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Second life and online collaboration through peer to peer distributed learning networks

by Vance Stevens
Department of Computing, The Petroleum Institute, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Paper submitted to the Proceedings of the METSMaC Conference http://metsmac.org
to be held in Abu Dhabi March 17-19, 2007

For the slide show accompanyment to the oral version of this paper, click here

This paper discusses the concept of distributed learning networks and their potential for professional development and collaborative learning using the Internet in peer to peer networks. Many innovative distance learning environments have arisen recently thanks to remarkable developments in the ways people are now able to interact over the Internet, freely and without reliance on client-server network models. Example learning environments range from relatively flat but open source learning and content management tools (such as Moodle and Drupal) to richer facilities integrating learning with social networking tools (e.g. Elgg, MySpace), and beyond (e.g. Second Life).

Use of social networking sites (and 'beyond') in education has been called 'transformative' by some, whereas others seek to ban and block them. The challenge for proponents is to gain enough experience through experimentation and critical reflection to mount principled appeals to policy-makers, who may not have grasped the transformative benefits accruing from relatively unfettered access to an evolving Internet. Dangers of forfeiting the lead in this regard include relegating students to non-competitive positions in an ever-more-wired and connected world, and stifling opportunities for educators and students to carry on conversations that would otherwise promote learning through interaction with others in the distributed learning P2P network.

Second Life illustrates here the educational potential at the cutting edge of technology in an environment tolerant of experimentation. Second Life (and its precursor, Active Worlds) have long-standing credentials as educational environments (e.g. language projects in AW; elaborate simulations and labs/museums in Second Life). I hope to suggest how educators can use such spaces in transformative ways to foster distributed learning networks, such as hosting science simulations, in environment well integrated with Web 2.0 and the read-write Web.

Second Life as a peer to peer distributed learning network

These days collaboration online is sometimes characterized in terms of ecology. Dieu et all (2006) for example argue that "a pedagogical approach based on P2P can support learning ecologies that both complement and transcend conventional classroom structures and practices, ultimately benefiting learners." Stevens (2006) addresses the concept of distributed learning networks as having to do with "the notion that knowledge is distributed; i.e., not resident in any one person or repository. It turns out that peer-to-peer networks are preferable to hierarchical ones, and well suited to knowledge distribution, when working through the Internet." Stevens draws heavily on the recorded presentations of Stephen Downes, as reported for example in Wise (2006). Downes promotes the concept that distributed learning networks as expressed in wikis and other tools where collaborators work as equal entities in parallel are not only productive but remarkably self-regulating.

Second Life http://www.secondlife.com is a program with some potential for letting all kinds of collaborators, and especially educators, work within and develop these concepts. Second Life is produced by Linden Labs in California and allows anyone with a fairly robust computer and an Internet connection to interact with others in a 3-D virtual space. Wayne MacPhail describes the experience rather well in a podcast which you can listen to here: http://www.rabble.ca/rpn/episode.shtml?x=54785 -

Second Life is a 3D virtual world you enter via software on your computer. In Second Life you're represented by a virtual you, an avatar. Male or female, tramp, vixen, animal, average Joe or fashion plate, how your avatar looks is up to you. ... My avatar, under my mouse and keyboard command can walk, run and fly, yes, fly, through hundreds of square miles of terrain, shops, houses and nightclubs. There are lots of nightclubs. But, there are also dozens of educational and nonprofit institutions, that have created storefronts and campuses, 3D versions of real campuses in Second Life. Why?

That question, which this paper sets out to answer, can be expanded into more questions. Is Second Life the up and coming harbinger of collaboration and productivity online, or a banal trap that is consuming resources and time best spent elsewhere? Is Second Life ideally matched with the open source nature of the read-write Web and social networking, a next-stage in the level of conversations redirecting our interpersonal and societal interactions (including those in the marketplace) applauded in the Cluetrain Manifesto http://www.cluetrain.com/, or is it heading in the other direction, uncomfortably corporate and profiteering? And what if anything does this have to do with education? Reactions of educators vary with respect to benefits to education in Second Life, but most of the million or so people who inhabit its alternate universe must feel that Second Life is a virtual world with a difference, or they wouldn't be there.

Depending on whose figures you believe, perhaps half a million unique avatars touched down in Second Life in the last two months of 2006, and that number has been growing steadily. It's not the numbers so much as what those avatars find when they get there, a virtual world where possibilities seem endless. Not only can you (or someone more clever than you) create the world of your choice replete with gizmos and widgets that do things (like play recordings and slide shows or provide you with utilitarian tools and information), but your avatar can defy gravity and fly at will. You can teleport from place to place, world to world, and you can ride all manner of conveyances if available. I recently sat fully clothed on a stool half-submerged at a poolside bar and had a pleasant chat with an attractive lady as fully dressed and waist deep in water as I was. In real life this lady had put on a conference at which I had been a plenary speaker. A snippet of what it's like "in world" is captured in this cameo: "Yesterday a cheerful Italian gave me a Babbler translator so we started teaching each other Italian and Hungarian using English as the common language, which was real fun, especially that we were figure ice-skating meanwhile." (posted Nov 27, 2006 at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/evonline2002_webheads/message/14030).

Active Worlds: Precursor to Second Life

Second Life appears at first glance a reincarnation of Active Worlds, an avatar-based MUVE, or multi-user virtual environment, developed in the mid-90's which once had around half a million users (according to http://awportals.com/). It's been remarked that diminishing populations are taking the fun out of life there; e.g. http://forums.activeworlds.com/archive/index.php?t-5429.html. However MUVE's such as Active Worlds have often been used in education as simulating environments rich in learning opportunities e.g. The River City Project headed by Chris Dede, http://muve.gse.harvard.edu/rivercityproject/index.html.

Active Worlds has also been used as a virtual space to explore how communities operate. Quest Atlantis for example was presented at the 2005 WiAOC Conference http://wiaoc.org by Dongping Zheng, Robert Brewer, and Michael Young. Like the River City project, Quest Atlantis http://atlantis.crlt.indiana.edu/ is National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded, and uses an Active Worlds kernel to immerse children, ages 9 to 12, in educational tasks. One of its goals is to research "the complex variables that constitute an online learning, playing, and socially conscious experience" according to a broadside of the Center for Research on Learning & Technology at Indiana University http://crlt.indiana.edu/research/qa.html (and see Dede, 2005).

In another such study, Peterson (2006) found that participants in Active Worlds were able to undertake a variety of tasks through target language interaction, and also employed transactional communication and interactional strategies. Task type influenced the quantity of negotiation, and the use of avatars facilitated learner interaction management during real time computer-mediated communication. He concludes that the learner interaction was influenced by the complex interaction of a number of variables including task type, sociolinguistic factors, context of use and the mix of technical affordances provided by Active Worlds.

Why the time is right for Second Life

As we see, Second Life is not particularly new in concept, but follows on work most recently developed in Active Worlds. The look and feel of both worlds is, on first arrival 'in world', strikingly similar. In both, you appear in a 3D fantasy land as an avatar in the company of other avatars. You can walk or run or fly about. You can alter your camera angles (and take pictures - many people do, both still and moving, and galleries abound online). You can converse with other avatars there, and you can teleport to other spaces. Why then has Second Life taken off so successfully where Active Worlds never quite achieved that threshold? (Second Life reached a million users in October 2006, per http://blog.secondlife.com/2006/10/18/1000000-residents-happy-crushing-signup-load-sad/ -- but see also Clay Shirkya's "Story too good to check": http://valleywag.com/tech/second-life/a-story-too-good-to-check-221252.php, where Linden Lab's figures and means of arriving at them are questioned).

Perhaps it was a question of timing. Computing power and people with ability to use it have become more ubiquitous now. Both Active Worlds, at its inception, and Second Life at the present time, have pushed the limits of typical computer resources, and are thus wholly enjoyable only to those with above-average computers and bandwidth. Both are challenging to use and require competent awareness of how computers work, as well as high tolerance for ambiguity. But "normal" computing power increases more rapidly these days, as do the skills of those behind the keyboard. The culture of computing and digital literacy is more receptive to virtual spaces and more conducive to their potential than was the case ten years ago, and the mindset of both digital immigrants and particularly of digital natives has changed to greater acceptance of immersion in virtual worlds (Prensky, 2001).

Another reason for the success of Second Life is that there is much greater mutual community awareness than there was when Active Worlds appeared on the horizon. The nature of the blogosphere plays to the popularity of Second Life, and promotes the formation of viable communities within virtual spaces. When Active Worlds was developed in the mid-90's the news was spread by e-mail, BBS (bulletin board systems), static webpages, and emergent IM clients like ICQ. Second Life has appeared at a time when people are much more closely interlinked through blogs and various other social networking devices, and news of interest to particular communities tends to spread more rapidly (at the Speed of Creativity, as Wesley Fryer has entitled his blog). Furthermore the news now carries with it objects such as video clips that allow people to vicariously experience Second Life without actually being there.

Second Life performance can be degraded by insufficient bandwidth, poor machine resources, and firewalls. In the illustration above, participants are using a free Web 2.0 thin client called Webhuddle (https://www.webhuddle.com/) to share the screen of one participant in Second life while interacting with each other in Skype (http://www.skype.com).

There is also a much better understanding now of the impact that ubiquitous access to computers has had on giving voice to communities in the "long tail" (Anderson, 2004) and Second Life has timed itself to be right in step with this. More importantly, Second Life has become a vehicle for this development, seized by its participants as a means of stimulating interaction among a target spectrum of constituents.

Like-minded people 'loosely joined' throughout the blogosphere populate communities which overlap and influence other communities, and these communities disseminate and share a wide range of objects associated with Web 2.0 and social networking, such as open source scripts and tools supporting interaction in Second Life. For example, a Moodle community has formed, called Sloodle http://www.sloodle.com/, where you can take advantage of various tools in the Sloodle environment and be in Second Life but interact through Moodle. Add-ons such as the voice clients Ventrilo and Teamspeak are freely downloadable and usable in Second Life. Objects can be found throughout Second Life where developers have linked to digital and multimedia resources available on the open-access Web. Someone has even created a notorious CopyBot that will replicate objects there (much to the consternation of the segment of the community that is not open source and prompting threats from Linden Lab of expulsion of those using CopyBot).

Second Life has opened doors to creativity and imagination that have been particularly transformative for education. To paraphrase Jeremy Kemp, one of Sloodle's developers, speaking on the Worldbridges Network, EdTechBrainstorm #57, November 9, 2006, the asynchronous objects available in Second Life have much greater potential for transformative impact on educations than the synchronous interaction there http://edtechtalk.com/node/739.

Cory Ondrejka, a developer at Linden Labs, is giving a presentation at the Games+Learning+Society Conference in July 2007 entitled "Brace for Impact: How User Creation Changes Everything" http://www.glsconference.org/pop/ondrejka.htm. The abstract touches how Second Life has less to do with gaming and more to do with peer to peer interactivity. "Highly flexible virtual worlds are starting to allow content created by one user to be experienced immediately by other users. This "user-created content" has the capacity to significantly change how games can be used for learning. Technical limitations have traditionally limited the creation of educational games to professional game developers, as they were the group with access to the game-building tools. Second Life is a unique digital world that puts the tools in the hands of its residents. Through a scripting language, embedded 3D design tools, an easy-to-use character creation system, and methods for exchanging data with the real world, Second Life allowing highly interactive learner-to-learner and amateur-to-amateur creation and education.

So Second Life isn't just a game?

No, it's not. For one thing there is no object to it except for whatever goals might be set by individual users. From a constructivist standpoint, that is, or should be, the goal not of a game, but of a program of learning. Or perhaps the point is that learning might be even more effective if it appears to be a game, or if it's something the learner is intrinsically motivated to do. It is clear that many who are drawn to Second Life are intrinsically motivated to be there.

Second Life is being taken quite seriously by a growing number of successful people and entities firmly rooted in the non-virtual world. It's hard to ignore the serious attention given to this environment by such a wide range of personalities and bona fide institutions (not to mention start up companies making money off accessories for avatars, and a vast cadre of gamers, which serious Second Lifers avoid by setting up their worlds on islands away from the inconveniences of the mainland - Reuters reported Nov 9, 2006 that half a million dollars changes hands every day in Second Life).

How seriously Second Life is taken can be deduced from a short list of links with accompanying videos that give you a good idea of what Second Life is like. For example, Susan Vega gave a recent concert in Second Life, resulting in some fascinating artefacts such as a multimedia film clip of how her virtual guitar was constructed, http://secondlife.com/showcase/; and numerous videos of her performance, such as that at http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2006/08/nwntv_the_secon.html. Mark Warner, presidential hopeful and former governor of Virginia, staged political events (a news conference and town hall meeting) in Second Life in September, 2006. This transcript with screenshots can give you the flavor of the event: http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2006/08/the_second_life.html and you can play the YouTube video at the governor's website: http://www.forwardtogetherblog.com/story/2006/9/15/18268/4612.

Countless institutions are setting up in Second Life. Guilio Prisco (2006) has an article in the Future Technologies Advisory Group wiki describing several interesting implementations: http://futuretag.net/index.php/Slgp1. Some others:

Educational presence in Second Life

Many of the institutions purchasing islands in Second Life are educational ones. Two that provide visual tours of what it's like there are:

If you've viewed some of the images and videos at these links and heard the developers describe their experiences 'in world' you would be forgiven for thinking that Second Life could be a creative place for teaching. Among other educators reaching that same conclusion:

Many projects in Second Life are geared toward science, technology, design, and enterprise:

There is no shortage of information on educational developments in Second Life. Linden Labs provides 'in world' support at the Second Life website under Community > Education: http://secondlife.com/community/education.php. SimTeach, providing information and community for educators using MUVE's like Second Life in teaching and learning, has a blog, a wiki, a discussion group, and some sample Second Life videos at http://www.simteach.com/ . The wiki lists many education projects and resources in Second Life: http://www.simteach.com/wiki/index.php?title=Second_Life_Education_Wiki.

If audio is your modality, you can subscribe to Who's on Second? a podcast "about nonprofits and educators jacked into Second Life," at http://www.rabble.ca/rpn/podcast.php?id=wos. Podcaster Wayne MacPhail creates a subtly ethereal ambience while conversing with people doing serious and interesting work using Second Life as a base; for example, Nancy Hill, an activist with Code PINK - Women for Peace (Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, works with this group in real life) and Harry Pence, a Distinguished Teaching Professor of Chemistry at the State University of New York who talks about some of the people he has met online in his own effort to explore the impact of Second Life on online communities of educators. This podcast demonstrates how human second life is by engaging the voices underlying the avatars and granting each a soapbox in the podosphere.


The prognosis on Second Life is not universally considered rosy. Charlie O'Donnell raised eyebrows, hackles, and some interesting points with his Nov 27, 2006 posting 10 Reasons to Go Short on Second Life, http://www.thisisgoingtobebig.com/2006/11/10_reasons_to_g.html. The ten reasons are (excerpted):

  1. Second Life "probably will never be, mobile ... and will not wind up on your cellphones anytime soon."
  2. In "a short attention span world... small and bitesized. SecondLife can't easily be consumed in small bits. You can't link to an event that already happened, or tag a place, or share it with someone who doesn't have the software."
  3. "Second Life is a benevolent dictatorship. ... a very small group of people basically dictates what goes and what doesn't in this market... a group of people that is not beholden to the residents by law, is a political risk."
  4. "Second Life is a business. Linden Labs has taken venture capital investment and those firms are going to look for an "exit" at some point over the next four years or so. Maybe Linden Labs will ... have the pressure to grow revenues which may be at odds with the authenticity of the service."
  5. "Diminishing returns for brand participation ... Right now, you can gain a lot of PR buzz by participating in Second Life... probably enough buzz to justify the investment in development for whatever you build to put in there. But, how long will that last?"
  6. "Requires 100% attention. ...You can't casually browse Second Life... It's very different than an IM window you can put away in the background when you're doing other things."
  7. "Lack of context. ... no guidance, no schedule ... users find themselves lost over overwhelmed."
  8. "Digital world with an analog business model ... but because of their digital nature, Second Life has experienced problems lately with users copying digital items that would otherwise be sold."
  9. "Reach. No matter how many registered users you have, getting less than 20K simultaneous users online really isn't very much. ... Yes, it's growing, but interestingly, the number of registration is far outpacing the active usage of the site. ... more people are coming to check it out, but they're not sticking around. "
  10. Escapism vs. Reality. The promise of social networks is that you've got digital self expression going on in unprecedented volume.... to connect you with real people based on real and authentic things about themselves. ... I thought the blog/Web 2.0/Cluetrain revolution was all about authenticity and living online the way I do in real life... my digital world as a reflection of my real interests and real personality? So far, that seems a lot more compelling for people than fantasy... otherwise, wouldn't most of the profiles on MySpace be roleplaying profiles... fake people created and maintained by real humans behind them? If I'm a business, I want to make sure I'm connecting in a sincere way with real people as well.... not sponsoring a fantasy."

O'Donnell's post has prompted reactions, including Chris Carella's "Ten Reasons to Go Long on Second Life" http://blogs.electricsheepcompany.com/chris/?p=178, which (inexplicably) addressed just 1-9 of O'Donnell's points. Regarding the last point, from my own experiences with a community of practice whose members already knew each other in 'real life' -- if that's a phrase we can use to describe other more familiar yet totally virtual, forms of professional interaction -- Second Life has been an enhancement to that, a playground, a crucible for ideas about how people can augment their interaction through constructive, and constructivist, play/work/whatever. In that respect it has supported real productive effort as opposed to its appearance of fantasy.

Second Life promotes a spirit that proclaims that there is much scope in education for experimentation and enjoyment, and the result doesn't have to look like 'education'. As Stephen Downes also says often in his podcasts, learning should be built into and part of what people do naturally day to day rather than something people are 'kidnapped' into doing within the walls of an isolated institution. If people are drawn to virtual worlds such as Second Life, then educators who are also drawn to those places might be in the best position to intersect with the interests of the target learners already there, or who accept invitations to go there, and help make these experiences educational ones.

As Graham Stanley mentions in Language Learning and Web 2.0 technologies for our 21st century language learners: Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and other emerging technologies (viewable here: http://www.pod-efl.com/video/Web%202.0%20&%20Language%20Learning.mov), Second Life might be seen as a prototype for some future form of learning. Whereas that future generation of educational computing might not be Second Life (if it's too commercial or implodes on its own popularity, as O 'Donnell suggests) it may be something like Second Life. Lacking a crystal ball, it's hard to say what will happen in a future with so many imponderables, but it's clear that Second Life has caught the imaginations of many who see in the depths of their computer screens how their work can be made more enjoyable, productive, and interactive in the course of encountering others attracted to 3D virtual spaces. One certainty is that Second Life is having an impact and making a difference now, and that it has already altered in interesting and positive ways the shape of upcoming developments in technology appropriately applied in education.


Anderson, C. (2004). The long tail. Wired, Issue 12.10 (October 2004). Retrieved December 27, 2006 from: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html.

Carvin, Andy. (2006). CyberOne: A glimpse of the future classroom? PBS Teacher Source > Technology and Teaching > Learning.Now, October 3, 2006. Retrieved December 27, 2006 from: http://www.pbs.org/teachersource/learning.now/2006/10/cyberone_the_future_of_educati.html.

Dede, Chris. (2005). Planning for neomillennial learning styles. Educause Quarterly, Volume 28 Number 1. Retrieved December 27, 2006 from: http://www.educause.edu/pub/eq/eqm05/eqm0511.asp.

Dieu, Barbara, Aaron Campbell, and Rudolf Ammann. (2006). P2P and learning ecologies in EFL/ESL. Teaching English with Technology A Journal for Teachers of English, Vol. 6, Issue 3 (August 2006). Retrieved December 28, 2006 from: http://www.iatefl.org.pl/call/j_article25.htm

Foster, Andrea. (2006). Second Life keeps chugging along. The Chronicle of Higher Education (The Wired Campus, August 29, 2006). Retrieved December 27 from http://chronicle.com/wiredcampus/article/1529/second-life-keeps-chugging-along.

Lamb, Gregory M. (2006). Real learning in a virtual world. The Christian Science Monitor, October 05, 2006. Retrieved December 27, 2006 from: http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/1005/p13s02-legn.html.

Peterson, Mark. (2006). Learner interaction management in an avatar and chat-based virtual world. Computer Assisted Language Learning Vol. 19, No. 1, February 2006, pp. 79 – 103.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon 9, 5. Retrieved December 27, 2006 from: http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf#search=%22prensky%22digital%20native%22%22.

Stevens, Vance. (2006). Revisiting Multiliteracies in Collaborative Learning Environments: Impact on Teacher Professional Development. TESL-EJ, Volume 10, Number 2. Retrieved December 28, 2006 from: http://www-writing.berkeley.edu/tesl-ej/ej38/int.html

Wise, L. (2006). Distributed learning - Stephen Downes. http://wisebytes.net/wordpress/2006/04/23/distributed-learning-stephen-downes/. (Description of a podcast by Stephen Downes given in Tennessee, http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=33993) - Both retrieved October 4, 2006.

A version of this article about Second Life oriented more toward language learning appears as:

Stevens, Vance. (2006). Second Life in Education and Language Learning. TESL-EJ, Volume 10, Number 3. Retrieved December 28, 2006 from: http://www-writing.berkeley.edu/tesl-ej/ej39/int.html

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