Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Second Life and Writing Centers...WHY?

triplets (after)
Location: Reading The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors

There's a humorous illustration in Ryan and Zimmerelli's otherwise excellent (and free from the publisher!) guidebook. In the Fifth Edition, an image shows a bone-stock male avatar, circa 2006, sitting in a virtual writing center being tutored.

Let's ignore the avatar's tragic lack of fashion sense and bad hair for a second. The real issue to me comes from the overkill of using a hard-to-master interface in an immersive environment when lower, or at least parallel, forms of technology can suffice.

I've long claimed here and in my academic writing that virtual worlds provide two advantages for education: immersive learning and simulations. "Immersion," for those not familiar with how we eggheads use the term, means the "lost in the moment" experience that happens to gamers, writers, and athletes "in the zone" and enjoying the experience.

Students seeking writing help may indeed enjoy the experience and learn a great deal, and they may be in distance-learning programs where face-to-face consultations with a tutor prove impossible. Do they, however, need an avatar?

Second Life and similar virtual worlds provide great opportunities to live a work of literature and even change its ending, as a group did last week in our university's House of Usher. Virtual Worlds let students create 3D content, use voice or text to chat with others globally in other languages, to tour simulations of famous historical sites or art installations that can be walked or flown through. As User Interfaces (UIs) improve, as some worlds become "cloud based" so they'll run on lower-end hardware, and as more students come to us with experiences honed in Club Penguin, virtual worlds may well have a place.

That time has not come, yet, for the tutoring of writing.

In other venues virtual worlds offer more utility than a teleconference or group call on Skype. We can tour each other's creations and we tend to have more equal conversations than a teleconference, which seems to devolve, in my experience, into a moderator presenting to a mostly silent audience. In SL, however, I've attended roundtable chats with 80 or more people, at least half of whom contribute to the conversation.

Smaller teleconferences or Skype chats do work extremely well as egalitarian platforms for conducting meetings. Skype provides the ability to use text or voice, and one can paste in URLs. Google has a range of strong applications, too. It's more likely to me that a future writing center, even on a residential campus, might employ Google Docs + some form of voice chat or IM to give writers an alternative to a face-to-face meeting. Our library's IM line has saved my butt a few times when doing research from office or home. I've even had a question answered, with a URL provided, during class time when a student asked a question I could not answer.

Technology should not drive pedagogy, and that seems to be the case when a center opens the doors to SL; the time invested in training tutors could be better invested elsewhere. At the presently clunky level of the SL UI, the high-end graphics requirements, the long orientation experience, as well as the need to download a special viewer, I just do not see too many writing centers employing avatar-tutors.

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