Salmon, G., M. & Nie, P., (2010). Developing a five-stage model of learning in Second Life. Educational Research, 52(2): 169-182.
The Salmon article discusses the study performed examine teaching and learning utilizing a 5-stage model, in the online interactions of users in the areas of Archaeology, Digital Photography and Media and Communications within the online multi-user virtual environment system Second Life, which focused on collaborative activities implemented over computer networks involving asynchronous communication for use within blended learning environments. The subjects, all from the UK, ranged from undergraduate to postgraduate students involved in higher and professional education. Data was collected in a variety of ways, including text based interviews collected within Second Life chats, and was analyzed. They used a conferencing software called FirstClass and studied learning tasks performed in what they called MOOSE (MOdelling Of Second life Environment, gathering information primarily via asynchronous discussion forums. The five stages included looking at (1) how students prepare to access and take part in online learning in Second Life, including how to navigate and use the system, learning on their own, (2) beyond the individual involvement, group work and establishment of the students unique identities formed in the simulated world and how they interact and socialize with others, as well as adjust to the world and cooperate with others to build value, (3) how the participants created, consumed and shared information and performed various tasks, and tested the parameters and extents of the virtual environment, (4) how well the students succeeded in knowledge creation through the activities building upon the previous stages as they performed and collaborated on various tasks and implemented processes involving higher-level thinking, and finally (5) how the students reflected on meeting their goals and how effectively they constructed knowledge from their experience of working together in the virtual 3D world, which led to growth both personally and for the group. Each of these stages can be used for scaffolding purposes in the context of each of the three case studies. There were unique opportunities in each of the cases to examine how people learn in the SL (Second Life) environment. For example, Digital Photography involves developing artifacts, which can be used in interactions to stimulate the learning experiences. The participants naturally developed enhancements to their world utilizing the artifacts that they developed. These become assets and gave the subjects opportunities to create alternate worlds such as a Kalashi village, which they were able to navigate through and interact.
Second Life is a unique simulation because it involves 3D world that mimics the real world and has enhancements that each user has the freedom to develop, both to their avatars and to the world which they exist. There is a great social and cultural engagement in the system, which can be very powerful in teaching and learning experiments and activities. It allows the students to experience both exotic visual environments, as well as hyperbolic social interactions with others, and enables them to live out fantasies that they would not be able to access in the real world. For example, being able to teleport to different parts of the world, and confronting others with renditions of themselves which were exaggerated. This may have the effect of freeing the students to push the envelope of what they would be willing to interact and discuss, thus contributing to a rich learning environment.
This article and studies it outlines, gives an account of how systems like Second Life can be a powerful tool for researchers, utilizing a virtualized social environment to study for learning. The created worlds that SL provides, gives the researcher ways to experiment in a very economical way. The simulations can be created and destroyed, backed up and tested repeatedly. They can test different pathways that occur depending upon the sequences that they implement. They can easily drop-in and out different subjects to test new theories and hypotheses. By using a multi-stage model, the researchers can modularize the study to examine the outcomes, tweaking the variables in one of the stages to see how it affects the overall results. The 3D nature of Second Life also provides enhanced dimensionality, beyond just the physical “look” of the environments. It evokes cognition in a versatile way which otherwise would require a complex physical experimentation, requiring buildings, rooms, people, and many other resources to accomplish. The value of the scaffolding using a multi-stage model is that examining the state of the learning at any stage and looking at how it effects the next stage will can produce a deep understanding of how people learn and how it can contribute to learning science. The results gathered in a study like this can be applied outside of a virtual world, and utilized to build learning environments. However, building more rich learning environments, which involve physical avatars or robots to interact and learn from may be the next step in the evolution of a simulated world like Second Life. In it’s current state, it may seem like a novelty or a primitive environment when we look at it a few years from now.