Location: Richmond Build-it Site
My first-year writing class completed a project to build structures to house a photo-essay linked to their wikis. Each writer provided a point-by-point analysis of why his or her image captured essential claims about the virtual world. For the first time in three semester’s worth of engagement with Second Life, something “clicked” pedagogically for the entire group, and that pedagogy provides a new approach in writing classrooms during an era of constant assessment and budgetary crises.
Here are some speculations about why things went so well. I invite other teachers to try these approaches to see if they work with other students in the 18-22 demographic.
- Accentuate the power of user-generated content: This makes SL and worlds like it unique. I began in Fall 2008 not with old stories from the "hyperbole" days of SL (2006-07) when major media outlets were covering it. Students just were skeptical about this "play world" when the read those stories. Instead, we began with Robbie Dingo's "Watch the World" and a couple of short pieces about the educational uses of SL. Students saw right away that we were not playing World of Warcraft or getting ready to become virtual millionaires.
- Link learning how to use SL to writing: I asked writers to discuss why they picked a certain type of avatar, why they dressed him or her as they did, and why they chose the names they chose. The writers returned to these themes as they learned more about SL.
- Explore with a purpose: Having writers just go to Svarga and similar jaw-dropping sims for the wonder of it all serves little purpose for students used to vivid graphics. Instead, I asked writers to complete a scavenger hunt that let them learn more of the level-2 skills in SL (landmarking, making note cards, taking snapshots, keeping chat logs) that would help them for later assignments. I added incentives in the form of small Linden-Dollar rewards.
- Save "edgy" assignments for later: my university enrolls bright but often risk-averse students. I had the desire to have writers change race or gender for an assignment, but I saved that for later, after they were past any discomfort with how to use the SL client. This paid off handsomely, with writers like Andrew deciding to remain female and even write a final project about in-world relationships.
- Be present at key moments: Students learned to travel with their editing group, to avoid that "alone in SL" feeling we all have from time to time. For the teacher, holding a couple of individual conferences with students (one-on-0ne at first, later with each of the 3 editing groups) took time but worked well.
- Get students to build: Teaching with SL took a lot of energy, for both Iggy and Pappy Enoch (who came in when Iggy could not log in to SL because of a glitch that left him a ball of gas). The two of us, as well as mentor Skagen Vita, helped at crucial stages in a final project to build the photo exhibits (make a visit: here's the direct teleport to the spot). At the site, click any photo to follow a link to writers' wikis, capturing a central claim about SL.
- Employ Class Mentors: While Mentors Tenchi, Cynthia, and Dianna at times felt that students were either timid or rude (not thanking the mentors after a help-session) I still feel this aspect of teaching with SL is worthwhile. It provides students with a few familiar names, like contacts in a foreign nation. Even though the mentors all felt under-employed, they each contributed meaningfully to at least one student project. For instance, Terran Timeless did an in-depth interview with my student Bridget, and this helped her to see past some biases about SL as a playground for socially inept folks.