Surfing Second Life

from Technology & Learning

Second Life's unstructured atmosphere and wide-open spaces where student creativity can grow and flourish are two of the reasons Pepperdine University Professor Bill Moseley integrated the program into his curriculum. However, says Moseley (who created the graphic above), the virtual environment cannot replace curriculum, and assessing what students have learned remains a challenge.

Visitors entering Linden Lab's Second Life might feel they've stumbled onto a sprawling theme park, with colorful signs, carefully manicured landscapes, and strangers literally bumping into each other. The world can be visually impressive: spaceships hover 600 feet in the air and imaginary animals graze vast plains. Since it is so big, though, most places are relatively deserted and give you the unsettling feeling that you have wandered into Disneyland after hours.

Second Life is often described as a 3-D version of the Web because it adds a rich visual aspect to Internet activities such as socializing, fact finding, and doing business. Since it is technically not a game, there is no intrinsic goal to playing, and the range of possibilities is almost infinitely wide. At the Pyramid Club, for example, a fox-like virtual character (or avatar), a man with 40-foot-tall wings, and a girl in black jeans dance on an electric-blue platform while a killer whale cruises by under the glass floor. Far away, at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Science on a Sphere island, a tsunami simulator puts avatars waist-deep in water and a submarine ride lets them view algae-covered reefs and dolphin pods.

Big businesses have also established presence in Second Life, and compete with local, user-owned operations for Linden dollars, the in-world currency. Linden dollars can be exchanged for U.S. dollars at a rate of around 250 to 1 on the Second Life Web site. Users can deposit or withdraw money from a credit card or PayPal account. At the Second Life branch of popular retailer American Apparel, which sits in a desert paradise of blooming cacti and rocky waterfalls, a virtual T-shirt costs one real dollar. Virtual-only retailers get high traffic as well. At B-Dazzled Designs, a huge gallery contains larger-than-life billboards of attractive avatars posing in cutting-edge clothing. A Hawaiian print mini-dress with matching four-inch stilettos and other accessories goes for Linden $300. In this relatively anonymous, anything-goes environment, many people cultivate an extreme look, with floating ball gowns, barely-there swimwear, and wild hairstyles.

How It Works

When you log in to the online virtual world of Second Life, the first thing you see is the avatar you have been prompted to select or design. To be admitted as a new "resident," as users are called, you choose a first and last name and decide on a basic look from a set of prototypes such as "Girl Next Door," which comes with jeans and a purple T-shirt, or "Harajuku Male," which has a Japanese punk flair.

The first place new visitors go is Orientation Island, where you must learn some basic skills before you are allowed onto the "mainland." Your avatar appears standing on a platform with paths leading to four areas: Communicate, a tropical place with tribal masks, tiki torches, and talking frogs that teach you how to chat and gesture; Appearance, where you explore a medieval castle filled with tutorials on how to customize your avatar; Search, which has instructional materials displayed in a futuristic glass atrium; and Move, where the streets are littered with vehicles like a Segway and a car that you can practice driving. The visuals are three-dimensional and immersive to the point that turning around too quickly can make you dizzy. This is especially true for flying, which you do by clicking the Fly button at the bottom of the screen. Your avatar will float about 20 feet into the air, and you can then use arrow buttons to move around. Since Second Life is a massively multiplayer type of environment, you will see other avatars hanging out, chatting, or reading the ubiquitous billboards, which are the primary way to post information.

At Pepperdine, students created an online world to reflect themes in Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind. At the end of the course, Pink came to see their projects and joined them in a virtual hot tub for a decidedly informal discussion.

Teen Second Life

Creating an identity is one hook that gets teens into virtual worlds and gives Second Life a similar feel to customizable social networking sites like Facebook, which kids are already familiar with. Although it is the adult version of Second Life that gets the most media attention and claims more than six million members, the teens-only version, called Teen Second Life, has more than 6,500 active users who are typically around 15 years old (kids younger than 13 cannot use Second Life). Teen Second Life has the same features and capabilities as the adult version but requires that members maintain a "PG" standard. According to Teen Second Life Community Standards, this means "no strong vulgar language or expletives, no nudity or sexual content, and no depictions of sex or strong violence."

Like adults, teens logging in to Second Life for the first time select a basic form that includes gender and style, and just about every aspect of an avatar's appearance can be customized, from height to weight to the size of each ear. You can also use the search tool to find clothing listed for sale in the Second Life classifieds.

Users with more specific tastes have the option of creating their own clothes and accessories using "prims" and scripting. Prims are pre-fabricated primitive building blocks that are available free to all users and come in 13 basic geometric shapes, which can be stretched, rotated, overlaid with textures, and combined to make complex objects.

Writing Code

To make objects dynamic and interactive, you have to write scripts, which are sections of code in the proprietary Second Life programming language. These sections of code attach to objects and modify their behavior. For example, you can have a cloud of butterflies surrounding your avatar by picking up a free butterfly "texture," or basic pattern, and writing a few lines of code that tell them where to appear and what path to take. There is a thriving, informal online learning community in which users post free textures and scripts on their blogs, contribute to tutorials on the Second Life Wiki, and host classes in-world to teach the fine points of scripting.

Claudia L'Amoreaux, a community developer for Linden Lab who facilitates K–12 educational projects, has seen some teens become so good at coding that adults hire them to construct buildings for the adult version of Second Life. In the Second Life newsletter Second Opinion, she talks with two teachers for EdBoost Education, a nonprofit tutoring and academic support organization in Los Angeles. These teachers, who go by the names Tiplife Eggplant and Hector Something in Second Life, had been trying to teach a programming class at their after-school learning center with little success. When they introduced Teen Second Life, the simplicity and power of the scripting language enabled students to make tangible progress. For example, one student used scripts to make a dynamic 3-D hat that can tell a joke. "The fact that it's in a hat makes it infinitely more interesting than a blank DOS screen that tells a joke," says Eggplant.

Constructivism and Constructionism

Constructivist theory is often used to explain why Second Life can be a more engaging experience for students than sitting in a classroom. Jean Piaget's work in developmental psychology suggests that children cannot be merely told what they need to know—they must build knowledge through interacting purposefully with the world. Constructionism is similar, but emphasizes the social aspect of learning. In The Cambridge Handbook of Learning Sciences, educator and game guru Yasmin B. Kafai writes, "Where constructivism places a primacy on the development of individual and isolated knowledge structures, constructionism focuses on the connected nature of knowledge with its personal and social dimensions."

Professor Bill Moseley saw how the richness of social interaction in Second Life motivated his students at Pepperdine University. Student groups built a monument, a design museum, a reflection labyrinth, and a playground complete with launchable rockets in order to represent themes from their main text, A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink.

Open-Ended Learning

Despite the higher-order thinking required to program object movement and the strategies necessary for successful trading—not to mention the reinforcement of such 21st-century skills as collaboration and innovation—Second Life suffers from the same challenges as other open-ended resources that teach such abstract or difficult-to-measure skills. As with many of the other tools examined in this issue (see "Banning Student 'Containers,'" and "A Visual Glossary"), the virtual environment does not target the core curriculum schools must spend most of their time focusing on.

"What if students have to learn the Pythagorean theorem?" asks Ntiedo Etuk, CEO of the educational games company Tabula Digita. Kids would not just stumble upon this knowledge in Second Life, and while you could create such a lesson, it probably would not have the appeal of a professionally produced game. "Simulation teaches you how to do something, but unless you become engaged in the process of doing it, there's nothing built in to make you want to come back and do this again," he says. Games, on the other hand, do build in hooks like a storyline, progressively more difficult levels, and scoring goals to bring students back to learn more."

The possibility of embedding focused, high-quality games into Second Life is something advocates see as a distinct possibility, but Second Life's current technical problems and unregulated environment mean game creation is cost-prohibitive and difficult.

Whyville offers planned community events that stimulate conversation, experimentation, and research. For example, during a virtual epidemic of "Whypox," avatars get red spots on their faces and say "Achoo!" involuntarily. Sixth-grade science teachers used Whypox to draw out students' understanding of concepts such as contagion, infection, and bacteria.


In fact, of Second Life's more than six million residents, only about a third logged in this past March and April, according to statistics on the official Web site. Second Life's design and its snowballing popularity can make it frustrating to use. You need a significant number of practice hours to feel comfortable in-world, and the software runs slowly when overloaded. Its infrastructure is creaking to the extent that more than 4,000 users have signed an open letter ( to Linden Lab's leadership, asking them to address serious problems such as inability to teleport, nonfunctioning friends lists, and transaction and inventory failures. Bugs can be costly in real-world terms. As one user complains in a forum on the Second Life Web site, "Other than various problems like huge lags, random crashes all the worst new problem is my missing inventory. I feel like quitting SL. Why even bother spending real cash when your merchandise just disappears?"

Keeping teens safely outside of the adult world is also an issue because a large percentage of activity there revolves around sexual products and interactions. Likewise, restricting adult access to Teen Second Life is necessary because users could be potential pedophiles. In May, the U.K. newspaper The Guardian reported instances of "age play," in which avatars appearing to be adults engage in sexual activities with avatars that look like children. Linden Lab insists that ages 13–17 must use Teen Second Life only, and puts adults who want to gain access to the teen version through a background check. But there is really nothing to stop adults or teens from lying about their age. Also in May, the official Linden Lab blog claimed that a beta test of age-verification procedures would start soon. Alternatively, you can control access to an area in Second Life by buying a private island, but it's expensive: about $1,650 to start and $150 per month in fees, even with a 50 percent education discount.

As co-founder of Tabula Digita, Etuk knows what it is like to face start-up problems. When the company released its first algebra game, Dimenxian, in 2005, the first-person shooter format and accompanying slogan "Learn Math or Die Trying," sparked worries about encouraging violence. Etuk acknowledges that educational games with plots and graphics like commercial, entertainment-oriented games are a new market, which can be risky business. "The early bird catches the worm," he says. "But are you the early bird or are you the early worm? That's the challenge and benefit of being a first mover in a market, and I think Second Life is a first mover." Time will tell whether Second Life will be as successful as Tabula Digita's Dimenxian, which won an Editors' Choice award at Macworld 2006. It may depend on the niche Second Life makes for itself: Etuk predicts the market for online educational experiences will include games, simulations, and social networking, as well as combinations of the three.

Middle Ground

Whyville, an online virtual world created by Numedeon, Inc., in 1999, has shown that it is possible to achieve ambitious educational goals by combining the appeal and instructive potential of games with the strengths of an online community. The site, which targets "tweens" (ages 8–15), has more than 1.7 million users, of which more than 150,000 have been active in the past three months.

Hangouts in Whyville are basically 2-D and can't compete with Second Life's immersive graphics, but unlike Second Life, they have intentionally designed, embedded learning materials such as content-heavy games accompanied by text instructions and explanations. Although some kids use Whyville on their own, many K–12 teachers, university schools of education, and organizations such as NASA, the Getty Museum, and the University of Texas Health Science Center have gotten involved. The Health Science Center, for example, is currently sponsoring a nutrition game called the WhyEat Challenge, in which players experiment with eating plans to identify and address nutritional problems like anemia, calcium deficiency, and lack of vitamin C.

Lee Wilson, an educational consultant who works with Whyville, argues that educational games can provide incentives for students to study. "A well-designed game could use the traditional textbook as a strategy guide," he suggests. "If a kid is struggling with part of an algebra game, point him to a chapter where he can get help." The additional advantage of a virtual world such as Whyville is that games are just one part of the learning context. It also supports social features like real-time chat, internal e-mail, and a community newspaper.

Catching the Wave

Whyville's success with putting games and social networking together in an online virtual world demonstrates an important point about educational technology: Multiple learning channels are better than one, and working together is better than working alone. So even if you're not ready to launch a virtual curriculum, you can still benefit from the community of educators who connect through blogs, newsletters, e-mail lists, bulletin boards, and online events. L'Amoreaux recommends joining the Second Life Education mailing list as a first step, or taking a look at the Second Life Education Wiki at

As well, education powerhouse the International Society for Technology in Education has taken the pioneering step of buying an island in the virtual world. Offline, there are lessons we can take away from multi-user virtual environments. Three motivators inherent in these worlds are personal identity, expressed through avatars; personal goals, such as creating objects or winning games; and personal interactions, enabled by instant messaging and virtual presence. It's important to realize that these factors don't exist only online. Allowing students to express who they are, giving them a clear objective that they believe is important, and nurturing a community of learners can make a paper and pencil lesson as riveting as the most addictive video game.

The popularity and sophistication of online worlds make it easy to believe the claim by Gartner, an information technology research company, that by 2011, 80 percent of active Internet users will participate in virtual environments. Companies are already establishing niches. Gaia Online caters to teen fans of Japanese comic books and animation (manga and anime respectively), Club Penguin offers a safe playground for younger kids, and big corporations like Nickelodeon and Disney have debuted their own ad-heavy alternatives. Regardless of whether Second Life and its contemporaries are around in five years, virtual environments with immersive educational experiences are a real phenomenon. While the markets and logistical problems are shaking out now, online worlds will soon join television, the Internet, and other emerging technologies in the savvy educator's ever-growing toolkit.

Lindsay Oishiis a graduate student in learning sciences and technology design at Stanford University.