An interview with Berry Beattie, a lecturer in Leadership and Organizational Behaviour who is exploring the potential of Second Life as a medium for educators.
We are sitting in Berry's "office", which consists of some loungers on a tropical beach. The sound of lapping waves and the cry of seagulls can be heard in the background. Berry is relaxed, dressed in his swimming trunks. He is in his early forties with a tall and bronzed body.
Q: How many people are using SL now?
Berry: Since 2001 when it was originally launched, SL had grown steadily but relatively slowly, reaching nearly 1.1 million 'residents' at the end of October 2006. Then it began to be noticed by the serious press and since November 2006, growth has been explosive with approximately one million people a month signing in. As of today, there are approximately eleven million people who have logged in to SL. This means that it has now reached a critical mass and it will certainly continue to grow and evolve. In terms of the steady SL population, we are talking about one million people who use SL regularly (five hours or more per week), so this is still a small figure in comparison to other social networking platforms such as MySpace, LinkedIn, and YouTube. However, there are a number of critical differences between a Virtual World such as SL and these other social networking sites.
Q: There have been many articles describing Second Life and its potential for education and business. How do you see these aspects developing?
Berry: Over the next five years, I'm sure that we will see a major shift away from the Web 2.0 platforms towards what I call the Web 3D or Virtual Environment platforms. This will accelerate hugely as the technology is now open source and eventually, an avatar will be able to move from one virtual world to another seamlessly, just as we can now move from one web site to another. At another level, people's expectations will change too: I'm working with a group of senior university managers on the potential uses of SL, and we have discovered something quite interesting: there is a group of 15 to 25 year olds who are more than comfortable with the Web 2.0 technologies, and who appear to have little interest in avatar-based virtual worlds. They use a range of different platforms regularly and are happy to jump from one to another. However, there is a growing group of under-12s that is using virtual world technology such as Club Penguin, and this group will not only be familiar with virtual worlds, but will expect to access their information and develop their relationships through Web 3D. In effect, this means that there is a five to seven year 'window' where organisations have an opportunity to develop their Web 3D presence. Just as happened with the internet, what is now perceived as a 'game' will become an essential part of the technological infrastructure, and within ten years, any organisation that does not have a Web 3D presence will be losing market share rapidly. So, whether organisations like it or not, they will be expected to have a virtual world presence. Those that are entering the field now have an opportunity to explore and build with slightly more leisure. One of the greatest difficulties organisations face is in deciding what kind of presence to have and how to use the technology to maximum benefit. In a couple of years' time, the costs of development will have increased significantly, the time-frame will be much shorter, and I expect to see many organisations throwing money at the technology in an attempt to catch up. And a lot of this money will be wasted, since not enough time has been devoted to thinking through how best to use it.
Q: How can SL be used for business education?
Berry: Ah, there's an interesting question! There are over 200 educational institutions, mostly American universities, with a presence in SL. The Educators List serv now has over 3,000 members, and all of them are seeking how best to use the technology for educational purposes. What is interesting to me is that the primary educational groups are in Health, Technology, the Arts and Social Sciences. Apart from Babson, INSEAD and Boconni, I am not aware of any business school with an established presence that use SL regularly. And yet the potential to use SL for business and management education is really major: here we have a global society with an average age of around 38, a real economy to experiment with, a wealth of real social relationships to establish, a technology which allows a cohort of students from around the world to interact synchronously, and an environment which itself fosters innovation and creativity. In addition, it provides a really cost-effective way to provide tutor-student interaction. So, the potential is enormous. But how best to use it? Well, one thing I'm sure of: the worst thing to do is to try and recreate a classroom in SL, and bring in a specific group of students and give them a lecture (Berry laughs). At the moment, I see two areas where business education could maximize effectiveness: the first area relates to 'serious games' or 'roleplay' or 'case studies'. At the moment, many courses rely on case studies and ask students to comment on them, or role play their way through them. There are also many computer-based simulations out there. But all of these have a degree of falsehood about them - either they are historical, or based on conceptual models or expect the participants to undertake roles and even characteristics which are not 'natural'. Using SL, one could get a group of students to actually develop a business, make products, market and sell them, analyze the issues involved and report back on them based on totally real interactions with the rest of the population. In terms of leadership, one of the issues that multi-nationals face is how to develop motivated virtual teams operating across the globe. What better environment could there be than SL for the development of such skills? Indeed, a number of companies are using SL for that purpose already. So SL provides a platform for developing leadership and management skills in a real context. The second area is the provision of tutorial and mentoring support. The use of avatars for interaction seems to have an effect that is far stronger than mere e-mail or even chat communications. As students' expectations rise, educational institutions will have to find ways of providing a 'mass-customized' service, and virtual world technologies provide a cost-effective way of providing individualized support in a superior way to the current Web 2.0 platforms such as Blackboard or Moodle. These will not disappear, of course.
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