Give your Professional Development a Second Life

Give your Professional Development a Second Life

Most of the teachers I know strive to be life-long learners. They’re also some of the busiest, life-juggling,” can’t say no” people on the planet. Pursuing professional development (PD) is contractual for some, and oxygen for others.

As technology has increased access to anytime-anywhere learning, many of the hurdles for conquering time and space constraints have been addressed with online learning in web-based classroom environments, webinars, and even some of the newer social networking sites.

The explosion of these social media tools like Twitter, Nings, and Blogs has resulted in a rapidly increasing proliferation of online educator learning communities. However powerful each of these networks may be, there is still a missing piece: that personal connection that seems to only exist when the face-to-face factor is part of the equation.

Those of us who have taken the plunge down the rabbit hole into virtual worlds (MUVES) have discovered a new venue for PD: Second Life (SL). Although it is not truly face-to-face, the sense of presence conveyed within the Second Life environment is, for many of us, the next best thing to being there.

My avatar, Maggie Marat, has been a resident of Second Life since August, 2005. Participating via my customized avatar identity within a rich 3-D landscape has provided me opportunities to meet, network, and collaborate with outstanding educators in a global professional learning community. I have developed meaningful, substantive relationships that carry just as much significance to me as their “real world” counterparts.

The evolution of the international educational presence in Second Life has been nothing short of remarkable. What began as a few bold and curious explorers has now scaled to thousands of teachers spanning over one hundred regions used for educational purposes. Nearly 400 universities around the world teach courses or conduct research in SL, and
ISTE, Discovery Star Educators, New Media Consortium, PBS, Google Certified Teachers, ALA, all have a presence in Second Life with more organizations joining us every day.

As our professional development groups in Second Life extend, word is getting out to the mainstream education community that the potential for collaboration is not only more effective and efficient, but it’s free! It’s also playful, engaging, at times unpredictable and always “on.”

Perhaps the best evidence of this evolution is the attendance at the Second Life Community Convention this year. The education strand has evolved from a tiny cluster of hopeful pioneers (NYC, 2006) to a dedicated ensemble struggling to get their voices heard (Chicago, 2007), to a shining and powerful host of creative, collaborative and unstoppable educators: truly a force to be reckoned with (Tampa, 2008).

What is the appeal? What does the virtual landscape offer us absent from other online learning communities? The answer is that sense of presence, the ambiance of place and connection--that feeling of “being there.” Other distance learning vehicles may offer flexible time options but are mostly impersonal. The avatar encounter is highly interactive, and interpersonal, providing the same convenience of not having to travel while extending a richer, more immersive and generally more enjoyable experience.

Understanding that some may find the Second Life learning curve a bit steep, groups such as ISTEhave taken measures to ease the way, streamlined the orientation process and even offer support and mentoring within the world to new arrivals.

The ISTE SL membership numbers almost 4,000 members and hosts a Speaker Series featuring prominent members of the international education community. Topics are varied and often the question and answer period afterward lends an opportunity to extend friendship, network and connect with experts in the field. 2008 was wrapped up by fabulous presentations from online safety expert Anne Collier, young adult author Marc Aronson, and digital storyteller Bernajean Porter. Timothy Magner, Director of the DOE office of Educational Technology visited ISTE for an in-depth discussion of virtual worlds and education.

Other events hosted on ISTE Island are less formal socials, workshops, tours, campfires, storytelling sessions and even beach parties!

These and myriad other opportunities are available to anyone interested with a fairly new computer and an Internet connection. Second Life supports affinity groups for K-12 education, ESL, Special Ed, higher ed, grad students, pre-service teachers, tech teachers as well as groups specifically supporting the needs of every content area from basket-weaving to zoology. The account is free, the community is welcoming, and the possibilities are limitless. So if someone offers you a Second Life, take it. Better yet, go and get one yourself. Get thee to ISTE!

Peggy Sheehy is an instructional technology facilitator and media specialist at the Suffern Middle School in Suffern, NY. After a twenty-five year career as a professional musician, Peggy Sheehy now serves as ITF/ media specialist in New York's Ramapo Central School District. She established the first middle school educational presence in Teen Second Life: Ramapo Islands. Starting their third year of learning in Second Life, Ramapo Islands now hosts over 1500 students and their teachers.

Second Life Resources

RezEd -Global Kids’ Second Life Curriculum is a key component of Second Life professional development opportunities. They cover everything an educator or student would need to know to use Second Life, whether on their own or within an educational setting.

Atlantis Rising Campus: Grand opening January 2009
Welcome to a Second Life for learning! Launching a collaborative venture of creative learning, credited courses, e-resources, and amazing in-world intellectual playgrounds! The courses will bring educators whole new experiences for learning forward into skills, topics, group tools and virtual worlds that are capturing the imaginations of our students.

NMC: The New Media Consortium
Launched under the banner of the Educational Gaming Initiative and with initial support from the MacArthur Foundation, the NMC Campus in Second Life has evolved into the largest educational presence in that virtual world, occupying the virtual equivalent of more than 2000 acres.

DEN in SL:
“Connecting teachers to their most valuable resource…each other! The Discovery Educator Network in SL is a global community of educators who are excited by the power of digital media and want to collaborate and share resources with other educators.”

Be sure to see the machinima (video) from real life educators in SL.