilities for teaching and learning or whether they are simply a distraction. Hundreds of faculty members from throughout the world are exploring Second Life in an attempt to find the answer to that question. One such effort is the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Oneonta’s Music Project.
The SUNY Oneonta Music Project started with a simple goal: to give students in Oneonta’s music industry major the opportunity to organize concerts in a virtual world. This was a response to several recording companies’ representatives who said they would be more likely to hire students with experience in a virtual world. It was possible to respond to this request because the Alliance Library Consortium, one of the largest educational operations in Second Life, invited an Oneonta faculty member to manage a virtual concert hall, the Pantheon Theater, and organize classical and semi-classical performances. Thus, the project happened because of the initiative of a faculty member from the Music Department, the availability of a virtual concert venue, and the enthusiastic support from the director of the campus technology center. The project has now involved small groups of music industry students for three semesters.
There are several reasons why student-organized concerts provided an excellent environment for exploring the potential of Second Life for teaching. To organize a virtual concert, a student must work with the performer to identify any special needs (ranging from a piano to special technical support), find and schedule the concert hall, and provide appropriate publicity. Each of these operations is also involved in organizing real-world concerts, so the overall experience is excellent preparation for similar real-world activities. In addition, performers who have not previously been in Second Life will require avatars (the 3D representation of the user) and animations for the performance. This is the kind of virtual space experience that recording companies are looking for. As one of the students said, “Everything that I did in this project had an application to what I will be doing in my future career.”
One of the potential problems that students encounter when they enter Second Life is that there are no preset goals. Some individuals, both students and faculty, find this to be disorienting. To avoid this problem, the faculty provided very specific goals to keep the students focused during early stages of the experience. The organizers were able to identify a number of simple objectives, such as attending a virtual concert or meeting a professional performer from Second Life. As the students became more comfortable in the virtual world, less guidance was required, and they were given more freedom to develop their own initiatives.
One of the unexpected outcomes of working in Second Life for both faculty and students was that the boundaries between disciplines became less important. This environment may have developed because the project organizers included a musician, a chemist, and a technical support person, but there seemed to be more involved. When the group decided to write code for animations or to build a theater, several students from the computer art program at the college were asked to lend a hand. The chair of the Art Department at SUNY Oneonta enthusiastically cooperated with plans to display art by faculty and students at the concerts. Some of the concerts featured music by campus bands, and one of the concerts even included a virtual fashion show, with designs provided by campus fashion majors. Groups, including the Alliance Library Consortium and SUNY Live, were quite willing to offer land and other support for the concerts.
There were no serious technical problems. Initially, there was concern about college restrictions on software installs and updates in the student laboratories, but the software client runs well from a flash drive. The students carried the latest version of Second Life around with them and could use it on either campus computers or their own computers. Running Second Life in this way does not seem to open a microcomputer to any security vulnerabilities, and the standard campus technology infrastructure was quite adequate to support the software.
Virtual concerts demonstrated one of the strengths of Second Life: the feeling of presence. The background is clearly a cartoon, and movement is controlled by animations that are not necessarily very realistic. Many people still converse by typed text. Despite these limitations, there is a strong impression that the performer and the audience are present at a site, even if the individuals involved are from all over the world. In part, this feeling of presence is because most of the performers are performing in real time at their studios; their music is streamed through their computers into a Second Life location by means of software such as NiceCast. This may not be full-sensory virtual reality, but virtual worlds seem to offer a high level of personal involvement at minimum cost. The avatar offers a feeling of anonymity even when the identity of the real-life person is known, and this makes the students more willing to take risks, like skydiving, auto racing, or answering a question in class. As students become more confident in Second Life, that feeling also seems to be reflected in their real-life personalities. One of the common questions asked about Second Life is: “Aren't you afraid that students will lose their grip on reality if they work too much in Second Life?” Students confronted with this question tend to respond first with disbelief and then amusement. Perhaps the best answer is that Second Life simply becomes another part of reality.
Basing our opinions on this project, we feel that Second Life is not just a game: it offers excellent opportunities for teaching and learning. Students demonstrated a high level of engagement and contributed new program ideas that went far beyond what was envisioned by the faculty organizers. The result was a level of interdisciplinary cooperation that is more often talked about than accomplished in real life. Distance loses meaning in Second Life, since people from all over the world are as near as the person across the street in real life. This opens new opportunities for international and distance education.
Does Second Life represent a utopia for online education? It is premature to make a prediction, since teaching in virtual spaces is in a very early stage of development. Still, we can state this: Second Life may not be the best of all virtual worlds for education, but for the time being, it is a highly useful venue for gaining valuable experience.