17 August 2007

Virtual reality has been an interest of mine for a long time. In the early 90s, I was very active in educational experiment VRs run by MIT and the University of Pheonix, microMUSE and mariMUSE. It got as far as my actually teaching a 'distance learning' module on the Gospels to two students in different locations in Arizona, as part of their undergrad programmes in America. It was 5 am for me and 10 pm for me when we'd meet in my virtual classroom in cyberspace and I'd use virtual slideshow projectors and discussion for our weekly hour and a half sessions. But text-based wasn't sexy enough for funding, and I watched a mariMUSE close down, a project called Virtual University flounder and fail under fraud charges and microMUSE change hands and focus.

I'm sure the day is coming when virtual environments will have a low enough learning curve and high enough bandwidth that they'll be of use. But that day is not yet.

Worlds with more visual elements have been established and obtained cult followings. I've kept my eye on two worlds that were established deliberately to be open-ended social networks. One is the pastel and cartoonlike Habbo Hotel which has been used as an occasional meeting space by some in the emerging movement. The other is the more serious and ambitious Second Life, used, for example, by Calvary Chapel in California experimentally. (Photo: my Second Life persona hovering in front of Calvary Chapel's offices) Second Life has hit the headlines not too long ago -- their full-fledged economy has produced a real-life millionaire: she's earned her money buying and selling virtual land in Second Life... enough that she can exchange her Second Life currency for more than a million in real world currency. (Yes mechanisms exist for 'cashing in' your game money.)
I went in to Second Life trying to scope out whether it was worth thinking about using it for a Second Campus of London School of Theology or at least as a Virtual Office, in which I could meet with my postgrad students who live overseas. Having devoted a significant chunk of my evenings and weekends for a few weeks, I'm very much leaning away from using it for students.

Here's why:

1. No one under 18 is permitted to join. Why this is the subject of the next topic. But the simple fact that some of our undergraduates, even if a small minority, would not be able to join legally probably deals it a death blow for use by our students.

2. The reason no one under 18 is permitted is because Linden Lab, who run it, try as hard as they can not to regulate it. They want an economy with stuff being bought and sold but other than the basic structure of the world, they've stepped back and told the citizens/participants that it's up to them to provide the content. Not unpredictably in today's western culture, a great deal of the content revolves around sex. There's a lot of other stuff that I think is unhealthy as well. OK, all this is true of the real world too, but if you had a choice of having electronic conversations with or without background ads for sexual services, Christians should probably choose to have them without. The domain is a good mission field, in some ways, but a lousy classroom.

3. Because visual-based educational virtual realities have almost all the disadvantages of the text-based ones I used in the past without any major, killer-app educational advantages. For online tutorials with far-away students, iChat still beats Second Life easily.
This blog is closed now. I've moved to http://gempf.com