Dare I say... It's Better? by Bob Sprankle

I love museums: science, art, history. You name it, I'm in. I can spend an entire day in any flavor, soaking up exhibit after exhibit, reading as much as I can, taking pictures when allowed, sitting and contemplating. So, why is it, every time I leave a museum I feel incredibly disappointed?

Scenario: Up early, pack a lunch, head down Route I95 with my daughter to the Boston Science Museum (one of our favorites). We usually snag discount tickets from our local public library to cut down on costs, but parking will ring up to around $30. We're usually in around 10:00 and try to beat traffic out of the city by 3:00 (so it's a pretty good 5 hour day, minus time taken out for a quick lunch). We really try to get our "money's worth" and usually skip the Omni Theater offerings because it takes time away from our exploring. We try to take in EVERYTHING, so we move at a pretty good clip, and it's hard for both of us to get too caught up with any single exhibit, because we'll never get to all the rest of the great stuff. Every so often, I'll find an exhibit that begs patience, for instance, a computer kiosk that requires time for reading or a hands-on display that offers interaction for questions with a docent. I try to get my daughter to sit for a few minutes and soak up these opportunities, but within minutes, she's pulling at my sleeve and begging me to move on to see something else. And can you blame her? There are distractions all over, promising that something better is just around the corner. It's hard to stay at a computer that is only providing text when there is a stuffed mountain lion beckoning from the other side of the room. And of course, that's a slippery slope: because after the mountain lion is where the dinosaurs are...

Scenario 2: Almost the same as above, but this time with 4 different classrooms, who have come down to Boston from Maine on a bus; roughly 100 students in all. The Boston Science Museum is on the menu, but so is the New England Aquarium. More to see, more people to see it with, even less time.

If only we could spend a few days in the museum, I always think. Or a week! Or a trimester! There's so much great stuff here, students are engaged, the learning takes place with some truly authentic artifacts... if only we could turn this space into our classroom and stay longer. If only we could take some of it home with us.

Imagine: learning about dinosaurs for a week in the dinosaur exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science, at the foot of the giant TRex, with scientist and docents there to guide the learning.

There's long been Virtual Museums on the Internet. They're wonderful addendums to the original brick and mortar experiences. They're great to visit and use for research purposes before and after the visit to the actual museum. Or, they fill in as substitutes for those museums that we may never get to, such as the Louvre.

But let's face it: they're flat. Students may not find any more engagement than they find in a book on the subject from the library. The visit might feel lacking to some students because a journey hasn't been taken. Which is why we plead to keep field trips in our budget, isn't it? We want to take our students on an actual voyage in the learning. We want to take them out of the normalcy of the classroom and immerse them in experience.

I've long been a fan of Second Life, or should I say a believer in the possibilities it has to offer. Quite honestly, I hardly spend anytime in Second Life these days, but I keep holding onto the belief that there are incredible learning opportunities available in such an environment.

I remember years ago being completely amazed by a build that replicated Walden Pond. It was incredibly accurate in the layout of the woods and water, and had the added benefit over the "real life" Walden by inviting your avatar to walk into Thoreau's cabin and sit on his bed, or at his desk. It was beautiful. The leaves were set in their autumn colors and it was always a sunny day. How wonderful a place it must have been to take students to while talking about Thoreau's writing. Definitely not ever as good as going to the actual pond, but a really nice "second".

And then, one day, it was gone.

The entire thing. Whoever created it, tore it down, or packaged it up, or whatever you do when you dismantle a build in Second Life. I hope it comes back someday; I look for it every so often. It feels like an act of vandalism to have had such an amazing piece of art that can no longer be accessed.

It was however, that build of Walden that has had me holding out hope for Second Life. That and some other amazing museums and builds that can immerse the learner in the environment, sometimes even more than actual museums have done. For instance, take the Van Gogh exhibit. Not only do you get to look at Van Gogh's paintings, but you can actually climb into them! So, with "Van Gogh's Room at Arles", you can actually "walk" your avatar around the room, sit on the bed, the chair, take a closer look at the paintings on the wall. Alas, I tried to get back there in order to take some screenshots for this post, and the build was no longer available (this might be temporary as it can still be found on the map).

I've long waited for someone to build an authentic representation of Anne Frank's attic in Second Life and now there is pretty good one. This is a great example of what is possible. Chances are, I'll never be able to take a class of students to the genuine site in Amsterdam, but by using the virtual space built in Second Life, a teacher can give students a better appreciation for the space (or lack of) while reading her diary.

From there, students can spend the day in the US Holocaust Museum's virtual space that is dedicated to educating people about Kristallnacht. When entering the museum, you are greeted with this message:

"Welcome to Witnessing History. You are entering an environment focused on a single event – Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass). Here, you will take the role of a journalist, recalling the testimony of eyewitnesses as you investigate what happened during the November 1938 pogroms."

One could spend days in here. There are pictures and text to research, as well as actual audio and video from survivors who were there on the night, sharing their experiences and memories. Upon exiting, you are invited to add your reflections to the other reflections that are posted in the museum.

It is a somber and serious experience. I'm sure it is not the same as going to the actual museum in Washington, but it provides an immersion in the subject matter for thorough research and contemplation.

I've started collecting bookmarks to other museum and simulations in Second Life that are also ideal for learning. You can find the list here at diigo and I invite you to add to the list (through the comments section).

So... are these virtual sites better than the actual? No... I don't think so, but they do offer opportunities not provided by actual museums: access, for instance (for museums geographically distant) and extended time for immersion (24/7 and available for revisiting). These resources are too good to pass up for our students, but I recognize that there's one major "flaw" in this statement:

I can hear the collective response:

"You can't take students into SECOND LIFE!"

Generally, I agree with that. Even in places of study, such as the US Holocaust Museum in Second Life, you can't insulate your students from the possibility that griefers could invade the experience, or that something might be said in the local chat that you wouldn't allow in your classroom. True, this could happen in "real life" at a real museum, but Second Life definitely seems to be more of a risk, which is why you need to be 18 to have access to the main grid. So. you see, I can't even bring a class of elementary students into Second Life. At present there is definitely a legal and ethical hindrance.

Certain avenues have attempted to address this: such as the "Second Life Teen Grid" (of course, that still leaves out my elementary students) as well as the organization Edusim, who's doing great work in building a 3D virtual world platform (much like SL), which would allow schools to build their own virtual worlds.

However, neither option really provides a complete solution. These amazing builds already exist in SL. I'm not sure if they even exist on the Teen Grid (as adults are not allowed there) and I doubt that it's reasonable to be able to offer the same quality or abundance with Edusim's software. In short, because the builds already exist in SL, there's really no need to duplicate them elsewhere. I just want access for students. Perhaps there will come a solution some day where we can "safely" take students on a virtual field trip within Second Life. Something like a "layer" on top of the virtual world that only allows access to sites deemed appropriate, blocking interaction and chat with strangers. A filter, if you will. Here's an article about Linden Lab (the creators of Second Live) that points to a possible environment that will be a "more predictable experience for Second Life users." I don't know the solution, but I think I speak for many teachers and students when I say, "We want in."

That, and please bring back Walden Pond!