Educators in primary schools, colleges, and other institutions looking for lower costs, better controls, and no age restrictions are considering switching from Second Life to its open source alternative, the OpenSim virtual world server platform.
The OpenSim server software can be used to power an entire public grid, or a small, private behind-the-firewall installation, and can be run on an institution’s own server or hosted with third-party providers.
In general, educators say, they find that OpenSim offers significant cost savings over Second Life. However, there might be some hidden costs.
“OpenSim is far less expensive to us to run,” said Shenlei Winkler, president of the Fashion Research Institute, in an online comment to the International Society for Technology in Education. “We pay less a year for most of our regions than we do for a month of our Second Life region’s hosting bills.”
According to Winkler, institute students use OpenSim as a rapid prototyping tool, and to hold virtual fashion shows for their designs.
The Fashion Research Institute is currently running projects on three OpenSim-based grids, including their private Fashionable Grid, the Intel-backed ScienceSim, and the hypergrid-enabled V-Business grid, as well as on Second Life.
The basic download of OpenSim is free from OpenSimulator.org. There is also a free pre-configured, hypergrid-enabled four-region minigrid called the Diva Distro. Organizations that have a computer or server to spare, and in-house tech talent can thus run OpenSim for free behind their firewalls. Regions from third-party OpenSim hosting providers such as ReactionGrid are just $25 a month — or less.
By comparison, Second Life regions rent at $300 a month – or $147 a month for educational institutions, with an initial setup fee of $1,000 ($700 for educators).
“I think one of the obstacles for Second Life has been the price for permanent builds,” said James Abraham, a professor of Spanish at Glendale Community College. “OpenSim eliminates that barrier. With no barrier, I think more people will be willing to give it a try.”
Abraham recently won the Full Build Challenge sponsored by Linden Lab and the New Media Consortium with his immersive, interactive Mexican village.
“I’m writing a grant to roll out a 10 college zero-cost virtual world program for the Maricopa Community College District,” he added. “I think OpenSim is the way to go.”
But that doesn’t mean that OpenSim doesn’t have hidden costs. There’s a saying about opensource software — “it’s free like a puppy, not free as in beer.”
“It’s certainly cheap, but you still need professional help,” Nick Wilson, founder and CEO of the UK-based virtual worlds consulting firm Clever Zebra, told Hypergrid Business.
But that is true of virtual worlds in general, he added.
Institutions running their own grids need to factor in these added labor costs, educators said.
“‘Much cheaper’ is not true if you include the salary of the tech as he costs as much as a month of Second Life tier for an island every week,” freelance educational consultant Lindy McKeown, told the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable during its visit to the New Zealand Grid in March (full transcript here). That could add up to four times the cost of Second Life, she said. McKeown is currently working with the University of Southern Queensland to develop their virtual worlds strategy.
However, the time it takes to manage OpenSim can shorten significantly if the technician is familiar with the platform, said Jeff Lowe, a project manager with the University of Oklahoma. In addition, the per-region support costs fall quickly if an institution is running multiple regions.
“You do get economies of scale when you have a larger grid,” he told Hypergrid Business. This week, Lowe became part-owner of ReactionGrid, the top OpenSim hosting company for educators. ReactionGrid counts Ball State University, Boston College, and Texas-based Spring Forest Elementary among its customers.
Most opt for hosted versions of OpenSim, said Lowe, either on the ReactionGrid main grid or as private grids — both options offer free technical support.
But ReactionGrid also offers one-click install packages for behind-the-firewall installations, as well as remote management of self-hosted grids, he said. A-la-carte support is $85 an hour, and clients can get a lower rate if they sign up for support packages.
“I’m sure other hosting businesses also have support available,” he added. “ReactionGrid and other companies are stepping up, taking the technical pain out of running OpenSim.”
Choosing a hosted solution results in lower up-front costs — ReactionGrid, for example, charges just $50 to set up a new region, and some hosting providers offer free setup. But some educational institutions prefer to have the entire virtual world to be located on premises, for reasons of security, higher access speeds, or additional control.
It cost NZ $10,000 (US $7,000) for the University of Auckland to set up its own behind-the-firewall version of OpenSim, which included the hardware for two virtual servers, said Scott Diener, the university’s associate director of IT services, at last month’s Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable.
“The total investment is pretty small,” he said.
By comparison, the behind-the-firewall, enterprise version of Second Life costs $55,000 and is limited to only eight simultaneous regions.
Since OpenSim runs on an institution’s own servers – or on external servers run by an institution’s hosting company – an organization has full control over how OpenSim is configured. In addition, the open source nature of the software means that schools and colleges can plug in additional code at will, including replacement physics engines, commerce modules, and enterprise integration tools to connect with student and staff directories and learning management platforms.
Institutions also have full control over user accounts, the content that’s available on their grids, and what time the grid goes down for maintenance. In addition, institutions can make backups at will of entire OpenSim regions, switch regions in and out, and share region files with other departments and organizations.
“We can define our own term of service, end-user licensing agreement, covenant and licensing needs,” said Fashion Research Institute’s Winkler. “We’re not limited to another organization’s terms about how we can use their service since we’re defining everything about the environment. The control of the training or educational environment is that important to us.”
In addition, OpenSim administrators can limit access to their grids to their community members.
“I see OpenSim will provide me with a safe training space,” said Ian Truelove, a senior lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University, in a recent note to Virtual Worlds Watch, a nonprofit focusing on U.K. educational uses of virtual worlds. “I am of the opinion that students should have access to a private, institutionally managed virtual world, which is linked to their authentic, accountable, assessable and accredit-able enrolled identity, but should also be free to roam a public virtual space in whichever manner and attire they choose.”
NO AGE RESTRICTIONS
One of the more significant aspects of OpenSim for schools and colleges is that there are no built-in age restrictions. In Second Life, by comparison, only users 18 and over are allowed on the main grid, and teenagers are only allowed to access the teen grid.
“For me one of the huge benefits to OpenSim is that we can use it with under 18’s,” said Clare Atkins, research leader and senior lecturer in information technology at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology in New Zealand, during the Virtual World Roundtable.
Students between 13 and 18 can access the Second Life Teen Grid, but adult teachers have a harder time getting in.
“Teen grid requires background checks for adults who come, and they can only be on one sim,” said Liz Dorland, communications director at Washington University’s Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center, during the Virtual World Roundtable.
Second Life also prohibits all access to those 12 and under, which makes the platform completely unusable for elementary schools. As a result, OpenSim is the only option for elementary school teachers looking to build simulated educational environments for their students, or allow students to learn virtual world design and building.
“I love OpenSim!” Erik Nauman, a middle school technology coordinator from New York’s Hewitt School, wrote in an online comment to the International Society for Technology in Education. “Since last summer I’ve done a project with a drama teacher in which small groups of eighth grade students block, rehearse, and perform scenes on virtual stages, a Mars crater sim in which fifth grade students use an astronaut avatar to find meteorites, and a virtual architecture class with 10-12 grade students. ”
For the Mars crater project, Nauman installed the Diva Distro version of OpenSim on a computer running Windows, and students logged in over the local network, he reported. Students started out in a space station where they had to put on helmets and backpacks, then go to the planet surface to visit a Mars crater, collect samples, and bring them back to the station for analysis.
“The students were awestruck at what they were seeing and doing,” he wrote. “I was impressed these kids were able to do this, given that they have never used this type of interface before.”
There were some challenges, however, he added, such as that the simulation required that students use computers with high-end graphics cards to be able to show the atmospheric effects correctly. In addition, students required significant support as they learned how to use the platform, he said.
Other potential disadvantages of OpenSim compared to other virtual world platforms is that the technology is still in the “alpha” stage of development. Even though schools and enterprises began deploying the platform last year, it still hasn’t seen its “1.0” release yet, and users are routinely warned to make frequent backups of their builds.
“I have heard a few horror stories about ReactionGrid and OpenSim,” said Fiona Grindey, education development adviser at the University of Southampton, in a note to Virtual World Watch.” But I heard them about Second Life and just see it as part of the learning curve.”
In particular, there are a few scripting differences between OpenSim and Second Life, and teleports can fail if they’re between regions running significantly different versions of OpenSim. Attachments and clothing can also get disconnected during teleports, and scripts and voice can be unreliable, educators said.