A Manifesto for Educators in Search of Life After Second Life

When I first rezzed in January 2007, educators were investing heavily in Second Life, both its Teen and Main Grids. Throughout the “hype” era that ended the next  year, and amid the inevitable backlash against SL by mainstream media, many of us in education defended Linden Lab and its platform.

We built simulations, held in-world meetings, brought in classes, even evangelized colleagues to give SL a try. We kept on, even as the Lab’s legal team issued a cease-and-desist order to one of our most respected colleagues, Jokay Wollongong, over content that other Lab employees had officially promoted.

Sic semper tyrannis
(Image courtesy Joe Essid.)

We protested a little, as we did when the Lab laid off many of its staff, including the three Lindens—Pathfinder, Claudia, and George—most associated with supporting education. Some of us began to experiment with OpenSim, following the lead of Jokay and other pioneers. But most of us soldiered on, some still ardently defending a platform we had come to love even as the lab systematically undermined our work in it.

Then, in the middle of a fiscal year for US colleges and universities, and without enough warning to be meaningful, given how we set up our budgets, Linden Lab screwed us. Royally, in fact. We lost our discounts on set-up fees and tier payments.

Talk of Exodus began. Even in the worst economic times, the education sector can muster billions of dollars, collectively. Unlike any one software company, we are not going away, and now we’ll take our business elsewhere. Here’s why. The reasons go far beyond mere tier-increases.

Getting Rid of the Stigma

The very name “Second Life” is tainted for many colleagues and administrators. Linden Lab’s poor rhetorical skills hurt marketing, since the name itself suggests the seamier side of their world. While I, personally, do not care what my students do with avatars (preferably alts) outside of class or how other SLers amuse themselves, those who fund our projects or who find out about them really do care.  We don’t host porn sites on our campus servers, after all.

I once had a newspaper editor strike “BDSM” from an SL post to their blog on technology because, as she put it, “that does not go in our pages” (emphasis mine).  And it does not go over well on US college campuses, where the parents of traditional undergraduates are more protective than ever; in the trade we call these hovering creatures, ever ready to phone us or the university President, “helicopter parents.”

Calleta Residents
Ah yes. An paradigmatic SLemale with her “belt for a skirt.” She wanted to ride on my fake motorcycle. I said “no.” (Image courtesy Joe Essid.)

Going to a grid without any sex HUDs, kinky pose-balls, and XXX subcultures would be a boon to education. If we need to display works of art featuring nudity or explore sexual topics for a simulation related to course material, we can do that easily on hosted grids rated mature or on our own hardware running OpenSim.

OpenSim is Ready For Us (I Hope)

I hear wonderful stories from Jokay, Viv Trafalgar, and others who have made the leap. They acknowledge that the environment for content creators, or even casual users, can be daunting for those used to SL’s relatively smooth interactions and stable operation.  I have my share of crashes, figuring out which OpenSim viewer works best with a particular grid.  Performance on my system steadily increases, however, as OpenSim and grids running it evolve.

Moreover, SL was not all that stable in 2007: Black Wednesday could fall on a day I taught.  Mandatory upgrades to the client mid-term left some students’ computers orphaned. We fretted then about 40K concurrency with Hamlet Au and other knowledgeable folks warning of an apocalypse as “the database falls over.”

Democracity Replica at Reaction Grid’s 1939 World’s Fair Build (Image courtesy Joe Essid.)

That never happened, and with the arrival of more and more educators and students in OpenSim, it won’t there, either. Unlike SL, a universe of grids with standard protocols can scale, and with Hypergrid technology, our avatars and eventually our inventories can move from grid to grid. This is far superior to anything Linden Lab could offer us, though I lament their failure to grasp that their Marketplace and currency could have become the de facto standards across grids. But Linden Lab stumbled here, like Apple at the dawn of the PC era or its victorious rival, Microsoft, at the dawn of the digital-music era.

AJ Kelton of Montclair State University has long used the best analogy for Linden Lab: AOL. The company’s walled garden provided a one-stop approach to online content. The growth of the Web changed that, and though AOL survives, it is not the place where educators do any work that I’ve encountered in conference presentations, published articles, or casual chat.

Linden Lab resembles the companies I’ve cited more than it does a college or university. On the other hand, by its collaborative nature, OpenSim’s array of commercial and private hosts resemble how educators interact in a quid-pro-quo “gift economy” where knowledge is generated, shared, and debated, then implemented. Some of that knowledge goes into the Creative Commons; other discoveries and innovations bring in a lot of money to some companies and schools.

I’d like to imagine what might have happened had Mark Zuckerberg gone to Richmond, not Harvard, and we’d embraced his brainchild Facebook, provided start-up funding, and gotten royalties. I’d like to think we are hungry enough to have done that.

Ironically for places like Harvard or even my university, the level playing field in SL has rewarded smaller and less prestigious schools for their innovation: the community colleges and regional universities. I suspect  these schools will dominate OpenSim as well, given their nimble approach to virtual worlds and thirst for innovation in areas not dominated by the Ivies and other at the top of the US News and World Report rankings. Princeton pulled out of Second Life, given lack of broad use and high tier costs even before the discounts ended. Meanwhile, I was meeting enthusiastic colleagues from small schools here and abroad regularly at our weekly meeting of the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable. AJ from Montclair State University, not an academic superstar from an Ivy-League school, led this effort.

Now these educators are slowly, by the standards of the game industry and certainly Linden Lab, shifting to the new platform of OpenSim.  They won’t come back to SL easily.

Budgets, Platform-Switching & Educators

Non-educators of a libertarian bent, on lists and blogs, decry the educational system’s way of doing business as inferior to that of for-profit companies. I disagree, and as evidence I present not only Linden Lab’s brilliant management strategies, but those of what once was “British Petroleum” as well as the entire US mortgage and investment-banking sectors.  Critics ignore that colleges and universities are businesses, albeit it rather frumpy and stodgy ones in how they manage funds, allocate resources, and develop year-to-year plans.  Yet like companies, we compete for customers in a free market in the States.  Students can vote with their tuition dollars.

I’d argue that our frumpiness is a strength, since we are guided by a strategic-planning and scheduling process that looks years ahead and sets large goals under which budgeting, procurement, curriculum, and assessment proceed. With so many experienced people and young innovators among us, we tend to make good long-term choices.  This is why higher education endured for centuries and continues to be the determinant of social advancement for all but a few like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, who find they can do better with a great idea and venture capital than with a Harvard degree.

Higher ed is cautious by nature about the technologies used to create and share content. We make long investments that we amortize over many years. Faculty won’t convert their data easily, either. Thus the battle, in the early 1990s, when we were dragged, kicking and screaming, from WordPerfect and PCs running DOS. Slowly, even glacially, we move. But once we do, look out. We dedicate ourselves to a technology for years, even decades: hence the dominance of Blackboard’s course-management system in higher ed.

When we leave SL, we leave behind an array of wonderfully developed content that can be purchased from anywhere to a few cents to a few dollars. One argument against OpenSim worlds is that we’d have to reinvent everything, even with free uploads of the textures we made and imported to SL. In arguing that, we miss one key point: we have talent enough to remake whatever we want, and OpenSim provides a more portable environment than does SL.

I’ve wondered if higher education could find enough talent in-house to adapt to the arrival of meshes in SL.  Many colleagues of mine cannot do much more, after all, that put two prims together or make a T-shirt. I discovered from e-mail exchanges and discussions in blog-comments that yes, student tech assistants have these skills and can learn more, especially at schools with strong fine-arts, architecture, and engineering programs.  Grants in-house can train faculty without the ability to make content, as I plan to do to learn a 3D editing tool such as Blender or Maya over the next year.  And we’ll hire contractors to do the rest, and in these lean times their IP will become our IP when the work gets done.

Some sort of 3D immersive environment will become a standard in education. It won’t be SL, given current trends.

Conclusion: Too Late For Kiss and Make Up?

Social and commercial users of Linden Lab’s platform rightly complain that educators got a deal that no one else did in SL. In fact, I’m going to contradict some earlier claims I made in my blog and elsewhere. I have argued for the discounts because we are not out to make money, and we do not intend to use a simulator heavily 24/7 but only during classes and meetings. Yet I concede that the discounts on set-up fees and tier only made sense as long as the Lab wanted the ethos conveyed our brands associated their own brand. Clearly, the Lab no longer wants that, or it can no longer afford to have us. If it’s the latter, then I warn other SL residents: you too need a Plan B.

When I finished my last semester of my PhD program at Indiana University, I was so glad to leave the confines of Bloomington Indiana that I performed a ritual. The town is lovely, but to a grad student the stultifying effects of the place wore us all down: personal drama, broken promises by administrators, lack of respect from others for one’s work or location.

As I left town, at the city limit I pulled my car to the side of the road. It was laden with the baggage of five years of studies (and—no small irony!–a failed marriage).

Linden Lab to Educators: Screw...
(Image courtesy Joe Essid.)

I took off both shoes and knocked the dust off their soles.  Then I kept driving and never looked back.

Our island in SL closes in January 2011. I’ll miss it, but for $20 a month out of pocket, I’ll rebuild The Virtual House of Usher in a private grid hosted by Reaction Grid. I get a whole region for 1/7 of our discounted SL tier at Richmond Island in SL. The talented Viv Trafalgar will be on hand to hit me over the head when I do stupid things.

Sounds like a deal to me.

(This article reprinted with permission from Virtual World Education Roundtable.)

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