Ramapo Island: Another Dimension of Learning

DSCN0234.JPGThis was moblogged, but I’ve cleaned it up considerably. In my professional opinion, this was the most important session of the conference. This was the first example I’d ever seen of students engaged in meaningful role-playing in a massively multiplayer environment. NOTE: Peggy is pictured here at the Second Life lounge, where I caught a better image of her. Here is a picture of her presentation, taken with my Treo.

In short, Peggy and her colleagues are working with 8th grade students on a private Island in Second Life. Sadly I came in late, but I saw more than enough to justify the claim I made above. She covered ways they are using the Island for role-playing in many subject areas. For example, in social studies the students role-play immigrating to the US via Ellis Island (complete with a giant model of the Statue of Liberty). In literature class they role-played a mock trial (trying Lenny for murder – from Of Mice and Men). They also hold their literature discussions in-game (in fantastic flying pods), and have more participation for it – among other things, students were less intimidated.

The lack of game-like features in Second Life became an immediately obvious advantage. Like a good tabletop role playing game, the scenarios were designed by the teachers and students and played out in an open ended fashion between live players. The lack of any formal “combat” system or competition of any kind – or even a rule system – was no liability. Obviously we want our educational games to be non-violent, and that is the default option in Second Life. Also, sans game rules, the role-playing is primary.

As an aside, Peggy mentioned that they have learning environments that look like castles and all sorts of fantastic forms, not just real-world architecture. Students are building now, too. They even have an entrepreneur project where students start in-game businesses, complete with business plans. Peggy showed a video of a student who sells furniture in-game. Awesome.

In health class they explored their concepts of body image. First, students were asked to create the most beautiful avatar they could. Then the reflected on and discussed the experience. Next, they were asked to create the most beautiful cross-gender avatar they could, followed by reflection and discussion. Finally, they create an avatar as close to possible to their real-life bodies. Complete with discussion of the Dove beauty adds, the student discussion and reactions were “nothing short of profound.” Remember these are 8th graders!

In general they reported that students were more comfortable discussing such things in the virtual world than they would ever be in a classroom. Also, they saw an effect where they would here from students, “I’m hanging out with kids in SL who would never hang out with me in real life.”

One of my overall reactions at this point was, “I need this lady on my delphi panel!

There was then some discussion of the options educators have for using Second Life with their students. The most attractive option is a private island with 16 acres of land, complete access control, complete terrain customization, and -most importantly – the potential for being a persistent online classroom. Private islands are half-price for educators… a few thousand dollars a year, I think… easily something an institution could afford.

This was followed by a discussion of several “steps to success’ including getting the administration on board, hiring a consultant, setting up and checking hardware, working with Linden Labs to acquire land, planning meaningful curriculum, and – of course – listening to your students.

They also shared some challenges, including frequent updates and downtime, network lag, booking lab time (of course), and as Peggy put it “time, time, time.”

She ended (as she started apparently) with a visual summary… a video that began with sleeping kids powered down followed by great images of students being digital natives, reading the world is flat, and a Hithickers Guide “don’t panic” sign to boot. With “there’s beauty in the breakdown” as a soundtrack, the text “come down the rabit hole” lead the way to lots of in-world images of Second Life. I had goosebumps.

She ended with a list of resources and the closing statement “I look forward to seeing you in second life.”

I was impressed. Peggy had IT and admin colleagues there to help with the Q&A. I was also impressed by the questions from attendees! They got it! For instance, someone asked if in-game attitude changes have transfered over into the classroom. Peggy responded that she was not sure, but that the relationships have. There were also questions about security that were well handled. Happily, I got to meet Peggy (briefly) when it was all over.

Session link: Ramapo Island: Another Dimension of Learning

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