Today I briefly attended a follow up to the Eduserv Symposium, Virtual Worlds, Real Learning, Revisited which was an entirely 'virtual' event conducted in Second Life (SL). My attendance was cut short by an incident involving a laptop and a three-year old upon which I won't elaborate.... I did manage to rejoin the event towards the end.
The event today was, essentially, a seminar, with a 5 or 6 'panelists' and a varying number of audience members (maybe peaked at around 25 - difficult for me to say). Before the event Eduserv had given out full instructions about a 'queueing' system, designed to prevent everyone talking at once. When I joined the seminar, around 15 minutes late, this had been abandoned and a free-flowing chat was in progress. At times the chat system hit the same problem all such applications seem to do, which is that there were several threads or conversations mixed in together and it became difficult to follow. At one point, one of the audience asked a question which made me sit up and take notice. The questioner wanted to know if people were looking at the avatars and virtual world surrounding them or if they were just reading the chat 'history'. By this point I had enlarged the chat history window to the point where it obscured the rest of the virtual world entirely. This was the moment I wished I was using a better chat system - something more like Skype for example. To be fair to SL, it did attempt to cope with considerably more than Skype's maximum of 10 participants in one chat session. Having said that, I found that the chat tool in SL is woefully slow if you're in the middle of a flowing discussion - on my pretty powerful MacBook I found myself watching my keystrokes crawling across the input box. And my enlarged chat window was semi-transparent so that I could still see avatars doing that comical 'typing in air' thing which indicates they are 'chatting' (I imagine I can change this behaviour, but in the heat of the moment I didn't want to go hunting for the switch).
I'm still very skeptical about the value of SL in education or e-Learning. Nothing in the discussion has made me feel differently and today's experience, my first 'seminar' in SL, just made me think back to the days when the early promise of 'virtual learning environments' began to pall and we realised that the integrated VLE was not generally better than the sum of its second-rate component tools, and that we might be better off just selecting better tools. If I hadn't run into an unfortunate child/laptop proximity event, I would have asked what the panel thought of the significance or otherwise of SL for distance learning. As I blogged before, the guys at Eduserv have already proved to me that SL can definitely play a part in delivering conferences - allowing a worthwhile degree of participation for remote delegates. I think SL has some real potential as a virtual meeting space - perhaps when the text chat gives way to voice (in development in SL) then we'll start to see something really interesting.