Thursday, November 19, 2009

Widespread Faculty Adoption of Virtual Worlds: Unlikely

Burial Chamber
Location: Heritage Key Virtual Tut Experience

It was both a revolutionary moment and a sad one. I talked about my class' "Saving Isis"assignment for the VWER (nee SLER) group's first meeting outside of Second Life. At the same time, I realized how few of us, in higher ed, use these technologies. I've often written here about why students don't take to virtual worlds. But how about my colleagues who sometimes snicker about the work we do in SL and elsewhere?

To this observer, despite feats like the much ballyhooed rollout of the UT system's SL project, virtual worlds are not likely to be a mainstream technology on campuses any time soon. Some possible reasons:
  • Incentive and Reward: Tenure-stream faculty, and even full-time nontenured ones like me, have to meet goals in our assessments that may prevent us from living deeply enough in the culture of virtual world to truly learn it. I've been lucky, personally, with my work for Richmond, but I know that my department and school expect a juried publication out of all this, preferably in a major journal. This is how we faculty accrue prestige in academe for ourselves and our schools. It may be a dated measure to non-academics, but trust me: it will be around until my readers and I retire.
  • Time the Tyrant: Right now, VWs like Second Life and Heritage Key are far too difficult to master in a few hours, even if one is not a builder. In SL it's the overwhelming size of the simulation and the difficulty of the building tools. In HK, which one colleague just dismissed as a big museum where you cannot build, the navigation tools and pedagogical activities are not yet in place yet the world is wide open for visitors who will go, crash multiple times, and not return.
  • Creepy Treehouse: Here it's the culture of SL and even the name that turn off so many admins and colleagues. That does show signs of changing, after these parties get a look at what a good simulation can do to spark learning. More educationally focused and PG-rated virtual worlds will emerge under OpenSim and that will both hurt the Linden product and encourage the reluctant to "give this one a try instead."
  • Linden Lab's Mercurial Policies: We educators recall how jokay Wollengong was promoted by one part of the Lab and issued a cease-and-desist order by another. It was one reason I urged my colleagues to change our Roundtable's name. But the problems go deeper. Decisions like that undercut the very culture that brings in academics: when I showed a reluctant colleage jokay's wiki in 2007, he said "I get it now." Now his URL won't work, and Linden Lab lost a potential customer.
It's all as one, as Tateru Nino claims in a reply to me about her post on the decision by Australian telecom Testra Bigpond to leave SL, that Second Life does not quite fit the hype cycle famously described by the Gartner Group.

She contends, with evidence, that there's a sinusoidal cycle at play here, with ever-diminishing amplitudes. Those ripples do not seem to register in the very crowded professional lives of academics.

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